Organic Farming FAQ
Standing in the produce section at your local grocery store, you’re faced with two options. A bin of fresh apples sits in front of you, but across the aisle, another bin is highlighted by a sign reading “Organic” above it. The apples look the same, so what’s the difference? What does “organic” really mean?
As a consumer, knowledge is power when it comes to organics versus conventionally grown foods, allowing you to make educated purchases that are right for you and your family.
All About Organics
Organic food is the fastest-growing sector in U.S. agriculture. Over the past decade, sales have increased by at least 20 percent per year.
“Consumers are demanding organic, so farmers are growing it,” says Bob White, retail ag program coordinator at the Indiana Farm Bureau.
Compared to conventional farming, organic farming differs in one major aspect – the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals. Organic farmers are only allowed to use chemicals that have been approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (ORMI).
“The ORMI checks to make sure all the products are environmentally safe,” says John Childs, who has been farming in Plymouth for eight years. “The chemicals are very restricted.”
Childs says that on his farm, he tries to restrict all use of chemicals, other than maybe spraying fruit trees at the beginning of the season. The best defense is a healthy plant, he says, which starts with healthy soil. He’s been growing heirloom fruits and vegetables on his 45-acre farm organically for about four years.
“I don’t farm any better than conventional farmers,” he says, “just different.”
• Organic products represented a $35 billion industry in 2013.
• Approximately 2 percent of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods.
• Sales of organic products is the fastest-growing sector of agriculture, increasing at least 20 percent over the past decade.
• As of 2008, there were approximately 14,540 organic certified producers in the U.S.
Sources: usda.gov, ofrf.org
In addition to chemical restrictions, organic farms must be certified to truly call themselves organic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a certification program that verifies a farm’s compliance with USDA standards and regulations. Every year, a third-party certifying agent accredited by USDA performs an audit at farms to make sure they meet all organic standards. These include the use of no genetically modified ingredients, preserving natural resources and biodiversity, and providing animals access to the outdoors, among other things. A farm cannot be certified organic until it has been operating as such for at least three years. Farmers pay an annual fee to keep certification, and unless they are certified by USDA, it’s against the law to market their products as organic. Learn more about the details of the organic certification process at usda.gov.
“Naturally Grown is a farmer-based organization that follows the same guidelines as USDA, plus has more that are a bit stricter,” Childs says. “It just made sense for our farm. There’s a little less bookwork, and the cost is less.”
Childs says another plus is that Certified Naturally Grown farms are peer-inspected by other farmers every year, which he finds more trustworthy. Currently, there are close to 750 Certified Naturally Grown farms in the U.S.
Room for Everyone
Like Childs’ farm, most organic operations in Indiana and the U.S. are smaller than conventional farms.
“Organic isn’t suited for large-scale farms,” White says. “There are a few in the Pacific Northwest, but most in the Midwest are small, hands-on plots where farmers sell directly to farmers markets, restaurants or wholesalers.”
Both Childs and White agree that for this reason, and others, it’s important for organic and conventional farmers to work together.
“We chose to farm organic because it’s a niche market, and we love the heirloom variety of vegetables we grow,” Childs says. “You lose the aroma and taste of a vegetable when you mess with the seed. However, the market is big enough for everyone to have a piece. There’s no way we can feed everyone on the planet growing food completely organic. We need conventional farming.”
White adds that conventional crops grown anywhere in the world, from Russia to India, are all the same, which is important when thinking of livestock feed or products made from soybeans. That isn’t true for organically grown crops.
SEE MORE: Organic Food Labels
As for media hype claiming that organic foods are healthier, it’s important to learn the facts.
“The biggest misconception is that organic is healthier,” White says. “In all the studies and research I’ve read, nutrition is even between organic and conventional crops.” How you prepare the food could change the nutritional value, but it’s not the product itself, he adds.
White and Childs also agree that education is critical for consumers.
“When consumers are educated, it allows them to actually have a choice,” Childs says. “The way we farm, we like to tell consumers how and why we grow our food the way we do, so they have the correct information. We want them to know the actual science behind the food, not just the hype.”
“It helps them make educated purchases and have better relationships with those who grow their food,” White adds.
More Info on Childs’ Farm
John Childs and his wife sell their Certified Naturally Grown, heirloom produce at the Plymouth Farmers Market, which opens the second weekend in May and closes the second weekend of October. Childs’ Farm is there through September, before they open their pumpkin patch, which welcomes visitors.
The farm’s most popular items are potatoes and melons. For more information, visit childsfarm.net.