“Why aren’t you certified organic?”
If your grower says he or she grows organic produce but is avoiding organic certification because of the cost, take that excuse with a grain of salt. “I find that particular argument to be very frustrating,” says Franczyk. “The smallest growers are exempt from certification under the National Organic Program.” Beyond that, growers who gross between $5,001 and $20,000 a year generally only pay about $100 a year when all is said and done because the federally subsidized program refunds up to three-quarters of the cost. “That is pretty cheap for putting a trained third-party inspector on farm every year,” says Franczyk. Again, some farmers may be truly organic but opt out of the certification program. But you’ll want to ask more questions to be sure that they’re not talking the talk without walking the walk.
“Do you have any other certifications?”
You may also see other certifications at the farmers’ market. For instance, Certified Naturally Grown uses the National Organic Program as a starting point, but is not affiliated with USDA and does not require third-party certifying agents to inspect farms—nor is it equivalent to certified organic. Instead, other farmers in the program perform the inspections, and record keeping is not mandated, as it is in certified-organic programs. “It’s basically another set of eyes looking at the farm,” says Duesing.
According to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the third-party Food Alliance certification means that farmers agree to use fewer chemical pesticides (but they aren’t banned completely), promote fair and safe working conditions, nix the use of GMO crops and of hormones and antibiotics supplements in farm animals, and protect water resources while building soil fertility.
“Can I visit your farm?”
“I always tell consumers who are buying from local noncertified producers to ask the farmer about their production methods,” says Franczyk. “Farmers who have nothing to hide will be forthcoming about what they do. I also think it is great when farmers allow consumers to visit the farm to see what is going on.” If a farm is not certified by a third party, the only guarantee that you have that the farm is doing the right thing is to visit them. That’s first-party certification, Franczyk says.
Even if you don’t have time to visit the farm, it’s probably a good sign if your farmer is very open to the idea of having you stop by.
“Do you speak OMRI?”
OMRI stands for Organic Materials Review Institute, and products that bear the OMRI logo are authorized for use in organic production under the National Organic Standards program. Anyone farming truly organically—certified or not—should know what this means.
“How do you control weeds?”
Organic farmers use all sorts of methods to suppress weeds but generally aren’t fixated on a completely weed-free field, and with good reason. As long as soil quality is high, even a weedier field will produce the same yields as a chemical field, according to research done by the Rodale Institute, an organic research farm near Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Organic methods include using cover crops, mulching, cultivation, and if it’s a smaller operation, even hand-weeding.
“How do you control bugs?”
Biodiversity is a major part of organic farming. Farmers who install wildlife corridors and pollinator plantings, including meadows, will attract beneficial inspects into the field to prey on pests that like to eat crops. There are also organic-approved pest-control products on the market. If your farmer uses them, ask for the product name, and check to see if it’s on the OMRI list.