Growing practices are often a primary deciding factor when choosing which farms to buy from. You want to connect with a farm that aligns with your values. Ask farmers about their practices or find them listed in ASAP’s online Local Food Guide. While there are a lot of terms and certifications to navigate, we’ve defined some of the most common ones below. Visit the linked websites for more information.
Animal Welfare Approved: Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World (AGW) is a USDA-approved third-party certification that guarantees animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range for their entire lives on an independent farm using truly sustainable, high-welfare farming practices. It is the only label in the U.S. to require audited, high-welfare production, transport and slaughter practices.
Biodynamic: Biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition. Biodynamic certification in the United States is managed by Demeter USA and uses the USDA organic standard as a foundation with additional requirements. Beyond organic certification, the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard requires that the whole farm, and not just a specific crop, is certified; crops and livestock are integrated and animals are treated humanely; imported fertility is kept to a minimum; the biodynamic preparations are regularly applied; at least 50% of livestock feed is grown on farm; at least 10% of the total farm acreage is set aside for biodiversity; and the farm upholds standards of social responsibility.
Certified Naturally Grown: Different requirements for different products, including produce, bees, livestock, aquaponics, and mushrooms. Certified Naturally Grown farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicide, or GMOs, just like certified organic farmers. The main difference between CNG and organic is the certification model, which relies on peer inspections, transparency, and direct relationships.
Certified Organic: Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced and processed using approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Products must be certified organic by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.
Conventional: Conventional farming is the use of seeds that have been genetically altered using a variety of traditional breeding methods, excluding biotechnology, and are not certified as organic. Some conventional breeding methods have been used for thousands of years, often times to develop plants with faster growth, higher yields, pest and disease resistance, larger seeds, or sweeter fruit.
Free Range: No legal definition exists for these claims when used on any food products, although the USDA does apply an informal guideline. The USDA allows the use of these claims on poultry products if the farmer submits testimonials and affidavits describing the conditions under which the birds are raised. The USDA informally defines “free range” for poultry as having access to the outside. However, because birds may be housed indoors for inclement weather and other reasons, and given that chickens raised for meat are slaughtered at just 42 days, it is possible that some free-range chickens never step outside. Non-organic “free range” claims on eggs are not recognized or verified by any federal entity, although state regulation is possible. For non-organic eggs, “free roaming” likely means the hens are not confined in a cage.
GAP Certified: Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) are voluntary audits that verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.
Humanely Raised: The USDA has no official definition of this claim, meaning “humanely raised” claims should be accompanied by an explanation of what is meant. The USDA has approved third-party certification programs making “humane” claims, including Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and American Humane Certified. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has also approved “humanely raised” and “humanely handled” claims under its Process Verified Program. The merely verifies that the producer has met its own standards, however, and as such the claim may simply represent a marketing tactic with little or no relevance to animal welfare.
Integrated Pest Management: IPM is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices. IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.
Low Spray: The term low-spray has no precise definition. It simply refers to a reduced-synthetic-pesticide spray program relative to a region’s prevailing conventional practices. For example, instead of eight to twelve spray applications during a growing season, a low-spray program using sophisticated monitoring and other integrated pest management (IPM) techniques may consist of only two to four.
Non-GMO: GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and refers to plants, animals or other organisms whose genetic material has been changed in ways that do not occur naturally. The non-GMO claim means that the food is made without ingredients that were derived from genetically engineered organisms. For meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, the non-GMO claim means animals were not fed a diet containing genetically engineered crops. For meat and poultry, the USDA requires that companies meet a common standard when claiming to be non-GMO, but requires no on-farm inspection or annual paperwork audit. For processed foods, plant-based foods, eggs, and dairy products, whose labels are regulated by the USDA, there is no common standard that companies have to meet for this labeling claim, and no verification is required. Look for assurance that the claim has been verified, such as the Non-GMO Project Verified seal or the USDA Organic seal.
Organic (Not Certified): Follows the same principles as organic certified (no persistent chemical pesticides, no commercial chemical fertilizers or herbicides, etc.) but is not inspected by USDA. Farms selling less than $5,000 are not required to get certified. Many farms selling to direct markets find certification process too arduous and expensive to be worth it or they simply don’t trust it or think it’s too relaxed.
Pasture Raised: Generally, “pasture raised” is used to indicate that a dairy, egg, meat, or poultry product came from animals provided with continuous access to pasture and natural vegetation. However, no regulatory standard for the term exists, and for meat and poultry the USDA applies the same definition as it does for the “free range” claim—animals had continuous, free access to the outdoors for a significant portion of their lives. The term “significant portion of their lives” is not defined, so confinement for some period of time is not ruled out. There is no independent verification of the claim unless the farmer participates in a third-party certification program, such as Animal Welfare Approved.
Permaculture: Permaculture is a holistic, living-in-harmony-with-nature worldview, as well as technical approach for how to do so. The term was coined by Bill Mollison in 1978, who defined it as “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
Wildcrafted: Wildcrafting (also known as wild harvesting or foraging) is the practice of harvesting plants from their natural habitat, primarily for food or medicinal purposes. It applies to uncultivated plants wherever they may be found, and is not necessarily limited to wilderness areas. Ethical considerations are often involved, such as protecting endangered species, potential for depletion of commonly held resources, and in the context of private property, preventing theft of valuable plants (for example, ginseng). Self-regulated guidelines for good wildcrafting practices include gaining permission from the landowner, positively identifying the plant, harvesting at the proper growing phase, and not collecting in areas of known pesticide use or from areas with livestock.