Last year, Three Springs Fruit Farm, operated by Dave, John, and Ben Wenk in Aspers, Pennsylvania, was certified by Food Alliance. An Oregon-based organization, Food Alliance provides third-party certification that sustainable agricultural and food handling practices are used in a farm’s operation.
Since then, Food Alliance announced certification of two other eastern U.S. orchards that also grow fruit and sell it directly to customers through retail operations.
The latest certification is of Barbour’s Fruit Farm & Market, Biglerville, Pennsylvania. Stephanie and Lee Welty are fifth-generation farmers who took over management of the farm in 2008 and grow apples, peaches, cherries, pears, small fruits, and vegetables.
Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, New York, operated by the Nicholson family, with Brian Nicholson as president, was certified earlier.
Unlike auditing programs that certify use of good agricultural practices that affect food safety, Food Alliance certification standards address social and environmental issues: safe and fair working conditions; use of integrated pest management practices; soil, water, and energy conservation; reduction of waste; and protection of wildlife habitat. It also requires evidence of continuous improvement in management practices.
Food Alliance started in 1993 as a project of Oregon State University, Washington State University, and the Washington State Department of Agriculture. It was formally incorporated in 1997 and began its certification program in 1998. Now, there are more than 320 certified farms and ranches in Canada and Mexico and in 23 states.
In an interview with Good Fruit Grower last fall, Ben Wenk explained how Food Alliance certification helps Three Springs Fruit Farm sell fruits and vegetables.
“Customers want to know what we grow and how we grow it,” Ben said. “The connection with the grower is important—that’s what they want. We were the first farm in the Mid-Atlantic states to be Food Alliance-certified.”
Besides using this connection on signage at the markets, Ben backs it up with information on the farm’s Web site. He explains, in words and videos, the farm’s growing practices—IPM, food safety, pheromone mating disruption, biological control, bioremediation, why they use green manure instead of fumigation.
He also explains why they are not organic—why organic works in the arid West but much less well in the humid East—and how they use IPM instead. He explains their relationship with the researchers at Penn State and how they have intensified their use of IPM practices—mating disruption on apples and peaches, monitoring insect activity with pheromone traps, then using low-residue, lower toxicity spray materials.
He also explains that they are in farming to stay. The Wenks sold development rights to their farm some years ago, restricting the land to agricultural production in perpetuity.
Lee Welty, at Barbour’s Fruit Farm, said people want to know what growers are doing to make a difference. “Earning Food Alliance certification proves that our farm is committed to sustainability as well as social and environmental responsibility.”
Food Alliance's Executive Director Scott Exo said that, increasingly, people want more information about how their food is grown and sold. "Farmers like the Weltys are responding in kind, managing their farms carefully, and backing up their social and environmental claims with third-party certification that independently verifies their management practices against stringent standards.”