What is Organic?

A Glossary of Terms

At most farmers’ markets not all produce is certified organic, but it may be organic in everything but name. And “certified organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “sustainably grown.” The best way to understand how your food is produced is to ask the farmer.

Here are some terms you may hear at a farmers’ market:

Artisanal: Produced by hand in small batches.

Cage-Free: Eggs laid by hens that weren’t confined in small cages. This isn’t the same as Free-Range or pastured; “cage-free” often means the hens were raised along with thousands of others in massive sheds with no access to the outdoors.

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG): Certified by certifiednaturallygrown.org as having been produced in approximate accordance with national organic standards.  Some small growers choose this program instead of Certified Organic because of the paperwork and fees involved with the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Certified Organic: Certified to be in adherence to the USDA National Organic Program standards.  Certification requires submission of a plan and fees, inspection of fields and processing facilities, certain required record-keeping, and a three-year period of transition during which chemical inputs are not used. “Organic” does not necessarily mean “sustainable.” Increased demand for organic produce has resulted in large certified-organic monoculture production. Similarly, lack of organic certification doesn’t necessarily mean a farmer has used chemical inputs; he may simply have not wanted to take on the certification process.

Community Supported Agriculture(CSA): A plan under which consumers pay an up-front fee to the farmer who then provides in return a share of each week’s harvest during the growing season.  CSAs are also available for meat, eggs, and flowers.

Conventional Agriculture: Produced using standard agricultural practices, including the use of any or all of the following: pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, mono-cropping, antibiotics, hormones, Genetically Modified Organisms. Conventional agriculture typically produces cheaper food products than more sustainable methods because of government price supports and subsidization of inputs, because chemical inputs encourage rapid growth and reduce losses to disease and pests, and sometimes because of efficiencies of scale on large monoculture farms.

Cottage Foods: Home-produced items such as bakery products, dry mixes, jams, jellies, candy, fruit butters, granola, and similar products which are considered generally not potentially hazardous, and which must be properly labeled but carry no health department licensing requirements to be legal for sale.

Diversified Farm/Polyculture: Growing multiple species and a wide variety of crops at the same time in small fields; this is more environmentally friendly but more expensive and labor intensive than monocropping.

Farmstead Cheese: Cheese made by the farmers who raised the animals.

Free-Range: Animals that have access to pasture.  Does not necessarily mean the animals spend the bulk of their time – or any of their time – outdoors, and often the “Free-Range” designation is applied to hens that were raised until a certain age without outdoor access, which when provided they don’t generally explore. In practice, often means the same as “cage-free.”

Genetically Modified Organisms(GMOs): Plants and animals whose genetic makeup has been altered to produce longer shelf-life, different color, or resistance to certain chemicals.

Grass-Fed: Animals which spend the bulk of their time on pasture eating their natural diet, supplemented only with hay or grass silage.

Heirloom: Plant varieties developed through years of selection for particular traits and handed down through generations.

Herdshare: The purchase of part of a cow, sheep, goat, or other milk-bearing animal in order to obtain raw milk.  Herdshare owners pay the herdshare manager a fee each month to feed and care for the animal, milk it, and provide the owner’s share each week to the herdshare owners.  Raw milk is only available in Ohio via such an agreement.

Heritage: Breeds of livestock developed through years of selection for local environmental conditions, to withstand disease, and for meat quality.  Heritage breeds generally have slow growth rates and long productive lifespans.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM): Pest management that reduces the use of chemical pesticides through monitoring for actual pests present and application of pesticides at the lowest possible levels only when needed and as a last resort.

Locally-Grown: Agricultural products produced, processed, and sold within a certain region.  The definition of “local” is defined by each individual farmers’ market.

Low-Spray: Reduced synthetic-pesticide spray program relative to a region’s prevailing conventional practices.

Monocropping/Monoculture: Growing a single crop over a wide area.

Naturally-Grown: Meat and poultry that has undergone minimal processing and contains no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients.

No Antibiotics: Animals not given antibiotics to prevent disease.

No Hormones: Animals not given hormones to promote production or increase growth.

No-Spray: No pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides have been applied at any point.

No-Till: Planting without plowing, to reduce need for herbicides and to reduce soil erosion.

Pasteurized/Low-Heat Pasteurized: Heat-treated to reduce microbial growth.  Low-Heat Pasteurized products have been heated to 145 degrees and held there for half an hour.

Pastured: Animals that spend the bulk of their time in grass and legume pastures, supplemented (in the case of sheep and beef) only with hay or grass silage or (in the case of chickens and pigs) other feeds.

Raw: Foods such as milk, cheeses, cider, vinegar, sauerkraut, or almonds that have not been pasteurized.  In the USA, raw milk cheeses are required to be aged for 60 days to be legal for sale. In numerous other countries, raw milk cheeses are routinely consumed.

Silage: Fermented fodder made from grasses and whole-plant legumes and cereals (rather than just the grain.)

Sustainable Agriculture: Agriculture that is socially just, humane, economically viable, and environmentally sound. There is no exact definition of what qualifies, as the most sustainable methods for one crop or region may not be sustainable in an area with different conditions, but it generally includes practices like pasturing of animals, creating diversified farms, and reducing or avoiding the use of chemical pesticide, herbicides, fertilizers, GMO seed, growth hormones, prophylactic antibiotics. Sustainable methods are typically more expensive and labor intensive and generally don’t qualify for government subsidy programs. Food produced this way often costs more than food produced by conventional agriculture.

Transitional: Farmers practicing organic methods during the three-year period before being certified organic.

Vine-Ripened/Tree-Ripened: Fruit that has been allowed to ripen on the vine or tree before being picked rather than being picked unripe and firm to allow for long-distance shipping.