By Donna Winnick
Tim Hileman, a produce farmer at Kistaco Farm, thought about getting federal organic certification for his products at Western Pennsylvania farmer’s markets, but found the process so difficult that he has decided to promote them only as “locally grown.”
However, some vendors still feel that getting their organic certification is a necessary step for a successful business.
Joe Sampson, an organic farmer said he just got his certification and believes it’s the best option.
“I can sell my items for a lot more than the local vendors and make more money,” said Sampson.
But unlike Sampson, Hileman said it’s what the customer thinks about the product that’s important, not how much a vendor makes.
“Only a handful of vendors are organic certified because more and more of them feel like it’s not necessary for them to do it,” said Mirella Ranallo, Citiparks Market Supervisor.
With the number of farmers’ markets growing so quickly in Western Pennsylvania, customers find locally-grown produce more common than organic because of the demanding certification process vendors face and the positive health benefits local produce provides.
Most consumers know just one thing about organic foods: they are more expensive.
“I don’t even really get what the difference is between local and organic to be honest,” said Jesse Moss as he purchased his various non-organic local fruits and vegetables at the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty.
According to the United States Depart-ment of Agriculture, organic means that the produce has been growing in fertilizer with absolutely no pesticides for at least three weeks and sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineer-ing may not be used. To prove their produce is organic, inspectors from the agriculture department go to the farms to inspect the grounds for any pesticides.
In order for a farmers’ market vendor to be allowed to promote their produce as organic, they must meet these guidelines and will eventually become certified by the USDA.
But it’s not just that easy—vendors must also pay a certification fee, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, according to the official USDA website.
To make sure they don’t just get produce from someone else and pass it off as their own, vendors must have a list of their produce, stamped by the department, that they keep with them at all times. Random inspections are done at their farms and at the markets when they sell. If there is any kind of discrepancy between the list and what they are selling, they will lose their certification, pay a very large fine to the USDA, and can also be kicked out of the market.
People pay about 50 cents more for each piece of produce from vendors like Sampson than from others because of his certification.
“I’m organic, so I am going to have higher prices,” he said.
Kistaco Farm, although not organic, has been a produce vendor at the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty for years and is well known for being local.
None of the vendors travel more than 80 miles for the markets, which benefits the economic health of the region, said Ranallo.
Farmers’ Markets in the area are not only known for their local products, such as apples, lettuce, and honey, but for promoting sustainability as well.
More and more people come to the Citiparks Market with reusable bags and cups when buying their products.
“We invite various outside companies to [Citiparks] markets all the time to educate our customers and our vendors about things like recycling and cost
efficiency,” said Ranallo.
Hileman said his apples are the most popular item. Kids and adults keep coming up to him asking for his apples and they have nothing but good things to say.
Jennifer Dawney, of Pittsburgh, said all the local farms at the markets have some of the best fruits around during the harvest season.
“They just taste better and you know it’s probably been picked within the last day,” she said.
Even when the markets are closed during the winter, Ranallo said the vendors are prepping for the next season.
“The vendors at our markets don’t take a month off. They work really hard to make sure that the customers are proud of their product,” she said. “These vendors put their heart and soul into their products and all the produce is picked that morning in order to give the customers the best.”