last week, we got a piece of paper that didn’t contain many words, but seemed monumental to us: our organic certification.
all it took was weeks of tracking down seed receipts, doing soil and water testing, getting a prior land use declaration signed by our landlord and a statement from the horse ranch owner who gave us manure. then there were the crop rotation plans, land use strategies, and inspections of our rented land and greenhouse space, as well as a few dozen emails with our certifier and other experts. just when we felt like we couldn’t look at one more form, we earned the certification, and could breathe easy. at least until the next round, that is.
one of the most interesting aspects of becoming certified is that it wasn’t a path we’d intended to go down initially. for the first six months of the farm’s existence — which is half its life, really, since we’ve only been in operation for a year — we were steadfast in believing that we wouldn’t go for certification because we’d be forging direct relationships with our customers instead. in a csa program, our shareholders would get to know us and how we farm; we use organic and sustainable methods, and we felt that explaining these strategies was sufficient.
if we’d become a csa-only farm, most likely we would have been satisfied with having those conversations and being non-certified instead. but when we began selling a few items at our local co-op, we encountered what we called the orange tag syndrome.
our rented farmland
at our co-op, like many others, organic produce is separated from conventionally grown produce through color-coded tags. organic gets green, and the conventional stuff gets orange. although we’ve always grown on non-sprayed land and used organic methods (we prefer to skip even the organic pest controls, although the potato bugs are testing us), the co-op’s policy is that if you’re not certified, then you get the orange tag. they did list our produce as “naturally grown without pesticides,” but still, we were an orange dot in a field of green.
the situation made us think. it would have been far too much work to get certification simply to earn a green tag, but we began to consider how the farm would be perceived in other situations, too. what about farmers markets? already, we had customers there who asked us about certification and were happy to listen to our explanations about our farming practices, but i wondered about the people who didn’t step up to ask in the first place. also, some local chefs were touting the inclusion of organic produce on their menus, and I noticed that they leaned heavily toward those farms with organic certifications.
the last consideration was the upcoming changeover of the farm bill. in its current iteration, there’s significant reimbursement for certification expenses, and we knew that if that feature got yanked, there would be a chance we’d have to pay out of our own pockets instead.
so, we gave it a shot. the whole process was made much easier by our certification agency, midwest organic services association, and the willingness of the staff to patiently answer our kajillion questions.
my partner, karla, filled out the paperwork and although the forms note that it should take about eight hours, it ended up taking her three days to fill in all the necessary fields. we’d really gone for a diverse crop for our first year, and every single seed had to be tracked and noted. as i dug around in the files to find receipts and notes, she worked to articulate our farm’s layout, philosophies, and crop arrangement.
some transplants waiting for their chance to be bossy
when the certifier visited the farm, karla got a chance to show off her farm ninja skills during the interview process, which was intensive in terms of material. the certifier wanted to make certain that we knew what we were doing, and not just looking for a label we could slap onto our website.
in the end, the certification was just like anything else that requires an array of paperwork and the time to fill it out (think of it as a shorter grad school thesis, or maybe getting an estate settled through probate). true, we now earned the green tag, but we feel that the certification is broader than meeting that smaller goal. It gives an assurance to the customers we can’t meet, and lets them know that we value organic and sustainable practices — it starts conversations about how we manage the land, and how we see our farm in the agricultural landscape.