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Eric Rose grows organic mushrooms without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Yet his produce won’t be officially “organic” until Rose undergoes certification.

 


Organic growers weigh benefits and burdens of certification

by Sarah Beth Moore
May 26, 2011


garlic

Sarah Moore/MEDILL

Organic garlic, with the proudly displayed USDA organic seal of approval, fetches a higher price than the conventional product.

 

organic herbs

Sarah Moore/MEDILL

Rows of organic baby basil plants stay warm in Jim Wellhausen’s greenhouse. Later this summer, his customers will collect their fresh full-grown bounty. 

Ask Eric Rose why his mushroom business, River Valley Ranch & Kitchens in Burlington, Wis., isn’t organically certified, and he's happy to tell you.

 

It’s not because of his growing practices. Rose grows all his produce without the aid of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. This raises his costs but, to Rose, it’s worth it. The real question is whether pursuing official certification is worth the trouble and cost.

 

Fully enacted in 2002, the USDA’s organic seal guarantees to consumers that the product was grown to a certain standard. Independent for-profit certifiers handle the process for a fee. Indiana Certified Organic, for instance, charges from $775 to $2,150 annually, depending on the size of the farm. Inspections also occur on an annual basis to continue certification.

 

Rose recognizes the benefits of the label, but said he is daunted by the costs and the intimidating amount of paperwork involved. He said he also wonders why he should have to go through the process, considering his long history with organic practice.

 

“The original growers used an arsenal of chemicals,” said Rose, of growing methods in the 80s and early 90s. In reaction, he took his business in an aggressively organic direction, using heat for sanitation, rotation to beat pests and disease, and a carefully timed growing process to nourish each crop of crimini, white button, shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

 

Customers at his farm stand ask questions and inspect his methods at his invitation. Rose said he has nothing to hide.

 

Yet despite a decades-long dedication to this ideal and marked transparency, he still can’t sell to Whole Foods. His mushrooms will have a place in their stores only when Rose certifies his operation, the company has told him.

 

A leading retailer of natural and organic products that operates hundreds of stores in the U.S., United Kingdom and Canada, Whole Foods products use a sliding labeling scale, from “100 percent organic” to “organic” to “made with organic ingredients.” The last weighs in with at least 70 percent organic ingredients, while on its own the buzzword means a consumer can expect at least 95 percent. Whole Foods could not be reached for comment, but this sliding scale is posted on the chain’s website.

 

This is confusing, Rose said, and makes it hard for customers to take the label seriously.

 

Linda Holly, manager of Gardens of Eagen, produce growers in Farmington, Minn., said that this argument ignores the real purpose of the label, which is to indicate to consumers that suppliers are meeting certain standards.

 

“Even though you might see me face to face every day at work, it’s not just my word that says what I’m doing,” Holly said. “I wouldn’t go to a doctor who says ‘Trust me, I went to med school.’”

 

But Jim Wellhausen, who bought his 50-acre farm 10 years ago and sees steady growth in his business, said that transparency does for him all a label could ever do, and more.

 

He grows a diverse variety of organic produce on his farm in Browntown, Wis., and delivers to his customers. They are welcome on his farm any time, and they are free to wander around. An official recognition of his methods wouldn’t add anything, he said.

 

“Being certified gives the government the opportunity to come on my farm and tell me what to do,” Wellhausen said. Like Rose, he said that no certification process could make his practices more organic than they are now.

 

He asks, why pay someone to tell his customers what they already know? And since he already has those customers, Wellhausen feels he’d be paying something for nothing.

 

“It doesn’t make financial sense, and it doesn’t make practical sense,” he said. “None of our customers seem to care if we’re certified organic.”

 

But, Rose added, some customers want to see the label just because it’s out there, and won’t buy without it. Even farmer’s markets are starting to turn away the non-certified growers. The result? Farmers who have devoted themselves to organic practice are essentially being penalized because of the new process.

 

Insistence on a label, moreover, can encourage cheating and corner-cutting, Rose said, which has the effect of devaluing the word itself.

 

Susan Stewart, organic certification and sustainability coordinator of Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, disagrees.

 

“There will always be cheaters,” she said. But that doesn’t mean that the label can’t be very useful, she said, explaining that it is a great marketing tool for those getting into the business or looking to sell to more than just a few hundred local customers.

 

“Small producers get certified because it helps them introduce their farm and their products to people,” she said. “It helps people know what they can expect.”

 

This is a selling point to many. But a variety of factors play into a farmer's choice not to obtain certification, Stewart said. Included among them are high costs, perceived difficulty of the process and profiting too little to justify it all. 

 

Delayne Reeves of the Illinois Department of Agriculture adds another reason: a three-year transition period. During this time, farmers cannot market their produce as organic but must pay the costs associated with certification.

 

For farmers who would like to undergo the process but are worried about this, a cost-share program is available, Stewart points out. The program reimburses farmers for 75 percent of the cost of certification fees up to $750 dollars annually.

 

“Small organic growers aren’t alone,” she said. “There is help for them.”

 

Not only that, Holly said, getting certified puts all organic farmers on the same page.

 

“Our true struggle is to get more people to farm organically, not to defend our two positions,” she said. “We are so much closer to each other than to conventional farmers.”

 

Moreover, Holly added, when local farmers choose not to become certified, they can create a dichotomy between local and organic labels.

 

A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey pitted the preference for local ingredients against organic ones. America's natural-food store shoppers chose local 35 percent of the time and organic only 22. More than 40 percent chose both. 

 

This doesn’t bode well for organic farming, Holly said.

 

“I see conventional grocery stores starting to veer away from organics in favor of local,” she said. “But local doesn’t have to be organic, and organic doesn’t have to be from California.”

 

True, Rose said. And neither should have to be labeled, he maintains. Nonetheless, he is seriously considering certification.

 

“Some people need a label, and I need a market,” he said.