Definitions of Organic & Sustainable Farming

Over the last decade, we’ve been seeing a revolution in the food industry.

More and more consumers are buying organic foods, even if they cost slightly more, and since demand is on the rise, organic farms are opening across the United States. The term “organic” can be slightly tricky to use properly, as can words like “free range” and “sustainable.” The USDA has rules regarding how products are labeled with some of these terms, but not others, which can be confusing to consumers. Regardless, many farms are changing their practices to be more environmentally friendly and product healthier foods.

First, let’s take a look at some of the terminology used and what that means to workers on the farm:

  • Antibiotic-free: For poultry, hogs, and most other livestock, it means that there are no antibiotics in their feed. For cattle, it means that they have not been injected with antibiotics.
  • Artisan: By definition, an artisan product is handmade in small batches using high-quality ingredients. However, there is no regulation of this term, so any product can be called “artisan.”
  • Bird-friendly: Hawaiian coffee that is bird-friendly is grown in the shade, meaning that the habitats of birds in the area were not destroyed. Bird-friendly coffee farms must also make a donation of a certain amount to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
  • Cage-Free: Poultry that was raised in a cage free environment (or eggs that were produced in a cage-free environment) means that the animal was not confined to a small cage. However, the hens are not necessarily allowed access to outdoor pens, and the indoor pens may be very crowded and dangerous as the birds try to fly around or get into fights.
  • Certified Humane: Products that are certified human have gone through an inspection program by Humane Farm Animal Care and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural market Serve Livestock and Seed Program. Farms that are certified humane must meet very high standards with the treatment of their livestock.
  • Certified Organic: In order for a farm to label something as “certified organic, it must meet product organic standards as set forth by the National Organic Program. The word organic can further be broken down into categories:
      • 100% Organic: These products are made using all organic ingredients (water and salt don’t count).
      • Organic: A product that is labeled just “organic” must be made with at least 95% organic ingredients, and the remaining 5% must be products that are not available organically.
      • Made with Organic Ingredients: Anything bearing this phrase must be made with at least 70% organic ingredients, and they can’t bear the USDA organic seal.
  • Closed Herd: Animals raised on a closed herd farm are born and raised on the farm with no contact with outside animals. This decreases the chance for disease to come into the herd, since farmers don’t purchase outside animals and is especially popular for antibiotic free farms as a way to control disease.
  • Fair Trade Certified: Products bearing this label allow the consumer to ensure that the products used in the food item were purchased at a fair price, meaning that farmers weren’t exploited. This is most common for crops that come from third-world countries, like coffee and cocoa, but it applies to many US-grown crops too.
  • Free-Range: On free-range farms, animals must have access to large outdoor areas. However, the law doesn’t require that the animals actually go outside, just that they can choose to do so, and the law doesn’t require the animals to spend long periods of time with access to the outdoors every day. Some farmers simply leave the door to their pens open for an hour every day, and animals may not realize that they can go outside.
  • Genetically Modified: The FDA ruled in 1992 that genetically modified food doesn’t have to be labeled as such. Most crops come from seeds that are genetically modified to resist certain weed killers or pests, and animals can also be genetically modified to grow larger faster. Few farmers label their products as genetically modified since it scares consumers, but some will note if their products are not genetically modified.
  • Locally Grown: There is no law that says how close a product must be grown to be considered “local,” but most products that bear that labeling were grown within a day’s drive of the selling location.
  • Natural or All-Natural: The terms natural and all-natural are not regulated in the United States, but USDA guidelines do require that products labeled as such have no artificial ingredients and are only minimally processed. Farms and processing plants that use the term natural instead of organic often do so because of the cost and time it takes to be legally certified organic, even if they are following organic practices already. Other companies use the term natural because they don’t operate organically.
  • Sustainable: Farms that are sustainable often follow both organic and humane practices, as well as take other measures to be eco-friendly. There is, however, no national certification program for the term.

As you can see, with many of these farming and processing options, food takes longer and is more expensive to produce, but is also healthier and better for the environment. Organic foods cost more, but demand continues to rise, and programs are being developed to help bring down the cost of this food. Many farms hire consultants specifically to help them switch to sustainable farming practices and enter certification programs. If you work on one of these farms, your tasks may vary slightly to ensure that the livestock and crops are raised according to specifications.

Check out the JobMonkey’s Green Agricultural Jobs guide to learn more about careers in this field.

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