The first thing to know about the term organic is that it is actually a regulated, legal term established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). As a regulated term, all producers (big and small) that become and maintain their annual organic certification, have a very detailed guidebook of standards that dictate and guide their production and handling practices. This is also called the NOP or National Organic Program guidelines. The first step to starting this conversation is by simply asking your farmer or producer, “Are you certified organic?”
If they say yes, that they are indeed certified, there are numerous questions that you can ask from there to help you further understand their production practices. While all organic farmers are required to follow NOP guidelines, all organic farmers also have a certain amount of operational freedom that allows them to employ a spectrum of techniques and practices, based on their own values and site-specific needs. It’s worth noting, all certified farms will have approval to use the USDA organic logo and will have a certificate from their certifying agency that lists all of their approved and verified products. (You can also check the USDA’s Organic Integrity database at https://organic.ams.usda.gov/integrity/ to search for farms by name or county).
Since you’re most likely not a walking encyclopedia of organic regulations, assume nothing! If 100% grass-fed beef or lamb is important to you, ask your organic producer if their animals get any grain in their diet. Producers can feed up to a certain percentage of organic grain while maintaining organic certification requirements. If pasture management is important to you, ask your producer if their laying hens are rotated around or simply stay in one place all year long.
One common misconception is that organic vegetable producers can’t spray anything on their crops—that’s not true! While they can’t use what some conventional farmers use, organic producers have an arsenal of NOP approved pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that, within reason and appropriate use, can be used in times of crop duress. (Any treatment that is applied, must be pre-approved, recorded, reported, and inspected by the inspector on their annual visit.) It’s worth noting that these are not synthetic chemicals; they are isolated components of naturally-occurring bacteria, plants, etc. If this is important to you, ask your farmer how they manage pests and control disease. I, for example, don’t use any sprays, but instead rely solely on monitoring pest cycles, crop rotations, fabric barriers, hand picking, and other environmental controls.
In short, farmers are happy to share about our practices with our customers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek out producers who are willing to be transparent with the hows and whys of their production practices. The health and safety of our food matters. With informed consumers and their buying power, we can continue to shape agricultural practices and policy.
Sarah Longstreth is the owner and manager of Good Stead Farm, growing fresh, local organic food for local families using a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, and for local restaurants and farmers markets. She started her Michigan farm after graduating college with a degree in anthropology and after apprenticing on farms in Maine and Minnesota and in Jordan and Egypt.