There are many people who shop at the farmers market who assume that everything there is organic. While many of the farms in our system do produce certified organic products, there are just as many that do not. And some farms choose to pursue alternative certification programs, some of which can go beyond organic.
Certification serves as a guarantee that specific goods were produced according to a certain standard established by a third party entity or group of experts. Programs like Salmon Safe, Biodynamic, Animals Welfare Approved, and Certified Naturally Grown all offer their own standards. Below is a brief description of each program so that the next time you are at the market, you will have a better idea of how your food was produced.
Organic is probably the most well-known designation for agricultural products. There are numerous organizations that offer organic certification, however, all of them adhere to the same standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program, which is responsible not only for developing organic standards, but also for providing accreditation for organic certifying agents.
According to a fact sheet produced by the USDA, “organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Furthermore, “organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”
When shopping for organic products, look for the USDA Certified Organic label. However, you may also see the certified organic label of individual organizations that provide certification, such as Oregon Tilth, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), or the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Originally founded by the Pacific Rivers Council, Salmon Safe is now an independent nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. Its mission is to “transform land management practices so Pacific salmon can thrive is West Coast watersheds.” The organization has certified over 95,000 acres of farm and urban land in Oregon, Washington, California, and British Columbia. By working with conservation groups and partnering with certification organizations, Salmon Safe strives to reach local communities in order to improve regional conditions.
In addition to farm land, Salmon Safe also targets urban developments, corporate and university campuses, golf courses, park systems, and large scale infrastructure projects. Within each model, certification requires management practices that protect water quality and restore habitat.
Salmon Safe partners with independent certification organizations, like Oregon Tilth, that can perform water quality and habitat inspections in addition to routine organic certification inspections. The partnering organization then endorses the farm, which receives their official certification from Salmon Safe. There are numerous advantages of becoming Salmon Safe, the most important of which is that land owners know they are doing their best to protect water quality and restore habitat for native salmon and other wildlife, but another advantage is that farmers can then market their product as a more ethical and environmentally responsible option.
Demeter Certified Biodynamic
Biodynamic agriculture is rooted in early 20th century Europe, where its founder, Rudolph Steiner, gave a series of lectures referred to as “The Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture.” In those lectures, Steiner suggested that farms should be thought of as living organisms, not factories. He also emphasized the connection between healthy farms and healthy food, suggesting that food produced by industrial agriculture no longer contained the essential energy that allowed humans to realize their full potential.
Today, biodynamic agriculture attempts to harness and harmonize elemental forces such as climate, wildlife, soil, sunlight, and astronomy. Certification requires that farms create and manage closed loop systems that are minimally dependent on imported materials. Instead the farm must meet the majority of its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself.
The US chapter of Demeter, the nonprofit organization responsible for certification, was established in 1985, a full 15 years before the USDA established its National Organic Program. Like organic certification, biodynamic farms are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. In fact, in order to qualify for Demeter Biodynamic status, a farm must first meet the requirements of organic certification. However, unlike organic certification, biodynamic farms must be re-certified every year.
There are other differences as well. According to the Demeter website, “fertility is generated via the integration of livestock, compost and green manure, nutrient catch crops, and careful crop rotation. Disease and insect control are addressed through botanical species diversity, predator habitat, balanced crop nutrition, and attention to light penetration and airflow. Weed control emphasizes prevention, including timing of planting, mulching, and identifying and avoiding the spread of invasive weed species.”
Biological diversity within the farm landscape is also emphasized, and it is required that a minimum of 10 percent of the total farm acreage be set-aside as a biodiversity preserve. Also, crop rotation and perennial planting is required, no annual crop can be planted in the same field for more than two years in succession, and finally, bare tillage is prohibited and adequate green cover is required all year round. Animals are also an important element in biodynamic farming, not only because of their contribution to a farm’s fertility, but also because of the consideration of welfare they receive.
Animal Welfare Approved
Animal Welfare Approved is a label given to meat and dairy products derived from animals that were raised according to a certain standard of animal welfare and environmental concern. This program was founded in 2006 as a market-based solution to growing consumer demand for such products.
Advocates contend that raising animals intensively, in factory-like settings, is not only bad for animals, but it can also have negative implications for human and environmental health. According to the website for Animal Welfare Approved, “The AWA program operates on the simple understanding that the way we raise our animals, the nutritional quality of the meat, milk, and eggs they produce, and the impact of farming systems on the environment, are all intrinsically linked.”
Representatives from Animal Welfare Approved perform audits and issue certification if the operation in question meets their standards, which were developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers across the globe. The standards ensure that animals raised under the AWA label have continual access to pasture or range, as well as the opportunity to perform natural and instinctive behaviors deemed essential to their health and well-being. These standards apply throughout the lifespan of the animal, up to and including how they are slaughtered.
Farmers are audited at least once a year, however, they do not have to pay to be inspected or become certified, which is a hallmark of the AWA program. This allows the inspectors to remain impartial while conducting their audits because they don’t depend on certification fees for their operating costs. The AWA also works on consumer education and market development for products from ethically raised animals.
Certified Naturally Grown
Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) uses a peer-reviewed certification process with standards similar to those of organic certification. Emphasis is put on working in harmony with nature, without relying on synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture, with space for freedom of movement. Feed for CNG livestock must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.
While participation in the CNG program requires a full commitment to organic practices, it is seen as a complement to the National Organic Program, especially for direct market farmers producing food for local communities, as opposed to medium and large-scale producers who can more likely afford the organic certification process. According to the CNG website, smaller farms often find that the required paper work for organic certification is prohibitive for small operations. “CNG enables them to get credit for their practices while offering accountability to customers.”
Another thing that makes CNG different is they use a peer review model, which calls upon other farmers to perform inspections. Using peer review allows for the transfer of knowledge between farmers on best practices. This type of model helps foster their local network and strengthen the wider farming community. It also minimizes paperwork and keeps certification dues affordable.
There are many farms without certification of any kind. However, that does not mean they don’t treat their animals well, refrain from using chemicals, or do their best to promote biodiversity and wildlife habitat. Certification can be an onerous task involving extensive paper work and expensive fees. Many farms choose to forego certification, allowing the quality of their products and the health of their farms to speak for themselves. The best way to know how your food is produced is to speak directly with the farmer. Fortunately, a visit to the farmers market offers a unique opportunity to do just that!