As farmers market geeks, we hit up as many as we can, recently Marin County’s Sunday morning market at the Civic Center. I got to chat it up with the regal Janet Brown, co-owner of AllStar Organics, which produces heirloom tomatoes, antique roses, herbs, salts (OMG, the best!!!), and now a line of organic hydrosols and essential oils.
In Marin, Janet is a pioneer food-fighter—a founding board member of the area’s first organic marketing association, Marin Organic, Chair of the Marin Food Policy Council, and former Program Officer for the Center for Ecoliteracy. She was one of few growers who hosted a visit from sustainable agriculture advocate Prince Charles in 2005. Basically, she knows what’s up, from the inside out. Whenever I am lucky enough to come into contact with people like her, I dig for the truths the public never gets to hear.
There are various, long-existing organic certification programs. How did the standards of organic certification change when the USDA implemented the national standard in the 1990s?
The USDA National Standard superseded all previous existing organic standards. Today, there is only one, unified, USDA National Organic Rule that covers all aspects of organic production and distribution. All organic certifiers certify to the same standards. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is charged with reviewing the current organic rule, and recommending changes and upgrades when necessary. The goal of the USDA Organic Program is to protect and maintain the integrity of United States organic standards to the benefit of the organic farmers, organic consumers, and the USDA Organic Program itself.
May a farmer exceed the USDA standard? What standard does AllStar Organics hold itself up to?
An organic farmer is free to farm in any way that at least meets the standards of the USDA Program. For many, the USDA rule is a floor, not a ceiling. Many organic farmers are operating organic systems that are extraordinarily sophisticated, elegant, smart and mature. Based on their own body of knowledge about crops they farm, their own special conditions, and their own sense of design and aesthetics, their entire enterprise may exceed any formal requirement of the USDA program. Farming is a means of self-expression for the farmer. Examples of this are: returning optimum amounts of organic matter to the soil each year, having a regular mineralization program, improving soil biotic life, using more heirloom and open-pollinated varieties or crops, leaving hedgerows and flowering borders as nectar
sources, conserving water whenever possible, diversifying the farming operation, selling more of the harvest directly, opening the farm to the public, etc. Allstar meets the USDA requirements for certification, and, like most organic farmers, we also work hard on those things that we care about, whether or not the rule requires it.
When we see non-certified stands with signs that read “No pesticides” or “No spray, no chemical fertilizers,” might their food be as clean as certified organic products, or is this a claim used to distract buyers from other detrimental practices they may be utilizing?
Certified organic farmers go through inspections, pay multiple fees, fill out quite a bit of paperwork, and go through multiple more inspections to prove that they are meeting the USDA requirements in order to be able to call themselves organic.
There is no other organic certification. Signs that say, “Certified delicious,” “Certified California Grown,” “Certified Clean” are attempts to cash in on the obvious value of the organic enterprise. They’re really distractions—claims without weight—and end up confusing the shopper at the market. If it matters to you, the organic label is your only real assurance that the food you buy does not contain chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, germination accelerators, waxes, GMOs, irradiation, reconditioned sewage sludge, fungicides, and other contaminates.
What are the most important questions to ask growers to ensure we’re buying from the cleanest, most sustainable stands possible?
The organic grower should have a certification document displayed on their stand at the market. You can ask how far away the farm is from you. You can ask about diversity and variety. Taste is always a good indicator of something being done well. Fresh is a critical component to nutrition.
Some people complain that organics are “too expensive” (but we notice they get their nails done every week). Can you explain why purchasing organic products is such a worthy investment?
When you buy organic products, you are supporting a system of production that is designed to avoid harm to the environment. That’s good for the food you eat, but also for the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the world you live in. It is possible to eat your values. Simply seek out and choose the food that is produced consistent with the values and ideals you say you support. You can build the food system you want one mouthful at a time.
Americans have become accustomed to the price of cheap, subsidized food. The small increase in price for organic represents the true cost of producing the food and bringing it to market. It is an unsubsidized system that is one of the most admirable joint enterprises I know of. The organic system was built between the organic farmers and the eating public, and it is sustainable.
NOTE: If you care about organics and GMO-labeling, please support and follow the progress of California’s Prop 37, the Right To Know Initiative (Nov. 2012), which will require the labeling of genetically modified foods. If it wins, California will be the first U.S. state to set this precedent…and maybe your state is next?