Do consumers need the USDA seal to ensure a healthier product?

An heirloom tomato grown at Long Season Farms in Aquebogue. The farm offers non-certified organic produce. (Credit: David Benthal)

An heirloom tomato grown at Long Season Farms in Aquebogue. The farm offers non-certified organic produce. (Credit: David Benthal)

Whether they are feeding a young family or cooking for themselves, more and more wellness-conscious people are opting for non-genetically modified fruits and veggies that were grown without synthetic pesticides. 

But when perusing the booths at the local farmers’ market or visiting our bountiful local farm stands, you might find some growers, even ones who tout sustainable practices, steering clear of the term “organic.”

Some local producers say a government certification — which is required for growers with more than $5,000 in annual sales to call themselves “organic” — is costly, time consuming and restrictive. And all those factors can affect their bottom line.

These same farmers say they still embrace many organic practices and follow a sustainable approach to cultivating their land. On the North Fork, you’ll find many farmers whose operations aren’t certified organic who practice crop rotation and don’t use pesticides not approved for organic practice.

But are their offerings less safe than certified organic produce?

Many say that is not always the case.

“I just think people hear the word ‘organic’ and a lot of them think that it’s really sustainable farming at its finest. I think that’s what it used to mean, but the whole term organic has kind of gotten co-opted,” said Tom Hart of Deep Roots Farm in Southold. “On a larger scale, there are these giant farms out west that are thousands of acres of one crop that are using the term ‘organic,’ or grocery store milk that has these giant dairies that are certified organic.”

“They’re following the letter of the law, but they’re not following the whole belief system behind it,” Hart said, stressing that he is not referring to the North Fork’s organic farmers.

Hart and his wife, Brianne said they have yet to spray a pesticide on their fields and that they mainly use compost from the farm to fertilize their crops.  However, they use coffee grinds as a form of pest control, something that isn’t an approved organic practice.

“That’s one reason we couldn’t be certified,” Hart said. “It’s a lot of little stuff like that.”

A recent article in Consumer Reports states that, when available, organic food is always the preferred option.

Ken Jurow of Long Season Farms. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Ken Jurow of Long Season Farms. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

But Dr. Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University and the co-author of a 2014 meta study that found organic fruits and vegetables had higher antioxidant levels than conventionally grown produce, said patronizing a farmer you know could be a fair substitute.

“I would trust a small, local grower that I know personally, if he or she said that they follow NOP [National Organic Program] rules,” Dr. Benbrook said in an email. “I would ask a few questions to convince myself that the person has read the rules and is generally familiar with them.”

That doesn’t mean, however, you should take ever small farmer at their word, he said.

“It is not uncommon for produce vendors at loosely managed farmers markets and other open air markets to buy boxes of produce at the local Safeway, and then sell it as local-organic,” he said.

Ken Jurow of Long Season Farms in Aquebogue, which is non-certified organic, said seeking third-party verification is unnecessary for his operation because customers know what to expect from his crops — namely, that he doesn’t spray them and grows everything in organic soil.

“[Certification] is good because there is a standard that people can look at and go, ‘Oh it’s certified, the government had some hand in regulating it’ — and that’s all good,” Jurow said. “The downside is that there is a book this thick that lists the … organic compounds that certified organic people can spray. So it’s kind of a false sense of security.”

What he means is that certified organic produce isn’t pesticide-free. It just means the chemicals used are “naturally” derived.

As scientist and writer Christina Wilcox points out in several blogs written for Scientific American, the assumption is that naturally occurring pesticides are safe, though she says that isn’t always the case.

“Canadian scientist pitted ‘reduced-risk’ organic and synthetic pesticides against each other in controlling a problematic pest, the soybean aphid,” Wilcox wrote. “They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species like aphid’s.”

There are, however, many guarantees that come with the USDA organic seal, like knowing the crop is a non-GMO (genetically modified organism) that hasn’t been sprayed with prohibited synthetic pesticides and is typically grown from organic seeds.

“If they’re buying a certified organic product they know that there’s been third-party verification, that the product was produced in accordance with the USDA regulations,” said Jessica Terry, a senior certification specialist with NOFA-NY, a third-party certifier in New York.

In addition to a thorough review, NOFA-NY, which is the largest organic certifier in the state, inspects all of its members annually and conducts random spot inspections.

The application fee, however, is a bit pricey. For instance, a grower who expects to sell $15,000 worth of organic produce in their first year must pay $625 plus a one-time $75 initial set-up fee for the initial certification.

But there is a government cost share program that can absorb up to 75 percent of that cost and reimburse growers up to $750, Terry noted.

“It’s a great program which really makes organic certification accessible to smaller operations,” Terry said.

Interest in the NOFA-NY organic certification program has grown quickly, Terry said, and the organization now certifies 791 operations, 384 of which are vegetable/crop growers.

“So far this year we have gotten 118 new applicants, almost double that from any other year in the last decade,” she said. “As the organic brand is becoming more and more recognizable, the word spreads that organic certification through NOFA-NY is a great benefit for growers of all sizes.”

That process and the label that comes with it is important to many farmers, including Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve organic farm and market in Riverhead.

“We are proof that you can farm in a productive, commercially successful way without using toxic chemicals,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said in an email. “If this is the case — then why expose yourself, your family, your workers, your customers and the environments to these harmful chemicals? There is nothing good about them. They are not necessary.”

But for others, like Hal Goodale of Goodale Farms in Aquebogue, being transparent with customers about his practices replaces the need for government certification. He fertilizes with manure and avoids synthetic pesticides, though he will administer antibiotics to sick livestock.

“Honestly, for me, I feel like I jump through enough hoops with the USDA and [the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets] every month,” he said. “I’ve really seen the movement move toward people wanting to buy local and know where their food comes from. So for me, that’s fine.”

Jurow agreed.

“I have a small clientele. Most of the people who come in here, they know me,” he said. “That’s why you need certification in the supermarket, because you can’t talk to the grower. When you can talk to the guy who grew it, it’s a whole different thing.”