Organic vs Local – Choosing a Label That Will Boost Your Selling Power

“Are ZipGrow Towers Organic?”

If you’re considering becoming a farmer, you’ve probably considered Organic certification at some point in the planning process. Many farmers assume that this choice makes sense for any small local farm.

As a result, a question we frequently receive is whether or not ZipGrow Towers are certified Organic.While growing equipment can’t be Organic itself, the Towers arecompliant with USDA organic standards.

However, this doesn’t mean that Organic is the right choice for your farm.

In our experience both farming and helping hundreds of other growers get onto their feet, we’ve noticed something very important:

The Organic label is a proxy for trust and transparency in our food system.

Years ago, a universal standard for trustworthy food was an incredible step forward. Agrain of sand in the proverbial oyster, the Organic label provided a point around which regulations could form. For decades, it has served both consumers and the farms from which they buy their food.


We beleive that the Organic label is valuable, but not an end-all solution to the trust problem with our food. The label still functions within a system designed for mass production. The results are often compromised quality and waste even in Organic produce.

Today, the valuesof consumers are shifting more towards trust and transparency, and there are several things that farmers can do to create that trust.

The bottom line: farmers who want to have a trusting relationship with their customers have more than one option.


Local growershave more than this reason to reconsider their pursuit of Organic certification. Hydroponic and aquaponic farms are getting harder and harder to certify, and “containerized” growing may be completely ruled out of standards in the near future.

The trouble with soil-less Organics

396A7742Any hydroponics system (including aquaponics) is going to be very difficult to get certified, because the USDA Organic standards do not recognize hydroponics as falling within the spirit of organics.

*Editor’s Note: A lot has changed since this post! The new NOP standards include the following:

“There are some USDA accredited certifirers that certify organic hydroponic operations, using the USDA organic regulation crop standards. This certification is allowed, as long as the certifier can demonstrate its process for certifying in a way that is compliant.”

Dr. Nate says, “Currently there is NO form of hydroponics or aquaponics that the [National Organic Standards Board] supports or endorses.

“It’s possible to get certification, but it’s completely outside of the scope of the true organic standards. There is serious risk to the certified producers that certification could be revoked by the NOSB at any point in the future.”

This doesn’t mean that you can’t get certified- it just means that you have to find a certifier that is very sympathetic with your cause.

Our Upstart Farm support specialist Perry has this insight on the NOSB and national organic hydroponics: “Basically, they feel that since hydroponic growers don’t use soil and, thus, don’t actively improve soil health and soil bacteria, microbe, etc. populations actively, they can’t be organic.”

This gets tenuous because the national standard-makers have all of the power. If they decide that hydroponics can’t be Organic (they have the power to do that), then they can pull the license of those certifiers.


This is bad news for the hydroponic farmer, because he’s invested in and is dependent upon a label that is nebulous. He’s completely at the mercy of people who probably don’t share his vision.

Nobody wants to be up that creek, and we don’t foresee this changing much in the next five to ten years.

That’s the first reason we don’t encourage Organic certification for small startup farmers.

There’s something even better than Organic

The second reason is that there’s a much better option: local.

Once you begin to consider it, we think you’ll find that local farming is everything that you are working towards.

  • As local farmer, you’ll be serving local markets with the best produce they’ve ever laid eyes on.
  • As a local farmer, you’ll be able to foster community and build a trusting relationship with your customers.
  • As a local farmer, you’ll be sporting a label that delivers consistent and significant value.
  • As a local farmer, you’ll be independent of an unsympathetic third party.

Over the past five years, we’ve noticed that consumers want trust more than they want organic. Other farmers are realizing it, too. In a recent reflection on why some vertical farms fail, Bright Agrotech CEO Chris Michael pointed out thatthe time and money spent getting certified may be better spent forming relationships with customers.

“What customers really want is transparency and tChris Bright Agrotecho trust that the food they buy and consume is safe, nutritious, and grow in ways they can support.

They dont want a label, they want certainty.
Weve been given a label as a proxy but what we wanted was trust and security.

Buying from a local farmer gives them greater feelings of security because they can visit their farm and shake their hand.”

Organic vs local: choose a label that will serve you.

When you’re getting serious about moving forward with your own farm don’t over think certifications.

Just remember what matters and what’s been lost over the years: The relationship between farmer and consumer. Transparency at a fundamental level.

If you’re starting small like we often recommend, you should be building a customer base as you go. This allows you to establish trust with your customers and demonstrate your value and commitment to quality as a farmer.

Certifications like organic are merely an attempt to find this type of transparency. Many farmers are already too big for that level of transparency to be realistic. If you’re a small farmer, you can do so much better.

Maybe we should strive for a new certification. We’ll call it “Transparent” (with a capital T). Who’s in charge of the certification process? How about your customers? Do they trust you? Can they peek behind the veil of your greenhouse? Are they informed about your farming practices? Do they trust you and like you enough to tell their friends and family?

How much does a Transparent certification cost? Just your willingness to be vulnerable and to always do right by your customer.

That’s it.

How about that for a certification process?

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