For Many Small Farmers, Being Certified 'Organic' Isn't Worth the Trouble

The USDA certification is arduous to maintain, and some community farmers are finding alternate ways to assure buyers that their produce is pristine.

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New Jersey's B&B Farms, home of the "sustainable" (but not organic-certified) Sea Salt CSA. (B&B Farms)

When Jennifer LaMonica first started the Sea Salt CSA, part of B&B Farms in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, she had fewer than two acres of land. Over two years, the farm grew to nearly 20 acres, and LaMonica filed for an organic certification. The application process was daunting, but she reasoned that the label would bring in more customers with its guarantee that growing conditions were monitored and her produce was free from pesticides and other chemicals. After only two years with the title—and its arduous standards—LaMonica dropped it. She didn’t lose a single buyer.

“We didn’t need the certification for our customers to feel confident that we were giving them quality produce,” she says. “People know us, we sell directly to them. When we dropped the label, we had their support. Without that, we would not be in business.”

Data from this year’s census shows there are 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses in the United States, a 245 percent increase since 2002. But New Jersey is among 17 states that have seen a decline in organic certifications since 2008. LaMonica’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is one of 40 organic farms the Garden State "lost" in recent years. Though there are a number of reasons for the decline—farm consolidation and limited water resources among them—one major explanation is that formerly certified organic farms are simply dropping their USDA stamp of approval.

Many of these farms aren’t closing their barn doors for good, they’re just re-branding, in a way. To some, the rules farms must follow to keep the certification didn’t work out to be worth the time and money. And community recognition and buy-in has reaped its own rewards. 

It’s not necessarily prohibitive startup costs that are turning farms off of the organic certification process. Depending on the size of a farm, it only costs between $200 and $1,500 to have a USDA inspector survey land for certification. But the required recordkeeping can be unmanageable for a farm of Sea Salt’s size. Farmers with a certification are only inspected by the USDA once a year, but they are required to keep daily records of everything, from how often they irrigate to total hours spent weeding. And the more diverse the crop, the more complicated the paperwork.

For LaMonica, operating a midsize farm producing food from 100 varieties of seeds was hard enough without the added burden of ticking off watering times. Complicating matters was the fact that she shared equipment with B&B farms, an uncertified sister farm—a no-no by USDA standards even if it’s a necessary practicality between neighboring small farms. Playing by the organic-certification rules was becoming an increasingly inorganic day-to-day process.

“When I’m trying to beat a storm to get seed in the ground,” LaMonica says, “I don’t need to spend an hour in the office tracking where the tractor has been.” So these days, Sea Salt CSA goes its own way, calling itself a “sustainable” farm instead.

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If you ask Ned Conwell of Green Tractor Farm in northern New Mexico—a five-acre operation with comparable crop diversity to Sea Salt—all that the paperwork is actually a good thing. During the first few years Green Tractor had organic certification, keeping up with USDA standards was a lot to handle, he admits. But now, in its sixth year of certification, the farm is growing, not simply staying afloat.

“At the end of the day, at the end of the year, the record-keeping has made me a better businessperson and a better farmer,” he says. “I don’t see it as a burden; it has actually made me more money.”

Green Tractor sells produce at the Santa Fe farmer's market and at the local Co-Op and also offers a small CSA. Conwell and his wife are busy (they’ve also got a toddler), but they make enough profit now to pay three or four employees and live comfortably.

But what works for Green Tractor may not work for other farms of comparable size in other states. An organic farmer in California (which has seen an increase of 707 organic farms since 2008), would have to have a "deep, crazed passion" to survive in such a saturated market, says Conwell. He moved his farm from the Golden State to New Mexico earlier this year to get away from such competition.

Green Tractor Farm in New Mexico has stuck with USDA criteria to be certified "organic."

To be organic or not to be? The decision seems to come down to the individual farm and the farmer’s goals. And for those who don’t want USDA certification but still want a way to guarantee sustainable practices to their customers, there is the option of joining the Certified Naturally Grown program. It’s based on the USDA’s organic standards, but offers a less bureaucratic method of inspection: peer-to-peer. Each farmer in the program is required to do at least one inspection a year for another CNG farmer. The program, which has been around since October 2002, continues to expand. Farms in 47 states are registered as CNG, and the program received more than 300 new applications last year.

Steven Zwier and Robyn Weber run Asbury Village Farm, a CNG operation in New Jersey. Like LaMonica, they grow a small, diverse crop, but Zwier and his wife have no other hired labor. The USDA organic program was not a good fit for their farm, Zwier explains, because, with a two-person workforce, he needs to put all of his energy into the fields. Like LaMonica, he relies on the farm’s strong community reputation to keep a steady customer base, but wanted the extra level of credibility CNG offers.

“CNG strips down the red-tape bureaucracy of us paying the government our certification fees to keep statistics for them,” he says. “When I tell my customers that we don’t use any chemicals or pesticides, they trust my word on it. They have a few holes in their cabbage, but they know that there is no poison on it.”

Uncertified CSAs that sell direct to a regular set of customers are relying on a marketing tactic rooted in old-world technology: face-to-face branding. They are selling goods not guaranteed as organic to the same demographic that supports the organic industry, leveraging local visibility and trust to focus customers on localism rather than the USDA label.

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The question for the longer term, however, is whether such farmers can rely on this down-home branding alone as they grow—or don't grow. National numbers indicate that, in the last seven years, organic farms, just like their conventional predecessors, are going big to survive. Walmart and Whole Foods are driving down the price of organic goods, but small farms like Asbury and Sea Salt could never produce enough food to supply companies like that.

Green Tractor may never grow for Whole Foods either, but Conwell says that the organic label still matters. "As a farmer, I need to capture every market I possibly can," he says. "I need to be able to sell to a store that has some consumers that don't have any idea what they are buying except that it's organic. I wish they were more connected to their food, but I need to capture their dollars to survive."

Maybe farms like Asbury or Sea Salt don’t, though. Their decision to opt out of USDA certification might keep them small, yes. But size is only one definition of success. What they can do instead is weave themselves more tightly into the fabric of their communities and make inroads with other small community businesses—working with chefs who benefit from a relationship with local farms, for instance. The bulk of LaMonica’s sales still come through the CSA, but she’s got some wholesale accounts with area restaurants, too.

“We know the chef at the restaurant we sell to. The chef comes to the farm and hand-picks his produce,” she says. “We don’t deal with another party.”

 

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