Organic, Local, Sustainable: Farmer’s Market Jargon Decoded

Walking down the aisles of your local farmer’s market can be both totally exciting (all those fresh, fun veggies for such affordable prices!) and incredibly overwhelming (uh, what’s sustainably-raised lamb, mean?). So that’s why we’re here to make it easier for you by defining some of the common catch-phrases at the farmer’s market.

Cage-Free—There is no legal definition for cage-free, but usually it just indicates that animals are not confined to individual cages. This does not mean they are free-range or pastured or given any access to the outdoors at all.

Certified Naturally Grown—Farms who choose not to go through the government-regulated process of becoming a Certified Organic farm can choose to go through another independent regulatory option—Certified Naturally Grown. This program is more affordable than the USDA Certified Organic program, but still requires the same high standards as farms who choose to be Certified Organic.

Conventional/Conventionally-Grown—This means the product is grown or raised using conventional farming practices that are widely accepted by the profession. This can include using pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, GMOs, antibiotics, hormones, and other artificial practices.

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)—Many farmers at markets also have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. In a CSA, the consumer pays an up-front fee at the beginning of the season and in exchange, receives a weekly or bi-weekly box of produce from the farm. This helps the farmer with the expensive costs during the beginning of the growing season, and ensures the consumer a fresh source of local produce each week, usually for cheaper than they could find it at the market or in the store.

Farmstead—This term usually refers to cheese and dairy products, and it means that the same farm that raises the cattle also creates the cheese and dairy product.

Free-Range—This is a USDA regulated term for poultry only. Meaning when applied to poultry meat and eggs, this term means that the animal had access to the outdoors. The USDA does not require a certain amount of time or space available for the access to the outdoors. However, many farmers at the market take the term “free range” to mean “pastured” and will use the two terms interchangeably.

Grass-Fed/Grass-Finished–These terms, usually referring to livestock, indicate that the animal has been fed it’s natural diet of grass instead of a more conventional diet of grains, corn, or soy. Grains are frequently fed to cattle and sheep in conventional farming because it fattens them up to slaughter weight more quickly. However, the animals digestive systems aren’t made to handle the grain, and it negatively affects their overall health. Meat and milk from grass-fed or grass-finished animals are generally considered much more healthy than meat or milk from non-grass-fed livestock.

GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms)—GMOs are plants or animals whose genetic makeup have been altered in a laboratory to have traits that aren’t usually found in the plant or animal. Currently, GMOs are allowed in conventional farming, but are disallowed in Certified Organic and Certified Natural farming.

Heirloom—In reference to crops, heirlooms are centuries old varieties of fruits or vegetables. They are usually unique in color, appearance and taste from what you would typically find at the grocery store.

Heritage—In reference to livestock, heritage breeds are animals that have been bred specifically for the local environment throughout generations, making them particularly suited for the weather, conditions, and disease issues of the area.

Local/Locally-Grown—There is no legal definition of how close the origin of a product has to be to be labeled “local”, however, many individual farmer’s markets will set a specific limit for how local products must be to be sold there. Be warned: some farmer’s markets do not regulate this, and some stands at farmer’s markets will sell shipped-in produce. Always be skeptical of a stand that has tomatoes or other summer crops weeks before other stands.

Locavore—A locavore is a general term for a person who is interested in eating a diet mostly consisting of food from their region.

Natural/Naturally-Grown/All-Natural—The claim of being “natural” is largely unregulated (although, the USDA does require that meat that is labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial ingredients). Basically, anyone can put “natural” on their product without regulation. This is an occasion where it would be good to ask the farmer at the stand what they specifically mean by “natural”.

Organic/Certified Organic—For a farm to label their food as “organic” they must follow a strict approval and regulatory process by the USDA. Many small farms can’t afford to go through this process, so don’t be turned off if a stand doesn’t (and can’t) label it’s food “organic.” Many farms use organic growing practices without being Certified Organic.

Pastured—While this term has no regulated definition, many farmers use it to mean the animals are free to roam along a pasture for at least a portion of the day. When in doubt, ask the farmer about their practices.

Pesticide-Free/Chemical-Free—Many farmers who cannot afford to be either Certified Organic or Certified Naturally Grown will label their produce in this way to indicate their products are organically grown.

Raw—In regards to dairy products, this refers to dairy products that have not been pasteurized or homogenized. In many states, it is illegal to sell raw dairy products. However, many people consider raw dairy products to be the healthiest option available, so you might see a stand selling raw cottage cheese or raw milk “for pet consumption only” to get around the laws in these states.

Seconds—Many stands will sell seconds—fruit or vegetables that aren’t as pretty as others—for a mighty discount. This is especially true after hail storms or storms with strong winds that may have damaged the produce in your area. These products are great for canning or other processing.

Sustainably-Raised/Responsibility-Raised/Humanely-Raised—These terms refer to farming that is socially just and environmentally and economically responsible. In general, these terms are used to refer to animal products, and refer to the conditions the animals live and are slaughtered (if applicable). These terms are not regulated but any regulating body.

Transitional—When transitioning from conventional to organic, farms are required to undergo a three year period where they use organic farming practices, but cannot legally label their products as “organic”—many farmer’s label their products as “transitional” during these three years.

Vine-Ripened/Tree-Ripened—This means that fruits and vegetables are allowed to reach their peak ripeness on the plant, instead of being picked early and shipped while still not mature (as many produce items in the grocery store are).

What’s your favorite farmer’s market find?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Cassie Johnston is an award-winning food writer and recipe developer living and working in Southern Indiana. Her work has been feature in national publications such as Gourmet Magazine and The Huffington Post. Cassie’s a big fan of strenuous hikes, cheese, watching sports, Brussels sprouts, and craft beer, and she’ll talk your ear off about her love of local food and seasonal eating. She’s obsessed with social media and loves connecting with new friends!