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 Continue reading

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 Continue reading

Dropping organic certification, part I

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. Over the next three posts, we’ll attempt to discuss and explain some of the myriad experiences and reasons behind this decision, though we can’t possibly cover everything.

PART I: Some of our concerns with the USDA Organic system as a whole

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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.

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Organic certification costs – Harvest Public Media radio story

Recently a reporter from Harvest Public Media visited our farm to talk about the costs & benefits of organic certification; a well-timed story given concerns over the effect of a stalled Farm Bill on the cost of certification, and the overall conversation we have every year about whether to re-certify. This is a very complicated topic that encompasses everything from giant international mega-farms to tiny local family operations, across a wide range of geographic and climatic settings, producing pretty much every kind of food one can think of, and in various regulatory environments. We thought the story came out quite well overall, and encourage readers to listen to/read it here.

There is one significant clarification we’d like to make, however: the quote from Sue Baird saying “USDA stats said an organic farm nets $20,000 more than the same size conventional farm” is a broad oversimplification and quite misleading in the context of the story; it may be accurate for large grain farms or other high-gross operations, but not for the kind of small, direct-market farms otherwise described in the piece. We didn’t appreciate the implication (though unintended by the reporter) that a $700 certification cost results in $20,000 of additional profit. That’s not even remotely the case. Also, just to clarify for our CSA members, the lettuce being fed to the animals was freeze-damaged or otherwise seconds-quality; you’re not being stiffed!

Organic cost-share, the Farm Bill, and us

Among the hoopla and uproar over the still-delayed Farm Bill is one situation that has important implications for our farm. As a general rule we’re not directly sensitive to Farm Bill contents, as we don’t take government handouts, grants, subsidies or other funding as a matter of personal principle (though the Farm Bill has all sorts of implications for our competition, both locally and nationally). Our stubborn independence comes with one exception, though: the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP). Here’s why we reluctantly take this money, how it reflects the deeper problems in agricultural policy, and what will happen if the current Farm Bill doesn’t pass soon or loses this provision. Continue reading

The Stanford organic study: Bad science, terrible reporting

There’s been a lot written about the so-called Stanford organic study,  that peer-reviewed journal article that came out around Labor Day. The study generated a flurry of headlines to the effect that “Organic food is no healthier than conventional food” (to cite an example from U.S. News and World Report).  I finally got my hands on a copy of the journal article and read it. There’s a lot to say about why the study is bad, and much has already been written (for example, Mark Bittman’s analysis here and another good one from the New York Times here). However, nothing I’ve read so far has mentioned one glaring problem that explains why headlines such as the one cited above are complete bunk and a disgrace to science. Coming at this from a background as a professional scientist, I’m going to address this particular point.

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JJR Farm quitting organic meat & egg sales

John & Julie Rice of JJR Farm face an uphill battle trying to produce certified organic meat & eggs in central Missouri. There are no reliable local sources for organic grains; John’s often had to drive to Kansas or Iowa to get his bulk feed (our bagged feed is shipped in from Wisconsin). The only organic-certified slaughterhouse is in Illinois, a 600-mile round-trip every time they have to process an animal for legal sale as organic (the only way to justify the price of organic feed). 1200 miles, actually, one trip to drop the animal(s) off and one to pick up the meat once it’s ready. Unfortunately, the prices they can get for local organic meat & eggs don’t really relate to the cost of production and certification. Now, after seven years of organic production for local sales, they’re calling it quits. Continue reading

2010 Organic inspection

We’re about to have our official annual Organic certification inspection, scheduled for this Thursday, June 10. Last year our initial inspection happened in early April, because the certifier understood we were eager to start using the word and symbol officially, but inspectors would rather visit later in the season so there’s more to be seen. Thus the June date this year.

We shouldn’t be nervous. We’re certainly following the actual agricultural practices dictated by the NOP standards, and they won’t find any faults there (no violations of inputs or anything like that). But the record-keeping and other details of remaining certified are difficult to manage, and we have to be able to prove to an inspector’s standards that we’re doing everything right. That is, after all, the point of certification: it’s an independent audit that relies on more than the farmer’s word.

The official certification notice indicated that there will be multiple audits of our paper trail, meaning (I think) that the inspector will attempt to track several products seed-to-sale through our records, which is what we’re supposed to be able to prove. This is one of those requirements which is pretty easy for a large, one-crop farm and very difficult for a small, 200+ variety farm. We go to great lengths to keep such records, as they are extremely important for our own planning purposes, among other things. But records are imperfect. Getting a complete picture of harvest quantities is difficult when we’ve mixed units, sometimes recording weights and sometimes volumes, without always having good conversion factors. And I’ve found places where I’ve just plain made mistakes writing things down; we’re human, it happens.
So it will be interesting to see how this goes.

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.