Organic Certification: Farmers Weigh The Costs


Farmers share their thoughts on the pros and cons of organic certification.

Organic certification has played an important role in distinguishing foods that are grown through practices that are safer—for both people and the environment. By choosing certified organic products, we are assured our food was produced without the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), petro-chemical fertilizer, synthetic pesticides—and in animal husbandry, hormones and antibiotics.

Third party certification provides a level of security for customers who know that their food has met at least the basic organic standards.   For many though, education about their food stops at the label.

If you go to Safeway, if it wasn’t for the organic labeling, you wouldn’t know what to buy. You do rely on those labels to some extent, especially in larger grocery stores and places where you don’t know where the food is coming from. We have to have some system.  That’s why we want GMOs labeled. When the food system gets so big, we have no idea where the food is coming from.

Simon Richard, produce buyer for Bi-Rite Market

However, some farmers who practice organic farming, and even those whose methods achieve a higher level of environmental and ethical cultivation, have decided against getting certified organic.

“Grass fed and pasture raised was always, to me, more important than organic certification as far as which goals to reach first,” commented David Evans, farmer and owner of Marin Sun Farms.

Can I see your papers?

The record keeping required for organic certification can be daunting to a farmer, even before he sees the auditing fees.  Farms are audited by accredited agencies which are authorized by the USDA or the respective agricultural department of a country, to ensure that the national organic standards are upheld.

When asked to comment about the extensive documentation required, Kenneth Allen, Deputy Agricultural Commissioner and Supervisor for Monterey County Certified Organic, stated:

“There is a lot of paperwork that needs to be completed.  Our clients fill out a very lengthy Organic System Plan (OSP), and also provide us with many supporting documents that they must maintain. It is all very necessary to show compliance with the NOP [National Organic Program].  Some certifiers have pretty short OSP’s, others like us, have longer OSP’s. We ask for more and feel we have done our due diligence, and can easily show to our auditors why a company was granted organic certification by us.”

Records of the entire farm’s operations must be kept and maintained for 5 years.  These records not only include the practices the farm uses to cultivate its organic crop but also the preventative measures and physical barriers in place to prevent commingling of organic and non-organic products on farms that have split operations.

For manufacturers of organic products, this can be even more harrowing, as documentation must be kept for every input along the supply chain, all of which must be inspected annually.

“I grow food in Sonoma and to go through the process of logging all the information and taking all that time to do it, and paying to have it certified organic so that I could put the CCOF label on my product…I mean, is it worth it when I can just sell it and tell people that it is organic? Because it is organic, I use those practices—people can come to the farm and see,” stated Simon Richard.

It takes a lot of green to go green

Despite the paperwork involved, many farmers decide not to go through the certification process because of the large financial investment it takes to undergo annual auditing.  Torrey Olson, owner of certified organic Gabriel Farm, stated his views on the certification process.

“They come once a year.  If anyone wants a business, I highly recommend organic certification. It’s a massive racket.  I think it’s unbelievable.  We pay something like $1,500 a year to the CCOF to be certified.  Essentially all we get out of that is we get to put their little logo on our box.”

“We actually have to pay their certifier to come audit our farm.  So on top of paying $1,500, we have to pay Mr. Certifier from Santa Cruz to drive here to look at all of our paperwork and walk around the orchard.  We actually pay him to do that.  So, it’s a massive racket.  But if we weren’t certified organic, Whole Foods wouldn’t deal with us.  So it’s worth it for us, and I for one feel it’s worth it because we’re participating in organic farming.  But I do also find it just…you know, when we’ve got to cut that check every year, especially when we have to pay that guy to come look at all of our paperwork…it’s a little demoralizing.”

Kenneth Allen commented on the matter, “Regarding the cost of certification, I agree that it can be very expensive to be certified, but there is much variability in prices between all certifiers.  Customers do shop on price. I get the sense that most certifiers in California charge more.  That is mostly due to the fact that living and working in California is very expensive.  In order to make it as a business, you must charge enough to cover your costs.”

“Similar to what producers complain about, certifiers accredited by the NOP have to maintain tons of paperwork, and pay pretty hefty annual or renewal fees.  For small certifiers like ourselves, we spend a lot of staff hours and money in this program.  It would be nice to be charged less for our annual inspections and renewals.”

The USDA offers some cost relief for farmers through the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and Agricultural Management Assistance Program, which reimburse a portion of organic producers’ costs of certification up to $750 per year.  This can relieve a significant financial burden for those whose certification fees lie in the hundreds, but offers little relief for those like Torrey Olson, who see bills in the thousands.

Success without the organic seal

Many farmers who practice organic farming have been able to successfully market their goods without the use of the organic label.  These farmers do so by building direct relationships with their customers in order to promote their farming practices in a way that is much more tangible and extensive than what a customer will get from a label.

Marin Sun Farms

“People who are label-minded will look at labels and that’s all they’re going to look at, and those aren’t my customers.  I encourage my customers to be more in-tuned with the farm, come to farm tours, and have a relationship with what we do.  Our certification is our farm tour program,” commented David Evans.

“That is our transparency and sourceability, and I believe all of that trumps third-party labeling, which is a removal from that first-hand relationship.”

Marin Sun Farms seeks transparency at every level of their operation to build a reputation that customers trust.  At Marin Sun Farm’s butcher shop, the staff is well educated in the methods used to raise, slaughter and process the animals.  If a customer has a question that a staff member can’t answer, they will take a customer’s contact information and get back to them once they have an answer—an offer you won’t get from a package of meat you pick up at the grocery store or even from most butcher counters.

Oak Hill Farm

David Cooper, Oak Hill Farm’s resident vegetable expert, commented on his direct relationship with his customers as superceding the need for an organic label.

“Our farm-direct relationships are paramount to our success here.  We love getting to know our customers directly because then they feel much more connected to our farm, our land, seasons, etc.”

“We prefer this direct relationship with our buyers because it allows them to provide feedback directly to us, and it has allowed me to tailor my planting to their needs,” said David.

Three Sisters Farm

Three Sisters Farm, an uncertified permaculture farm in Pennsylvania that uses organic methods, says they may seek certification in the future, but that their current model of direct involvement with their customers does not require it.

Darrell Frey, farmer and owner of Three Sisters commented, “The term ‘organic’ has become a minimal threshold for entry into a lucrative market, and requires vigilance on the part of farmers and consumers to maintain the integrity of the term. It is intended to be a high standard of soil and land management.”

“Currently we have chosen to not certify our farm as organic because our customers do not require it and they understand our commitment to sustainable, regenerative and organic agriculture. When we someday phase in value added products or seek new markets we may again certify.”

The direct connection between farmer and consumer can benefit both.  Through dialogue between the two, a farmer can improve upon his practices and sales while customers get the types of foods they want.  By getting to know producers, consumers can also be assured they are not buying commodity organic—certified organic products made by companies who do the minimum required to gain entry into this lucrative market.  The cost of organic is inevitably higher—customers may prefer to support local farmers who have a genuine commitment to the integrity of their agricultural practices.

The antibiotic debate

A source of much contention amongst farmers stems from the NOP’s prohibition on antibiotics.  Some farmers decide not to get certified organic because they do not find it ethical to deny sick animals antibiotics.  “You don’t want an animal to suffer and be sick.  You can’t be humane and not treat them,” stated Mary Rickert of Prather Ranch.

If a cow were to get sick on an organic farm, it would either have to be put down or, more likely, sold to a conventional livestock farmer or company who would treat the animal with antibiotics and then raise it to slaughter along with the conventional herd.

Even though farmers may practice organic standards, their unwillingness to relinquish their right to treat their animals renders them unable to attain certification.

David Evans, a pasture based farmer and owner of Marin Sun Farms commented, For antibiotics, we hold the right to use an antibiotic if an animal is suffering.  We rarely ever have that happen…But if an animal does get an infection, it is the quickest and most humane way to solve the issue.”

“What is happening in the industrial system is going to make antibiotics not as effective in the future because they are giving low dose amounts to animals in their feed.”  Consistent use of antibiotics, David went on to explain, leads to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.

For David and his co-producers, once an animal is treated they are not used for meat, egg, or dairy production for a period longer than the typical 90 days required by the USDA of conventional farms.  This is what David called, “the responsible use of antibiotics.”

Marin Sun Farms sources from pasture-based farmers who raise their animals in smaller herds in their natural environment.  Because these animals are not subject to crowded and unclean living conditions, nor fed unnatural feed which cause digestive disorders—as they would in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO)—farmers like David very rarely find the need to use antibiotics. Animals raised in healthy, natural conditions are prone to health, not illness.

Prather Ranch has found another solution to this dilemma by raising two herds, one that is labelled natural and one certified organic.  Both herds are raised in the same pasture based system which allows them to roam and feed on grass freely. The only difference between the two herds is that the natural herd’s feed—given in the last 90-120 days it takes to fatten the animals—may have had a fertilizer used in its cultivation at some point in time.

If a cow gets sick from the organic herd, they simply treat it and release it into the natural herd.

Organic labeling has its place

Organic labeling undoubtedly has significant importance in our food system.  The demand for organic products has caused many farmers to switch to organic methods of farming which produces safer food and promotes environmental welfare. Organic certification also ensures that not just anyone can put an organic label on their product.

Furthermore, for some farmers, it is the ticket into a profitable market.  Simon Richard sums up the benefits that a small farmer can receive from getting certified.

“I’ll get fired up on how organic doesn’t mean what it used to mean,” said Simon.  “When I started in agriculture more than 15 years ago, organic seemed to have a feeling to it which I feel has been watered down over time.  But then I’ll take a look at a small grower like Dry Creek Peach and Produce in Healdsburg, which is one of the only stone fruit growers that’s there, and they have their little orchards certified.”

“It means a lot to them. They’ve been farming for years and they’re really proud to have organic fruit.  It adds a little more value to their fruit when they go to farmers markets. I can’t disagree with that; I understand.”

The organic certification is a step towards more conscientious food buying practices and remains a signifier that can be relied on in the absence of a direct connection with the producer of your food.

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