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Handling Organics

peach treeCertification for a Fruit Seller
By Miriam Wolf

Rebecca North, the national buying and quality assurance manager for The FruitGuys, spent more than five months and 350 staff-hours on getting organic certification for the fruit and produce distribution company’s four facilities. She describes the process as “grueling.”

The company’s South San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago, and, most recently, Philadelphia facilities are now all USDA certified to distribute organic products through the organic trade organization CCOF—California Certified Organic Farmers.

usda organic

To prepare for the certification, North created programs for each facility, including organic pest control programs (which meant intense discussions with pest control companies), collected proof of organic certification from all the vendors and farmers who work with The FruitGuys nationwide, and created many, many documents proving that FruitGuys is adhering to organic standards.

North feels the hard work was worth it. “It helped to streamline and systemize our already existing protocols around organization, quality control, and documentation.” And the work will continue. North estimates that between the four facilities, the company will spend 120 hours per year maintaining the certification.

Certification means The FruitGuys can display the “Certified Organic” seal on its cases. “[The National Organic Program] does require that growers meet rigorous standards and obtain visibility for that dedication. It gives consumers an identifiable seal that documents these convictions, and mandates that the government recognize organics as a growing method. Also, anything that is certified organic is not genetically modified, so it is an easy way for consumers to be sure what they’re purchasing has not been genetically modified in any way,” says North.

fruitguys truck cratesThe Irony of Certification…

The irony is that The FruitGuys has been selling organic fruit and vegetables from local farms and CSAs since its founding in San Francisco in 1998. Because of the company’s commitment to organics and sustainable farming, the buyers personally know the farmers and their methods. In fact, some of these farmers use practices that go well beyond the national organics standards but have chosen not to become certified (or let their certifications lapse) for a variety of practical and political reasons (read “The O Word” for more detail.) The sad irony is that The FruitGuys will no longer be able to include those farms’ products in its organic cases only in their conventional cases.

The decision to get certified was not an easy one for the company. Chris Mittelstaedt, The FruitGuys founder and CEO says that while the mainstreaming of the organics movement has helped standardize practices and grow the market, it has also squeezed some smaller farms out of the certified organics market. “Organics have forced conventional farmers to examine the ways that they are farming, and that is positive for everyone.”

fruitguys cratesBut Mittelstaedt is concerned that, while farming organically is an unalloyed good, the process of being organically certified might be creating barriers that harm small farmers. Small farmers are the real stewards of the land, he says, mostly living on their farms and therefore more closely tied to the land and with the potential to become engines of positive environmental change. “When you create regulations that add burden, the ones that have the easiest time adapting to that are the larger organizations.”

North points out that many farmers don’t have the labor, money, or time to create, implement, and maintain a certified organic program. They may continue to farm organically, but legally cannot sell their produce labeled as “organic.”

There is also a difference between truly sustainable beyond-organic farming and farming that simply adheres to the minimal national organic standards, North adds. “People will see the organic seal and they will think, ‘Great, this is what I want’ and they’ll just buy it and go.” But small certified organic farmers and small farmers who might be “beyond organic”—that is, not certified organic, but using no chemical inputs or other destructive farming techniques, need a way to promote that. It’s those farmers who are being hurt the most by not being able to use the word organic on their products.

Mittelstaedt says there is a concern about freedom of speech embedded in the issue as well. “It’s a very subtle First Amendment issue for me,” he says. “While I understand the technical need for a specific and regulated definition of organic, it is concerning that people who may be growing or distributing by these means but who are not certified, cannot use the word without, in essence, paying for it. That strikes me as a speech issue.

North added the most disheartening part of the certification process was “to see farmers who have been farming organically for decades, who grow phenomenal produce, eliminated from our [organic] purchasing program.”

All of which points up the need for consumers and farmers to create closer ties with each other. North believes that one of the ways farmers can set themselves apart without using the word organic is to encourage people to come to their farms. “It’s a really unique way of nourishing a direct relationship. Because you’re saying, let’s create our own community.”

Miriam Wolf is a Portland-based wellness coach and writer. She is editor of The FruitGuys Almanac.

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