Organic Broadcaster

As market season approaches, know how to label your produce

By Harriet Behar and Jennifer Nelson, MOSES

Farmers’ market produce labeling can be a tricky business. How do we best communicate our farming practices to our valued customers? And, how do we help them make sense of the words organic, natural, sustainable, local, responsibly grown, etc.?

Only organic has specific standards farmers must follow and a law that defines who can use the label. To be able to label your produce as organic, you must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifier or qualify as exempt—that means you sell less than $5,000 annually to consumers and meet all of the other requirements of the organic regulation, including maintaining detailed documentation of your farming activities, input use and sales.

If you don’t fall into these two categories, you cannot use organic to label your produce. If you do, you could be investigated by the USDA and fined as much as $11,000.

The organic label is an excellent marketing tool, and offers many benefits to you as a farmer. Without rigorous standards behind them, the other labels can mean something different to each person who uses them. Certified organic operations have the benefit of organic certification agencies that can review and communicate regulation standards.

Organic is a systems-based approach to agriculture, with the organic certification process an integral part of the continual improvement of the farm system. The healthier and more diverse the ecosystem and farm production system, the more robust crop health and yields become over time. Without the annual oversight of organic certification agencies, it is difficult to guarantee that farmers are following this regimen, and that their management system meets organic standards.

Here are some common phrases seen in advertising at farmers’ markets and how they compare to organic certification.

“No Spray”
Organic certification mandates a specific hierarchy when using pesticides of any kind. First, the organic farmer must seek out a systems-based approach to dealing with the issue. Cultural methods (e.g., crop rotation or trap crops), physical methods (e.g., floating row covers or fences for mammalian pests), or mechanical weed or pest control (e.g., weeding machines or bug vacuums) are the first line of crop protection.

Organic farmers can spray their crops—the difference is what they spray. Approved sprays in organic include kelp or fish emulsion foliar feeds, botanically based pesticides or minerals such as fine clay powders. However, even these materials may or may not be allowed unless all of the active and secondary ingredients are approved under the organic law.

Some farmers label their produce No Spray, but, after some questioning, admit they use dusts to control insects. While they did not spray, they are misleading their customers who are assuming they do not use organically prohibited materials. Many pesticides available to home gardeners in retail settings are not approved for use in any type of commercial operation (organic or non-organic) where the final produce will be sold to others.

In addition, many products contain ingredients, such as dust suppressants or flowing agents, that can cause potentially toxic interactions when used in tandem with other ingredients. Certifiers can obtain proprietary information on all ingredients in farm input products, many of which are not required to appear on the product label, making it easier for the certified organic farmer to know what’s allowed and what isn’t.

“No Chemicals”
The use of the phrase No Chemicals is also misleading. There are “synthetic” or chemical substances allowed in organic agriculture that have gone through a strict review to determine no negative effects on the environment or human health in the manufacture, use or disposal of the substance. When a synthetic substance is allowed, it is because there are no natural alternatives to this “chemical” to solve the problem.

For farFarmers' mkt fact sheet pagemers to claim No Chemicals on produce, they can’t have used treated seeds, rooting hormones, annual transplants in commercially available potting mix, or any kind of insect sprays or chemical fertilizers. Again, this phrase is used to assure consumers that they are buying a product that is similar to organic, but typically it is not.

“Organic” Fertility Inputs And Potting Mixes
The word “organic” on potting mixes, bagged manures, peat moss, etc., can be used as long as the product contains carbon. Many of these “organic” inputs highlight the word organic on their labels, since it attracts consumers who believe it to be similar to organic food, containing little to no toxic synthetic materials. Unfortunately, many of these products have been treated with synthetic fumigants, insecticides, or herbicides. Blended products could contain synthetic wetting agents or synthetic fertilizers, which are not allowed in organic agriculture.

A farmer can try to obtain product information by contacting the manufacturer, but manufacturers are not required to disclose this information. An organic certification agency, since it is seen as an affiliate of the USDA, has a much easier time obtaining this information and provides an invaluable service, helping certified organic growers use products acceptable in organic production.

“Beyond Organic”
Unless a farmer is certified organic or sells less than $5,000 annually, he or she cannot use the word organic in any way to represent a product. This includes telling shoppers that they farm “better than organic.”

There is a misconception that since some synthetics are allowed in organic agriculture, all organic farmers use them. That isn’t the case. Since organic farmers are mandated to first use systems for crop protection, and approved synthetics only as a last resort, most organic farmers use few, if any, of the allowed synthetics.

Without the oversight of certification, there is no guarantee to the consumer that the Beyond Organic farmer’s systems or inputs meet any standards. When non-certified farmers misrepresent their production as either organic or better than organic, they are potentially damaging the organic label for those farmers who go through the rigorous process of organic certification and achieve the use of the highly respected organic label in the marketplace.

“Natural, Sustainable, Local, Responsible”
None of these labels has a legal definition or an agreed-upon meaning. This puts the responsibility on the shopper to question farmers about their growing methods. By contrast, when shoppers come to a stall that sells certified organic produce, they know what’s behind that label.

Harriet Behar and Jennifer Nelson are organic specialists.

From the March | April 2016 Issue

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