BELFAST, Maine — Farmer Lucian Smith of the Smith Family Farm in Bar Harbor has had a lot on his mind this summer.
He’s worried about the drought conditions that have made it hard to gather the hay that his small herd of lovingly tended dairy cows rely on for winter fodder. He’s concerned about the competition that has crept up from afar, including the 1,000-cow certified organic dairy farms in western states, such as Colorado, that undercut his prices at the grocery store.
But he’s not worried about keeping painstaking records to make sure his farm’s organic certification is kept up to date. That’s because he decided a few years ago to let the certification lapse, and he hasn’t looked back.
“We are too small and local for certification to make sense for us,” Smith said. “We believe in the trust of our customers, and we didn’t want to be in the same category as the commodity organic, which was widely available.”
Although sometimes Maine — the home of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Common Ground Country Fair — can seem like ground zero for all things certified organic, as it happens Smith joined a vocal minority when he chose to eschew the organic certification process.
Eliot Coleman, the celebrated organic farming pioneer who runs Four Season Farm in Harborside with his wife, Barbara Damrosch, is another farmer who believes the process of getting organic certification is a waste of time.
Coleman said that when the United States Department of Agriculture started to regulate the word “organic” in 2001 and began requiring farms to get and keep organic certification in order to market themselves that way, it signaled the beginning of the end of the word for him.
“‘Organic’ has already been chewed and digested,” he said. “I’ve been an organic farmer since I started. But ever since the USDA co-opted the word and therefore was able to define it in whatever image they wanted to define it, I decided to not be part of that system. Any time you put the fox in charge of the henhouse, you’re going to have problems.”
Mary Yurlina, the organic certification director at MOFGA, said the debate over the word “organic” has been hashed out for decades, with no end in sight. She said that one way to look at the reason that spurred USDA regulation of the term is by considering other words used to market food, words such as “healthy” and “natural.”
“Those words don’t have a standard associated with them,” she said.
Otherwise said, such claims on packaging that are intended to make consumers feel good or reassured about buying the items don’t actually mean anything. But the phrase “certified organic” does. After the idea of organics started to be more and more popular and widely used, its regulation became important, Yurlina said. MOFGA now has a staff of seven people to ensure Maine’s certified organic farmers comply with the USDA’s organic certification regulations.
“The nice thing about the certified organic label is that there is a standard and it is verified,” she said. “There’s an annual inspection. We’re on the farms, checking things out.”
She said farmers who would like to get the certification must do more work and pay a fee, but that more and more Maine farmers every year decide it is worth it to them. Right now, MOFGA inspectors make sure 472 organic farms in Maine are using the right materials, managing weeds and pest correctly and handling crops the right way in order to get and keep their certification.
“We do keep growing. It was close to 10 percent more [participating farms] last year,” she said. “Each year, people do give up their certification. Some people go out of business. Some people get irritated with the additional work and recordkeeping.”
She said it is reassuring to her that certified organic producers in every state must follow the same standard.
“I’d like to think we’re doing the same thing,” she said.
Skeptical small farmers
Coleman and other skeptical farmers said that’s the point — mega-scale organic farms may be doing what it takes to keep their certification, but it’s not possible that the big players are doing the same thing the small organic farms are doing.
“What has been watered down is that the USDA caved into the pressure from large-scale operations and is allowing things to be called organic that most of us that have been in the game a long time find suspicious,” he said. “The standards the USDA has set have been cheapened to allow more people access to the word, rather than tightening to provide people with better and better food.”
One example he gave is that the federal government is allowing hydroponic vegetable production to be certified organic. Hydroponic farming uses no soil, instead supplying all nutrients to the plants via an irrigation system. The old adage for organic farming is “Feed the soil, not the plant,” according to an online petition started by two organic farmers in Vermont. When you remove the soil, what do you have? Coleman said whatever it is, he doesn’t consider it to be organic.
“I think that’s the death knell of organic integrity,” he said.
Not every farmer agrees that the certification process is bad for organic farming. Christa and Mike Bahner of the Bahner Farm in Belmont grow certified 5.5 acres of organic vegetables and raspberries, and they are comfortable with the process and end result of organic certification.
“I feel strongly about it,” Christa Bahner said. “Of course a small, local farm that’s not certified will be better than ginormous organic brands. But we’re better farmers because we have to be organized. You have to keep track of way more. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but it’s absolutely positive in the long run.”
But Bahner, Smith and Coleman — small farmers all — found common ground in one strongly held belief.
“In general, if you’re shopping at a smaller, more local farm, you’re dealing with someone who is more honest,” Christa Bahner said. “The most important thing is talking to your farmer directly.”