What's In a Label?

USDA Organic

Originally, the idea of “organic” products was redundant: all farming was organic in the days before big agri-business. However, because petroleum-based fertilizers and other synthetic farming methods eventually became the norm, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has implemented an organic certification for farms and products.

Ever wonder what exactly that “Certified Organic” sticker means, or what a grower has to do to become certified in Florida? If so, read on.

What Does the Label Really Mean?

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which required the USDA to develop national standards for agricultural products grown without the use of pesticides. This was set to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as “organic” met consistent, uniform standards.

USDA-certified organic crops are raised without conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Additionally, USDA-certified organic products use no genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge in production. As a general rule, all synthetic substances are prohibited in organic production. Purchasing a “USDA Organic” product is the only standardized way to ensure that you are not buying Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). To date, there is no GMO disclosure requirement in the United States, but GMOs are prohibited from being in an organic product.

To qualify as USDA Organic livestock, animals must be fed organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and receive no antibiotics or growth hormones. The only certified USDA Organic livestock operations in Florida specialize in egg production, because the state’s hot weather and high number of parasites make it difficult to farm livestock for meat consumption organically. That’s not to say there aren’t livestock producers in Florida who use organic practices – there likely are, but they have not gone through the certification process.

There are two types of organic certifications that can use the USDA logo: single-ingredient products (like fruits and vegetables) that are certified 100% organic, and multi-ingredient products that are “certified 95% or more organic”. There are also two lesser levels of organic certifications for multi-ingredient products: “Made with Organic Ingredients”, which are at least 70% organic, and “Less Than 70% Organic Ingredients”, which denotes organic ingredients only.

Certification

For a farm to use the organic label on its products, it must be certified by an Accredited Certification Agency (ACA). The Gainesville-based Quality Certification Services, one of two ACAs headquartered in Florida, certifies farms in farming, wildcrafting, livestock, processing, packing, and handling operations.

ACAs are tasked with making sure food producers are operating according to the USDA Organic policies. They translate these policies into guidebooks for farmers to use as they work through the certification process. Once a farm has made the switch to organic practices, the certification agency does an inspection. To be sure a farm is continuing to use organic practices, ACA representatives may perform surprise inspections on the farm and at the market where the farm sells its produce.

The nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) helps organic farmers by keeping up with the current science on organic products and working to help improve organic growing methods. OMRI offers growers and suppliers independent reviews of products that the USDA deems acceptable for organic farms to use in production, handling, and processing; acceptable products are "OMRI Listed". They also monitor the potential side effects of the products. For example, some products that are mined are acceptable for use. However, if the mining process becomes unsustainable and has negative effects on the local environment, OMRI will revise the standards to exclude that particular practice.

Local Organic Farms

There are 238 USDA-certified Organic farms in the state of Florida. Three certified farming operations in the Greater Sarasota area are: Worden Farm in Punta Gorda, Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish, and Geraldson Community Farm in Bradenton.

Worden Farm has been certified organic since its founding in 2003. Eva Worden, co-owner of Worden Farms with her husband Chris, explained that the farm became certified because they “wanted the customers to have the assurance that our production methods are in keeping with their desires and philosophies”. Both Eva and Chris Worden have PhDs in agricultural-related fields, and they keep abreast of the latest industry happenings to follow organic best practices.

Gamble and Geraldson farms, two training farms operated by the Florida West Coast Resource Conservation & Development Council, are both certified USDA Organic. They said they sought certification because there is increasing customer demand for organic produce and organic farming methods are an important part of their training for beginner farmers. Jacob Leech, acting Executive Director for both farms, explained that there was also a market-based incentive for becoming organic certified since “Florida farmers are in an advantageous position to fill the demand for organics due to the unique [long] Florida growing season.”

Local & Organic: A Winning Combination

The organic label gives the certainty that buyers are getting good food, even they cannot go out to the farm, meet the farmers, and learn about the operation themselves. But at Worden Farms, the organic certification meshes well with its local focus. Because they market exclusively to the local region - selling only at farmers’ markets from St. Petersburg to Naples - their customers have the opportunity to get to know them directly and find out about their food-production practices.

Gamble and Geraldson farms sell most of their yield to their repeat Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers, and they also see the organic certification, in part, as a trust-building tool.

“The certification is helpful in providing assurance to the customer that the produce is grown according to a certain standard, which is particularly useful in the early years of a farm’s existence when it is building the initial relationships with customers”, Leech explained. “Over time, trust develops. But in the early stages, it is helpful to have the certification to back up the fact that you are using organic production methods”.

The legitimacy and trust that come from the government-standardized certification and keeping a community focus are both imperative to the local organic-certified farms. As Eva Worden said, “We feel that the combo of organic and local is the best one to seek out - both someone else’s judgment and your own judgment of producers’ practices and philosophy.”

For More Information

For those in the area who are hungry for organic products, buying local and organic is a nearly fool-proof way to know you are supporting sustainable farming practices. For a cheat sheet on who’s producing local and organic food in the area, check out the listings of local producers in Greater Sarasota’s Eat Local Resource Guide & Directory.