Alex Hitt Elise Margoles Harvey Harman Nena Woody Stanely Steve Moize

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Local Farmers, The National Organics Program, and Sustainability

"There's too many incongruities in the [organic certification system] that just don't make sense," says Alamance county farmer Alex Hitt. He and his wife Betsy have been farming locally for over 20 years. Although they were certified for several years, they found that the hassles involved in certification far outweighed any benefits it provided them. "We're really practical humans and if it doesn't make practical sense to us then we're not going to do it...I had always said that [the organic standard] needed to be 'environmentally sound or not', not 'synthetic and not-synthetic'. That's the dividing line now, you can't use synthetic materials in organic production. Well, there's a lot of things in organics that are not very environmentally sound, but are approved. And there are a lot of synthetics that are really environmentally sound stuff, but would never be [permitted] in certification."

The relevance of the label is dependent on how farmers choose to market and sell their products. The Hitts, who now sell 85% of their goods at the Carrboro Farmers' Market, found that using the "organic" label didn't make sense for them economically: they received the same price for their products with or without being certified. Explains Alex, "If you're not in the wholesale market, there's no reason to be certified. Our certifiers are our customers across the table that we talk to every week, and they come out to the farm on farm tour, and we talk to them about how we grow stuff and what we do, and they're satisfied that they're getting really good quality stuff. We have a relationship with them." Likewise for local farmer Elise Margoles, who runs a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program off her Cedar Grove farm. Explains Elise, "the way I'm trying to market my food allows me to directly speak to my customers about what the methods are that I'm using...I can communicate how I grow to people instead of needing [the word organic]."

Although Elise recognizes the value of certification in certain situations, she says there are several reasons why she is choosing not to certify organic. "I think that the cost is just really out of's kind of unfortunate that you have to pay to call yourself organic, have to pay for that word." The cost for certification can run up to $1000, which some farmers say is a lot to pay for something that doesn't directly benefit them.

Then there is the issue of the NOP's strict requirements for nearly every aspect of farm management. Says Elise, "especially with the new federal standards, a lot of the record-keeping, a lot of the things about the way that I would have to run my farm seem overly tasking and tedious to me." Alex agrees, pointing out that running a farm is complicated enough without having to comply with extensive NOP regulations. "I just don't wanna have to go through this third-party thing of...filling out however many pages, and having an inspection - it just seems yet another extraneous thing." Some local farmers resent the level of regulation the NOP represents, concedes Kleese: "I think there's a common mentality among farmers, and especially among organic farmers, of sort-of anti-establishment and anti-bureaucracy, and to have the USDA holding a hammer over their heads feels really bad to them."

Local farmer Steve Moize is an outspoken critic of the NOP, for reasons of his own. "Big business industrial agriculture threw a whole lot of lobbying money at the Congress and the USDA and the Secretary of Agriculture and that kind of thing, and got a lot of rules written in a fashion that, all be it they were organic, they were now logistically or bureaucratically or financially cost-prohibitive for small farmers." He sees the NOP as leading organics in the wrong direction, down the same road as industrial agriculture and away from the small farms that built the organic movement. Moize also questions the accountability of large companies like Dole, who stand to benefit economically from large-scale production of organic goods now that there is a nationally-recognized label. "Here we're talking about large multi-billion dollar companies that are growing GMO crops, conventional crops, "organic" crops. Was the land really transitioned? Was it mixed with another crop? Is it really half-and-half?...Did you really mechanically cultivate or did you use herbicides? I don't know - nobody was there to check."

Then there are those who support the NOP and the strength of "organic" as a hard-won agricultural movement and marketing label. According to Marty Mesh, Executive Director of Quality Certification Services, a Florida-based certifying agency, "[The NOP] makes the farmer 'walk the walk' that he or she has been talking for years. You know, I started farming organically in 1976, and back then we would have been very happy if we had dreamed in 25 years that thousands and thousands of conventionally, chemically-intensive acres in production would be transitioned and farmed organically."


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