Farm Certification Programs: You can live with them, or you can live without them.
Dr. George Saperstein - large animal veterinarian and former Amelia Peabody Professor of Agricultural Sciences at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Science - weighs in on the topic of certification labels, what they mean and whether they are a true marker of good agricultural practices.
- by George Saperstein, DVM
Every year the alphabet soup of farm certification programs grows and expands into new territory. Why are there so many? What do they all mean? Why do some farmers get their farm certified and others don’t? Which one is best for animal welfare, for the soil, for the quality of the food, for the environment, for my health???
Certifications, while helpful in quickly distinguishing the values of a brand through labeling, can be opaque– lacking transparency as to what their standards are, who determines the standards, how they are enforced, and how much it costs for the farmer to become, and remain certified. Food labels have become complicated and often highlight what the product is NOT than what it is. How can I as a consumer sort through all these things when reading labels on food?
When I started my veterinary career in the ’70s, farm products were commodities. There were no formal certification programs with tags like organic, animal welfare, sustainable agriculture, rainforest, grass-fed, or non GMO. When you shopped at the grocery store or ate at a local restaurant in those days, the chicken you ate could have come from a farm in your town or anywhere in the nation, even outside our country. The bird may have been raised on a small local farm with tender loving care or on a large commercial farm – you were their customer, and there was no way for you to know which kind of farm you were supporting. Of course, even in the old days, all farmers were regulated by state and federal agriculture and food safety departments and, as a result, the safety of the food has always been of utmost importance. But food quality is another story…
Then, in the 2000s came the farm certification programs created to address issues beyond basic food safety, both government-sanctioned (such as organic), as well as new private businesses. Each of them was created to be laser-focused on one issue that their creators believed wasn’t being addressed adequately by the other certification programs. They are all good programs, well thought out and well enforced. But each is focused on different issues. As a consumer, which one is right for me?
As a farm animal veterinarian as well as a consumer like you, I wondered how I could shop for the best food and support the most conscientious farmers. I worked with many small farmers – some did a great job and some did an ok job. One dairyman, a client of mine, was particularly special because his practices were outstanding in animal welfare, food safety, and milk quality and he was proud of the farm, the cows, and the milk they produced. One could eat off the floor in his milking parlor.
Just up the road, there was another small farm whose owner did the minimum in milk quality – enough to keep the state from shutting him down. One day while I was working with the good farmer, he blurted out; “I do everything right but have no incentive to keep improving the quality of my milk for the benefit of my customer – the consumer, not the processor. When the milk truck from the processing plant picks up my milk and then goes up the road and mixes it with my neighbor’s in the same tank, my milk is no longer high quality. Why should I care about the quality of my milk?”
That’s when the lightbulb went on. I realized we needed to create branded programs for farm products – so the consumer could be assured that the food was produced with great quality, animal welfare, and soil conservation – just by reading one word – the BRAND! Azuluna is such a brand. At Azuluna we recruit and train each local farmer and teach them to use the same high-quality protocols that address all the issues the consumer cares about, not just one. We do that so the farmer doesn’t have to pay for third-party certification programs.
The small local farmer is just getting by as it is, differentiation in a consolidated market is difficult enough, let alone trying to figure out how they will recover the costs of certification programs. Our farms must be profitable so they can continue to be stewards of the land and their animals – and make enough money to keep farming! At Azuluna each farm is its own family business and we are all part of a family brand. We want our farmers to focus on best practices without worrying about the costs of auditing and licensing associated with many big-name certificates. It is Azuluna’s responsibility to make sure our farmers follow the best farming practices– if they fall off the wagon, we part ways with them. That is the key to establishing and maintaining a brand – each and every one of our products must be of the highest quality.
So if you want to keep it simple, buy branded products like Azuluna.