Searching for a Certification

Our brains are stealthily lazy.  Acquiring new skills is difficult, so our grey matter gets creative trying to justify any routine in order to save energy and avoid learning.  Just think about everything we continue doing poorly simply to avoid rocking the boat.

One of the creative alternatives to learning we’ve happily embraced is the coach.  Society is coached in everything these days: exercise, diet, lifestyle, dress, drinks, and even marketing.  In the world of agriculture, certifiers are the preferred coach to whom we send money in exchange for our own legitimacy.  For a few hundred bucks, we can get some goof to do a perfunctory examination of the production line and apply a sticker to our packaging that proclaims greatness to the world.

Negative results are two-fold.  First, a stamp, sticker, or slap on the back sets a ceiling in our minds that is perceived as the pinnacle of achievement, and to work beyond it is considered impossible or, at least, illogical.  Third-party issued certifications, then, are the nemesis of small farm creativity.  Acting on human nature, farmers will work just hard enough to receive the certification, and then plane out, continuing business based on the assurance that they’re certified.  Identity, in its truest form, is covered up, and progress dies with it; I envision someone mailing the check and thinking ‘I don’t have to worry about that anymore!’

Second, a plethora of stamps and stickers cause customers to stop thinking, too.  Shoppers – especially young shoppers – are naturally drawn to complexity in packaging.  A product featuring quite a lot of lingo on the label must surely be superior to its plain-Jane rival in the next bin over, right?  Like a magician distracting his audience while the trick takes place across the stage, packaging leads people to focus more on the bag than the food inside. 

I’ve fallen victim more than I care to admit.  For example, a prominent picture of the Eiffel Tower and some accompanying awards led me to purchase what I thought was good French cheese that turned out to be from Canada.  Certified Organic grassfed beef at the grocery store implies to shoppers that the product’s carbon footprint is minimized; I’m willing to bet very few people read the fine print on the back stating the beef came from Uruguay and Australia.  Why would anyone keep reading?  It says ‘certified organic’ on the front, and that’s good, right?

It seems to me a certification has become more of a hiding place for dubious activities than an enlightening beacon to show shoppers the way.  Certainly a few are trustworthy, but they have become the exception and not the norm.  Getting certified became popular in the eighties, and, once the ball got rolling, knock-offs touting little credibility followed.

Fresh in my mind is a producer who once bragged to me that he was able to get some form of grassfed certification because several sprigs of greenery were clinging to life in the mud lot where he permanently penned his cattle.  ‘You just need one blade!’ he laughed, using his pinky finger to represent the whole of his farmstead vegetation.  ‘That’s it – no concrete, and a blade of grass, and you’ll be in!’  He used the certification – which he paid for - in part to acquire a contract with a nearby university that wants responsibly raised beef available to students in the cafeteria.  As far as I know, still today faculty take heart knowing they’re doing their part for the Earth by serving students beef from cattle who spend their days belly deep in manure slop because concrete was deemed inhumane.  Probably not exactly what they were hoping for, is it?  No matter, the certification does the talking instead of reality.

Who, then, can be trusted?

Much effort has been expended to answer this very question, and the method to assure legitimacy gets more complex as we create certifiers to certify the certifiers who certify our food.  I’m not sure adding more layers of checks is the correct route to go, because as long as someone is willing to cheat the system for a fast buck, the system will always be flawed.  Perhaps a more logical route is to stop giving credence to certifications at all.  Establishing trust, then, becomes a major part of the equation, and trust can only come about with a significantly shortened supply chain.

That’s a pretty tall order for most people because it requires personal discernment, which can lead to personal error.  I can’t count the number of times folks in Pittsburgh have rejected our beef in favor of the organic brand of a major packer simply because our farm isn’t certified.  It’s an interesting world in which people weigh the value of a label over a relationship with the person who is actually raising the cattle, but it’s easier to ignore being wrong about packaging than it is to risk being wrong face-to-face.

It’s far more challenging, as a producer, to establish your own credibility without the help of a certification. Customers will encounter their own knowledge void when they choose to ask questions to farmers instead of examining packaging. If both, though, are willing to accept the test of personal responsibility instead of simply deferring to the standards of someone else, our food system (a segment of it, anyway) can improve dramatically. Stop searching for certifications!