Did you know, the three vegetable farms we work with are not certified USDA Organic? Does that mean they fall short of the standard for healthy, non-toxic, environmentally sustainable farming? Not at all! In fact, Whistlepig Farm, Black Fox Farm and North Eagle Farm are leading the way in high standards for no-till, chemical-free, organic cultivation.
Keep reading to learn more about their standards and find out why they have opted out of the USDA Organic certification program.
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What Types of Certifications Can Farms Get?
Organic certification programs provide farms with a way to communicate their standards for natural farming practices. Certifications require farms to undergo regular inspection and review. Farms who meet the standards are given rights to promote their products under the label of their certification.
For example, eggs in the grocery store with the USDA Organic label indicate that the farm is meeting USDA Organic standards. Similarly, the Certified Naturally Grown label on a bunch of carrots from Black Fox Farm indicates compliance with the program’s certification standards.
Certified Naturally Grown
The important thing to know is that Certified Naturally Grown farms cultivate pesticide and herbicide-free produce, as well as practice crop rotation and crop cover for the health of their soil.
Compared to the USDA Organic program, the Certified Naturally Grown program is an equally effective, yet financially more realistic option for many small farms. It is a peer-reviewed program for enforcing extensive organic farming standards. You can read the full list of Certified Naturally Grown produce standards here.
Under both the Certified Naturally Grown and USDA Organic programs, there are some exceptions to requirements about prohibited substances in situations where a farmer is unable to cultivate disease-free, marketable produce. Exceptions to the standards are managed and reviewed.
(If you think there should never be exceptions, you've probably never tried developing a financially viable organic farm! Just sayin'.)
Certified USDA Organic
It commonly costs around $1,000, repetitively, to participate in the USDA Organic certification application and approval process on a regular basis.
Vegetables, poultry, cattle – each agricultural sector has its own requirements for the USDA organic certification. You can view requirements for each sector as well as individual vegetables like cabbage and beets on the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website.
Here is a summary of USDA Organic production standards for crops:
- Land must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.
- Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
- Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances may be used.
- Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.
- The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.
Notice anything familiar about this list? It’s very similar to the one enforced by the Naturally Grown Certification program.
High Standards at Whistlepig Farm
Harvesting by hand at Black Fox Farm and Whistlepig Farm. Photo Credit: Rase Photography
Lyndsey Mulherin of Whistlepig Farm does not currently hold a USDA Organic certification, although she strongly adheres to organic growing standards. In her words, “As a grower who sells direct-to-consumer, I'm able to tell customers face-to-face how I grow. So pursuing certification hasn't been a priority so far.”
“That being said, I'm considering getting a Certified Naturally Grown certification. Black Fox Farm became CNG certified last year and I liked the program's peer-review model and the fact that it's tailored to small, direct-market farms rather than larger agricultural operations like the USDA Organic program.”
Lyndsey’s industry-leading organic farming practices include:
- No-till farming, a practice that avoids disturbing the soil with tillage. This improves soil structure, soil health, and the soil's ability to retain water making crops more resilient in hot, dry weather.
- Integrated pest management (IPM) practices which emphasize cultural, physical, and biological controls before chemical interventions. At Whistlepig Farm, there have been no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides used to date.
- Boycotting of fertilizers which contain byproducts from factory farming.
“Many organic fertilizers contain bone, blood, and feather meal among other animal byproducts so finding products without any of these can be challenging. However, I allow hens to rotationally graze my fields for natural fertility and pest management. I also rely a lot on compost, although we are working to reduce our compost needs through grazing chickens and cover cropping.”
Got questions about farming practices at Whistlepig Farm? The beauty of supporting your local farmer is you can ask her yourself! Contact Lyndsey via her FarmDeliver profile page or visit her at the Boise Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. You can even check out her farm personally at one of our community farm work days where you’ll get to experience firsthand the type of commitment and conviction it takes to be an organic farmer.
Striving for 100% Organic at North Eagle Farm
The Kirkpatricks practice 100% organic farming in Eagle, Idaho, where they cultivate all kinds of wonderful produce available at their North Eagle Farm FarmDeliver store.
To qualify as 100% organic, everything involved in producing a crop, especially any substance that comes into contact with a crop, must be pesticide-herbicide-fungicide free. That means all of the farm’s processes and entire ecosystem are natural and unadulterated.
Even though North Eagle Farm is not USDA Organic certified, it's important to note that the Kirkpatricks can almost completely ensure their produce is free from non-organic adulteration. According to farmer Allison, "We set this up to be our own little eco-system with synergies that all feed the next step in the cycle. I would say we’re what people consider organic due to our high standards – standards that aren’t even met by the USDA. ”
The North Eagle Farm property is about as purely organic as they come. The land has never, ever been sprayed. It is watered using clean well water rather than canal water that contains all sorts of chemicals.
The Kirkpatricks can ensure that even their compost fertilizer is fully organic because they make it on their own property using substances they can trace, including organic substances from their farm. For example, all the hay they feed their horses is organic. The horse manure, in turn, becomes compost. Only organic food scraps go in the compost pile.
Other examples of North Eagle Farm standards that meet and even exceed the USDA Organic standards include:
- Protecting animals from flies using natural fly control methods
- Using only bark from unsprayed trees in the perennial gardens
- Only using bunny and chicken manure from bunnies and chickens fed organic food grown at North Eagle Farm and supplemented with unadulterated feed
“In terms of certifications, we are not and will likely not get a USDA organic certification because the cost to do so is just not reasonable for a farm our size.
The USDA requires in my opinion, bare minimum standards so at this point it’s not something we're prioritizing. You can still use things like neem oil and canal water, products I would personally not use on my own food knowing what I know at this point.”
You might not see it on a label, but North Eagle Farm and Whistlepig Farm stand for excellence in organic farming. Like Allison says, "That’s why it’s so important to know your farmer!!"