By Farmer Richard
Last week we had our annual organic inspection. We’ve had this annual inspection every year for over forty years and have been inspected by three different certifying agencies. Despite our history, we go through this inspection and our practices are reviewed every year in order for us to continue to be certified organic producers. I’ve always been an advocate for organic certification and have encouraged many farmers to do the same over the years. In fact I was part of some of the earliest efforts to form and support organic certification and was one of the first farms to be certified in the Midwest. In order to understand today’s organic marketplace, I think it’s important to understand a little history.
The OGBA (Organic Growers and Buyers Association) of Minnesota was one of the first independent certifiers and was the certifier I worked with to get my organic certificate and be recognized as a “Certified Organic” grower when I was farming in Eagan, Minnesota back in the 70’s and early 80’s. After moving to our present farm in Wisconsin I helped start the OCIA Wisconsin Chapter#1 (Organic Crop Improvement Association), which is still in existence and continues to certify worldwide. From OCIA Wisconsin Chapter #1 was born MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association) which is headquartered out of Viroqua, Wisconsin and is our current certifying agency. They are a good, trustworthy organization!
In 1990 Congress passed The Organic Foods Production Act which mandated that the USDA would develop and write regulations to establish national standards for organic producers. The purpose of this legislation was to bring clarity to the organic market place and establish a set of national standards. Organic inspections are done by dozens of independent inspection agencies. The USDA audits those agencies for compliance with the NOP (National Organic Program) standards. The NOP is guided by the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) appointed by USDA to oversee organic standards. The NOP is now the federal regulator of these organic standards.
Organic inspectors are part of an independent certification organization where they receive training and guidance from experienced inspectors. They do not “work for” any one certifier, but may do inspections for more than one. I took certifier training in 1988 when I helped found OCIA Wisconsin Chapter#1. Not because I intended to be an inspector, but wanted to know how well inspectors were trained. I wanted consumers to trust “certified organic” and the certification process. We have “trained” new inspectors through our own organic inspections and have been part of USDA Audits. I have seen numerous producers who want to sell in the organic market, but want to hang on to their favorite conventional practices. “I’ll just use a little Round-Up to keep the weeds out of my asparagus, it is safe!” “A little ammonium sulfate fertilizer is needed to keep my crops green.” “I can’t do all the paperwork that is required for certification.” I’ve heard these phrases many times over the years and I’ve learned that the people saying these things are really saying “I do not have a clue about my operation because I don’t keep records! I have no ability to ‘trace back’ and I don’t really know what inputs are approved for organic production.” Part of going through organic certification is also about education and awareness, which is good for any farmer!
One of the reasons I’m an advocate for organic certification is that I don’t think consumers should have to be able to ask a producer about the many details of their production. A consumer should be able to trust the standards upon which an organic farmer is held to and know what that certification represents. There are hundreds of suppliers trying to sell products as “natural & organic,” but are they? There’s another organization called OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) that is very important for organic growers. They precede the NOP and continue to be approved by the NOP to review all products including additives and fillers to get “OMRI approval.” We only use OMRI approved products because we trust their scientific diligence more than any sales person or brochure and it makes certification much easier when we’re using products we know are already approved.
So what does an inspection involve? Our inspector arrived at 9:00 am. We started with a facilities tour, at which time he chose three crops to audit for trace back. We continued the inspection and showed him all of our buildings, every field, all the animals, animal housing, pastures and our ducks. He was also able to view the first hatch of 21 ducklings! We showed him our intentional habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects and creatures. He also observed our crop production systems including the use of reflective mulch to deter pests. We use this as a first line of defense for problem pests and consider it a “must” before we use any organic based pesticide.
Then the paperwork! We were asked to show every input from seed to harvest, from field to end customer as part of the trace back audit. All of our products are assigned a lot number that allows them to be traced back to the field they were grown in, the day they were harvested, who harvested the crop, etc. Additionally, we have to provide documentation of what seed was planted, the field work associated with the crop, etc. Compare that to the recent illness and death from contaminated romaine lettuce and pre-cut packs. It took weeks and still no resolution for the cause of contamination. Most conventional foods have no trace-back or lot number system and thus, no transparency. If you want cheap food, that is what you get, no accountability. Certified organic has always required traceability! We passed our audits, provided all the information and supporting evidence he asked for and did our exit interview at 3:30 pm. Our inspector submitted his report to MOSA where it will be reviewed by the MOSA review board and we expect to receive our renewal that will include our “free-range organic ducks” this year!
Organic Integrity? Is it a process you can trust? If the certifier is MOSA, for sure. In my opinion, they are the best certifying agency available. The USDA Organic seal? Well there are some problems! When organic sales rose to several billion dollars, the Big Ag players wanted to get in on the market. Of course, they didn’t like the rules so they paid politicians to represent them and get the rules changed. They got the animal welfare and pasture rules thrown out and “no soil” hydroponic production is now in. So if you buy the cheaper organic at the larger chains you probably are getting milk from cows that never see a blade of grass and organic eggs from chickens stacked three deep per square foot and never see the outdoors. MOSA says they will not certify those farms, but there are several certifiers who will. You can look at scorecard reports from Cornucopia Institute, an
due diligence to preserve “organic integrity.” There were significant quantities of fraudulent organic grain shipped from Turkey and Russia that should have been stopped at the port of entry. We are now watching the development of standards that go “beyond” USDA organic that are being developed by the Organic Farmers Association headquartered at Rodale Institute. They plan to certify farmers for all aspects of “organic integrity.” In the meantime, buy with care and, as always, it is best to know your farmers!