by Susan Kapatoes, MHA, CPC

We have seen our food labeled with the word “organic”, but what does organic really mean in relation to the fruits, vegetables, and meat products that most of us consume on a daily basis?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the production of organic foods does not simply mean the avoidance of conventional chemicals. Organic farming supports overall system health by implementing a wide range of management practices to ensure biological diversity and soil fertility.

Organic farmers apply techniques used thousands of years ago, such as crop rotations and natural pest management in ways that are economically sustainable in today’s world. In order to ensure that you are getting a certified organic product, it is recommended to look for the USDA Certified Label on your food product:

Why is the USDA ORGANIC label important?

When you buy food products that have the USDA ORGANIC label, you are buying a product that has been produced using the quality standards that are required by the USDA in order for them to label a food as organic. This means that the commodity was grown using “organic” industry practices so that you can rest assured that you are getting a legitimate organic food source.

“Organic” is a labeling term that signifies goods that were produced under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. The OFPA gave rise to a new USDA National Organic Program (NOP) that implemented national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products. Producers who meet standards set by the NOP may label their products as “USDA Certified Organic.”

The key factors that comprise organic farming principles include:

  • Reduction or elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, or other materials such as hormones and antibiotics.
  • Use of crop rotations and natural techniques to manage weeds & insects, maximize biological activity, and maintain long-term soil health.
  • A focus on environmental biodiversity, soil and water conservation, and management practices that restore, support and enhance ecological balance.

The USDA does not guarantee that organic agriculture practices are completely free of all synthetic chemical residues, but methods are used by the organic farmers to minimize the pollution from our air, soil and water to the best of their ability in order to meet the quality standards as set forth by the USDA requirements.

What Defines an Organic Food Product?   

The USDA defines organic vegetables, meat, poultry, & dairy products as the following:

“Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” Consumer Brochure, USDA National Organic Program. 2007.

When you visit a local farm, inquire whether they are USDA Certified Organic. It can be a costly process to apply and maintain an organic certification from the USDA, especially for smaller farms. If your local farm is not USDA Certified but practices organic farming, I would recommend that you talk with the farm owner and do your research so that you become familiar with their operation. Once you are acquainted with their implementation process, then you can make an informed decision whether you would like to purchase their produce or buy it elsewhere.

Get Involved with your Local Organic CSA

In order to learn more about the organic farming industry and increase your consumption of organic foods, there is no better way than to get involved with a local organic farm that offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. In a CSA, you become a shareholder of that farm. A “shareholder” is defined as a CSA subscriber (you) and a “share” is the season subscription that you pay to the farmer at the beginning of the growing season. This arrangement allows farmers to buy the seeds, transplants, and other supplies they need for the growing season.

In this way, you participate in the risks and rewards of a bountiful harvest. Most CSA’s also offer a working share – in exchange for a reduced price, members can work a certain number of hours at the farm each week. This arrangement allows for members to forge a stronger connection with the land and various aspects of the agricultural process.

For other members, a social occasion such as a potluck or harvest celebration can help them to integrate more fully into the CSA. With either option, you decide how involved you would like to become. Regardless of which path you choose, you will enjoy the benefits of the season’s harvest knowing that you are consuming healthy organic foods that are coming straight from the farm to your dinner table. It doesn’t get much better than that!

I recently located an organic CSA in the town where I live, and I am very grateful to have discovered this resource so close to my home. The CSA is called The Farm at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts.

The Moose Hill Farm CSA  

The philosophy at the Moose Hill CSA is three-fold. Firstly, they practice certified organic farming in order to provide fresh and healthy produce for the community. The farm is certified through Baystate Organic Certifiers, an accredited certifier of the USDA Organic Certification program. Additionally, they do have the USDA ORGANIC label in plain view on their website.

Secondly, the aspect of community is an important part of the Moose Hill CSA Program. The members support each other with the goal of building a community of like-minded people who care about the quality of food they put into their mouths and the future sustainability of the environment.

As part of the community atmosphere, shareholders can invest a small portion of their time towards supporting the farm. There are many ways to get involved. Members can work in the fields, do comparison shopping, deliver produce to local food pantries, or tend to activities in the Farm Stand.

A group of volunteers weeding the fields at Moose Hill Farm. Photo courtesy of the Moose Hill CSA.

Thirdly, Moose Hill CSA has partnerships with local farms and businesses who share a similar passion for supporting organic agriculture. The CSA has working relations with Ward’s Berry Farm and the Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, both of which are located in Sharon, Massachusetts. Moose Hill also provides fresh fish from Cape Ann Fresh Catch out of Gloucester and they sell honey made from local beekeepers who house their hives in the Moose Hill fields.

These collaborative partnerships has allowed the Moose Hill CSA to build a model where each partner benefits for the good of the whole. This is a wonderful way to operate.

Here is a short video clip of the Moose Hill Farm CSA. I love the personalization of the harvesting – at the end of this video, the names of the people who helped with the harvesting and preparation of the fruits and vegetables are listed, reminding us that we are all in this together. Nice touch!

Growth of Organic Agriculture in the United States

According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, there has been a steady growth in the number of U.S. certified organic farms and businesses since the count began in 2002.  In April of 2017, the USDA reported that there are 24,650 certified organic farming operations in the United States, a 70 percent increase since 2008. This steady growth reflects an increased awareness by the general public regarding the value of organic products.

Due to social media, television programs, radio shows, newspapers, and online magazines, people have more access to information than they ever did before. This expanded means to a wider body of knowledge allows people to make informed choices about the quality of their food and the future of their health.

Closing Thoughts

The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of the soil, plants, animals and people. Organic farming involves much more than choosing not to use pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and growth hormones. The organic process is a holistic system designed to be sustainable and harmonious with the environment, ensuring that future generations can enjoy the bountiful harvests of produce and meat products that are cultivated in our fields today.

If you live in the Sharon, Massachusetts area, please visit the Moose Hill CSA or get involved with your local organic farm. There are many ways to get connected to the health & wellness movement while having fun at the same time. When we join together for a common cause that is benefiting the greater health of our community, we are setting an example for others and serving humanity for a wonderful purpose!


USDA National Agricultural Library
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service
The Farm at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary