What does it mean to be “organic”?

By Marshall McPeak

NBC Channel 4

May 13, 2010

Sunbury, OH —Mike Anderson grew up in the suburbs. He hadn’t really intended to be a farmer. But, in college, he spent some quality time on a research farm. Now, he’s a full-time agriculturalist with five acres near Sunbury. Sundog Special Crops harvests blackberries, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, peas, beans and even sunflowers. And all his products carry a very special label: “Certified Organic.”

“Each year, for the past 10 or 12 years, we’ve seen 15- to 20-percent growth in the demand for organic produce. And this is a market that is not being met,” Mike says.

There are fewer than 500 organic farms in Ohio but Mike says the numbers are increasing every year. It isn’t easy, though. Each farm has to meet and maintain strict standards before its products earn the USDA’s organic label.

The standards were created between 1990 and 2002 as an extension of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Under those guidelines, organic foods must:

  • “be produced and handed without the use of synthetic chemicals;”
  • “not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products;”
  • And must “be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent.”

Organic farmers must abide by the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances as they grow their crops.

“We can use legumes and clovers to provide nutrients because those are natural forms of fertilizer,” Mike says. “We can use lime which is mined from the ground or other kinds of mined minerals or rock powders to provide nutrients.”

He can use a derivative from chrysanthemums as a natural, plant-based insecticide. But weed control is still one of the most difficult problems.

“There just aren’t natural herbicides available,” Mike laments. “So organic farmers rely on cultivation and crop rotations to control weeds.”

In his greenhouse, Mike uses a ground-fish emulsion to add nitrogen to seedlings’ soil packs. (It really smells.) And he’s found a natural fertilizer made from a mixture of ground soy beans and molasses.

Every organic farm is monitored and certified by a qualified agent. In Ohio, one of the largest certifying agencies is the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association. But independent, third-party inspectors also make regular visits.

Mike says an inspector can rip the certification from an organic farm for something as seemingly minor as an oil drip from a tractor. Once the soil is contaminated with anything synthetic, it takes three years before the farm can be re-certified.

The inspectors expect to see the farmers’ very detailed logs of all their activities and purchases.

Many times, organic foods are more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. Mike says there are many reasons for the difference, not the least of which is basic supply and demand economics.

“There’s a lot more demand for this kind of produce than there is supply at the current time. So that also contributes to the price difference,” he says. He also points out that organic farming often involves more labor done by hand. And without herbicides, there is more labor-intensive mechanical weeding.

Still, despite the headaches and requirements, Mike says he loves what he does. He says it’s a “more enjoyable way to raise produce.”

“The market is wide open,” he says.