RIGA - A trip to a typical supermarket, with its mainstream brand offerings and minimal fresh produce, may leave consumers unaware of the organic revolution occurring in Latvia's fields.
The organic-farming movement began in the late 1980s, alongside Latvia's green movement and subsequent push for independence. Production has grown over the past decade and exploded after Latvia joined the EU in May of 2004.
"Increased growth in the organic sector mirrors greater EU trends," says Irena Baraskina, an organic-market specialist.
Ministry of Agriculture statistics show that the number of organic-certified farms in Latvia went from 39 in 1998 to 1,043 in 2004. While this is a small fraction of total farms nationwide, the phenomenal growth is expected to continue as EU membership has provided organic farmers with special subsidies.
Currently there are two organic-certification agencies operating in Latvia: Vides Kvalitate and the Certification and Testing Center. Both agencies are nationally accredited, meaning that national organic certification is standardized and employs strict requirements to enforce control.
Gunta Apsite, quality director for Vides Kvalitate, said that Latvia's certification agencies now follow regulations and standards developed by the European Union under article 2092-91. While external organic certification has been available to local farmers since 1995, national certification began only in 2002.
Latvian food products now sport a variety of labels'sfrom the "Green Spoon" label available for products in which at least 75 percent of the ingredients are grown in Latvia, to the "VP" label used for healthy items.
The profusion of labels, however, may be confusing to customers who are unsure of their purpose.
So how does the consumer differentiate between organic and nonorganic products? The Association of Latvian Organic Agriculture maintains a national organic label "Latvijas Ekoprodukts" depicting a four-leaf clover threaded through a horseshoe. All products carrying the "Ekoprodukts" label are organically certified.
While some organic-certified farms are not members of ALOA and do not have the right to use the "Ekoprodukts" label, Regina Grinblate of Aizkraukle Rural Advisory Center says, "Non-ALOA producers denote their organic-certified status and list their certifying agency on their packaging."
While a few private processors have started using small stamps on their products that appear similar to the "Ekoprodukts" label, only the four-leaf clover with the "Latvijas Ekoprodukts" horseshoe is organic.
Organic-certified products can be found throughout Riga and its environs. Such shops often only stock organic products, and require farmers to present certification before purchasing their produce. Additionally, two restaurants in Riga offer a variety of organic dishes.
"Ekovirtuve offers organic or natural product meals at reasonable prices and also operates a small organic shop on the cafe premises," said cafe proprietor Ansis Stabingis.
The famous Vincents Restaurant provides a wide-variety of organic dishes as well, and its chef, Martins Ritins is the president of Latvia's Slow Food Association.
Ritins maintains close relationships with many of Latvia's small-scale organic farmers, and purchases restaurant ingredients "directly from farmers whenever possible" to prepare his renowned meals.
Organic producers such as Aivars and Lilija Ansons of Ataugas Farm have worked hard to develop a number of private customers making direct orders on a regular basis. By buying directly from farmers, consumers can avoid slightly higher shop costs, guarantee "just picked" quality and place their money directly in a farmer's hardworking hands.
According to Mr. and Mrs. Ansons, who grow and sell a variety of organic produce and flowers, they can "deliver directly to a Riga home or business if the order is of sufficient quantity."
A small but growing number of Latvian organic processors exist, from Zelta Klingeris bread and grain products, to organic Parsla juices and Keipene dairy products.
"Latvia is the only European country besides France now producing fully natural, unpasturized dairy products under a standardized testing system," says Iveta Virsnite of Keipene. "Keipene follows stringent procedures to guarantee food safety."
Its dairy, she added, comes in brown bottles to protect light from entering and breaking down essential proteins, making for a healthier, richer product.
Surprisingly, much of Latvia's organic products are quite reasonably priced. While slightly higher than mainstream product pricing, organic products are often priced below high-end nonorganic goods. Moreover, all products certified under national agencies are Latvian in origin, and money spent on them goes to local retailers, processors and producers.
As organic farms and processing centers continue to grow, opportunities for rural employment have also expanded. Many organic farms now operate as education centers for student interns who wish to learn farming or small-enterprise development in a rural setting. Organic farms often double as eco-tourism retreats where guests can sleep in comfortable beds, eat organic farm-grown meals and partake in the country's sauna tradition.
The Healthy Farm Association consists of an active group of farmer-entrepreneurs who are working to develop eco-tourism in Latvia.
Ruta Nokarkle, director of the Latgale Healthy Farm chapter, runs Salenieki farm next to a lake in the Preili district. It offers sauna, massage and active sports equipment, along with home-cooked organic meals. Salenieki also is fully equipped for wedding services and large group accommodation.
Eco-tourism quality is generally quite high, as it is controlled through a standardized ranking procedure. However, costs vary widely. Generally, the further from Riga, the lower prices become, and while some retreats are pricy, many are extremely affordable.