How To Identify Organically Grown Produce If It’s Not Certified Organic

How To Identify Organically Grown Produce At The Farmer's Market

Finding organically grown produce at Northern Virginia farmer’s markets can be tricky.

Few sellers actually have the USDA’s National Organic Program certification. So how can you tell if the kale or the tomatoes that you’re about to buy were grown without synthetic chemicals?

Maybe you’ve heard that you should “talk to the farmer.”  OK, but what exactly should you ask?  And what answers should you expect to hear?

Organic farmers can use certain chemicals.

You could just ask if they use chemicals.  But did you know that even organic farmers can use certain chemical sprays and powders?

For example, organic farmers sometimes use pesticides but they must be from a natural source such as those listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

Organic farmers use biological, mechanical, and preventative methods first.  They use botanical or other non-synthetic pesticides as a last resort.

So asking if they use chemicals by itself will not necesarilly give you the information you need.

A better way is to question the grower about his approach to farming.

At the farm stand or at the farmers market just strike up a friendly conversation and ask some of the following questions.

  • “Did you grow all this yourself?” First you want to make sure you’re dealing with the producer, not a reseller.  If the vendor is a reseller only, they may not even be selling local food.  And they won’t know anything about how it’s grown.
  • “How do you control weeds?” You want to hear that they rotate crops, use cover crops, mulch, till, hand weed, flame weed, etc. If they also start talking about keeping the crops healthy by improving the soil, you’ve got a gem!
  • “Do you ever use Roundup?” If the answer is “yes” or “sometimes” they’re not using organic practices.
  •  “What about bugs?”  To control destructive insects organic farmers will modify the environment (change irrigation practices, for example), and use beneficial insects, traps, and barriers, like row covers, instead of pesticides. If they say they use integrated pest management (IPM) you’ve definitely found someone who is serious about sustainable, healthy food!
  • “What do you do to improve the soil?”  Organic farmers know that healthy soil helps limit disease and insect problems.  They’ll use crop rotation, cover crops, and biological soil amendments like compost, manure, and fish emulsion to build healthy soil.
  • “Do you use any OMRI listed products?”  If they do need pesticides, organic farmers use only products listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).  If your farmer doesn’t know what OMRI is, that’s a big red flag.

At some point in this conversation you’ll get a clear idea of this person’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for organic practices.

You’ll know whether she has the respect for the soil, dedication to the idea of working with nature, and specific skill set that organic growing requires.

When you find a farmer who talks about building the soil, using integrated pest management techniques, and who not only knows what OMRI is, but can talk about how he uses the products when necessary, you’ve found a farmer who uses organic practices.

Sustainable NoVA
If you’re looking for local food, humanely raised grass-fed beef, pastured poultry and eggs, farmers markets, how to grow your own organic vegetables, farm-to-table restaurants, or green events in Northern Virginia, Sustainable NoVA helps you find it!
Sustainable NoVA
Sustainable NoVA

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