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What it Means to Be Organic:

These days more and more people are interested in eating a healthy diet and frequently that includes eating foods that are certified organic. This trend has lead to questions as to what it actually means to be “certified organic.”

The Santa Monica Farmers Markets 2010 Quarterly Library Panel Series tried to answer some of these questions on Nov. 4 at the Santa Monica Main Library with a panel of Santa Monica Farmers Markets’ farmers and a chef who regularly uses organic ingredients.

Panel moderator Laura Avery who is also the Santa Monica Farmers Market Supervisor, opened the discussion by explaining organic farming became codified in 1973, when like minded farmers decided to form an organization to regulate their farming practices. This organization included having the farmers certify each other. By 1993, noted Avery, “organic foods marketing became the largest growing sector of the food industry,” and corporate agriculture wanted to get in on it. They pushed for national standards so the 2000 Farm Bill included national organic standards that were enacted in 2003. Those standards are still in place today. There are approximately 33,000 acres of organic farming in California today and about 700 farmers markets in the state.

In order for a farmer to say their products are organic, they must have a third party come to their farm to do an inspection, and in California, they must be registered annually with the county where their farm resides. Organic farming practices include not using pesticides, as well as strict guidelines when making compost.

Avery also mentioned that in order for a farmer’s booth to hang up a pennant at the Santa Monica Farmers Market indicating their products are certified organic, the farmer must fill out a growing practices form. They also must show their annual registration with the county where their farm is located. She admits the City does not “go out to the farm” to check on their growing practices. Currently, there are 18 booths certified organic at the Wednesday market and even more at the Saturday market.

Panelist Molly Gean from Harry’s Berries is not certified organic even though she uses organic practices to grow her berries. She explained that “there was no marketing value in being certified organic” for her business. We sell exclusively at farmers markets and “rely [instead] on reputation and personnel relationships with our customers.” She also mentioned that she has a small farm, about 40 acres, so the cost and paperwork was a consideration when deciding not to become certified.

Alex Weiser from the Weiser Family Farm noted that his farm used to be certified but they dropped out of being certified nine years ago. His medium-size farm does about 75 percent of their business through wholesale and 25 percent at farmers markets. He cited cost as the primary reason for no longer being certified, as well as the management nightmare of having to keep his organic crops separate from his non-organic crops. He also had difficulty getting organic seeds for some crops. He originally was certified because it was a good marketing tool.

The one panelist whose farm is currently certified was Chris Cadwell from the Tutti Frutti Farm. He stressed that his farm has always been certified and he thinks “the whole world should be organic.” However, he admits certification means “a lot of paperwork and expense.” For quality control he has to keep track of what field and what box each piece of produce on his farm comes from. He also pointed out that there is an emerging market in Europe for American organic products.

Chef and Owner of Grace and BLD restaurants, Neil Fraser, stated that his decision to use organic sources has to do with cost, but that he prefers to use local sources. He noted, “restaurant prices have not been going up at the same rate as food costs.” He finds himself asking, “What can I afford to pass on to the customer?”

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