Am I supporting family farmers when I purchase a product labeled organic?

March 2007

Hi Laura,
My son has multiple food allergies. I find myself shopping for items he can eat in the natural food sections of grocery stores with many items labeled as organic. Am I supporting family farmers when I purchase a product labeled organic? Thanks so much!

Cindy Briggs
West Chester, Ohio


Excellent timing, Cindy. While I can't really touch on allergies or health issues, I think your question on organics is very relevant right now. For many people, organics represents an ideal for agriculture that is deeply connected to the family farmer and his or her desire to grow quality products and care for the land. In fact, family farmers pioneered organic farming. Over time, they built the networks so that they could share information and learn from each other. Those farmer to farmer networks eventually created state certification programs and standards that were then used to create the United States Department of Agriculture Organic Rule, otherwise known as the standards behind the organic label that we see on grocery store shelves.

I think it is important to start with an understanding of what the organic label means according to the USDA, then move on to a discussion of the ideals that are associated with the movement, and then finally explore the current debate over where organic farming is headed. Organic farming considers the farm to be one ecosystem and strives to maximize its health, from the soil to the surrounding wildlife. Specific methods or standards of organic production vary by country and crop but in general the elimination of chemical inputs like petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms is at the core of organic agriculture. Instead, farmers invest in farming techniques like crop rotation, composting, beneficial insects (like ladybugs), and cover crops to promote soil fertility, manage pests, and control weeds. This kind of farming is often more labor intensive and requires significant education and innovation because most chemical shortcuts are prohibited by certification standards.

The USDA National Organic Standards, passed in 2002, consist of lengthy regulations on allowed, restricted and prohibited practices. Farmers must meet the standards and have certifying companies verify that they are in compliance (certifiers are independent third party inspectors). Food processors that handle or package organic products must also be in compliance. The process for creating these standards was lengthy. There was significant input from farmers, farmer advocates, consumers and organic companies. Compromises were made on all sides and the ideals of some organic advocates did not appear in the final rule.

However, organic can have a broader meaning than what has been established by the USDA. When you speak with organic farmers or advocates, you will often hear terms like "the spirit of organics" or "Organic and Beyond." These are phrases that folks are trying on for size to get at a couple of ideals that are not technically part of the organic program such as bio-dynamic farming, energy efficiency, regional or country of origin labeling and social standards like fair wages for workers, family farm-identification, and fair prices for the farmer. Even further, some feel that organics should address the drive that many organic farmers feel is central to their career: the search for ever better methods of growing high quality food and developing healthy soil.

Just as family farmers are passionate about how they grow their food, consumers have demonstrated strong support for organics in the marketplace. As a result, consumer demand has grown faster than supply. In order to meet this unprecedented demand, many organic food companies are increasingly buying from large-scale farms and international sources, or creating their own large-scale farms.

One of the biggest concerns from family farmers and farmer advocates today is the issue of scale. In our minds, organic farms, like family farms, have red barns, gardens, and herds of animals that go outside to graze every day. However, we know that there are two-thousand acre organic vegetable farms and organic dairies of several thousand cows. Herein lies the controversy.

For example, in livestock operations the organic rule stipulates that the animals must have access to the outdoors. "Access," however, is not clearly defined. As a result, headlines in the past two years have highlighted shortcuts that are the dairy industry's attempt to explore the boundaries of the ambiguity. Do the animals really go outside? What is the optimal nutritional ratio of feeding grass and grain?

Some larger dairies have their cows in feedlots, outdoors but not on pasture. Having cows on grass on a family farm is significantly closer to the spirit of organics. There are now developing standards that would require organic certified cows to have a minimum of 120 days on pasture. However, USDA has yet to clarify these regulations.

Some of the dairies that received a lot of media attention recently are investing significantly in creating more and better pasture for their cows. Organic advocates are waiting to see if these farms are able to come closer to their vision for the industry. With herds so large, there is concern that it will be a very difficult task.

So…I know this was a long-winded answer to your question but right now, whether or not you are directly supporting family farm producers through organic companies really depends on what you are buying and from whom. There is no doubt that organic farmers are getting a premium for their products. When you buy organic your consumer dollars are investing in caring for the soil and water.

But strictly speaking, all organic companies do not source exclusively from U.S. family farmers and, of course, all family farmers are not organic.

If you want to be sure you are getting family farmed food you can seek out farmers in your area through farmers' markets, community supported agriculture programs or even directly from a farm. You can also look for family farmer identified foods (which admittedly can be hard to find because there is no national "family farm" label) but these companies do exist.

The only way to know for sure about a particular company is to do your research. Check out the company website. Call the number on the package. Ask how many family farmers that company works with. If you find a company with the right answers, stick with them! Buy from the companies that you like and feel comfortable with.

One thing is for sure, if organic foods are important to you and your family, keep buying organic. Why? Family farmers have spent years developing these standards of production, their products are high quality-not to mention the environmental benefits-and they deserve a good price in the marketplace. When you call companies to do your research, write back and let me know what they say! I think this column could easily have two or three more installments!!

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