The holy grail of healthful eating is believed to be the "Certified Organic" label. According to the Organic Trade Association, "Organic food production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation."
What that definition leaves out, however, is that to get the Certified Organic label, farmers pay hefty fees and spend a lot of time on paperwork.
Some simply chose not to. Those that follow the precepts for organic growing, but don't apply for the official seal, are considered "clean" growers.
"There's a real movement among small farm-market growers not to be certified," says Chris Pellett, who along with husband, Gary Pellett, owns Old Stage Farm and Orchard in Central Point. "It's very time consuming and expensive — the monitoring alone is $800 a year — and the record keeping can be daunting. You have to record everything you've done or sprayed or tried. You have to ask permission when you're trying something to control insects or disease. You have to record all your sales. It's beyond what many of them are ready to do."
"Clean" growing is sort of a middle ground between certified organic and conventional growing.
Maud Powell, coordinator of the small farms program at Oregon State University Extension Service, explains that the biggest issue around whether or not a farmer should get certified often is where he or she is selling.
"If you're selling to a farmers' market, then you have that personal, face-to-face contact, and you can convey to your customers how you grow," she says. "You can invite them out to your farm. You develop relationships, and your customers trust you. Whereas if you're selling into the wholesale market, you usually have to have that certification so the buyer then can sell the produce at a premium price."
Small growers bank on the hope that customers understand that they can be legitimately organic without being certified.
Pellett says people looking to buy organic fall into two camps: those who care about how the earth is treated and that the growing practices are environmentally sound, and those who are more concerned with how "clean" their food is. The first group, she says, is more likely to consider how far their food has traveled and how the farmer cared for the soil.
Both Pellett and Powell agree that if you have to choose, locally grown trumps organic. When buying from a farmer you trust, the fact that the food isn't officially certified organic is offset by the smaller carbon footprint and other factors.
"For me personally, I would rather buy locally and know I'm supporting a family farmer and that my dollars are staying in the community three to seven times longer than if I buy from a large-scale farm in California," Powell says.
Pellett adds that the local chefs she sells to agree that relationships are key.
"When I tell them we're not certified organic," Pellet explains, "they say, 'I don't care. I want to know you as a farmer, that you're growing the best crops and you're growing them locally, and I trust you to do what you say you do.'"