Instead of spraying pesticides, Dubuque’s Stone Hollow Gardens & Shroomery uses predatory insects. Instead of chemical fertilizers, it amends the soil with fungi, through a process called mycoremediation. When the cabbage gets moths, farmer Christopher Appelman plucks caterpillars by hand.
Stone Hollow’s practices follow U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards — primarily, no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or genetic modification. But because it is not certified by the USDA, Stone Hollow cannot legally use the word “organic” to market its products. Instead, the owners say “beyond organic.”
“It’s just organic but better,” Appelman said. Many tri-state producers follow organic guidelines without making it official. At Dubuque Farmers Market, more chalkboards advertise “sustainable” and “chemical-free” products than bear the “USDA Organic” seal.
Some tout “organic practices,” walking a fine legal line, and invite customers to ask questions.
Tom Arnold, of Arnold’s Farm in Elizabeth, Illinois, used to be certified but now raises non-GMO, antibiotic- and hormone-free livestock on his own terms. Out of 480 acres of non-GMO corn and soybeans, he sprays herbicide on only 40 to 60 acres that are located in a flood plain.
He said the lack of a market led him to quit going through the certification process after just one year. “The organic certification people, they wanted the whole farm to be organic,” he said. “We decided to find the people who supported how far we did go.”
Despite following practices that could lead to organic certification, some local operations have not pursued that designation. “We’ve always been scared off by the paperwork,” Jason Hull, of Little Bear Gardens in Hazel Green, Wis. said. “They want you to keep track of every single crop you grow. There’s a lot to it.” Certified operations work with an accredited agent, who verifies that practices comply with regulations. Growers must keep careful records.
When growers opt out of certification, this allows more independence. Hull and others occasionally allow small breaks from certain USDA standards, like buying nonorganic seeds when more convenient. Hull said his customers approve.
Some growers doubt the standards of organic certification as well, saying it favors corporate agriculture. “The bigger the label gets, the more watered down it becomes,” Appelman said. He questions the select list of chemicals that certified organic farmers can use.