Story and photo by Zirconia Alleyne
As consumers become more interested in the who, what, where and how of their food, some farmers are leaning toward all-natural production practices and marketing their crops as organic. It’s buzz word for consumers and signals produce was grown without pesticides or genetically modified organisms. But, for farmers, being an organic producer isn’t as simple as throwing the word on a label and sticking it on their products.
Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has required all farmers who market their products as organic to go through a lengthy certification process.
“The packet of papers is an inch thick,” said Tony Prettyman, owner of Bramble and Bee Farm. “It’s worse than doing your taxes by a long shot.”
Before a farmer can label their produce as “organic,” their soil must be free of prohibited substances for at least three years. After receiving organic certification, farmers must continue to document their growing process and get inspected every year. In other words, organic farmers cannot use most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Tony and his wife, Alethia, earned organic certification for their farm last year from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, a USDA certifying agent.
The couple is widely known for their honey products at the Downtown Farmers Market, but they’re repertoire includes a variety of herbs, squash, green beans, broccoli, cucumbers, cabbage, purple hull peas, snap peas, okra, melons, peppers, tomatoes, beets, radishes, leeks, green onions, garlic and carrots based on the season. They sometimes sell organic tomatoes from a Mennonite farmer.
Tony has been growing organically for as long as he remembers, going back to the garden his mother kept at home in his childhood.
“Mom was organic before it took the USDA to tell her she was organic,” he said.
When he and Alethia started farming, Tony followed the same practices as his mom. It wasn’t until they started selling their produce at the farmers market that the Prettymans
decided to seek organic certification. Tony thought it would set them apart from other farmers there, none of whom boast organic labels, he said.
“Lots of people claim to grow chemical free or organic and don’t,” he said. “Many people who come to the farmers market think that everybody here is organic when they’re not. … The question is, ‘Is it worth it?’”
Studies show that nutrients and antioxidants are higher in organic produce, and the presence of antibiotics, pesticides and growth hormones is reduced. Many people who choose to buy organic do so out of consciousness for their health and the environment, but Tony believes many local consumers don’t yet have that mindset.
“In Hopkinsville, the vast majority of people that come to the farmers market don’t care (if it’s organic), or they don’t know the difference,” he said. “The vast majority aren’t willing to pay any more because it is organic.
“So the question becomes, is it worth it to me to go through all that paperwork and keep all the records … of everything I harvest, how much I harvest, everything I sell?”
Tony said he’s still figuring that out. He and Alethia plan to re-certify for two or three years to determine if the label is worth the $250 annual fee.
“We are cheaper in Kentucky than most states, even though it seems expensive,” he said. “But, if it doesn’t give me an advantage at the market, why am I doing it?”
Alethia said being certified by the USDA gives them the credibility with customers who doubt or don’t know their practices are genuinely chemical-free and non-GMO.
Even without the label, the Prettymans will continue to grow their produce the healthiest way possible. The couple said they encourage all farmers to use organic practices.
“Everyone should consider organic practices, whether or not they want to formalize it,” Alethia said. “It’s still a value to the environment and a benefit to themselves to avoid using synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.”
The pair joined the Organic Association of Kentucky several years before applying for certification. The group promotes and brings together farmers who want to learn more about growing organic.
To any farmers thinking about pursuing organic certification, Alethia laughed and said, “Get started. It’s going to take a long time.”
Story and photo by Zirconia Alleyne