Burning Question: If My Customers Don’t Care, Should I Still Go Organic?

There may be more to going organic than just convincing people how you grow your food.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: ilovebutter/Flickr

At this year’s Organic Association of Kentucky (OAK) conference, a question was posed to a group of prominent organic farmers: If my customers don’t care, why certify organic?

It turns out I wasn’t the only who had been weighing this question. We asked our customers if the USDA Certified Organic label was important to them, and they said they don’t really care. They know us and know we would never use chemicals, but I still wanted to see if there were benefits beyond the label that I may be overlooking.

Some of the answers these four farmers on the conference panel gave were straightforward and economical. For instance, with an increasing number of stores refusing to buy produce that isn’t certified, Wisconsin farmer Jim Munsch said, “You are cutting off a wholesale channel of sales for vegetable farming if you don’t go Certified Organic.” Put another way, it’s hard to grow a farm business without some wholesale outlets—a fair, though not entirely game-changing, point.

But these farmers were just warming up.

Munsch also went on to describe an increasing amount of medical facilities throughout the country, who will give a rebate to CSA customers on their health insurance costs if the client is a member of a Certified Organic CSA. Getting discounts on health costs for being a member of a certified CSA could be a profound incentive for your customers to support your farm, but also for you as a farmer to offer that to your customers.

Daniel Pike, owner of Pike Valley Farm, Kentucky’s largest Certified Organic pastured-chicken farm, suggested that in the beginning, certification may not matter.

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“If you’re small enough to know every single customer you have on a first name basis, you can have a conversation with everyone explaining ‘we do it like this,’” he said. “But when you are growing, you don’t know what conversations you’re missing, because there will be people who look at your website who don’t see Certified Organic, and they never call you, they never contact you, you never talk to them.”

As someone who does sometimes struggle to fill my CSA and who wants to feed more people, these words still ring in my ears several days later. What conversations have I never gotten to have?

These farmers also spoke about the importance of going organic for how extensive of an action it is. When you certify, you are required to use certified seeds and inputs that come from farms who are themselves following the same regulations. To be a general small farmer—even if you claim to be natural—doesn’t require you to buy only organic seeds, and it may mean you don’t buy them from time to time because they are more expensive or just harder to find. But you don’t really have that option in organic certification. It keeps you honest. It forces you to support your fellow organic farmer. And I like that.

It’s hard to make sure all of your seed is organically grown. You can’t then turn around and easily charge the same premium for your food as another farmer with the Certified Organic label. So, believe me, you will cut a corner here or there—on cover crop, on radish seed you don’t want to order from another company, et cetera. It happens. But it won’t happen in organic certification. It can’t.

Therefore, to answer that question, “Why do it if you customers don’t care?” I came to learn that maybe they do care, but they just don’t know it yet. They would care if they knew it could benefit them—say, in the case of health insurance. They would care if they could know they were also, in supporting you, supporting thousands of other farmers. And I think they would care because there would no longer be any doubt—no matter how minute it may be—between you and them that your food is grown organically.

So as I fill out this hefty certification application, I feel not only proud to tell our customers we’ve decided to go organic, but downright excited to—for them, ourselves, and everyone else it benefits.

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