Organic Certification: Worth it or Not?

Organic Certification: Worth it or Not?

Some believe it is the only way to go, while others maintain it's not worth the time and money. Becoming an organic food producer has sparked controversy in its own right.

This month, the TCBN takes a look at organic certification among local farmers and food producers – touring the largest natural foods market in the region – to examine why some pursue certification, others just grow organic and others say the practice isn't a good fit.

Timothy Young, Food for Thought

"The company was founded on the premise of supporting organic agriculture and continues with that premise to this day," said Timothy Young, founder of Food For Thought in Honor. "We are strong advocates of organic."

Not everything the food manufacturer produces is organic, however.

"We do a lot of private label food that isn't," Young said.

Both Food For Thought's farm and the production facility have been certified since 1996 – in fact, the farmland was certified for three years before anything was even grown on it.

What about those arguments that the recordkeeping is overwhelming and the process cost prohibitive, especially for a business just starting out?

"I dispute those arguments on some level," Young said. "People who say it's too much work … in the end never really wanted to do it in the first place. It's a myth that organic is this huge hurdle."

Young doesn't dispute, however, that running a certified organic operation does require considerable paperwork and planning but said that is also true of most well-run, successful businesses.

"It makes for a better business, so I'm a little bit defensive of organic in that sense," he said.

But what about the cost? Young said because he is philosophically aligned with the organic approach, cost wasn't a factor.

"Today, there are people [getting certified] only because of the market opportunity, they are not philosophically aligned with it," he said. "Those criticisms are fairly hollow."

Yet if a farmer or food producer is doing it strictly for the marketing opportunity, "the market has proven that over time there is a return on investment for the extra time and money you put into it," Young said.

Jeff Hughes, Brownwood Farms

Jeff Hughes looked into organic certification for his specialty food business on the Old Mission Peninsula and the answer was clear: It was not the right fit.

In his mind, organic connotes local farms producing a freshly grown product free of chemicals.

"I fully support and believe in it," he said.

But as a food producer – a process that means adding sugar and other ingredients for more complex flavors – he argues that "organic" doesn't make quite as much sense.

"I'm not against it, but I think it just makes much more sense with a peach, an apple, lettuce or corn," Hughes said. "Organic certification works for some people but it's not what we are, at least not right now."

So when?

"It might make sense to have a second kitchen that is organic," said Hughes, whose company does a lot of private label or co-packing for others. "Right now we can't help [those potential customers] but that doesn't mean we shouldn't consider it."

What did come out of Brownwood testing the organic certification waters, however, was "evaluating the best processes and products for us without going down the organic route," Hughes said. (See "Non-GMO")

Reid Johnston: Second Spring Farm

Reid Johnston's farm in Cedar, Second Spring Farm, is fresh off the organic certification wagon.

Johnston grew up downstate and started farming after high school. He moved north and worked on farms in Benzie County before moving to Leelanau County and starting his own venture. This season will be Second Spring's sixth.

He grows more than four acres of vegetables and does a significant amount of wholesale via Oryana and area restaurants, also selling at area farmers markets.

Why certification, and why now?

"It's definitely my philosophy," said Johnston. "I've worked on certified organic farms in the past and have grown organically since I started farming."

But he previously rented land for the growing season and it wasn't feasible.

"Now I have a long-term lease and I'm in a better place to make the financial investment," he said.

His annual fee to get and maintain the certification is approximately $1,000.

"Sometimes growers make it seem more cost-prohibitive than it is," he said.

The application process, however, was no easy feat.

"I was surprised when I got into the meat of the application how intense it was … all the things you need to document [including what the adjacent hay farmer was using on his crop]," he said. "But the process and the record-keeping makes me a better grower."

But the pricey process will affect his own pricing structure.

"They will go up," he said.

According to Johnston, being eligible for the organic price structure at Oryana will cover the cost of certification. With his other accounts, he will be able to justify higher prices and also be able to attract new customers who only buy organic.

Another chief reason: the marketing value.

"My message used to be complicated – not certified organic, but I grow organic," he said.

Not anymore.

"Being able to use the 'word' simplifies the whole message," he said.

Eldon Horner, Oryana Natural Foods Market

Oryana was the first cooperative in the country to become a certified organic retailer in 2002 after the National Organic Standards went into effect (see "411").

The Traverse City store follows the Global Organic Alliance certification body and goes through the annual renewal and inspection process at a cost of approximately $800.

"That means we're certified to properly handle and process organic items," said store manager Eldon Horner. "It doesn't mean every item we sell is organic."

However, its produce department – with the exception of some local, non-organic items in the summer – is 100 percent organic. That means each banana has a paper trail that leads all the way back to the organic certified farm it sprouted on.

And even with those select local non-organic items, most farmers are following the organic standards but are just too small for certification to make practical financial sense or growing something like wild berries.

"We don't insist on it from our farmers but Oryana does have its own set of standards," Horner said.

As a certified organic retailer, Oryana is required to have a system in place that ensures items not protected by packaging don't come into any contact with non-organic items so as to avoid all risk of cross-contamination. This process starts from the moment it arrives at the store's back door to storage and finally to the shelf.

Beyond produce, the rest of the store is 75 percent organic, with beer/wine and beauty falling within that number. Oryana's certified organic tofu is made in its own certified organic kitchen. Even though the regular kitchen uses organic ingredients whenever possible, to be completely organic would require a paper trail for every single ingredient.

"We would have to build a shed for the paperwork," said Horner.

Kitchen aside, a lot of hours and effort is dedicated to the organic process.

Is it worth it? Absolutely, Horner said.

"It's the added integrity it gives to our store," said Horner. "In this region in particular there is a lot of focus on food safety and purity. Organic certification gives people that security."

The 411 on Organic Certification

The National Organic Standards fall under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and have been in place since 2002 – prior to that the certification process varied state by state.

According to the USDA, organic is "a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used."

Organic certification's third-party auditing process is what makes the standards so strong compared to other health claims on food, said Timothy Young of Food For Thought in Honor. Even though he was initially leery when the organic certification process came under USDA administration, "the certification has not weakened," said Young.

Slide Over Organic, Hello Non-GMO

Increasingly, non-genetically modified organisms (GMO) products are seeing demand in the marketplace and producers and retailers are responding.

"Our goal it to rid the store of GMOs entirely," said Oryana's Eldon Horner. "That will be difficult; there are products that have been on health food store shelves since the beginning of time that won't meet requirements."

Brownwood Farms' Jeff Hughes said non-GMO is actually a much bigger issue for him than organic.

"We are non-GMO [as of a couple of years ago] and also gluten-free," he said.

He expects to be certified for both by the end of the year.

"Gluten-free is pretty easy for us with our products, but being non-GMO eliminates all Michigan sugar … which stinks," said Hughes, whose company's product line is mostly condiment-based.