Dropping organic certification, part II

Our farm has been certified organic for 5 of its 7 years in business, including our transition from a market & restaurant focus to a CSA, but we’ve decided to drop our certification for 2014 and the forseeable future, effective March 15. This decision has been developing for a long time, and was the topic of countless hours of discussion over the last year. This is the second of three posts in which we attempt to discuss and explain some of the myriad experiences and reasons behind this decision, though we can’t possibly cover everything.

PART II: Some of our specific concerns and problems with certification

1. Cost

Over our five years under certification, the costs have kept rising, and we can’t identify a comparable financial benefit (discussed more below). The USDA funds a cost-share program, which paid back up to 75% of the cash cost of certification, but that was cut by Congress for 2013 before being reinstated, for now, in the latest farm bill. Last year’s cut came without much warning, and forced us to recertify while eating the total cost for that year, since we didn’t feel we could pass it on to CSA members with no warning.

We feel this cost-share program is bad policy anyway, as it was just a pass-through that was re-paid directly by us to the certifier, thus guaranteeing their income in a way the actual farmer never received. Nothing in cost-share pays the farmer a dime for all the time, effort, and expense involved in complying with organic standards and paperwork. The USDA could achieve the same effect more efficiently by just subsidizing the certifying agencies directly, without laundering the money through the farm to pretend it’s a farm-support program.

2. Bureaucracy

“Records are detailed, current, and well organized. Records and audit trail are excellent!” – 2012 organic inspection report for Chert Hollow Farm

Organic certification is, in part, an attempt to prove a complicated negative. Along with following various encouraged practices, a farm is expected to prove, though copious record-keeping and limited interviews, that it is NOT doing or using any of a wide number of prohibited activities and products. For example, every variety of crop grown has to be trackable in written records from seed to sale, with every input and practice used in the plant’s life able to be shown on paper to an inspector. The best way to illustrate the problem with this system comes from a quote I read many years ago, from a frustrated organic farmer, wondering why her conventional rivals didn’t have to track or report anything about their own applications and practices. How different would the food world look if farmers were required to report & track every agrichemical and conventional practice used?

“This farm couple is very scientific in their training, data processing skills, and records management, thus a distinct pleasure to inspect (and to experience their business-like approach to organic vegetable- and herb-production).” – 2009 organic inspection report for Chert Hollow Farm

And in our experience, too often the paperwork and oversight focus on nitpicking little things rather than addressing farm management as a whole. We’ve been hassled on logo use & placement, for example, even though we were in compliance with the USDA rules. As another example, this past year our certifier hassled us about incorporating some forest soil into the planting sites for our latest fruit trees, something we did because forest soils contain various beneficial microbes and fungi that can help support fruit trees. The certifier suddenly wanted us to submit more paperwork for our forest, despite their prior approval of (a) our planting of ramps (woodland alliums) for organic production in the same forest, (b) our use of logs from this forest for organic shiitake mushroom production, (c) our use of wood chips from this forest as mulch on our organic fruit trees, (d) our use of leaves from this forest as an approved input for vegetable areas, and (e) our use of soil/sand from the farm as an approved input for greenhouse production. This is the same bureaucratic mentality that sent us a printed invoice in an envelope with a first class stamp telling us we owed them $0.03. Twice. (We gave them our 2 cents about that one. But since we value our time, it cost us way more than that.)

3. Value for direct-marketing

We assumed, when we decided to certify, that being organic would help us attract market customers and receive a better price for our produce, but it wasn’t that simple. At our market, we found that the majority of consumers were just as likely to be shopping for bargains rather than ethics, and that lots of people didn’t really distinguish between certified farms and farms making various claims to sustainability, with a lot of greenwashing in between (like the vendor who told us, “I’m organic, I only use Sevin when I really have to”). Local and national media repeatedly making statements such as “all products at farmers markets are organic” likely didn’t help the situation.

Now, as a CSA, we no longer need to try and attract individual shoppers from within a large crowd of vendors every week, just a relatively few members once a year. We’ve found that increasing our connection with consumers is more powerful than a USDA logo that most people don’t even really understand.

We still feel that Organic is an important distinction when consuming foods from farms we can’t have a connection to. Most of the foods we buy non-locally are certified, because without that system it’s a relatively unregulated free-for-all in terms of what farmers can do to their land and their products. For this very reason, Organic is still a very good choice for farmers selling into the wholesale system and consumers shopping at the grocery store or even a farmers market; it’s just losing its value for us on a highly diversified CSA farm that expects its members to be engaged with the farm.

In Part III we’ll take a more positive tack, discussing some positive aspects of our experience as a certified farm as well as future benefits we foresee outside the certified organic system.

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