Quirks in organic transitions

I received an email question from a reader, who is starting a small farm and planning to certify, asking how to handle long-term things like fruit trees which they want to source from a local but non-organic source. The quick answer is simple, but it raises some interesting side questions about the organic system. My answer ended up being long enough to make a good basis for a blog post on this subject.

The process of transitioning a farm into organic certification raises some difficult questions. In many cases the transitional farm has used materials or methods that will be banned once under certification. Obviously, annual inputs like most pesticides and herbicides are on this list, but there are other, trickier questions. A barn or fence might have been built ten years before using treated lumber, which is prohibited. A dairy herd might have been given medications no longer allowed. An orchard or other perennial plantation may have been established with non-organic planting stock.

In general, transitional farms follow the 3-year rule for forbidden inputs like herbicides and pesticides. But what to do about more permanent things like treated lumber? Such things are usually grandfathered in; don’t do it anymore, but you don’t have to rip out your barn or fence and replace it with non-treated wood. The same is true for planting stock. No one expects you to rip out your orchard and start over, but any new trees are supposed to come from organic sources. The idea is to allow people to change their minds and become organic, while still upholding the cleaner standards.

Of course, in the real world, even this is not that simple. There aren’t that many sources for organic planting stock when it comes to fruit trees, and it may be more sustainable to get non-certified trees from a local source than organic trees from far away, because the local trees may be more adapted to your climate conditions and thus be healthier and less susceptible to pests and disease, thus requiring fewer inputs. This choice better fulfils the spirit of organic, if not the letter. Of course, that local grower may still be raising their stock using various chemicals and forbidden inputs. There’s no one answer; my impression is that most certifiers and farmers just look for the sensible middle ground. So the easy answer to my reader was to get the fruit trees they want, organic if they can, and ask for forgiveness once they certify down the road.

There is one problem however, that concerns me. This grandfathering system also lends itself to abuses by transitional farmers. I’ve been told of one case where a transitional farmer intentionally built lots of new fencing with treated lumber just before applying for certification, in order to take advantage of the grandfather rules, even though that very much violates the spirit of organic and what customers think they’re getting. In another case, a greenhouse was built with treated wood just before certification, again avoiding the ban on such materials post-certification. To me, this is cheating, though others might disagree. I don’t know how to fix it, other than maybe making the 3-year rule apply to everything (i.e. you can’t certify anything with treated lumber until it’s 3 years old). The point, though, is that organic is far from perfect and so are organic farmers, and it’s all these gray areas that sometimes frustrate us and take lots of time trying to properly understand.

Going back to fruit trees, if you can justify non-organic stock for reasons of variety or local source, you still have to be careful (or are supposed to be). For example, when we ordered our non-organic blueberry plants, which had been approved by our certifier, they came with a packet of “root gel” that was supposed to be applied to the roots before planting. This was very much not organic and our certifier agreed we shouldn’t use it (it was basically just a chemical fertilizer). Using anything like that gets into the realm of management, not source, and is not allowed at all. So it’s worth asking such things from the supplier, though I suspect many growers are not so conscientious.

This has rambled a bit, but I hope it makes two points: (1) organic is not an easy or clean-cut system, and it is only as good as the morals and practices of those involved, and (2) trying to regulate “the right thing” is quite difficult in the real world and is partly why organic is a pain to comply with. But it also serves as a constant influence on the farmer to consider what they’re doing and why, and push practices in a cleaner direction.

One thought on “Quirks in organic transitions

  1. I have talked to farmers who were planning to transition to organic. They were trying to clean up their ground using much more chemicals than usual and more aggressive crop rotations. It seemed like a good idea to me. I can see how this can be abused as you noted in your post. More and more large farmers are going to Organic production. It is the usual story. The smaller more innovative folks do the legwork and learn how to do things, then the big guys make the profits.