Every time I look at the certified organic acreage data in Georgia, I wince. Sure, we have had 2,000% growth since 2003, but when you start with just 273 acres, it’s easy to make the data sparkle. In reality, our state has experienced minimal growth. That’s tough to swallow when you run an organization called “Georgia Organics.”
Our state has definitely seen a growth in the number of sustainable farms. We have more farms that are Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), a less rigorous certification, than any other state. Georgia Organics’ workshops, conferences, and mentoring program continue to see strong participation, with new faces every year.
So why the lackluster statistics? Two things are going on here. The first is that many of our sustainable farms are not interested in getting certified organic. These farmers have developed a direct customer base, and don’t see a real need to go through the process or pay the cost to become certified organic. Unfortunately, the USDA and other agricultural
establishments don’t get to see what we see—a vibrant, growing movement—because there is little data to show them. Not to knock CNG, but no one from the USDA or Georgia Dept. of Agriculture has called me to ask about CNG growth in our state. I wish they would, because then I’d have a lot to brag about.
The second factor is that we have not successfully penetrated conventional agriculture or had much growth in what is called “ag in the middle,” the 100-200 acre farms that could be supplying increasing wholesale and institutional demand. Certainly, there are some pioneers farms that have been paving the way—White Oak Pastures, for instance, and Miles Berry Farm. Making farms this size viable is extremely tough when the marketplace is still undeveloped and infrastructure is lacking. Tangible growth and economic data are important to politicians. We can tout the number of farmers markets, annual conference attendees, and CNG farms, but what institutions really needs to see is a dramatic rise in organic acreage in the state, certified acres that are without a doubt free of GMOs and toxic chemicals.
I can’t think of a louder statement our movement could make than for our farmers to get certified. That political stance would echo through the hallways of the agriculture department, across the campuses of universities, and even in the Gold Dome. That is when we start to have institutional influence. That is when we speed up the investment, research, and infrastructure that is currently lacking.
I hear more and more people using the term “organic”—not “sustainable,” but “organic.” And not just from consumers, but nutrition directors and chefs. “Local” food is a muddy term as local, conventional offerings become more commonplace. Local food is great for local economies, but it doesn’t change the way we chemically grow food in Georgia. Organic farms will have an upper hand in the future, but they will need our help to figure out logistics, solve production challenges, and get certification— things we could better advocate for if we showed elected officials and ag regulators that the number of certified organic farms doubled, then tripled.
In many ways, our movement has abandoned certified organic. Believe me, I understand why so many farms aren’t certified. But we would not be where we are today if the National Organic Program had never come along. It was big, bold, and messy, but it kickstarted our momentum, and certified organic will be crucial in the fast-growing GMO fight.
We are not that little food movement that represents less than 1 percent of Georgia’s agricultural acreage. We are bigger than that. But we need to reclaim “certified organic,” even for small farms. If you are a farmer who is not currently certified, but would consider going organic, we can help you make that happen. We need you to make that happen.
It is time for us to stand up and be counted.