National organic farm maps

The NY Times recently published an absolutely fascinating map showing the distribution of organic farms as compared to other types of farm operations. It’s a must-peruse for anyone bothering to read this blog. Just so cool. (Thanks to The Ethicurean for pointing this out, as we don’t read the Times much)
One quick point that leaps out here is a significant reason we chose to farm in Missouri; a wide-open market. The relative saturation of small, organic vegetable farms in the Upper Midwest and New England as compared to the paucity of such things here meant we had a better chance to establish ourselves. There were many other factors as well, but this kind of thing would be well worth considering for new/young farmers looking to get started.
The other point I want to make about this map relates to the overall existence and pattern of organic farms. Notice that they exist just about everywhere. There’s very little physical, climatological, or scientific barrier to organic farming. It’s the baseline for how farming happened in this country prior to WWII. Where organic farms are now clustered are in the areas where consumers and/or governments are supporting their efforts and choices, not necessarily in areas uniquely suited to organic farming. The fact that New England, in a very difficult natural setting to farm, is laced with small, organic farms shows that there’s no inherent barrier. The fact that Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are laced with small, organic farms shows that the Midwest is quite able to support such operations. It’s a matter of consumer choices and agricultural policy that really drives the patterns of this map, and fortunately those are the things we’re most able to influence.

Organic Certification – It’s official!

Our mail today contained a most welcome delivery: our official Organic certification certificate, along with a copy of the inspector’s report and other documents. I’ll post more about these when I have more time (currently getting materials ready for market tomorrow), but this is the culmination of a LOT of work. We’re very happy to be only the third (possibly fourth) certified farm at the Market.

More details in a few days when I can get to it.

Organic Inspection in photos

We had a special guest during yesterday’s organic inspection: photographer Catherine Szalkowski. Cat contacted us back in February, interested in conducting a long-term project tracking the transition of an integrated farm through the seasons. She’s been coming to the farm once or twice a week ever since, spending the day quietly following us through our daily work, and has become a comfortable and welcome part of our lives.

She was especially interested in following along during the inspection, and sent us some of her favorite images from the day. All images courtesy of Catherine Szalkowski, who was gracious enough to agree to our posting them:

Organic certification – inspection recap

Our official Organic inspection took place yesterday, and I think it’s fair to say it went well. Having never gone through the process before, I’ll walk through it for the interest of customers and farmers alike who may be wondering how this works.

We’re certifying through MOSA, a non-profit agency that is trained and approved by the USDA to handle organic certifications. Some states have their own government-run programs, like Iowa, but Missouri killed its program years ago. So we’re using Wisconsin-based MOSA because we liked their approach, setup, and philosophy best of all the agencies we looked at (they’re based in and focused on the Midwest and were very approachable with questions and concerns). They have some inspectors on staff, but not enough farms in Missouri yet to justify a trip down, so they hired an independent organic inspector based in Kansas City to do our inspection and prepare a report.

He showed up right on time at 10:00 am, and began by spending a little time interviewing us about our background in farming, choice of methods & location, justification for going organic, and so on. Much of this is written into our application, but understandably he wanted to see if the reality on the ground matched the paperwork. Really, that’s what the inspection is all about; it’s one thing to send in a 100-page set of documents, but it’s another to demonstrate the viability and reality of those documents’ contents to an independent, knowledgeable inspector.

So after talking through our backgrounds, methods, philosophies, and so on, we toured the farm. He needed to see all our growing areas, and asked a lot of questions about management practices, the surrounding landscape, and so on. For example, he was checking to make sure no ground uphill from our fields could be contaminated, for example by a conventional agricultural field with runoff. Not a problem; the forested ridges on most sides of our farm provide Organic’s dream buffer zone. In many cases he was checking that things were as we said they were; are there fields we didn’t declare? Activities we were hiding? Suspicious-looking sprayer in the barn? Did our maps match reality? Was there evidence of pesticide use or other prohibited activities?

As any photographer knows, reality can be framed in such a way as to send a very different impression from the overall picture. Our Organic application is a like a photograph, sending the picture of the farm that we intended to. The Inspection is like an auditor gazing around the entire scene after the shutter snaps, looking at what else might be there and whether the photographer captured the scene fairly and accurately.

After we’d finished the physical walkthrough, we returned to the house for more interviews and questioning which covered our methods, knowledge, and so on in some detail. He also needed to inspect our receipts, seed packages, and physical records, again to ensure that there was evidence of what we claimed and no evidence to the contrary.

All in all, the process took about three hours and felt, to us, like going through another graduate thesis defense (preparing the application with its copious record requirements felt like writing another thesis). My impression was that we passed with flying colors, and indeed when we were finished the inspector conveyed that he was very impressed and felt that our farm embodied the ideals of Organic (paraphrasing).

So now, we simply wait. He will write up a thorough report and send it to MOSA, where a certification review board will assess the report and our application and make a final decision about our status. Once we receive a notification of approval (which at this point we expect), we can start using the O-word officially and the USDA seal and so on. But we have no idea when that will be; it could be a month or two from now given how busy such organizations are this time of year. But at least it’s a major step, and a good feeling to have an independent professional inspector approve of our operation.

Organic certification – inspection

We’re moving on to the next step in the certification process; the inspection. On April 1, a licensed inspector will visit the farm and spend hours poring over our records, documentation, maps, reciepts, and other files to determine whether the information in our application is correct. He will explore the farm and interview us, assessing whether the on-farm reality matches our statements and claims. Basically, he will attempt to determine whether our management practices and activities allow us to qualify for organic certification. The report generated from this visit goes to our certifying agency, which will make the final determination.

Needless to say, this is a mildly nerve-wracking day to expect, although we’re pretty confident that we meet the requirements. Still, having never done this before, we don’t know quite what to expect. At least the process is moving along. Right now we’re in a bit of limbo, as we’re preparing marketing materials for the year but can’t officially use the O-word or any official seals until we know whether we’ve achieved certification. It will be nice to get an answer so we can get moving on materials and marketing.

Organic certification update

I have partially failed in my earlier goal of posting all our organic certification paperwork as we generated it, but I’d like to accomplish that this spring. Regardless, we finally got the application out the door a few weeks ago, about 3/4 lb of paper plus 60 more pages on CD. We just heard back from our chosen certifier, the non-profit Midwest Organic Services Association, with a letter stating that our application was under review and we’d be hearing from them to set up a farm inspection.

Our impression, from both their letter and a phone call, is that we’re likely to be approved. They didn’t note any serious problems that we would need to address, and so on. The inspection is something we have to be prepared for, as that can make or break your process if you can’t satisfy the inspector of your ability to meet stringent organic standards, but we feel pretty good about it. The entire organic process is an insane amount of work for small, diversified farms, and we don’t know if we’re going to stick with it, but we have to try. Through the spring I’ll try to get back to posting our application files and more information that will help readers appreciate just what organic certification means and why there’s a big difference between someone with the official seal and someone who’s just using the term loosely.

With lettuce set to be transplated tomorrow, and more produce started indoors, market season is coming up fast and we’re looking forward to being one of the few certified vendors at the market.

Antibiotics in vegetables

A quick lunchtime post on the type of cold, sunny day that I like best for outdoor work:

The Ethicurean has an informative, provocative recent column on the uptake of veterinary antibiotics into vegetables via manure (fertilizer). Basically, researchers at the University of Minnesota have determined that much of the antibiotics routinely given in feedlots are excreted into manure, which is then used as fertilizer on vegetable farms, whose produce then take it up such that the antibiotic residues can be present in the edible produce. This does not in any way exclude “organic” produce, as a great deal of allowed manure and compost initially comes from feedlots.

This makes me very glad of two things: that the vast majority of the produce we eat was grown on-farm, and that the manure we fertilize with (other than our own farm supply) comes from a known local source that is absolutely clean (a friend’s private goat herd).

This is yet another example of the unintended consequences of a food system that is built around convenience and price rather than quality and value.

Organic: avoiding GMOs

Genetically Modified Organisms. Just typing the phrase practically guarantees some sort of heated reaction to a blog post. I don’t have the time or inclination to jump head-first into the debates over this technology, but want to make several quick notes about how the growing presence of GMOs directly affects our farm and our progress toward organic certification.

The National Organic Program bans the presence or use of GMOs on a certified organic farm, and thus we must follow that. The practical problem is that as GMOs become ever more used, and new varieties appear on the market and in the fields (often without much public notice), it becomes harder to avoid. This is particularly true for crops whose pollen drift widely, like corn.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of our favorite seed sources from southern Missouri, included a notice in their latest catalogue that they had been having trouble finding corn seed without GMO genes (they test all their varieties to make sure). The problem was not the growers, who were planting open-pollinated heirloom varieties. It was the cross-pollination caused by windblown pollen from other farms growing GMO varities. Unlike Baker Creek, many certified organic seed sources don’t test their seed (BC is not certified), and so we often don’t know. If you, as a consumer or farmer, are trying to avoid consuming or using GMOs for our own reasons, you may not be even if you buy and grow certified organic.

Other than questions of ethics, why is this a problem? Well, we save some of our seed, and anyone growing open-pollinated varieties of anything saves seed eventually (read this explanation on our website if you’re unsure what O.P and hybrid varieties are). Once a variety has cross-pollinated with a GMO, it contains those genes and is no longer what we were trying to save and grow. More practically, Monsanto and other biotech companies claim patents on their GMO vareties, meaning that they claim a legal right to sue anyone who infringes their patent (by, say, growing their varieties without permission or payment). No surprise, there are many cases of Monsanto suing or otherwise harassing farmers who unknowingly save seed or grow seed containing Monsanto genes from cross-pollination (Google will give you plenty of examples). Despite being separated from the nearest conventional agriculture field by 1,000 of pasture and forest, we do not expect that we could safely ever save our corn seed from year to year, and based on others’ experiences, could even be sued for saving a patented seed if the genes were contained in our saved seed.

Just to give one other example, the Willamette Valley of Oregon is a major sugar beet growing area; supposedly it produces almost all the sugar beet seed for the US supply. Sugar beets are a major source of the sugar consumed in the U.S. Growers in the region recently switched en masse to a GMO variety of sugar beet, so that now any sugar consumed in the US is virtually guaranteed to be GMO, whether or not consumers know that or want it. More importantly for vegetable farmers, it means that anything that cross-pollinates with sugar beets will start to be contaminated (just like corn above). That includes regular beets and Swiss Chard, which is in the same family. So the next time you buy fresh chard from a trustworthy local farmer, you may still be buying a variety carrying the GMO sugar beet genes if the seed came from a source exposed to Willamette Valley beets (which is reasonably likely).

Getting into the debate over whether and why GMOs are good or bad is for a separate post or novella. The observations above are intended to reflect on how difficult it is for those who choose (for whatever their reasons) not partake in GMOS. I consider it a matter of freedom as much as anything, but that freedom is rapidly vanishing. We are discussing moving more and more toward saving our own seed as much as practical, but as noted above, even that is under threat. When farmers cannot save their own seed (as they did for millenia prior to the advent of commercial seed companies), we really have changed the meaning of agriculture and taken away a fundamental human liberty.

USDA: organic methods benefit pecans

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service recently released results from a fascinating study on the use of organic methods on pecan orchards. Starting with an 800-tree conventionally managed orchard in Texas, the researchers began managing half the trees using organic methods while the remaining half continued in conventional management under the orchard’s private owner. The results seem fairly clear:

Contrary to conventional growers’ expectations, the ARS organically treated test site outyielded the Geberts’ conventionally managed, chemically fertilized orchard in each of 5 years. … “This is the most successful organic project I have been involved with,” says Bradford. “The results are especially satisfying, because we have shown that it’s possible to grow nuts under the organic system that are far superior in looks and in taste.”

The basic premise of the study, that “by improving tree health through improved soil health, the trees would naturally become more resistant to disease and insect attack”, is the basic premise for organic management of any crop or animal. It’s comparable to a human relying more on a healthy diet and exercise to ward off disease rather than attempting to sterilize their household through overuse of cleaning products.

The study also makes clear that there are barriers to such organic management; if it were easy we would never have adopted chemical farming in the first place. That being said, it is encouraging to see the USDA seriously and rationally testing and evaluating organic methods for their practical benefits:

…adopting an organic system and obtaining certification could provide a valuable additional source of income to pecan growers, thanks to increased yields and improved kernel quality. “I believe our greatest accomplishment is that we, as scientists, have shown it’s possible to design a management system that growers will adopt,” says Bradford. “That’s really the biggest thing—to prove that this is a change for the better.”

This coldly practical view is very important. Ethical and philosophical arguments are only so valuable when reasonable people can differ, but proven scientific results such as this study provide a much more solid ground on which to have the discussion. For farmers who may be interested in transitioning away from chemical farming, but who still to make a living and stay on the farm, research and results like this are likely to be more compelling.

Organic: Public Records

While many of the record-keeping requirements of certification are onerous, they have several hidden benefits and opportunities. One of these is the chance to really educate consumers about farming and organic agriculture.

Certifying will move us toward a long-term goal for the farm, which is to achieve complete openness regarding our methods. We want to keep and maintain our records online where they can be viewed and searched by anyone. I believe very strongly in Adam Smith’s contention that the base of a functioning economy is an educated, rational consumer, and suspect that many of our current economic woes are directly related to a lack of open information and rational consumer behavior. When’s the last time you were able to find out exactly what went into growing the produce or meat at a grocery store? Even at farmers markets, not everyone may be entirely open about their methods and inputs, knowing that consumers instinctively want pseudo-organicness, even if they won’t pay for it (what market vendor puts up a sign proudly listing all the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers they use? They know which way the wind blows). I’d be proud to open my books and records to anyone.

Philosophically, I think consumers should have access to all information that is not directly proprietary, in order to make a better choice. I’ve referenced this before, but I have always loved the observation that conventional food producers should be required to post all of the sprays, fertilizers, and other inputs they use to produce that food; I suspect consumers would be quite surprised. We want our customers to know exactly what went into the production of the food they buy; not just materials, but time and effort as well. We want to sell a tomato with a sign that states when it was planted, how many hours went into maintaining it, how much it cost to irrigate it, and so on. And we want that customer to be able to go home, visit our website, and pull up that information as well.

We want to make it clear just how much actually goes into producing food, so that consumers appreciate what they’re purchasing and understand why the price is set where it is, and that this is a business that charges a fair price and expects a fair living. Imagine if grocery store produce sections posted information on the wages and living conditions of the immigrant laborers who made that produce possible, making it clear how that everyday low price was achieved.

The final benefit to this goal relates to food safety. So many of the national food scares have come from operations that are not very open about their procedures and methods; let’s change that. People often advocate for small farms and farmers markets as a safer alternative, which is generally a fair argument, but contamination and problems can still occur. Small does not directly equal safe. If we ever do have a customer who feels they had a problem with our produce, I want to be able to openly track the source of that product and show that we’re paying attention, and I want to demonstrate to health deparments and other government agencies that we’re a responsible food-handling business. Because that’s what we are: a business, not a hobby, and I think we need to act like one.

This is a long-term goal, but we think it’s a worthy one. We have to keep most of these records anyway for certification, and plan to store them digitally, so why not put them to use beyond our office? It may be a few years away, but we’re excited about getting there.