Farmers markets sport an increasing variety of labels: from locally grown to certified organic to certified naturally grown. What does it all mean? Farmers are trying to figure out what consumers of natural food really want.
At Peachtree Road Farmers Market in Atlanta, the descriptions are as varied as the produce. There's certified organic, locally grown, heirloom, and a little blue sticker that says "Certified Naturally Grown."
The proliferation of labels is a sign that the growing backlash against factory farm food is increasingly sophisticated and a bit chaotic. Growers are experimenting with various ways of marketing food that is not grown conventionally with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The result is more consumer choice – and more confusion.
"Customers come to us and say, 'I want clean food for my family. I don't want to read 17 labels or have an agriculture degree,' " says Lauren Carey, executive director of Peachtree Road Farmers Market. But "consumers want to know more about their food, and this labeling helps identify priorities."
For many, the biggest priority is that the food is locally grown. Others want it produced organically. Some consumers like a label that guarantees its authenticity. For others, it's enough to chat up the farmer who grew it.
"We look at the labeling, and it's kind of confusing," says Michaleen Shrawder, who perused the certified organic cucumbers and peppers recently at the Pittsburgh Public Market. "I try to do organic, but it's costly."
Small farmers eager to serve this market are using various methods to try to reach customers. Many small growers are satisfied serving the locally grown market. "A few customers at the market ask each year if I am an organic grower, which I am not," says Jan Walters, co-owner of Tarre De' Amore Farms, in Indianola, Iowa.
She will often tell customers about what sprays or chemicals, if any, are used at her farm. "I have grandkids living next door," Ms. Walters says. "I never want to worry about the kids getting sick if they go out and pick a tomato and eat it without washing it."
It's that kind of conversation between farmer and consumer that helps buyers make decisions, says Walters, who is also a board member of the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit advocating for farmers and farmers markets.
But some producers want the recognition and market edge that certification brings. The typical route – certification through the US Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program – has attracted more than 17,000 businesses in the United States, according to USDA spokesman Sam Jones-Ellard.
Certified organic food sales are brisk at 9.4 percent growth in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Association. One of its surveys this year found that more consumers are buying organic products, with 81 percent of those surveyed purchasing organic at least sometimes.
But USDA certification is out of reach for some farmers.
"Organic is expensive," says Joe Bozzelli, of Five Elements Farm in Worthington, Pa. He estimates that organic certification would cost him at least $1,000 in fees and other expenses.
Although the USDA offers a small-farmer exemption for producers who sell $5,000 or less worth of produce per year, that's not of much use to Mr. Bozzelli, whose annual revenue from farming is about $10,000. Certification costs vary widely, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, according to Mr. Jones-Ellard.
So Bozzelli and other farmers have opted for a different organic designation: Certified Naturally Grown (CNG).
The main difference between the USDA's certified organic and the CNG programs is inspections: Federal certification requires inspections while CNG relies on farmer-to-farmer inspections. Bozzelli prefers the peer reviews.
"The inspection process encourages a 'circle of farmers' dedicated to improving their practices," he adds. There would be much shame if a farmer were ousted for lying about his growing methods, he said. An extra benefit: CNG costs about $120 a year – a fraction of the cost for USDA certification.
With a little more than 700 certified farmers and beekeepers currently in 47 states and Puerto Rico, the number of farmers with the CNG rating is far smaller than those opting for USDA's certified organic rating, and it's not growing as fast. The number of applications rose by 4 percent over last year, says Alice Varon, executive director of CNG, which is based in Brooklyn, N.Y. That's in line with the growth in the number of farm markets across the US. Ms. Varon sees CNG as a group of small farmers complementing their certified brethren.
How important is certification?
"There's more guidance when there's a third-party certification," as in the USDA program, says Lisa Turner, co-owner of Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, Maine. But she says that in her region, consumers are more interested in the food being locally grown.
"We tend to draw a big line between who might be certified and who isn't, but production standards might be identical," says Carl Winter, a food toxicologist at the University of California, Davis.
In the end, consumers will determine what labels – if any – are important. And their confusion over various food designations may prove to be less of a marketing hurdle than it seems. "I look at this as a luxury," Mr. Winter says. "We're lucky to have these choices that seem to make our life more difficult."