Forget foreign cars and name brand jeans, today you’re more likely to be judged by what’s on your dinner table than where you bought your pants. Is that steak local, grass-fed, animal welfare approved? Did you pair it with a side of local, organic, heirloom potatoes? While the string of labels becomes its own parody, it’s indicative of our life in the information age. Transparency is a valuable trait that consumers are beginning to expect from companies, especially when it comes to food producers. But in the race to lead the most socially, politically, and environmentally correct life, how do people ensure they’re making the right choice?
The real challenge comes when determining which certification is the “best” and finding measurable data to back it up. At the top of the debate is local versus organic. Which is better? What is more important? How are they different and how are they similar? These are the types of questions that can paralyze a shopper in the grocery store. Adding to this challenging endeavor is the reality that a lot of this is subjective. Everyone has their own set of values as well as financial and logistical constraints. What is the right choice for you and what you are able to source where you live?
Although the organic foods movement began in the 1970s, the official National Organic Program was launched in 2002. Organic Certification is a process by which a food business must pass a third party inspection to verify that they have met organic standards, utilized specific production practices, and are not using prohibited substances. In South Carolina, Clemson University’s Public Service and Agriculture department is the Accredited Certification agency for the state that conducts these third party inspections. Ryan Merck is the Organic Program Coordinator with the program and has spent years on the ground in South Carolina conducting inspections on crops, livestock, and processing. He believes the strengths of the program are its ability to help provide accountability through third party verification and record keeping while also creating a minimum standard for how to farm with an “ecological component.”
The challenge for consumers in South Carolina is that currently there are only 53 certified farms in the state, ranging from ¼ acre to 1,000 acres, leaving many gaps in supply. Charleston County only has three certified organic farms — Joseph Fields Farm, Middleton Place Organic Farm, and Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Why are there so few farms getting certified in S.C.? Ryan believes it’s in part due to misconceptions about the process being too expensive or having too much paperwork as well as a major deficit in farmer and consumer education. He notes that neighboring states are far ahead in numbers, with North Carolina home to 262 certified farms and Georgia up to 97 certified farms.
For Joseph and Helen Fields of Joseph Fields Farm, the choice to transition to organic began almost 14 years ago and this year they completed their ninth inspection. “The customers were asking for organic vegetables,” Helen says. As one of the first Certified Organic farms in the state, the Fields had to spend a lot of time educating consumers when their prices increased. Although some fought the change, in the end Helen says, “If someone is truly interested in organic, they buy it, regardless of the cost.”
While the Fields are seasoned veterans of the process, Joshua Adams just completed his first inspection as the farm manager at the Middleton Place Organic Farm. “It’s a lot of paperwork, but it’s really not as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he says. He realized that the process itself would help him develop positive habits in his first few years of farming. “As a farmer you need to keep good records and being certified organic helps you do that.” Yet Adams is left feeling as though perhaps society has it wrong. “It’s kind of backward. As someone that is trying to grow healthier food, we have to go through so many hoops and other people can spray chemicals without even having to be labeled.”
Adams is not the only one who feels as though farmers practicing organic production should not have to go through a stringent process that eats into their already tight margins. Kenneth “Skinny” Melton, owner of Lowland Farms on Johns Island, has always grown using organic methods and attends a variety of training sessions to learn more sustainable methods for his operation, but his farm is not certified organic. “I have kids and feed them from the farm. I don’t want to spray anything. I don’t want to import things onto my farm that I don’t have to.” As a farmer with direct to consumer and restaurant sales, Melton doesn’t see a reason to go through the process because he has great relationships with his customers and will answer any questions they have. “Once you have the relationship and they learn about how you are growing, organically, then they trust you,” he says. “People are more interested in where you are located.”
Lowland Farms is one of several local operations that sell regularly at farmers markets in the area, including the new market in West Ashley. Charleston is not the only city with an incredible demand for local food, as demonstrated in the continued growth of farmers markets nationwide from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,284 in 2014. Proponents of local foods are focused on the ability to have a relationship with their farmer, reduce their carbon footprint, access regionally specific products, support the local economy, and enjoy harvested-that-morning fresh produce.
Yet unlike organic, the food industry is having a harder time pinning down how exactly to define and enforce this. According to the USDA: “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state in which it is produced. Grow Food Carolina, the nonprofit that helps small scale farms get their produce to market, has adopted the more popular industry standard of 120 miles. According to Sara Clow, the general manager at Grow Food, buyers are sourcing from them to access high quality produce that is sourced locally. GrowFood’s buyers are generally not as concerned with organic certification. “The chefs want what tastes best and is local,” she says.
One of the challenges of the local designation is that distance is the only requirement. Local farmers can practice a broad range of practices that may or may not reflect your own beliefs on animal welfare, the environment, or health. Because of the farms’ relationships in the communities in which they grow and live, farmers have a great motivation to meet their consumer’s demands. If you have the ability to build a relationship with a farmer, this is less of an issue but since the majority of Americans still buy their food at the grocery store, food labels are the primary way for a customer to learn about a product. The current system relies heavily on certifications and language approved by the FDA to help consumers make decisions since the farmers are not in the produce section to answer questions. This weakness of the system is also its strength because it encourages consumers to actually learn about the food system and build relationships with those growing food in your community.
So what is better, local or organic? It’s a question that only you can answer for yourself. But in case you are wondering, everyone I interviewed buys as much local as possible first and then purchases the rest from the store — but always organic.