Organic re-certification decision

Back in November, we wrote about the political uncertainty surrounding organic cost-share funding, and its potential impact on the farm for this (and future) years. Harvest Public Media did a story on organic certification & its cost in December. In the chaos of the fiscal cliff mess at the turn of the year, the old Farm Bill was renewed, but without funding for organic cost share. This is precisely the situation that we feared, and it is forcing us and other organic farms into a difficult decision of whether to continue to pay the costs associated with the legal use of that word, as reported in this Harvest Public Media story featuring Happy Hollow Farm.

Since then, little has changed. Congress is still a dysfunctional mess, its indecision and incompetence causing uncertainty and unnecessary costs for businesses and individuals of all kinds. The uncertainty on cost share continues, with this proposal in the Senate to fix some of the mess. For the record, our small-government principles would be fine with cuts to organic cost-share if they were matched with sufficient cuts to chemical/corporate agriculture handouts to level the economic playing field. In the meantime, the system is still stacked against us, and it’s worth recalling that we don’t actually keep a dime of cost-share: all that money goes to certifying agencies and their well-paid employees.

Regardless, we can’t wait any longer to make a decision on re-certifying organic for this year, because we have to get the paperwork done before the growing season takes over our lives. So the time for decision has come.

If we drop certification, we save around $800/year in direct costs and a lot of paperwork hassle; certification fees have been raised significantly this year. Dropping out would mean we lose the legal right to use the word “organic” in any way; this decision would probably be permanent, as it would cost us a lot more time and money to re-certify at a later date even if cost-share is someday restored (there’s no “sabbatical”; you’re either in or out).

Giving up certification would also mean the loss of some legal protection from spraying of chemicals on our land by utilities (such as power line maintenance), government agencies (such as mosquito-control programs), and outside farming activities (such as crop-dusters). And we would have less legal standing to find out whether any really frightening herbicides had been applied on the hay/straw that we do buy & bring to the farm.

Although our blood pressure goes up every time we deal with the bureaucracy & cost of certification, we feel that the “o” word is what  best describes our methods, and it is really hard to face giving it up. Our official organic inspection reports for the last few years back us up in thinking that our approach to farming embodies the word:

  • “Great organic setting of an organically-managed operation run by two folks who live & breathe organic…. This will become a ‘mighty’ organic farm for the area.”
  • “These organic farmers are not ‘spray-happy’ (like some organic farmers relying on organically-approved silver-bullets), thus the ‘substance list’ by choice is virtually absent.”
  • “The farm is exemplary in terms of soil conservation, sustainability practices, and maintaining wildlife habitat & biological diversity….”

As larger corporate interests increasingly influence organic policies, including efforts to water down the meaning of the word, true organic farmers are at risk of being forced out by rising bureaucratic costs that are harder for us to shoulder than Big-Ag Organic. It’s a lot easier for a large monocultured “organic” farm to certify than for a small, diversified farm like ours that embodies the spirit of the word, but we believe strongly that what we do should be recognized as organic.

Thus, despite our overall negative opinion of the way organic certification is being run (including this problematic proposal for a mandatory organic check-off program), and the short-term frustrations and costs to ourselves, we’ve decided to re-certify for 2013. We are uncomfortable pulling what feels like a bait-and-switch with our CSA members, who signed up for an organic farm in good faith. We do not want to deal with refunds and explanations and website rewrites, which could be as disruptive as re-certification. Our records and paperwork are already mostly ready for the process, and our business year has already begun. Seedlings are already started, the outdoor planting season is a few weeks away, and it’s simply too late to back out now, thanks to Congress’ dithering. All bets are off for 2014, but we can make that decision later this year with more time to adapt our marketing & information and educate members/customers about any change.

In the meantime, we’ll just eat the cost, with the faint possibility of cost-share being restored in the ill-defined future. Despite the discussion in our earlier post, we’re not going to pass along the cost to our CSA members for 2013; it’s too late to have a fair discussion of that option with folks and we need to move on. That being said, anyone out there who wants to help make up the cost is welcome to do so, with no pressure or expectation on individuals who have their own lives and budgets to balance.

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