Organic certification – inspection recap

Our official Organic inspection took place yesterday, and I think it’s fair to say it went well. Having never gone through the process before, I’ll walk through it for the interest of customers and farmers alike who may be wondering how this works.

We’re certifying through MOSA, a non-profit agency that is trained and approved by the USDA to handle organic certifications. Some states have their own government-run programs, like Iowa, but Missouri killed its program years ago. So we’re using Wisconsin-based MOSA because we liked their approach, setup, and philosophy best of all the agencies we looked at (they’re based in and focused on the Midwest and were very approachable with questions and concerns). They have some inspectors on staff, but not enough farms in Missouri yet to justify a trip down, so they hired an independent organic inspector based in Kansas City to do our inspection and prepare a report.

He showed up right on time at 10:00 am, and began by spending a little time interviewing us about our background in farming, choice of methods & location, justification for going organic, and so on. Much of this is written into our application, but understandably he wanted to see if the reality on the ground matched the paperwork. Really, that’s what the inspection is all about; it’s one thing to send in a 100-page set of documents, but it’s another to demonstrate the viability and reality of those documents’ contents to an independent, knowledgeable inspector.

So after talking through our backgrounds, methods, philosophies, and so on, we toured the farm. He needed to see all our growing areas, and asked a lot of questions about management practices, the surrounding landscape, and so on. For example, he was checking to make sure no ground uphill from our fields could be contaminated, for example by a conventional agricultural field with runoff. Not a problem; the forested ridges on most sides of our farm provide Organic’s dream buffer zone. In many cases he was checking that things were as we said they were; are there fields we didn’t declare? Activities we were hiding? Suspicious-looking sprayer in the barn? Did our maps match reality? Was there evidence of pesticide use or other prohibited activities?

As any photographer knows, reality can be framed in such a way as to send a very different impression from the overall picture. Our Organic application is a like a photograph, sending the picture of the farm that we intended to. The Inspection is like an auditor gazing around the entire scene after the shutter snaps, looking at what else might be there and whether the photographer captured the scene fairly and accurately.

After we’d finished the physical walkthrough, we returned to the house for more interviews and questioning which covered our methods, knowledge, and so on in some detail. He also needed to inspect our receipts, seed packages, and physical records, again to ensure that there was evidence of what we claimed and no evidence to the contrary.

All in all, the process took about three hours and felt, to us, like going through another graduate thesis defense (preparing the application with its copious record requirements felt like writing another thesis). My impression was that we passed with flying colors, and indeed when we were finished the inspector conveyed that he was very impressed and felt that our farm embodied the ideals of Organic (paraphrasing).

So now, we simply wait. He will write up a thorough report and send it to MOSA, where a certification review board will assess the report and our application and make a final decision about our status. Once we receive a notification of approval (which at this point we expect), we can start using the O-word officially and the USDA seal and so on. But we have no idea when that will be; it could be a month or two from now given how busy such organizations are this time of year. But at least it’s a major step, and a good feeling to have an independent professional inspector approve of our operation.

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