Look past the label: why some farmers aren't bothering with getting certified organic

The Organic Council of Ontario says the supply of organic produce isn't reaching growing demands. But they'll have to dig to find out why.

Local agriculture industry says national certification unnecessary for organic productions

(Samantha Samson/CBC)

Isabelle Spence-Legault is a busy woman. As the co-owner of Field Good Farms in Northern Ontario, and a new mom, she doesn't have time for unnecessary things.

Things like getting her business certified organic.

"It's just that we don't need it yet," Spence-Legault says. " A farm is one of those places where you need to spend a lot of energy. We have a one-year-old, so things got even more tricky last season. Anything I don't need to be doing right now, I won't do."

But getting certified as an organic farm by a national regulatory body might help grow the province's agriculture industry, according to the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO).

Organics needed to grow agriculture industry

The non-profit body wants to know why the local supply of organic produce isn't keeping up with growing demand. To find out, they've released five surveys for producers, processors, handlers and retailers.

"If we're not meeting our domestic needs here, we're going to be getting them from elsewhere," Carolyn Young, a project leader from the OCO says. "We're going to have a net deficit of trade, we're going to be bringing in more imports and our market share will decrease in Ontario."

Risky business

The surveys are meant to gather data about the industry and find ways to help farmers take the organic plunge. But the price they pay, Young says, might be more than many producers can handle.

"If you're a conventional grower, you have to certify for three years before you can call your product certified organic," Young says. "During that three year period, your soils have been accustomed to your conventional methods, so you're losing yield...and you're incurring more costs to become organic. That's a huge risk for a lot of conventional growers to take on."

National standards create 'extra work'

It's not the money that worries Spence-Legault. Her farm is ecological, which means it follows Canadian Organic Standards without an official certification. She wanted to get certified organic until her clients warned that the label could cause logistical problems. For example, national standards state organic and non-organic produce must be separated.

"They would have to create a separate compartment in their truck in order to accommodate certified organic produce. They'd also have to have a separate area to store the foods at the store as well as on display," Spence-Legault says. "Our wholesalers were basically telling us that not only did they not see a purpose to it, but also that it would create a lot of extra work for them down the road."

Label a sign of trust?

So far, Spence-Legault says her farm is profiting without certification. 

"The purpose of the label is to say to a consumer, 'listen, you can trust me,'" says Spence-Legault.  "But I guess, in my ethics, certified organic means you're taking care of the environment while growing food. Until I feel confident that it's something I need to do in order to sell my product, and make sure consumers understand how this product is grown, then I'm not 100 per cent on board."

The OCO surveys will be online until Jan. 28. Young says a final report is scheduled to come out sometime in March.