In touch with the Earth: there's more than marketing behind 'organic' labels - Salish Current
December 20, 2023
In touch with the Earth: there’s more than marketing behind ‘organic’ labels
Adam M. Sowards

Botanical and biological matchmaking at work: Eldur Heron Farm’s Nate Minor points out a patch in his plot at Viva Farms in Skagit County that has been intercropped with cabbages, marigolds and fava beans for nutrient and pest synergies. Farmers trying alternative techniques are also looking at alternative labeling for Earth-friendly practices. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current photo © 2023)

December 20, 2023
In touch with the Earth: there’s more than marketing behind ‘organic’ labels
Adam M. Sowards

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Since the 1940s, farmers who aspired to go beyond conventional agricultural practices for the sake of health and environment have flocked to the word “organic.”

“Organic produce is the medicine that can heal you,” said Skagit seed farmer Nate Minor of Eldur Heron Farm, describing how this original spirit continues. 

Over the last two generations, “organic” moved from niche health food stores and early-days funky cooperatives to becoming visible in nearly every aisle at the local Haggen. Lately, alternative labels, such as Salmon-Safe and Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), have attracted a subset of local farmers who have found in them better expressions of their values and practices. Such alternatives have also helped cultivate a sense of community.

Differing labels and practices must be recognizable and meaningful to benefit farmers and consumers alike.

Diane Szukovathy’s Jello Mold Farm sits along the Skagit River west of Mount Vernon. Only a two-lane road and dike separate the farm from the river, so farming practices that affect water quality are critical. Jello Mold Farm has been certified Salmon-Safe since 2010. Being able to market her floral products as Salmon-Safe is a benefit, but for Szukovathy, the Salmon-Safe label is more about being able to show “we’re doing the right thing.”

Szukovathy sells to the wholesale floral market, and although it was possible to obtain a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic label for floral products, that did not fit her needs. But presenting Jello Mold Farm’s environmental ethics and practices did matter. “This is something we really care about,” Szukovathy said — she wanted to convey that this level of stewardship is possible to others in her industry as much as to her customers.

Values signals

Agricultural certifications and labels signal to consumers and the public a farmer’s values and practices, according to Kate Smith, a research associate at Washington State University’s Skagit County Extension who focuses on sustainable agriculture education programs.

Skagit Extension offers a three-part Cultivating Success course for those interested in exploring small-farming options. “Certifications and labeling come up in our course when farmers want to think about how to communicate their values and practices,” said Smith.

Conventionally grown agricultural products do not carry labels, but alternatives are a way to distinguish themselves in the market. 

The National Organic Program (NOP) grew out of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and regulates the USDA Organic seal that is emblazoned on everything from fresh salad mixes and grass-fed beef to graham crackers and tortilla chips.

Certification by third parties can be expensive, although cost-share programs are available to help. The national standards that define organic practices are complicated. The biggest assurance labeling provides is about what is not part of the process:  almost no synthetic chemicals are allowed as part of organic production. 

Rewards for going further

That standard may be too limited for what some farmers want. 

Salmon-Safe certification is “more of a watershed impact certification,” said David Burger. “You could have an organic farm that has cows in the river. You could have an organic farm that’s not irrigating efficiently.” Salmon-Safe follows stricter water and habitat standards.

Burger is the executive director of Stewardship Partners, which has engaged communities with sustainable practices around Puget Sound since 1999. Burger has been working on agricultural restoration projects since 2000 in the Snoqualmie Valley.  When he started, a handful of farms there were developing buffers, removing invasive species and reversing streambank erosion to improve salmon habitat. Stewardship Partners, said Burger, looked for “ways to reward those farmers for engaging in salmon habitat restoration practices.” It found and partnered with Salmon-Safe, an ecolabel out of Portland.

What started with four farms in 2004 has grown into a statewide Salmon-Safe certification program that covers vegetables, dairy, meats and alcohol, and includes a dozen or so operations in northwest Washington. Consumers who know what the label signifies know that the items they purchase have been cultivated with particular attention to how the farms sit within and affect a watershed.

Not all alternative certifications are as focused as Salmon-Safe, which costs $600 for a three-year certification. But they all serve a constituency in ways that USDA Organic misses. 

In 2002, about the same time as the NOP launched, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) started in the mid-Hudson River Valley of New York, including to the Pacific Northwest. According to CNG’s executive director Alice Varon, some farmers wanted an alternative to the USDA national standards because some distrusted a government program and found the costs and paperwork associated with certification excessive. Minor’s Eldur Heron Farm is part of CNG, which costs $250 per year.

CNG follows NOP standards generally but can be more flexible. That flexibility is appealing, and the network of CNG farmers has grown to create a supportive educational resource.

Joanna Kenyon (at left) and Melissa Correia of Tangled Thicket Farm plant garlic, following methods approved as Certified Naturally Grown. In the background, hoop houses provide a means to extend the growing season for some crops. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current photo © 2023)

CNG farms must renew their certification annually, but unlike USDA Organic and Salmon-Safe that rely on third parties, CNG depends on peer farmers and share all inspections publicly. CNG producers go through what Varon characterized as a robust training program so that they are prepared to inspect other farms. The results include not only a CNG marketing label but also education and connection in like-minded communities. Varon touted the benefits of gaining “access to a robust network of farmers who are all committed to high standards for ecological food production.”

Always learning

Local farmers affirm this benefit and appreciate how the peer inspection process requires not only transparency but self-reflection and continuous education.

“This was a junkyard,” laughed Joanna Kenyon, co-owner of Tangled Thicket Farm, which sits on the southern edge of Mount Vernon and is certified through CNG. Kenyon points to a small area pinched between a row of evergreen trees, a yurt and a large hoop house.  She and her partner and co-owner Melissa Correia are transforming it using hügelkultur, a technique that starts with buried wood — the size of stumps and even logs — and adds other debris and compost on it. The wood breaks down and the mounds transform what might otherwise be wasted materials into good soil. 

“Research kind of indicates that long-term it does better in moisture retention and in heat,” said Kenyon, “so it tends to be warmer soil that can be planted a little earlier.”

They grew squash on it this year. 

Kenyon and Correia have been farming this nearly 15-acre plot for five years. They lease out about 40% of it for hay, work about 20% of it mostly in vegetables and aim to reclaim the rest in time. “We’re trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Correia said, “to see what we like, to see what grows foods and herbs and other useful plants.” This sort of experimentation is common and necessary on small farms, and statewide, 41% of organic farms produce less than $100,000 in sales which gives a sense of the scale of these operations.

“We’re looking for something that’s more holistically in tune with the Earth,” said Kenyon. CNG suits them, and the community they have found through it has helped them become better farmers.

“We learned so much from that, just talking to someone who’s been doing it longer,” said Correia referring to the peer review of their farm. And Kenyon and Correia learned a lot when they inspected Minor’s farm one year. 

‘Working with the Earth’

The intent of these ecolabels honors the reason farmers are doing organic practices in the first place, Kenyon said. “Working with the Earth is more important than, say, getting the stamp of approval for market reasons.” 

Minor sees no reason to choose between certifications. Although he sells his seeds with the CNG label, he hopes to break into the wholesale market in the next couple years, and that will require USDA Organic certification. When Eldur Heron Farm receives USDA Organic certification, Minor said he would keep CNG to support the organization.

“Continuing to support CNG keeps it around as an organization and keeps it viable for other small businesses to get a small foothold, because that’s really what it’s about,” said Minor. He likened it to a ladder: “Sometimes if the rungs in the ladder are too far apart, you just can’t even climb at that moment. This is just like an extra rung that helps you get up to that next level if you want to.” Supporting alternative agriculture through strong communities is a deliberate byproduct of this work.

Certifications and labels are not just about farmers but about consumers, too. “It gives more of a sense of place, I think, to the buyer,” said Burger about Salmon-Safe certifications. Consumers can see the label and know that the farm has made deliberate choices about how to grow things with the Earth in mind. 

— By Adam M. Sowards

Read more from Salish Current on agriculture in Skagit, San Juan and Whatcom counties:

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