By Terrance Layhew

“Are you Certified Organic?”


If you’ve sold anything at a farmers’ market, odds are someone has asked you this. Perhaps you are Certified Organic and can reply, “Yes we are. Do you see the large green seal on our marketing material?” If you aren’t certified, perhaps you’ve replied with an explanation as to why you are not certified but still raise your produce without pesticides or your livestock without antibiotics or growth hormones.

Organic vegetables

For many customers this is sufficient — they see you every week and trust you have a quality product. However, it’s naive to believe that certifications don’t have use for farmers.

Most customers, and some farmers, would be surprised to learn how many different options there are for certification out there. You can become Humane Certified for livestock, Good Agricultural Practices Certified for vegetables, Naturally Raised Certified, etc. There are dozens of different certifications your farm may be eligible for if it’s what you are interested in.

There are some who ask, “Why bother with Certifications? It’s nothing but marketing.”

Yes, that’s why you want it.

The Purpose of Certifications

Yes, certification in anything is for marketing purposes. It is a handy label you can add to your farm to increase the likelihood that people will purchase your products. Given the options between two equally nice and well-managed farms, people will buy from the farm that is more aligned with their values with proven verification.

The kind of certification you receive verifies to the customer that you have been proven to hold the same values they care about.

If you’re a market gardener at a farmer’s market without certifications, you may farm just as well as the Certified Organic farmer set up in the booth next to you. However, there’s nothing beyond your word and relationship with the customer to prove it to them.

The Lazy Mind

The fact is, our brains are designed to conserve energy; the more energy required for a customer to relate to your product or operation, the less likely they are to extend the effort.

Certifications like Certified Naturally Grown, Certified Organic, GAP, Humane, etc., are fairly self-explanatory in the labels themselves, allowing the customer to see the icon/seal of the organization and know that much more about your operation without having to think about it.

It’s not a matter of enabling people to overlook due diligence, but easing them into a relationship with you and your farm. Selling customers on your farm is not hawking snake oil on the roadside – you should be genuinely trying to help customers and to serve their needs as efficiently as possible.

A good friend of mine grew from a backyard urban gardener to having his own Certified Organic Market garden in the country. He made the leap to certification when his customers asked for it. There was a little more work involved with the papers and documentation, but he was already farming organically. It’s an example of how the relationship with the customers you have, and the values of the customers you wish to attract, should determine what kind of certification you pursue.

Now that he is certified, as his business has transitioned from CSA and farmers’ markets to restaurants, it has opened up more opportunities and options to differentiate himself from the competition. Depending on your context and competition, this may be needed to gain access to that farmers’ market that already has several vegetable CSAs.

A certification – Organic, GAP, Humane or otherwise – allows you to take advantage of how and why influence works.

Influence

Robert Caldini published Influence in 1984. This book outlines the principles of why people will generally purchase or be persuaded by one person over another. The various steps are interesting and worth researching, but the two relevant to certifications are these:

  • Social Proof
  • Authority

Social Proof

There were times growing up where you found yourself in a situation that you didn’t know how to navigate: the first time you had to do something you weren’t all too confident in, like going to the public bathroom without a parent. The solution was to look at see what others were doing — how did they navigate that same situation?

If you are a new market garden farmer, and unsure what are the best hand tools to use on your operation, you would probably survey what other market gardeners with similar contexts use.

In moments of uncertainty, we typically look for Social Proof — validation of an idea or process by other people similar to ourselves.

Certifications can serve as a form of social proof. They display to potential customers that many other people have agreed that the product is valuable and meets the standards you are looking for. It is presumed that because of the certification, others have also purchased from you and agree that you are an acceptable possibility.

There’s a collective vote cast by consumers every time they purchase a bundle of Certified Organic Carrots, or a dozen Humane Certified Eggs. As those dollars collect, they build the perceived integrity and acceptance of the label in the minds of the average consumer.

It also will carry the integrity of other farmers with similar labels. If a customer moves to a new location and is looking for a CSA to join similar to the one she left, she’ll start by looking for farmers and CSAs with the same certifications she left behind.

Authority

Authority is when someone in a recognized position of power or influence gives their A-OK, or check mark to a product, person, organization or idea.

Like social proof, it is a way of finding a foothold in uncertainty, but in this case relying on the word of a trusted expert or figure of respect for validation.

You don’t know if you want to read that book sitting on the bookstore shelf or not, but there’s a sticker saying Oprah’s Book Club loved it. If you believe in the power and authority of Oprah it would likely sway you toward buying the book you were unsure of.

If you were to purchase a BSC tractor after listening to Chris Blanchard recommend it on the Farmer to Farmer Podcast, that would be an example of Authority at play. Or if you were to use a particular compost because it is also used by J. M. Fortier on his operation.

Beyond books or cereal boxes, certifications present a form of authority to customers. Specifically the USDA Organic Seal represents the authority of the USDA and the United States government itself lending a form of approval to the farmer.

We ultimately place faith in labels because we expect some kind of authority behind them to enforce the standards in place. Without authority, without the muscle to make the meaning of the certification matter it is worthless, both to the farmer and consumer.

Trust But Verify

It’s easy to forget how much faith a customer puts in a farmer when they make the first transaction; they are trying to decide if they can trust the health and wellbeing of their diets to you and your production techniques.

President Ronald Reagan was credited with saying, “Trust but verify.” In many ways that’s how the organic and sustainable community is set up. An Organic Label, GAP Label, or Humane Label, these all start off on a level of trust.

This level of trust can exist between a customer and farmer without a certification, but the certification gives an additional level of verification. With trained reviewers auditing the farmer and farm to see that they follow through on what they said they would do.

Should you or shouldn’t you be certified is a question answered based on your context, the needs of your farm and the market you are serving. The importance is to see the strength and influence that these labels have in the minds of your customers. Recognizing that they aren’t the tools of the imperial agribusinesses crushing the small producer, they are impartial methods of sharing your values to the customer and making it easier for them to buy from you without a second thought.

About the Author

Terrance Layhew is a GAP Auditor, Organic Inspector and Consultant. He writes online at The Intellectual Agrarian (link: https://intellectualagrarian.com) and is the host of the Intellectual Agrarian Podcast.