Farm Confessional: Here’s My Beef with Farmers Who Claim Organic When They Are Not   

Courtesy Brian Bruno


Brian Bruno of Apple Ridge Farm produces vegetables, poultry products, pork, and hydroponic lettuce, and operates a wood-fired bakery, all on his 7.2 acre homestead in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. The farm is Certified Naturally Grown, an alternative to USDA Organic certification that relies on farmers to certify their peers, rather than a third-party certification agency. Bruno recently attempted to become certified organic, but found that the rules and record-keeping requirements were at odds with his business model.

Here, as told to Modern Farmer, Bruno shares his frustration with farmers who claim, but don't actually have, organic certification.

A few years ago I bought an application for organic certification. It costs $75 and comes in a box. I spent about two years working on it and realized there was no way that we were actually going to keep up with the record-keeping. If we went for certification I was is going to be making up the information, because I wasn’t going to have time to do it while running the farm every day. So we ended up going back to Certified Naturally Grown after taking what we thought was a pretty legitimate stab at getting certified organic.

I gained a lot of respect for the organic program out of the experience, because they are definitely looking at everything. We are a small, really diverse farm, which made it really challenging. If we just grew vegetables it would’ve been pretty straightforward. But we do produce, including hydroponics, pasture-raised chickens, and pork. Then we have a value-added side of the business with a line of mustards, pizza, breads, and other baked goods.

The part where we were bogged down the most was with the bakery, which includes ingredients that don’t come from the farm. You have to get a certificate for each ingredient, which gets tricky. For the ingredients that aren’t organic, like our cheese and olives, we would have had to get a non-GMO certificate. Just trying to get a hold of some of these companies—like our olive company, which is in Europe—was not easy. Sometimes we can’t get one kind of flour, so we use another kind of flour, and then we need another certificate.

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Small agriculture has the same problems as big agriculture in terms of people being honest.

There are so many moving parts in our business, and for certification we would have to keep separate sales records for each part of the operation. There is currently no organic certification for hydroponics, so we would have to break that out of our farmers market sales, which we weren’t prepared to do. Plus, you get assessed a fee of 2 percent of your sales by the certifier each year.

With the planting records that are required, I found that by the time I actually sat down to do it, I was making most of it up. As far as the requirements for buying organic seed and things like that, it would have been pretty easy for us because all of our inputs are organic. But taking the time to document everything in and everything out—that just wasn’t going to happen for us. One year we had an apprentice that we assigned to it, but I realized it wasn’t going to happen unless I put in a serious bucket of my own time as well.

We considered for a minute just doing the farm side of the operation organic, but the only thing we really wholesale is bread, which is why we originally thought about getting certified. We wanted the label on our bread so that when we sell to people who are reselling it, they could convey to their customers what it was about.

We do 13 farmers markets and we know most of our customers. They can ask questions and we can answer them. But the bread is $6 to $7 a loaf, so we thought it would be nice to put an organic label on it so people can say, “oh, that’s why it’s a little more expensive.”

Part of me says it sucks that it is so hard to get certified organic, but I see all these people cheating and being dishonest and I think you need somebody to police that. Otherwise the consumers just get ripped off constantly.

Most small farmers who are on the organic spectrum are in some shape or form claiming organic. They are saying, “oh yeah, we’re natural, we don’t use any pesticides,” or “we’re organic, but we’re not certified.” But I can tell you that most of the farmers who don’t have any kind of certification at the markets I go to would not qualify as certified organic. Most of them are not buying organic seed because it’s twice as expensive. If there’s not a certification, there’s no way to validate it—everybody is going to cut their own corners.

Small agriculture has the same problems as big agriculture in terms of people being honest. From what I’ve seen in 12 years of doing farmers markets, there’s a ton of people misusing marketing terms. So you almost need somebody to come in to act as a clearinghouse and say, “okay these people are claiming organic, but let’s verify it.”

It seems like with nine out of 10 farmers who allude to the fact that they’re organic it’s like, “well….except we don’t buy organic seed because it’s expensive.” Most of the farmers at the markets that I go to say “we don’t spray.” But they might tell you in a conversation later—”only if we have to… just last year we sprayed because there was late blight on our tomatoes.” They claim to be organic until they’re going to lose their crop. They might only use a pesticide or herbicide or fungicide once or twice a season, but it’s not fair to the people are actually doing it legit organically. So I struggle with it all the time.

Part of me says it sucks that it is so hard to get certified organic, but I see all these people cheating and being dishonest and I think you need somebody to police that. Otherwise the consumers just get ripped off constantly.

Farm Confessional: Here’s My Beef with Farmers Who Claim Organic When They Are Not