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Growing Organic USDA and the Labeling Dispute

Rima AustinI have recently become involved in local “politics,” for lack of a better term. Our small town of about 5,100 residents, Sparta, Tennessee, has its own farmers’ market. While local farmers have been selling their produce in town for a while, it has only been recently that we have acquired a pavilion in which all the growers can come under one roof to sell. Some residents have formed a group called “Discover Sparta” that focuses on making our town a better place to live and bring in more tourism. One of the things on the agenda is the upgrade and promotion of our farmers’ market.

Sparta Downtown

This is downtown Sparta; courtesy Sparta.com 

No organic sealIt has only been within the last two years, since living on my small farm, that I have been exposed to the culture of the market. I knew when I started growing produce that I would be raising it organically. I made an effort to buy my seeds from a reputable seed company and I kill pests the old Irish way, with my hands. When I took my produce to the market I wanted to be able to proudly say that my produce is organic, and naturally so, after all the work I put into it. You can understand then why I was a little bit heartbroken when, during a “Discover Sparta” meeting, it was mentioned that in order to make our market more legitimate we would no longer be able to label our produce organic without first being certified through the USDA.

Seal courtesy USDA Agriculture Marketing Service

My friend Margaret, who made the suggestion, was doing so with the best intentions, and I am on board with whatever we have to do to help our market expand so I did not dispute it. However, I did want to find out what it would take for me, and others who were interested as well, to be able to fly an “organic” sign at our booth. My suspicions that others were interested in more organic products being sold at the market were only confirmed when Margaret created a survey asking residents what they would like to see more of at the market.

She created the survey herself and through social media we were able to expose it to a sizable audience. The response was very pleasing. Of the 81 percent who said they would definitely shop at the market, some of them said they would only do so if they could find organically grown food. This answer was one of the top topics at the next meeting concerning the farmers’ market, and the subject came up that we would not be able to sell products at the market labeled “organic” without following strict USDA guidelines. So, like I mentioned in the beginning, I was on a quest to figure out what those were for small farmers and do whatever it takes for us to be able to do it.

my market table

I decided to call the USDA directly and got a very pleasant woman on the phone who was very eager to answer my questions. I explained to her who I was and that I was interested in labeling my products as organic at our local market, and I would like to start the process of doing whatever it took for me to be able to do that. She then went to a web page on the USDA site and asked me how much money I thought I make at the market each year. I told her that last year I probably made a few hundred dollars. She then said there is nothing more that I need to do because one of the guidelines state that if a farmer makes less than $5,000 in gross sales per year they are labeled as exempt from having to be certified and we can label our goods however we wished to label them.

Sparta Farmers' Market

She went on to say that we could not use the term “certified” organic, only using the term “organic” was acceptable. She also mentioned that even though we were exempt we still had to keep records of all transactions for the last three years. I did not understand why since nobody would be coming around checking them if we didn’t have to register with any entity but I didn’t argue because basically, that is good business practice anyway and I was ready to start making my signs.

So this year I will have my “organic” signs all ready to go and I will tell my fellow small farmers that they, too, are welcomed to join in on the organic labeling party. I do foresee some issues with this internally, such as how to self govern vendors who say they are organic and really are not, but I am willing to cross that bridge when we get there. Like everything else on this journey I am on, it’s a learning process.