Should your produce supplier make a federal case out of organic purity?

Go to your local farmers’ market, and you may encounter a couple of booths showing a green-and-white symbol that says “USDA Organic.” What makes kiosks with the stamp so different from all of the other tables bearing charmingly lopsided fruits and veggies? Well, the federal seal certainly looks impressive. And, in a way, it is. In order to become certified by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, it’s not enough to simply forgo pesticides and rotate your crops. A farmer must jump through a series of hoops, from sorting through a complicated 554-page standards document (outlining guidelines for pest control, feed, soil treatment, and several other variables), to paying a $400 yearly fee, to cataloging exactly when each compost pile is turned. It’s no surprise that not all regional farmers want to make a notation every time they take out the pitchfork. But the reasons for uneven adherence to USDA organic guidelines are as varied as types of heirloom tomatoes. A quick survey: —Anne Marson

Tree and Leaf CSA

Waterford, Va.

Sells at:

Mount Pleasant Farmers’ Market

Current offerings:

carrots, beets, leeks, onions, greens, cabbage, broccoli

USDA certified? No

The dirt:

Federal programs are too political.

Zach Lester and his wife, Georgia O’Neal, farm a sustainable 8 to 10 acres, using cover crops, companion planting, crop rotation, and probiotics to combat bugs and pathogens; the pair also eschews all plastics. O’Neal has no doubt that their land and produce would meet USDA requirements, but certification, she says, is “basically a lot more paperwork than we have time for.” And the couple isn’t keen to get cozy with the feds, anyway: “When the government took over and regulated [organics], they took the power away from the community.”

Next Step Produce

Newburg, Md.

Sells at:

Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market

Current offerings:

lettuces, baby arugula, kale and collards, Swiss chard, cabbage, onions, fava beans, dandelions

USDA certified? Yes

The dirt:

The paperwork’s a bitch, but “organic” is what we are.

The decision for a sustainable farm to certify, says owner Heinz Thomet, “depends a lot on your market, and we have had that debate: ‘Is it worth it for us?’” Ultimately, Thomet decided to go for certification so that customers “know that we don’t use any man-made chemicals.” But he admits the system isn’t perfect: “I agree with everybody who says the paperwork is pathetic.”

Cibola Farms

Culpeper, Va.

Sells at:

Annandale Farmers’ Market, Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, Eastern Market (winter only), Mount Pleasant Farmers’ Market, Mount Vernon Farmers’ Market, Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market

Current offerings:

buffalo, pork, goat, poultry, eggs

USDA certified? No

The dirt:

“Certified” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.”

On Mike Sipes and Rob Ferguson’s 300 acres, pastured goats and hogs clear overgrowth for grazing bison, and chickens and turkeys are raised in movable pens so that they can roam and graze, as well. Though a good portion of the birds’ diet is grass, they do eat some grain that is not certified organic. “Because of the price of [organic grain], we wouldn’t be able to run the farm,” says Ferguson. “You can have certified-organic eggs, but the chickens could still be raised in horrible conditions.”

Spring Valley Farm

Conowingo, Md

Sells at:

The fruit is strictly pick-your-own, sold directly off the farm.

Current offerings:

blueberries, sour cherries

USDA certified? No

The dirt:

Hey, we’re just being honest.

On Dan and Elizabeth Derr’s 65 acres, “the blueberries are never sprayed once the berry bloom has set, so that we can market these as ‘spray-free’ berries,” says Elizabeth. Her husband does use herbicide around the bushes to control weeds. “If anybody is going to use the word ‘organic,’” she says, “they’ve gotta be organic from the get-go, and a lot of people don’t do that.”

Calvert’s Gift Farm

Sparks, Md.

Sells at:

Takoma Park Farmers’ Market

Current offerings:

garlic, onions, beets, carrots, lettuces, sugar snap peas, fava beans, Swiss chard, dandelions, herbs

USDA certified? Yes

The dirt:

Certification is important, but know your farmer.

“We wanted the label just so people would know that we don’t use synthetic pesticides or herbicides,” says Beckie Gurley, who owns Calvert’s with her husband, Jack. She maintains that certification is also the best way to advertise the 5-acre farm’s system of promoting soil health. “Some people say, ‘We don’t use pesticides, so we must be pretty close [to organic],’” she says, “but there’s so much more to it than that.” She admits that even some certified outfits are “walking a very fine line for the label” and stresses the importance of buying locally and knowing your grower.

Twin Springs Fruit Farm

Orrtanna, Pa.

Sells at:

Annandale Farmers’ Market, Arlington Farmers’ Market, Columbia Pike Farmers’ Market, Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, Mount Vernon Farmers’ Market, Takoma Park Farmers’ Market

Current offerings:

peaches, nectarines, sweet cherries, apricots, berries, tomatoes, eggplant, arugula, cucumbers, lettuces, basil

The dirt:

Orchard fruits are blight magnets.

The farm’s half-acre of hothouse vegetables and 45 acres of orchards are farmed using integrated pest management, says co-owner Jim Frazee, meaning that pests are controlled first with beneficial predators; they are sprayed with pesticides only as problems arise. The owners have considered going organic, but the East Coast humidity leads to bugs and disease in tree fruit. Frazee has even brought bushels of unsprayed apples from his own backyard to show marketgoers what untreated specimens look like: “Confronted with the difference in quality,” he says, “the customer will take the sprayed fruit every time.”

USDA certified? No