I had the following article published in today’s Chapel Hill Herald.
By Sheila Read : The Herald-Sun
Nov 18, 2007 : 10:00 pm ET
CARRBORO — The handmade signs at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market make a wide and sometimes confusing variety of claims about the farmers’ produce and meat.
On a busy Saturday in autumn, at least 18 farms display signs making claims about how their food is raised.
“Nothing icky,” says the sign at Castle Rock Gardens, above an array of arugula and watercress. “Pasture-raised chickens,” advertises Castlemaine Farm. “Sustainable,” says Perry-winkle Farm. “No chemicals,” says Graham Family Farm of its grapes and oriental eggplants.
What’s noticeably missing from the signs is the label organic. Only one of the regular vendors at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, Timberwood Organics, advertises its organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Without certification from the USDA, farmers are not legally allowed to call their produce organic.
The Saturday crowds at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market are just one small manifestation of the growing numbers of people across the country who go out of their way to shop for food they believe is raised in more healthful ways. Organic food accounts for 2 percent of U.S. food sales, but it has been one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market since the late 1990s, according to the USDA.
In 2002, the department adopted national standards for certifying food as organic. To qualify as organic, producers must avoid most conventional pesticides and not use fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients. Animals cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.
About 70 to 80 percent of shoppers who buy organic say health and nutrition are their top reason, reports Samuel Fromartz in “Organic, Inc.” Shoppers also buy organic because of freshness, taste, environmental concerns and an interest in supporting sustainable farming, he writes.
So why aren’t small farmers in this area getting organic certification to capitalize on this growing market?
The answers provide insight into the growing movement toward buying local food — and the suspicions many small farmers have as the organic food movement becomes more industrialized.
One reason that local farmers tend to shy away from organic certification is the hassle and cost associated with filling out long government forms. “The paper work is fairly onerous,” said Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm.
Small farmers also tend to be suspicious of government regulation and to prize staying independent, several farmers said. “It’s hard to feel independent when someone is looking over your shoulder,” said Ristin Cooks of Castle Rock Gardens.
But many farmers also expressed skepticism about the meaning of organic certification at a time when corporate farms are increasingly coming to dominate organic food production. Small local farmers say they believe the USDA rules for certification were designed to fit the needs of large corporate farms, not small farms. “Certification is expensive and in some ways meaningless,” said Cooks. “It applies to corporate monocultures that we feel are not good stewards of the land.”
And just because a product is certified by the USDA does not mean its label means what consumers might think it does. One frequently cited example has to do with chickens labeled “free-range.” This does not mean the chickens freely range outdoors, as shoppers might expect, but that the chickens simply have access to the outdoors, whether they ever go outside or not.
“I’m really afraid that in the near future we won’t be getting organic although it’s labeled that,” said Daniel Tolfree of Millarckee Farm.
What’s most important
At the Carrboro market, the fact that the food is grown locally is even more important than whether the farmers use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, farmers said. To sell at the market, vendors must farm within a 50-mile radius of Carrboro.
Locally-grown food appeals to people who are seeking fresher, more flavorful meat and produce. “Local” and “flavor” are top two selling points at the market, said Hitt of Peregrine Farm.
In the bigger picture, many people buy local because they agree with the inherent values of preserving local farmland and preserving communities, writes Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Buying local also appeals to people who are concerned about global warming and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with burning fuel to ship food across the country and the world.
But the most important aspect of the local food movement is the ability of customers to talk directly with the farmers who supply their food. Organic certification isn’t necessary when farmers can talk directly with consumers, several farmers said.
For example, Hitt said that after 22 years selling at the farmer’s market, his customers know him so well he doesn’t even use signs describing his growing techniques.
As with any market, a danger exists that unscrupulous sellers will attempt to win sales by misleading customers about their products. But the opportunity for customers to develop a relationship with the farmers they buy from is a disincentive to fraud.
“There’s nothing to stop a local farmer from using chemicals or abusing animals — except the gaze or good word of his customers,” Pollan writes. “Instead of looking at labels, the local food customer will look at the farm for himself, or look the farmer in the eye and ask him how he grows his crops or treats his animals.”
Farmers acknowledge that the array of different signs at the market making claims about food can be confusing. It’s important, some said, that consumers be prepared to ask good questions.
Laurie Heise of Wiseacre farm said she stopped using a sign labeled “naturally grown” because people didn’t seem to know what that meant.
“People were making jokes, ‘Everything’s naturally grown,’ ” she said. Heise now has a sign with a detailed explanation of her farming practices. More importantly, she says she’s willing to explain how she farms to anyone who asks.
QUESTIONS TO ASK FARMERS
About fruits and vegetables:
— Are you trying to grow food organically?
— What techniques do you use to control pests, weeds and disease?
— Do you allow the public to visit your farm?
About beef, dairy, chicken, pork and eggs:
— Do you use antibiotics?
— What type of feed do you give your animals? Does it have animal byproducts?
— Are hens caged?
— Do your cows eat from pasture? How often?
Source: The Green Guide Institute