Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Question of Certification

I've been curious for a long time about what drives certain farmers to not only choose organic methods in their farming, but to elect organic certification. I knew that in the case of Fair Trade certification for coffee, for example, many felt the costs of obtaining and maintaining certification were prohibitive. I'd read that USDA organic certification was also costly. And so, if you are buying locally, does it really matter if the farmer is certified organic? To you or to them? I suppose that the obvious answer is that if you know your farmer and how they farm, then no. It is true though that in many farmer's markets - ones that aren't "producer only" in particular - unscrupulous businessmen will label store bought produce as local organic, duping the unwitting shopper. Or even just being part of the market may give a false impression that the produce is local. That happened to me once on the Eastern Shore. A roadside stand on a rural road in early Summer. I remarked at how early the peaches were. Apparently they weren't early in Georgia! It had never occurred to me that they hauled fruit several hundred miles to sell in the middle of farm fields. Now I always ask. Another confusion are signs. You might see signs that say "our fruit is never sprayed". What does that mean? It generally does not mean, "we don't use chemical sprays". Organic certification offers a transparency to the buying process. I set out to see what a variety of farmers thought about the whole thing.

For this article, I asked the farmers all the same questions:

  1. Are, or have you been, certified organic?
  2. what is the primary motivation(s) for that choice (to certify, to stop certification, or not to have sought certification) ?
  3. How would you summarize your practices for fertilization, pesticides, and protecting against disease? Here I'm wondering about the actual differences in practices between certification requirements and what people practice, like the use of organic fungicides, etc. 
  4. What do you think a consumer should know about the label "certified organic" ? or any other label for that matter.
  5. What questions do you think a consumer should ask a farmer when buying local produce?
  6. Do you think that the certified organic label does, or would, influence your bottom line? 
  7. If you aren't growing organically, why is that? Perhaps this is due to specific crops or other choices. 
  8. If you are growing organically, what is the most difficult thing to successfully bring to market? Is there something(s) that you would really like to provide organically but find too hard to grow organically in the area?
  9. If a home gardener wanted to try to grow organically, what would you suggest as the easiest produce to bring to harvest organically? Where should they start?
The farmers I spoke with for this article all farm organically, but most are not organically certified. One is certified Naturally Grown, a farmer-based certification. I also arranged to meet with a Howard County Farmer who employs Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in the New Year, to include a discussion with their IPM consultant. In a separate article, I'd like to address the consumers perspectives. 

The farmers included in this post are, in no order: Sally of White Rose Farm, Michael of Green Akeys Farm, Jackie of De La Tierra, Tom of Nev-R-Dun Farm, Greg and Kris of Thorne Family Farm, Josie and Shawn of Truffula Seed Produce. I also used knowledge of two other farms, Celidh and Copper Penny Farm; organic farms that I patronize regularly. 

Of these, only Nev-R-Dun is certified organic. The reason he chooses to certify reflects his commitment to principle that I described in an earlier post. I'll take the liberty of saying it this way: stand up and be counted. The more farms there are that are certified organic, the bigger the impact. While others might be dissuaded by the record keeping or cost structure, Tom is not, and sees the increased voice for organic practices as critical to success, not necessarily to his business but our future. Organic certification costs vary and there is some cost sharing with the government, however, the farmer must pay up front, as with most of their supplies. Meticulous record keeping ensure the customer that everything from procuring seeds to harvesting produce was done in accordance to the regulations. A farm that sells over $5000/year is required to certify if the use the label organic. As a result, a stranger cant trust, within reason, that Tom is truly providing organic produce. Does he think it affects his bottom line? At first, like the others I spoke to, he said no. He has a relationship with his customers that doesn't require paperwork. But later, he said maybe. Does it matter to his bottom line? "Ultimately it does, though not greatly. This past week I had a half dozen or so customers offer dismay for me not having the organic produce they sought, and only after not finding the produce at my stand did they go to others. In many ways, it is hard to determine just how important it is to customers, since I don't have a chance to question each one.", he said. 

Oe of the kickers about organic certification is that it is government regulation, making it susceptible to big lobbies. As a result in the boom in organic demand, organic is becoming big business and large corporations have fought to make strategic adjustments to the organic standards. One example is the inclusion of 38 synthetic ingredients that can be used in the manufacturing of certified organic food. These ingredients include things like food colorings, and sausage casings, as well as hops, which allows Anhauser-Busch to market certified organic lager grown with chemically fertilizer and protected with chemical sprays. On the other side of the equation, Michael Akeys points out that you can fertilize with animal manure regardless: "Manure is organic.  Manure from conventional poultry farms is considered organic.  Tell me how that makes any sense?  Once the feed has been pooped out, voila, organic.  I think that is crazy." On the other hand, he notes that for organic certification, you have to ensure organic mulch and says, "I dont want to buy certified organic straw for mulch.  Mulch isn't going to be eaten.  It breaks down and is composted."

Of course, local farmers at the market aren't in a position to take advantage of the permissible synthetic ingredients; those are designed for big food processing. At the market, the orgnic certification signals to the customer that they aren't using chemical or genetically modified seeds. But to get at other question, you'll have ask. about half o fthe farmers I spoke to are using only an initial thick layer of leaf litter compost for fertilizer, often six inches thick. Others are using sheep or cow manure, and a few are using other organic fertilizers. 

The pesticide of choice is a pair of nimble fingers, plus dedicated crop rotation and winter clean up. Still hand picking pests from your plants will only go so far.  Jackie of De La Tierra Farm tells me that having summer squash and zucchini all summer is tough. She says, "I am able to have it in the early summer and then again in the fall. Melons, gourds, pumpkins and winter squash are the hardest because they have to stay in the ground all season long, and the squash bugs always get them before they ripen. Squash bugs are a very difficult pest to control because they have an outer shell that is like armor. It would take some nasty chemicals to destroy them and I am not willing to use nasty chemicals (any chemicals, for that matter). Cucumbers are also difficult for me to get a nice crop of. They are finicky and the cucumber beetle is always around my farm." I saw with my own eyes the damage that flea beetles did the the Truffula Seed eggplant this year, and both Nev-R-Dun and Thorne Family Farm had problems with bean beetles.  At Green Akeys Farm, they are "using a certified organic spray to help with a powdery mildew epidemic on our pumpkins." Michael continued, "We really didnt even want to use anything at all, but we compromised with the pumpkins because most of them are either ornamental or carving pumpkins, only a few will be used for eating.  We use crop rotation, distance, and try to plant some beneficial plants that attract good insects, etc.  We really want zero inputs other than green manure (turning over cover crops), grazing animals over the ground, compost, compost tea, lime and perhaps some other organic, renewable fertilizers.  We may spread cow manure or chicken manure if we can get it this fall.  Im also looking into spraying raw milk on the pastures and gardens as a way of stimulating the microbial activity.  Supposedly milk really kickstarts the soil into high gear." Jackie finds that she needs to amend the balance of her soil, and reported, " I also use organic fertilizers such as blood meal, greensand and rock phosphate for a NPK boost. These are natural fertilizers derived from rocks (except for the blood meal), so they stay in the soil much longer and don't wash away as easily as chemical fertilizers. I also use lime to balance pH in my acid soil. I am experimenting with cover crops and mulches as well."

Everyone agreed that organic fruit, particularly orchard fruit like apples and peaches, are extremely difficult to grow organically in this area. If you want perfect loooking apples, you're probably out of luck locally. Sometimes you'll see great looking fruit and a sign that says, "we don't spray our fruit". This probably means that they spray the trees before it fruits, but not once the fruit have started. Berries are a lot easier, and a I know a number of folks who grow blueberries and other types organically in their yard. Blueberries don't have a lot of enemies and so, of the common berries, they seem easiest.

Most farmers encouraged asking lots of questions to learn about their practices. We often assume that if someone is at a farmer's market, they grow organically or if they're certified organic, they must have exemplary practices. I've found that the people I want to buy from are farmers who are glad to describe their setting and reasoning, regardless of whether it's organic. Michael Akeys said, "hen you make a personal relationship with someone, they quickly forget about labels and they build up a level of trust.  We do everything completely transparently.  We have nothing to hide.  We probably could triple our output if we used a lot of fertilizer but we dont want to buy commercial fertilizers."  All of these farmers are open to any questions, even controversial ones. Some consumers are concerned about farms using water and various farms do use different means to irrigate their fields. It is pretty unrealistic, especially in summers like this last one, to expect no water usage on the farm. Jackie says, "It is very difficult for people to farm without watering their crops, so I wouldn't be too worried about questioning farmers about whether they irrigate or not. If you are very worried about the water table, you can ask them if they collect rain water to irrigate, or about their methods. Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to water and this is a popular method among farmers. "

I know that when I buy from Lakeview Farms, the IPM farm in Howard County, they are using some fertilizers and pesticides. Linda openly discusses the 100+ history of their farm and how they've changed from a scheduled spray program to using integrated pest management (IPM) to minimize chemical additives. If you're buying meat, it's definitely recommended to scratch deeper than organic or not organic. As discussed in an earlier post, chicken farming practices very widely and the same is true of other livestock. 

When asked about great starting points for the organic gardening in your backyard, heirloom tomatoes were the  mot common recommendation. Kris Thorne said not to start with eggplant! and Jackie has found, like I have, that cucumbers are finicky. Interestingly, I've had good luck with bush beans, where the farmers, who are dealing with a lot more plants, have had issues with bean beetles. I'm trying garlic this Fall, and that was recommended by others. If you don't have room for crop rotation, you could use gaps in growing years or grow in containers. Things like potatoes can cause problems if related plants are grown in the same space every year. Last year, I tried potatoes in a trash bag, in part to avoid this issue with bugs, and it worked okay. Tom suggested spring lettuce as another option. I mentioned already certain bush berries. If you live near the woods, wild wine berries could be transplanted and they are reasonably managed. They aren't actually native plants, but they don't have much problem producing good fruit. 

When these farmers were asked about their own purchasing, all of them buy organically where they can. A few though, like Michael Akeys, prioritize the local economy over organic produce, saying, "I always look at the quality of the fruit and veggies at the store.  If the organics look awful, Ill buy conventional.  I'm not as worried about my personal health from eating conventional.  I don't think that its that big of a deal, some people may have sensitivities and need to buy it, perhaps I do and dont realize it, but Im looking at things from a sustainability and environmentally conscious sensibility.  I'd rather not support big factory farms.  I'd rather buy local conventional food too.  Keep our money in our local economy."

Ultimately, for this set of farmers, their practices are derived from their beliefs in how farming should be done. But most are electing not to certify organic for pragmatic reasons and are making that choice without a financial impact. It will be interesting to see how the adoption of Certified Naturally Grown, as de La Tierra has chosen, gains adoption as a potential way of being counted, verified, but at less cost. 

What do you think?

P.S. A lot of good information on organic certification can be found online; wikipedia is a good start. Regarding the controversy of big organic, Organic, Inc. is an excellent read. 

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