Certified Organic vs. Organically Grown

I might make it seem like farmers’ markets are the holy grails of food suppliers. And to me, they kinda are. But there is a common misconception that I would love to take a moment (or a very long page of words) to explain.

Not everything sold at a farmers’ market is organic. Local, yes. Harvested when the produce is actually ripe instead of way too early so they can be shipped long distances, yes. Fresh, flavorful, tended to personally instead of in an industrial tank by whirring machines, usually a guarantee. But that doesn’t mean it’s organic!

The produce covering the tables at a farmers market isn’t marked by the stickers of grocery stores, telling you whether or not the food is “Certified Organic” by the government. (FYI: in the grocery store, a 5-digit number code on the sticker starting with 9 means the item is organic.) If a stand does sell organic food, they will typically proudly (I think rightfully so) advertise it on a sign somewhere. Of course, the BEST way to tell is to ask the farmer directly.

Their answers may surprise you. I was expecting a simple, “Yes, it’s organic.” But they were almost always careful to clarify that their produce was “organically grown,” not “Certified Organic.” Ok… same thing right? Kinda sorta not really. Let’s break it down!

IMG_4894 IMG_4895


“Organically grown”:

Mark Israel of Query Mill Farm, Kevin Grove of Quarter Branch Farm, and Steven of Potomac Vegetable Farms all sell only organically grown produce at their stands. I talked to them to see what “organically grown” really means.

  • NO persistent/chemical pesticides. Pesticide = kills insects. Persistent = never goes away = poisonous forever = stays on plant, gets in soil, bird eats it, animal eats bird = chemical contaminates food chain.
  • YES biodegradable pesticides that are broken down by sunlight, air, or water. They are made from plants such as pyrethrin instead of synthetic chemicals.
  • NO commercial/chemical fertilizers, made from petroleum and other natural gases. These fertilizers usually are of 45-45-45 strength. The numbers tell the “N-P-K value,” which is the concentration of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the fertilizer. The higher the number, the higher the concentration. When there is too much nitrogen, it can seep into the groundwater and poison those living around it. Compare that to the fertilizers Mark uses, which are 12-6-6 strength – and he uses them at a HALF strength of 6-3-3. Organic fertilizers come from plant and animal sources, meant to nourish the soil as well as the plant.
  • NO chemical herbicides. Mark doesn’t even use organic herbicides, because they’re not that effective.
  • YES adding organic material, such as manure and compost, to the soil as much as possible.
  • NO preventative spraying, like most conventional farms do. Instead of dousing the soil with chemicals before a bud even appears, Mark waits until the plant starts growing to decide what it needs.

At the Potomac Vegetables Farms stand, you will see a banner for “ecoganic,” instead of “organic,” farming. It’s a term they coined, but it entails the same commitment to shunning the use of chemical substances on their produce.

Fundamentally, it’s a matter of synthetic vs. natural. The organic philosophy is founded on the value of a naturally healthy, diverse environment that can produce for generations. With healthy soil, you get healthy food!

“Certified Organic”:

Organic certification is pretty much a stamp of approval from the government, confirming that it was grown according to the USDA’s standards:

The process to getting certified goes like this:

1. Farmer submits application to certifier. Application = farm map, names of all organic products, history of substances applied to fields in the past 3 years, report of organic yields and sales/estimation of projected, Organic System Plan (OSP) that describes farming operation.

2. Certifier decides if farm meets organic regulations by reading OSP.

3. Inspector visits farm to confirm that farmer is following the plan. He or she also examines records including invoices, material applications, organic sales, harvest, and yield.

4. Certifier reviews inspection report and decides whether or not organic certification should be issued.

Simple, right? So why don’t the farmers just get certified and call their produce “Certified Organic?”

For Mark Israel, it was not a difficult decision. He’s been growing food organically for 30 years, and doesn’t appreciate the government telling him what to do.

But for him, Kevin, Steven, and many owners of small farms across the country, it goes beyond that. First, the cost of the certification is a big issue. With the application, inspection, and certification fees, the price tag can range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. THEN add in the annual renewal fees and transactions fees based on the farm’s sales!

The time taken in the process can also be a burden on these small businesses. In addition to the piles of paperwork, dealing with inspections and the bureaucracy in place to handle the certification is a 3 to 6-month time commitment for farmers who already have so much work to do actually FARMING.

Yeah, yeah, that all sucks. But what was unsettling to me was hearing straight from the farmers’ mouths how little they trusted the certification in general.

First, that National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances mentioned earlier? In the “allowed” category you’ll find words like “carrageenan” and “inositol.” Wtf are those. Well, inositol is a lovely synthetic chemical while carrageenan is a seaweed derivative that is suspected of causing inflammation, ulcers, and cancer. There are actually more than 250 nonorganic substances that the government decided can be in your organic food.

The certification process itself is not as sound as we would hope it to be. Most of the examination is on paper, with one inspector being the only person who ever has a firsthand experience on the farm. The OSP is the main document describing the farm’s production process, and the writer can put whatever he or she wants into it. All inspector visits are planned so the farmer knows in advance. While this helps the farmers be prepared for the inspection, it also allows them time to cover up anything shady. The inspector’s evaluation is the only basis other than the farm’s own report on which the certifier makes a decision. There are rarely even any field tests of organic crops or livestock, only some end product testing by the European Union. As Mischa Popoff says, “that’s like testing Olympic athletes after they go home.” Because the paperwork is so superficial, fraud is not that difficult to pull off. These guys did it, and they’re only the ones who got caught.

The certifying agents that make the decision and collect fees are private companies, all charging significantly different amounts for the inspection and certification. They compete with each other for business, which is incentive to make it as easy for the farms to get certified as possible. If the certifier is too strict, a farmer can choose to go to another agent.

Through the 1980s, the philosophy of organic farming was centered mainly in small, independent farms selling locally. However, the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act established national organic standards to be more inclusive of large industrial farms and the international market. Farms that make less than $5000 in organic sales a year don’t even have to be inspected.  The profit from organic food is impressive, so it’s not surprising that corporate giants were quick to buy up small organic businesses while the regulations were being set.

I mean look at this. THIS CHART THING BLOWS MY MIND.


The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service promises that “the USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.” Hm. Funny how the USDA says in the “Guide for Organic Crop Producers” that “certain practices, while not allowed in organic production, would not constitute application of a prohibited material, and so would not render land ineligible for certification during the transition period. Examples include the use of nonorganic seed or planting stock, application of manure to a food crop within 90 days of harvest, and cultivation of genetically modified crops.”

Actually that’s NOT FUNNY because that’s basically saying, “These practices aren’t allowed, but they’re not prohibited, so they’re allowed – and you can still be certified.”  Which means, as the USDA declares itself, “Organic certification does not guarantee that the product is completely free of all pesticide residues or genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination.” Way to uphold that “assurance of the organic product’s integrity.”

As organic food grew into the $30-billion-a-year industry it is now, some farmers feel as though it has lost the genuine values of organic farming. The USDA organic regulations allow nonorganic seeds and synthetic substances to be used in organic crop production “when an equivalent organically produced variety is not commercially available.” They want to sell these crops, and they want to sell them as organic. Instead of adjusting the production methods to organic standards, they reduce the organic standards themselves. And that product ends up smacked with the “Certified Organic” label, the consumer not knowing any better.

The farmers at the markets selling “organically grown” food stand firm in their organic methods regardless of the government’s organic label. Steven doesn’t feel as though the lack of certification hurts at all. Instead, it offers more direct connection among the farmers, the workers, and the consumers. Without the hoops of the federal government, he can ensure sustainability and commitment based on true values of natural produce. Most farms, like Quarter Branch Farm, offer an open door policy, so anyone can visit the farm and see for themselves how it operates.

I hope that helps you understand the role of organic farming in farmers’ markets a little better! I’m not trying to start a conspiracy theory or whatever regarding the government’s organic certification. My family still buys organic produce as often as possible, because it’s better than nothing. But do be aware that a label does not tell you everything you need to know. Hearing it from the farmer’s mouth, seeing it on the farmer’s farm, that’s the way to go.

For more information, PLEASE check out:

GMOs in USDA Organic Food

Expert Questions Legitimacy of Organic Food Certification

Who Owns Organic?

The USDA’s own statements:

Guide for Organic Crop Producers

National Organic Program

Organic Certification

Now, what if the farm uses IPM or conventional farming methods? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN???

Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Certified Organic vs. Organically Grown

  1. I’d like to share this on our FB website with your permission! Excellent article! We are an “organic farm”


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