Organic, biodynamic, humane, free-range, natural, sustainable-we’ve all heard these words applied to our food, but how many of us know what they mean? At the farmers market, we are lucky enough to be able to interact with the very people who have intimate knowledge of how our food is grown, but many people aren’t sure what questions to ask. Here is a brief primer to help you start those conversations with your favorite farmer, rancher, or producer:
Organic – Vendors who state they are ‘certified organic’ have gone through a rigorous process to ensure that their practices are in line with the requirements of one of several certifying agencies. Some major agencies include Oregon Tilth, the USDA, and Quality Assurance International. Certification requirements specify what chemicals, if any, can be used on or near food, and at what time in the growing process; methods to avoid cross-contamination; and in value-added products, what percentage of ingredients can be non-organic (e.g. salt, vinegar, etc.). Some producers will tell you that they use organic practices, which generally means that they follow the same or similar practices that certification would require, but have not gone through the certification process.
Biodynamic – Biodynamic agriculture is an holistic approach to organic farming in which the farm or ranch is conceived of as a biodiverse ecosystem. The biodynamic approach typically involves soil husbandry (the use of manure and compost instead of fertilizers or soil additives), livestock integration, and prohibition of GMO plants and foods, in addition to organic principles. Demeter International is the major certifying agency but many producers ascribe to biodynamic principles without the certification.
Humane – Standards for humanely-raised livestock cover the animals’ birth through slaughter. Humanely-raised animals will be treated in such a way as to minimize stress; will not be fed antibiotics or growth hormones; will not be crated or caged; and will have space and shelter designed to encourage their natural behaviors. Humanely-raised animals are not necessarily organic, and organic animals may not be raised humanely (though not at HFM!). Certification agencies for humanely-raised livestock include the Animal Welfare Institute, Certified Humane, and until recently Portland’s Food Alliance (though vendors may display their FA certification through the end of 2013).
Free-range – Free-range refers to the environment in which chickens are raised. According to the USDA, chickens and other poultry must be raised with ‘access to the outside’ in order to be labeled free-range. In many cases in larger operations, this may mean that the birds have access to the outside but never actually go outside, or that a door is opened for a limited time each day. Smaller producers, such as those you meet at HFM, are more likely to ensure that their chickens spend quality time outside. Pastured chickens require less feed because they are outside eating insects, often potentially harmful ones, and they help fertilize the soil with their manure.
Natural / Certified Naturally Grown – The term ‘natural’ on signage or food labels does not have a standardized definition. Certified Naturally Grown, however, means that the farmer or producer follows national organic standards but has chosen to certify with Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) instead of a major organic certifier, a process that can be expensive and time-consuming. CNG follows the USDA National Organic Program requirements, which include building soil health via crop rotation and avoiding the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers; additional CNG requirements include testing for heavy metal contamination in old orchards (planted prior to 1965). CNG offers a peer-reviewed certification that may be more appealing to small-scale farmers.
Sustainable – Sustainable agriculture strives to produce food and manage resources such as water and soil nutrients in a way that will maintain the health of the farm or ranch’s ecosystem over a long period of time. This may include combating soil erosion through no-till farming, utilizing renewable energy resources such as solar panels, or livestock integration. Until recently, Portland’s Food Alliance was a major certifier of sustainable agriculture but as of this year have ceased to operate. Protected Harvest is a California-based sustainable agriculture certifier.
Questions to ask your vendor
- What practices do you use to protect or improve soil, water, and/or air quality?
- Do you use any renewable energy sources on your farm/processing facility?
- Are your chickens pastured, or do they have access to an outdoor area from their shelter?
- How much of your animals’ diet is processed feed? Is the feed organic/vegetarian/non-GMO?
- Do you spray your fruit/berries? Are they sprayed before or after the fruit begins to grow?
- What conventional ingredients, if any, are in your organic value-added product?
- Why did you choose a CNG certification instead of organic?
The Hollywood Farmers Market does not endorse any of these growing and producing practices over and above any other! We believe that each of our vendors makes the fullest effort in good faith to positively contribute to the local food system.
Gabbi Haber has been a volunteer and board member at Hollywood Farmers Market for the past three years. On Saturdays June through March you can find her working Persephone Farm’s booth at the market. She also blogs about food and farms at More Than We Eat.