Walking through the grocery store — or one of Frederick County’s farmers markets — food falls into one of two categories: organic or not organic. And if you were handed one tomato from each group, you would be hard-pressed to figure out which was organic by sight alone.
Organic produce have the same outward appearance and nutritional value as conventionally grown crops, said Chuck Schuster, a University of Maryland Extension educator on commercial horticulture for central Maryland. What will be different is how those tomatoes are grown.
Conventional farms have an evolving list of synthetic products that can be applied to treat weeds, insects and fungi that can blemish the crop or out-compete it for sun, water and nutrients. Certified organic farms, however, are limited to using a list of naturally occurring chemical and fertilizer inputs that are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), which is a third-party reviewer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers in both groups have tools to help their crops; it’s just that organic farmers have different tools, Schuster summarized.
For Kip Kelley, who owns Full Cellar Farm in Jefferson, that distinction can still make a customer’s question — “Did you spray anything?” — a hard one to answer.
He may have sprayed B.t. — a biological insecticide — which is allowed on organic farms with restrictions by OMRI. So, the short answer would be “yes,” but on the other hand, he used a naturally occurring bacteria when his plants were most vulnerable to insects. This makes his answer more often “Yes, but ...” at the farmers markets where he sells his produce.
“There’s always a farmer at the market,” Kelley said. “Our best way to communicate quality was to be there to talk directly.”
During the past eight years, Kelley and his wife, Sarah Cramer, have transitioned a portion of her parents’ farm from a conventional soybean and wheat operation to vegetables. This season they will be going through the organic certification process for three crops to test if they can afford to certify the entire vegetable farm.
They have not used any herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers prohibited under the organic certification since they transitioned the ground out of crop production, but without the USDA organic certification, they exist in a gray area between conventional and organic growers.
What some consumers do not understand is that organic farming does not mean “no chemicals.”
To become certified organic, the land where the food is being grown must go through a three-year transition period where no prohibited fertilizers or pesticides are applied. But as the 114-page approved OMRI Product List shows, there are still inputs that organic farmers are allowed to apply to their crops and fields.
And the University of Maryland extension has continued to find that consumers don’t really understand what defines an organic product.
“We’ve gotten to a point in time where a lot of people think synthetic is bad,” Schuster said.
That trend has been reflected in the growth of organic food sales, which increased between 17 and 21 percent annually since 1997, according to the University of Maryland Extension. Conventionally grown food sales have grown only 2 to 4 percent each year during the same time period.
Rick Hood is one local farmer to tap into the national growth of the organic food. Hood grows USDA-certified organic produce at Summer Creek Farm between Mount St. Mary’s University and Thurmont, and he sells the vegetables wholesale to local grocery stores, including Common Market and MOM’s Organic Market.
Summer Creek Farm is one of 50 farms in the state that sell vegetables grown in the open whose sales totaled $3.46 million in 2016, according to the Certified Organic Survey released by the USDA on Monday.
Hood didn’t choose to farm organically for a singular reason, but one factor was that his son was small and he wanted him to pick a ripe vegetable off the plant in the field and be safe eating it.
But there are products approved on the OMRI list that even an established organic farmer like Hood won’t use.
A number of insecticides have been approved under the category pyrethrum, which is a natural chemical found in the chrysanthemum flower. The chemical, however, is an indiscriminate insect killer and can harm beneficial bugs such as ladybugs, praying mantis and pollinators, Hood said.
“We try very hard to maintain a good beneficial insect balance,” Hood said.
At Full Cellar Farm, Kelley, too, avoids pyrethrum insecticides and instead promotes natural predators to kill harmful insects, such as the tomato hornworm. Kelly plants buckwheat, which has white flowers, to attract parasitic wasps to his fields. The wasps lay their eggs in the hornworm and kill it.
A nature hack like this hits at the philosophy of organic food production, which is to help the soil and environment, not just the plant.
Another potential driver for organic table food sale in recent years is a shift in the public conscious to eating locally grown food.
People have become more aware of what they’re eating and the carbon footprint of their food, which Schuster coined as a “local-vore” movement. Many of the customers Kelley sells to at farmers markets fall into this category. It is also one of the barriers keeping him from becoming certified organic.
A 50-pound bag of non-organic seed potatoes costs $17, while the same variety of organic seed potatoes costs $70 a bag. Knowing that he plants 2 tons of potatoes a year, that’s a $4,000 difference in cost, he said.
“One of my philosophies is to feed people locally and feed people fresh food,” Kelley said.
He sells his non-organic potatoes for $4 a quart, but he fears that switching to organic seed and raising his prices even $2 more, per quart, would start to degrade that philosophy.
He pointed to the H Street FreshFarm Market in Northeast Washington, D.C., as an example where lawyers and Capitol Hill staffers shop for his produce. But he acknowledged that an equal number of people on food assistance programs shop there too. With higher prices, his food is not accessible to all people.
For an established producer like Summer Creek Farm with organic wholesale contracts, there is less risk buying the more expensive inputs because there is a known purchaser at the end of the season.
“We do not have to worry whether we will sell all our produce,” Hood said.
Instead, he has to worry about not being able to produce enough.
The pros and cons
of being certified
The biggest impact the USDA-certified organic seal has had on the U.S. food system is adding trust, but at times, it has been exploited.
On Tuesday morning, a caterer delivered pineapple to the Montgomery County Extension office where Schuster was working, and the package said “GMO free.” Well, of course it was, Schuster said, because there are no genetically modified pineapples.
“People grab hold of terminology and consumers need to understand some of it has no meaning,” Schuster said.
A benefit of the USDA-certified organic label is that it’s the only way for consumers to guarantee they are not getting a genetically modified crop if that is a concern to them, Hood said. But unofficial labels such as “GMO free” have appeared and made organic labeling less clear.
Even farmers with good intentions, who use organic philosophies and practices — and use the word “organic” to describe their farming techniques — muddies the conversation at times.
With the creation of a universal USDA-certified organic seal, however, now producers from all over the world can produce organic food for the U.S. market. There used to be a time when only the neighbors surrounding an organic farm knew if that farm was organic. Now, a standardized seal has placed that trust in farmers across the globe, Hood said.
The certified organic seal has also increased competition in the organic market, and for consumers that want to eat produce year-round, it has been a beneficial change.
“If you want to eat produce year-round, it’s not all going to come from the U.S.” Hood said.
To make sure Maryland consumers understand the intricacies of organic versus conventional food production, the University of Maryland Extension and some of its groups, such as the Master Gardener, host information sessions and lessons for residents to learn about their food.
“We really do work hard to provide appropriate knowledge,” Schuster said.