Shopping at the farmers’ market, particularly walking down the crowded parallel aisles of the 80 vendor Columbia Farmers Market can be overwhelming to new customers. Fruit and vegetable producers have signs saying “Organic,” “Chemical-Free,” or “Pesticide-Free” but what do these claims really mean?
Over the past month, one of the Columbia Farmers Market (CFM) employees Laurel Goodman visited six Columbia Middle Schools to present to 8th grade students about the benefits of eating and shopping for local food. At one school after another when asked “What are the benefits of shopping at a farmers’ market?”, students responded “All the food is organic!”
New customers to the farmers’ market often make the same claim. Although there are all organic farmers’ markets, the majority of farmers’ markets are inclusive of all growing practices. At the producer-only Columbia Farmers Market, vendors sell produce that is conventional, chemical or pesticide-free, and certified organic.
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Services runs the National Organic Program (NOP) which defines organic as “…food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity” (NOP, 2015).
The NOP is also responsible for accrediting organic certifiers throughout the country. Columbia Farmers Market producers Happy Hollow Farm, Share-Life Farms, and The Salad Garden have gone through the process of becoming certified organic farms. This certification allows them to market and sell their products using the regulated term “Certified Organic.”
Liz Graznak, owner and founder of Happy Hollow Farm was introduced to organic growing practices while she was in graduate school. She enrolled in an organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share and fell in love with the idea of the community investing to support a farm and a farmer. This experience made her want to be a farmer. When asked why it is important for her to be a certified organic farmer, she remarked “If I’m going to be a farmer, I’m going to farm the way I want to support an environment on my farm.”
Other local producers such as With the Wild Farm and Honey Creek Farm grow their products using chemical-free (sometimes called pesticide-free) practices. “Chemical-free” is a non-regulated and non-standardized term that is used by producers who are growing products using practices that have not gone through the rigorous record keeping and steps necessary to become certified organic. When asked about organic certification and plans to become certified Dan Pugh of Honey Creek Farm commented that although he believes in and grows guided by organic standards, the amount of paperwork necessary to track all inputs (feed, compost, manure, etc.) on his farm to obtain and maintain organic certification is too time intensive for his operation. He also mentioned the monetary investment to become certified organic as burdensome for his small family-run operation.
Products sold at the farmers’ market differ greatly in growing practices. When shopping at a farmers’ market, ask questions and develop relationships with vendors to learn about their production practices. Although different terminology such as “Certified Organic” and “Chemical-Free” can be challenging to decipher at first, the best explanation of how food is grown comes directly from your farmer. Farmers are happy to tell you about what they do, and why they do it to help you understand where your food comes from and why they grow it how they do.
For more information about the Columbia Farmers Market, any of the farms discussed, or the farm to table movement in mid-Missouri, please visit columbiafarmersmarket.org or call 573-823-6889.