Burning Question: But Seriously, Are You Organic?

Business-savvy farmers might be misleading customers about how chemical-free their products actually are.

by Jesse Frost

Sometimes farmers allude that they farm chemical-free when they really don't.
Jeff Kraus/Flickr

Editor’s Note: “Burning Questions” takes an in-depth look at the hot-button issues facing today’s farmers. The ideas expressed here are not the opinions of Hobby Farms, but of individual farmers and food advocates rooted in the local-food movement. If you have thoughts or opinions about what is expressed here, please contribute them in the comments below. We want to hear from you, too!

Earlier this summer I was selling veggies at the farmers market when I overheard a customer ask another vendor if her blueberries were organic. Politely, the vendor responded, “Well, we’re not certified…,” cleverly allowing the sentence to trail off incomplete.

This wasn’t technically a lie. This vendor was not certified. But the unfinished part of the sentence the customer didn’t get to hear was “Well, we’re not certified, but there is also no way we could be.” This particular farm was conventional—meaning they used chemicals—but the vendor’s response implied that although they weren’t certified, they never used chemicals. So I watched as the customer, satisfied with that answer, bought a pint of blueberries assuming they were naturally grown.

This is simply the world we’re living in now. Sure, some conventional farmers are switching over to organic practices, but others are just adjusting to the times. In a recent survey, 23 percent of people believed locally grown produce meant it was organic, and conventional farmers—whether they’ve read the survey or not—know this. These farmers know that setting up at farmers markets and labeling themselves as homegrown, local, natural or “not certified,” will help the customer to assume she is getting a chemical-free product. It’s business, and I get that, but it’s misleading and the customer isn’t be getting a fair shake.

However, no conventional farm is going to change this on a notion of ethics. Conventional farms are not going to start advertising their practices openly because if they did, they know their sales would plummet. They will continue to adapt to customer’s inquiries and continue to keep the customer coming back. It is the customer then whose responsibility it is to see through the smoke and mirrors if they so want.

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Because I’ve noticed—and I’m sure conventional farmers have noticed—that customers don’t always try that hard. They might hear something that takes some of their doubt away, then not feel compelled to press further. But I cannot emphasize this enough: If food without chemicals is your goal, then it is on you to ask more questions, hard as they may be, like, “Oh, you’re not certified, but do you use chemicals?”

And even then, the farmer may say something like, “Only if we’re going to lose a crop.”

But do not slow down. I hear this “only if we’re going to lose a crop” response a lot, and it always bothers me. It bothers me because it’s avoiding the question, and it bothers me because personally, on our farm and on any truly natural farm, the farmer wouldn’t spray if they going to lose the house, let alone one crop. If you’re intentions are to keep chemicals out of your food, be persistent. Ask the farmer again, “So did this product right here receive any sort of chemical treatment—fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide or otherwise?”

The vendor will not likely lie when pressed enough. These farmers are not ill-intended—they’re just savvy businesspeople trying to make a living. And many farmers I’ve run into even see chemicals as completely innocuous. Having grown up using them, some view chemicals like a tool—just another part of farming. So when people ask if chemicals were used, they may find the question silly, like “Was a tractor used to dig these potatoes?” And so they are not going to freely admit to using chemicals because they don’t want to lose the sale, and maybe because they don’t think it’s necessary.

Of course, it is necessary. Residues from the types of chemicals used on food are not only environmentally hazardous, but also linked to just about every known cancer, from brain to bladder. And if you want to avoid that, you have to be diligent.

I hate that the onus is on the customer now. It seems absurd—if I may truly editorialize for a moment—that those of us who do not treat our land or our products are the ones who have to certify them. It seems absurd that conventional farmers aren’t required to put in bold “We Use Chemicals” on their products. But that’s the way it is for the moment. So like a pest evolves to be resistant to pesticides, so too must the customer.

And many have. Not too long after the story I started this piece with, a separate customer asked that same vendor the very same question, “Are these organic?” Sensing something was amiss in the “Well, we’re not certified” answer, the customer pressed further and eventually got the vendor to concede. Then, having satisfied her suspicions, the customer walked away. No blueberries in hand.


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