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Certification Programs: Labeling Farm Products for Consumer Understanding

by Elizabeth Burrichter

One of the most common questions I have been asked at market: “Is this organic?” I wonder what customers are really getting at with this question. Are they looking for produce grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers? Without any pesticides at all? Produce grown on a farm run by a family or beginning farmer? Or on a farm that creates habitat for wildlife? While all of these factors can play a role in a farm’s sustainability, there are more nuanced and more important considerations that go beyond what the average consumer knows about soil ecology or agronomy.

Maybe some more important questions that could be asked of farmers would be, “What steps have you taken this season to minimize tillage?” or “Do you plant a cover crop between cash crops?” These are the important questions that I was never asked working major regional farmers markets in Chico, CA or Syracuse, NY, which is why industry leaders have created standards for sustainable production to address this lack of consumer knowledge. There are several different options for certification, which I will summarize in this article.

The first one I’ll discuss is Certified Organic. While some consumers tend to use the word organic in a general way to describe food produced on a farm that they think is sustainable or ecological, the term organic is a very specific label that can only be used by certified operations. Following the organic standards means that the farmer is held accountable by a third party, that is, a certifier that is accredited by the USDA. There are many checks and balances, including tedious compliance and enforcement policies. And while the system isn’t perfect, it is THE main system for verification developed by industry leaders in response to the growing farm and food movement.

A recent debate on the NPR foodie program, “The Salt,” about nitrates leaking into waterways in Iowa peaked my interest; I can’t help but relate the example to organic certification. The original report by Dan Charles made the mistake of simplifying the problem to one of too much fertilization. Farmers over-fertilize the fields of corn, and then nitrates leak into streams. While this is true, it’s not the whole story. One listener, who works for the Practical Farmers of Iowa, emailed him to point out that the majority of nitrates that wash away form in between cash crops, between October and May when the soil is bare. The agronomic fix to this problem is to plant a cold-hardy cover crop that is tilled in before planting again in spring, but this practice is not as common as you might think. Cover cropping and crop rotation can be overlooked by farmers when time and capital are limited, but are very important for soil health and pest reduction in all agroecosytems. These practices are the foundation of successful organic management, and the certification process involving much planning, paperwork, recordkeeping, and inspections helps to hold farmers accountable to the standards, so that consumers can know what to expect for without knowing exactly what to look for. Several states offer programs to help reimburse farmers for a portion the cost of certification, for those interested in participating in the program.

Another relatively popular label is Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), the non-profit alternative to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) that requires an application, the signing of a contract, and an inspection performed by a volunteer, usually another CNG farmer. While their standards are based upon the NOP standards, they have more flexibility to alter requirements. For example, they have created an Aquaponics Advisory Council to work on creating standards for a potential CNG Aquaponics Certification. The NOP maintains that all crops must be grown in soil, but an increasing number of aquaponics producers are interested in testifying that they are using sustainable fertility management practices, and CNG wants to be an option for them. While this program may seem less rigorous than the USDA Certified Organic Certification process, it may be a good option for farms that do a lot of direct sales and have a chance to be transparent to their customers in person.

A good alternative to certification, whether you don’t want to pay for it, or have an aversion to such labels or government or institutions in general, is to take NOFA-NY’s Farmer’s Pledge. In an effort to further assist consumers in identifying where they want to spend their food dollars, this pledge was developed to outline the agroecological management and fair labor practices used by farmers; they sign it annually and can display it for their customers. While NOFA-NY does not require professional inspection for pledged farmers, those who sign adhere to allowing any customer to visit the farm for themselves by appointment. Pledged farmers who are not certified organic cannot use the term “organic” to define their production, but the transparent principles defined by the Farmer’s Pledge are well-aligned with the management practices required by the National Organic Program.

A grazing dairy cow in Central New York. Various certification programs help define agricultural practices so consumers know what they are getting.

A grazing dairy cow in Central New York. Various certification programs help define agricultural practices so consumers know what they are getting.

I wanted to talk about animal operations separately, because it can be such a loaded topic. While consumers may flock to organic or CNG or Farmer’s Pledged produce to avoid potentially harmful chemical residues, our meat and dairy products come from an animal that lives and breathes like the rest of us, and we may place particular emphasis on buying animal products produced using humane animal husbandry practices. Consumers have many different reasons for choosing their animal products: they may prefer that livestock are not treated with hormones or antibiotics, or that they have ample space to move about outdoors, or that individual animals are called names like Betty instead of a number.

Raising an animal in the most ideal and sustainable way is a complicated task and the farmer can often face conflicting demands. For example, the organic dairy industry stemmed from consumer demand for milk from cows not treated with BST, a growth hormone, but the organic industry thrives today for reasons beyond just a lack of inputs concerning for human-health.

An article published in 2014 by the Journal of Animal Science called Access to Pasture for Dairy Cows: Responses from an Online Engagement, illuminates the trend that access to pasture for dairy cows is increasingly considered important to consumers when they make dairy purchases, despite the fact that the majority of milk produced in the US comes from confinement dairies. For this study, over 400 people (both affiliated and unaffiliated with the dairy industry) were surveyed. The authors Schullpli, Von Keyserlingk, and Weary found that the majority of participants, including those affiliated with the dairy industry as well as those who were not, viewed cow access to the outdoors as important. The benefits they cited included: exposure to fresh air, ability to move freely, ability to live in social groups, improved health, and healthier milk products. The interesting exception to this opinion was veterinarians.

While there are many clear benefits to pasture access, veterinarians may be especially concerned with “cow comfort,” which can be optimized very easily on a large scale when cows are in confinement. When a dairy cow is managed to produce as large of a volume of milk per day as she can, keeping her feet comfortable, with easy access to food and constant water, is a priority for her health. I think that this example helps to shed light to the complexity surrounding our food, even after we have agreed that animal health, human health, and environmental health are all priorities in food production.

Several participants in the study said that a hybrid system that provided cows a combination of indoor confinement and a regimented grazing program would be ideal, which is how organic dairies tend to manifest. Fresh forage and exercise getting to and from pastures provides health benefits to the cows, and a carefully planned season of rotational grazing keeps pastures and their soils sustainably productive for years to come. Another new certification has recently become available to fill the market void for omega-rich dairy products without any grain in the cows’ ration: 100% Grassfed. Currently, Pennsylvania Certified Organic, American Grassfed Association, NOFA-NY, as well as emerging regional and national dairy and meat coops hold standards to which grassfed dairy and livestock farmers can officially subscribe. There are even more certifications and labels I could talk about in this article–food justice certified, animal welfare approved, kosher certified, Pride of New York, etc, but this is a market trend that deserves a book on its own.

The standards defining these various labels may not all agree on every detail, but they do have one thing in common–to protect the soil. By maintaining requirements such as biodiverse cropping plans, diligent record keeping, or animal rations including pasture, these labels and certifications aim to keep our soils healthy and productive for years to come.

For more information, visit:

USDA Certified Organic   

NOFA-NY Farmer’s Pledge    

Certified Naturally Grown

American Grassfed Association    

Animal Welfare Approved    

Liz Burrichter is an organic inspector, writer, and beginning farmer in New York. She can be reached at


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