More and more people seem to think so: One-quarter of all Americans now eat fresh organic produce at least once a week, according to the Hartman Group, a consumer research firm — and the market continues to grow by 20% a year.
For many consumers, the "organic" label is a passport to a place where safer food, better flavor and a healthier environment all intersect. By buying from farms that have been certified organic, they imagine that they're getting the best-tasting produce while helping the environment, supporting small producers and safeguarding their health.
But it's not as simple as that. Some of the farmers most respected by chefs for the quality of their produce are eschewing organic farming. At the same time, mainstream supermarkets overflow with organic fruits and vegetables from huge agribusiness conglomerates. And the jury is still out on whether organic produce is healthier or tastier, although some studies point in that direction.
So what does organic really mean? Government standards are arbitrary and incomplete, critics say, and, ironically, the standards support big producers over smaller ones. And higher prices charged for certified organic produce don't guarantee that you're getting better food.
Nationwide, organic farming standards are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA rules are administered through non-governmental agencies — certifiers — who do annual inspections and charge a fee for the process.
The cost of certification is surprisingly modest. California Certified Organic Farmers, or CCOF, the largest of California's 11 certifiers, charges fees on a sliding scale, and other certifiers are competitive. The real hurdle for farmers, after they complete a three-year "transitional" period during which they must farm organically, but aren't allowed to label their produce "organic," is the paperwork.
"It's amazing how much paperwork we have to do. We have to keep track of everything," says administrative director Matthew Logan of Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara, a chefs' favorite (they sell at the Wednesday Santa Monica, several Santa Barbara and the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers markets). Logan says Fairview's paperwork quadrupled when it started certifying under the USDA's National Organic Program, or NOP, which was instituted in 2002.
Santa Monica farmers markets manager Laura Avery estimates that as many as 100 farmers at her markets who are not certified do not spray pesticides. For the most part, these farmers say that they have not sought organic certification because they have no problem selling their produce without going through that hassle.
Even if they don't seek certification, many of California's smaller conventional farms employ a variety of organic practices, such as cover cropping and composting. And not every conscientious farmer agrees that all pesticide use is a bad idea.
Fitz Kelly, well known for the superb stone fruit he grows on 35 acres in Reedley (Fitzgerald's Premium Ripe Tree Fruit is at the Wednesday Santa Monica and the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers markets in season), says that judicious use of synthetic pesticides means he can spray less than organic farmers, who have to rely on a small list of approved substances. And that, along with other careful farming practices, makes his farm environmentally friendly.
"We've even had damage to the fruit from ladybugs, we have so many of them," he says.
Demand for certified organic produce remains strong, and market managers all over the state confirm the statistics showing growth in sales. But some market managers think consumers are fixating too much on the label, at the expense of small farmers who haven't certified. "As soon as you get a label for something, people get stupid about it," Avery complained about the USDA regulations. "They stop educating themselves."
Of course, without certification, you have to take the farmer's word for it. Hand-lettered signs reading "no pesticides" are almost as common as "certified organic" signs in some markets. Certified farmers are understandably suspicious of their competitors' claims.
"When they walk into a farmers market, consumers assume all kinds of things," says Warren Weber, who founded Star Route Farms in Bolinas, California's oldest certified farm, in 1974, and sells at the Ferry Plaza and Marin County farmers markets. "It's kind of medieval, like going to a bazaar. You get the feeling that people say whatever to sell their product sometimes. And that's unfortunate."
Organic goes big time
Farmers markets are no longer the only places where you'll find large selections of organic produce and products. Mainstream supermarkets are plentifully stocked with organic products from publicly traded behemoths such as Dean Foods and General Mills.
Once seen as the province of wild-eyed hippies and dedicated idealists, organic farming was domesticated in 2002 when the USDA began setting the standards through the National Organic Program. With predictable rules and regulations, organic farming was suddenly safe for big business.
But some organic activists have questioned whether the big boys are really delivering the organic goods. Several news organizations reported in February that a Wisconsin nonprofit, the Cornucopia Institute, complained to the USDA that three certified organic dairies selling milk to Horizon Organic were actually factory farms that violated NOP rules.