Someone recently asked me if our beef was certified as grass fed by the American Grassfed Association. The question itself was straightforward but it caused me to do some thinking about certifications, trying to understand what kind of value they represent for us as farmers and for all of our customers.
Food products are a tricky category when we consider the types of labels we might stamp on them. Some designations, like Organic, are strictly regulated by the USDA and a network of certifying bodies. When we make our Organic product claims we need to jump through all the hoops from the USDA and from our local certifier, so this is a significant part of our farm’s compliance work. But many product attributes, such as “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised,” are not so precisely defined, and are permissible for use by anyone who wishes to make that claim. In order to create more certainty around the claim, the American Grassfed Association created their own set of standards, and now anyone who goes through their certification process can badge their products with the AGA Grassfed label. At the moment they are working on drafting similar standards for the term “pasture raised,” to separate real pasture raised products from the all the fakers.
I’ve met and talked with the Executive Director and some of the board members of the American Grassfed Association, and I admire many of the goals of the group. But I’ve never felt especially motivated to sign up with them to receive their certification. Certification programs seem to be created for farms participating in a larger, anonymous commodity market, rather than the more intimate kind of direct-to-consumer model our farm follows. Those farms don’t have the same ability we do to show our customers exactly what’s happening within the daily life of the farm, so they rely more on certifications as proxies for trust and understanding.
There seems to be a tendency among people, whenever we’re obligated to follow external regulations, to begin thinking in negative, minimalist terms. We naturally begin to look at the list of rules as a set of optimization challenges. Our thoughts concentrate on questions of what we are allowed to do and what we can get away with, rather than approaching each challenge on the farm with larger, more fundamental questions, like “What is best in this situation?” If an analogy helps, think of the way tax codes are implements. Because of their complexity and specificity, business owners end up being obligated to play silly categorization games to dance around the edges of various regulations, sometimes making choices that are counterproductive for aspects of the business in order to avoid certain taxation traps. When we become hemmed in by external certifications we end up in an analogous situation. It becomes more difficult to be guided by our holistic principles, and we end up being guided by compliance concerns.
So Many Certifications
When I think about the various certifications we could get, the list grows to overwhelming proportions. Besides Organic, there’s a new Organic-fundamentalist certification available from a group called the “Real Organic Project.” Should we consider accrediting the the farm for humane livestock treatment? That comes in four different competing standards, such as the Global Animal Partnership’s 5 Step program, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane Certification Program (wow, it has two uses of “certify” in its name!), and American Humane Certified. There are at least five different organizations trying to regulate the use of the term “Regenerative.” And then there are even more niche labels for specific resource or environmental concerns, such as Audubon Certified Bird Friendly, Bee Better Certified, or Certified Wildlife Friendly.
When I look through the list of possible certifications, I think our farm could check the boxes on all these programs. But I wonder: what level of certification is useful? At what point does a package of our chicken or steak look like a Nascar driver’s jumpsuit, with badges covering the entire surface? It seems to me that there’s a limit to how many stickers anyone wants to see on their package of ground beef when they only want to make tacos for a group of rowdy kids on a busy weeknight.
What Does It Mean?
For many years I steadfastly avoided all certifications. By 2020, I realized I was in a never-ending process of explaining to people that we were following all the Organic guidelines, but that our chicken wasn’t actually certified. So I decided it was better to go ahead and formalize the Organic certification. It seemed that for a lot of folks, they were more interested in seeing the word “Organic” on the product rather than hearing a more nuanced discussion of how we could achieve all the Organic goals without actual certification. In the end, it costs us about $1000 and a couple days of paperwork and inspections. Although by our standards that’s fairly expensive, maintaining formal Organic certification seems to have been a good tradeoff in terms of customer satisfaction.
But as I get to the other certifications, I’m less and less confident that they actually add much value to our customers. For one thing, some of these programs are full of compromises and loopholes, so they actually signify far less than their branding messages would suggest. But even with the best, most robust standards, I’m wary of simply adding certifications for their own sake. Certifications all add cost, and they consume our time in recordkeeping, filing, and inspections. With everything else happening on the farm, all coming out of our family’s labor, I don’t want to squander our resources on projects that don’t add commensurate value. So I’d like to understand just what makes a certification meaningful before pursuing it.
Here’s a question for any of our farm’s customers: are there certifications that you think we ought to have? And if so, what do you find important about those labels?
Sitting here from the farmer’s perspective, I have my own ideas about what the farm is and thus I’m not positioned properly to understand what the farm looks like from the perspective of someone who lives a couple hours away in a very different situation. So I’m always interested in understanding what others perceive about the farm and our practices, and whether some kind of certification or verification would help to reassure them about some aspect of our work. Remember old Robert Burns, “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!” So please, let me know, either in the comments or by contacting me directly.