USDA National Organic Program standards identify three official designations. Producers must follow these strict guidelines. Only producers who annually sell less than $5,000 worth of products are exempt from these labeling rules.

• 100 percent organic: Whether a raw product (such as fruits, vegetables and meat) or processed (such as breakfast cereal), all ingredients must be certified organic. Product labels must state the name of the certifying agent.

• Organic: These products contain at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients by weight. Non-certified ingredients must be from an approved list. The label states the certifying agent.

• Made with organic: These products contain at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients by weight and the non-certified ingredients must be from the approved list. The certifying agent is stated on the label, but the USDA organic seal cannot be used.

What Does This Mean for Home Gardeners?

Because of the cost of becoming certified organic, few home gardeners will take the steps necessary to be truly organic. As a home gardener, you can take steps to be more environmentally friendly. Besides, there is no fresher, tastier, prettier veggie than the one you have grown yourself.

Organic-like home gardening is all about emphasizing the use of renewable resources and conserving soil and water to preserve environmental quality. Proper pest identification to reduce pesticide use, soil testing for responsible fertilization and dutiful attention to building soil organic matter are all part of a garden’s ability to support natural biological cycles. All of these can easily be done in a home garden without all the record keeping and costly certifications required for certified organic farmers.

Simple ways to enhance garden management

• Protect and increase soil organic matter by using compost (make your own), mulch and cover crops, and by choosing organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion, kelp and manures.

• Use an adequate mulch layer, even in a vegetable garden, to help conserve water, prevent soil erosion and build a food source for beneficial soil microbes.

• Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to reduce water waste because of evaporation, and use these irrigation systems only when the weather calls for it. Learn how your plants use water by digging in the soil to determine how quickly it dries or stays moist because consistent soil moisture reduces plant stress.

• Choose plants and vegetable varieties suited for your climate. This reduces water use, susceptibility to pests and overall plant stress.

• Use caution when applying any pesticide as some can also kill beneficial insects, such as honey bees and predatory insects. Think first of other control methods, such as row covers and trap crops that confuse pests, or the pick-and-stomp method. Most important, realize that produce does not have to look like a grocery store display — a little aesthetic damage does not mean the vegetable tastes less yummy than the unblemished one.

• Learn to recognize beneficial insects (lady beetle larvae, big-eyed bug, braconid wasps, etc.) that help reduce pests in your garden and landscape.

• Finally, when you cannot grow it yourself, buy locally grown and locally made products. Knowing your farmer is one way to learn how the food on your table was produced.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System is committed to serving all food producers and consumers. Regional Extension agents regularly organize special training meetings to teach producers and consumers the methods that correctly utilize science-based organic practices on the farm and in the home garden. We also encourage you to check the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education website to learn more about the progress of organic farming in Alabama, and contact the state SARE coordinators for any questions or concerns.

Resources

USDA National Organic Program standards

http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

Certified Naturally Grown program

http://www.naturallygrown.org

OMRI-approved products

http://www.omri.org/omri-lists

Alabama SARE

http://www.southernsare.org/SARE-in-Your-State/Alabama

Alabama Vegetable IPM

https://www.aces.edu/blog/category/farming/ipm-farming

Upcoming Extension Programs 

• 4-H Summer Funshops have been scheduled. If you are interested in signing your 8- to 18-year-old up for one, contact the Extension Office.

• Etowah County Folks: We are asking for everyone’s input. Please go to www.aces.edu/grassroots and fill out the quick survey. This will assist us in planning for future programs for local residents. Simply choose the county where you reside.

• Cottage Food Course: 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday; contact Christy Mendoza at the Extension Office.

For more information on this topic and many others, contact the Etowah County Extension Office, 256-547-7936 or 3200 A W. Meighan Blvd., Gadsden. Amy Burgess is extension coordinator for the Etowah County Extension Office.