Dropping organic certification, part III

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 third 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 III: The benefits of dropping certification

Despite choosing to drop the certification, we have no regrets about the last 5 years. Being part of the system was a beneficial learning experience, as discussed below. However, most of that learning happened in the first couple of years, and we now feel that the freedom to use our judgment in our farming practices is more valuable to us. There’s a significant upside for our farm in leaving certification; in this post we’ll discuss some of the benefits we’re anticipating from our newly-found freedom.

1. What we learned

We chose to certify early in our farm’s history, when we were still very much learning and developing the skills and management methods we’d use on this piece of land. Going through the process taught us a great deal about farming and agricultural policy, and developed some specific skills and methods we might not have investigated otherwise.

“Greatly expanding the crop varieties, productivity, & customer reputation at local markets. The organic management system is working well for them via improved tilth, bug resistance due to greater crop health.” – 2010 organic inspection report for Chert Hollow Farm

Records: The  requirement for detailed record-keeping, while sometimes onerous, also helped ingrain the useful habit of taking notes on important farm events, decisions, and actions. Having good records is extremely valuable for planning purposes, and this is something we likely wouldn’t have pursued as thoroughly without certification. Good record-keeping also helps us make better predictions, which benefited our restaurant sales and conversion to CSA. But outside organic, we can choose which records matter most to us and stop bothering with unnecessary ones (like the still-blank complaint log that we were forced to show at multiple inspections).

Composting: Our current emphasis on farm-sourced fertility from our own composted animal manure is a direct result of certification. As discussed in Part I, learning just how loose the fertility sourcing rules were in organic pushed us to develop our own methods instead. Rules for organic compost production are fairly strict, with the requirements that hot piles be turned 5 times in 15 days and that insufficiently managed compost or raw manure have to be applied 90-120 days before harvest of a food crop. Although this is aimed mostly at pathogen prevention, the hot composting approach tends to kill weed seeds in the compost and encourage beneficial soil microbes as well, both results that have greatly improved our farming success.

Learning to make compost in accordance with these rules helped us develop our skills more effectively, and resulted in some major benefits to the farm from the production and use of our own fertility. However, we don’t see the organic program guidelines as the ultimate recipe for perfect compost every time. Indeed, the Rodale Institute is researching ways in which deviations from that recipe might yield even better results. Dropping certification gives us the freedom to do more experimentation of our own, with our own judgment rather than a somewhat arbitrary rule being the guide to whether a certain batch of compost is appropriate in a certain agricultural situation. Organic certification got us through Composting 101; we are now ready to proceed to independent study in advanced composting.

Input sourcing: We learned a great deal about the use and abuse of the O-word through certification, as we were forced to run every possible input past our certifier rather than just assuming it would be ok because the label said “organic”. This experience really opened our eyes to the wider world of minimally regulated agricultural inputs, and strengthened our desire to use as little off-farm inputs as possible. The result is a lower farm budget and cleaner food production, a serious benefit we might not have developed as thoroughly without having our entire management system checked by an outside source. For example, being certified meant we had to check on potential herbicide use on the hay and straw we were bringing in for feed and mulch, which helped ensure we avoided the “killer hay” incidents which have become increasingly common around the country.

2. What we’re looking forward to

Despite the benefits, over time organic felt more and more restrictive as we pushed the envelope on creative and site-specific ways to manage our farm according to our own ethics of sustainability and self-sufficiency. Though we certainly won’t change the core beliefs that motivated us to certify in the first place, we’re looking forward to pursuing certain avenues and practices that will now be open to us without certification.

The fact that organic certification pushed us to divide our diversified farm into “organic” areas (vegetable fields, orchard) and “non-organic” (pastures, animals, areas not in production) despite all of these areas functioning as a integrated, holistic whole never meshed with our mental view of things. The management of our animals is inextricably linked with the management of our produce to the benefit of both, and we won’t have any problem eliminating from our minds the imaginary walls that separated them.

“This farm is exemplary in terms of soil conservation, sustainability practices, and maintaining wildlife habitat & biological diversity – see their seed list, livestock habitat, and orchard plans/practices.” – 2012 organic inspection report for Chert Hollow Farm

Biological diversity: Our farm may seem diverse now, but our vision of the future includes even more diversity, more complexity, particularly with perennials. Pawpaws, persimmons, elderberries, ostrich ferns, hardy kiwi, grape, gooseberry, and many more interesting crops are in our plans to try to establish over the next few years. We have little idea which of these will actually succeed at our location in general or any given year in particular, and trying to submit all of the organic paperwork for these just seems rather messy.

An anecdote to demonstrate why: Ramps are an allium suited to woodlands. We’re within their potential range, but we don’t have wild ones, so we bought seed & plants from the Ramp Farm in West Virginia. We reported the seeds and plants to our certifier, and even showed their location on the map of the farm, since the ramps are off on their own in the woods. Later, the certifier tried to insist that we fill out more paperwork, this time a “wild crop” form, for a crop we planted, one that may or may not succeed at all, and one that at best we can expect to harvest the first meaningful quantity of in a decade or two. These sorts of trials are not worth it if each one becomes a paperwork nightmare due to a certifier that doesn’t understand the complex nature of our farm. We’re not saying a diversified perennial polyculture system couldn’t be certified organic, but we’re not going to be the ones to try. We’re beginning to see the potential of diversified food-producing perennials as one of the ultimate sustainable agriculture solutions, and we don’t intend to let certification annoyances hold us back from moving in this exciting direction.

Getting off mailing lists: Our decision to certify was partly driven by a desire to be noticed. We wanted our farm to be part of the national growth in organic agriculture, to be a data point in the studies showing that these methods were important and valued, and for consumers and advocates to be able to find us. Five years later, we’ve changed our minds after a parade of junk mailings, solicitation phone calls, and other intrusive results of being on every public-access list of organic farms generated by various agencies and organizations. Getting junk mail about the latest “organic herbicide” is a good way to become cynical about the system. Now we just want to be left alone, despite the fact that dropping organic means our farm will cease to exist as a data point.

Communicating more with customers and members: Long ago, writing about our adventure in certifying the farm, we promised to post all our paperwork for customers to see as an educational opportunity. That never happened, in part because there was just too damn much of it, in part because we would have needed to redact a bunch of personal and income information scattered throughout the documents, and in part because once every growing season got going we just couldn’t make the time. We hope that, now we don’t need to deal with agencies and inspectors, we can take some of that saved time and start communicating more with CSA members about our methods and records. Look for a long overdue “Crop Management” page on our website soon. We also intend to inaugurate a member inspection event in which folks can come out and ask questions, poke around, and pretty much do their own inspection instead of us paying for a third party to do it.

3. Regrets about dropping organic

Presence: Being certified meant being part of something bigger, a known collection of farms and consumers that stood for something different from the conventional agriculture model we oppose. Once we drop out, we’re not going to be part of anyone’s data set in the same way, and we won’t be as findable to anyone searching for organic farms. If this seems conflicted with the discussion above, that’s correct. It’s not an easy decision.

Protection: Being certified meant that, in a small way, the USDA had our back against outside contamination. If a cropduster or a health department mosquito truck sprayed our farm, we’d have legal recourse as a certified organic farm to respond (because such an event would have forced us to lose certification and not be able to sell our produce as such). Without being part of that program, we have no protection against anything like that, because there’s no longer any legal definition of how our crops are supposed to be grown. Outside organic, it’s the Wild West with regards to what can be legally done to food crops.

Clarity: Our biggest challenge in dropping organic will be marketing and describing our farm in a way that’s accurate and intelligible without using the O-word in any way. Legally and ethically we’re not comfortable saying “organic methods” or the like, because that implies ALL the realities of organic, including paperwork and inspection, not just the parts that are easiest to comply with. This is the basic problem with farmers and others using the O-word when they’re not certified; they may mean well, but if they’re not going through the certification process they’re almost certainly not doing everything a certified farm has to, and thus they’re undercutting farms who really are following the rules and paying the costs in time and money. We’ve butted heads with people about this before, and are not going to be that farm ourselves. Our hope is that we can take some of the time we’ll save on bureaucracy and shift it into more online and personal communication with members and the outside world about what and how we run our farm. It just won’t involve the easiest and most-understood word we’d otherwise like to use, over which the USDA has a legal monopoly.

Summary

dropping_organic

 “They indicated that they may not request certification again – it would be a major loss to the organic certification community/process in this part of the country.” – 2013 organic inspection report for Chert Hollow Farm

Dropping our certification won’t change our personal ethics or the core of our management methods: we’re personally committed to the ideals of organic agriculture, will still use OMRI and the rulebook to inform our practices, and will still prefer organic for off-farm food (for us and our animals) and seeds. But even that last sentence is something we can’t say after March 15, so the linguistic gymnastics required to describe ourselves accurately and ethically will need additional training.

Organic is still the only meaningful arbiter of better land, crop, and animal management for people without a connection to a farm, despite all its flaws, and we’d still encourage consumers to seek out certified organic products in most other settings. However, in our situation this decision will free us up to pursue certain avenues of diversity and sustainability that certification isn’t set up to handle well, and will hopefully lead to a closer relationship with our CSA members as we can spend more time communicating with them instead of outside agencies.  Rarely have we made decisions this momentous for our farm’s future; we hope it’s the right one and that these three long posts have helped readers and members understand why.

One thought on “Dropping organic certification, part III

  1. What a well written series. I have enjoyed reading and experiencing your conflicting emotions through your words. As a beginning farmer, I have mentally battled whether to pursue certification or not. Your reasons for dropping your long-held certification represent some of the thoughts that bounce around and battle within my brain. Thank you for sharing your experiences and history about the process. I have learned a lot from your three part discussion. Regards, Amy