Certified Organic Farming
What is “Certified Organic?”By Farmer Thaddeus Barsotti
When considering the term “certified organic,” it is important to understand that today this is a legal description. It is also important to understand that the term “organic” has many connotations associated with it, such as sustainability and biodiversity. While these ideas were at the root of the organic foods movement, the current term “organic” only addresses the issues of amendments used for farming. It does not necessarily address methods of farming that are harmful or beneficial to our environment and ecosystem.
In terms of agriculture and the growing of food, organic is a term that specifies the types of amendments that can be applied to an agricultural field. Amendments are substances that farmers put into their fields to grow things. The following is a basic list of all the amendments used in agriculture:
- Transplants (seeds grown in a greenhouse then transplanted into fields)
- Herbicides (items used to control weeds)
- Pesticides (items used to control bugs and pests)
- Fungicides (items used to control fungi)
The basic definition of an organic amendment is that it can be found naturally in the environment. Items that are naturally found in the environment and are chemically altered from their original forms are not considered organic. Sulfur is a good example. It is a mineral that is naturally mined and is permitted for use as a fungicide in organic agriculture. However if sulfur is burned (chemically altering it), the result is sulfuric acid, which is not permitted in organic agriculture, but is used in conventional agriculture to change the pH of irrigation water.
Fertilizers are a major amendment used in farming. Conventional farmers use synthetic fertilizers that are chemicals like urea (form of nitrogen) that have been chemically produced from petroleum in factories. Items that organic farmers can use are limited to items that are naturally found in our environment like: animal manures, worm castings, seaweed, bat guano, blood meal, fish meal, feather meal and compost. While these are all permitted, not all farms use them. On our farm we use only green waste compost and fish products for fertilizers.
GM (genetically modified) seeds and seeds that are treated with chemicals are not permitted in organic agriculture. There are no powerful herbicides or pesticides available for organic use, but the chemicals used in conventional agriculture are very effective for controlling pests and weeds.
The Process of Certification
In order for a crop to be certified organic it must be grown on a piece of land that has not had any non-organic materials applied to it for the past three years. Land that has started the process of becoming certified organic (has started only using organic materials) is considered to be transitional or in transition. The crops that are produced on it during this period of time are not certified organic. These crops will not be certified organic until three years have passed since the date of the last prohibited material was applied to the field.
The USDA has created a set of standards that are referred to as the National Organic Program or N.O.P. A board of appointed officials decides these standards. The USDA does not do the annual inspections; third-party inspectors do these.
Once per year, every certified organic farm receives an inspection. A third-party certifier who has been accredited by the USDA completes these inspections. The third-party certifier comes to the farm annually and drives around to look at every field. The majority of the inspection is spent in the office where farmers provide documentation of all the amendments that were purchased and used on the farm. These inspectors are working to ensure that the farms are following all the rules required by the National Organic Program.
The last step is to pay a tax to the state agricultural department. In California, we receive a bill every year from the California Department Food and Agricultural – Organic Program. This tax is based on a farm’s total gross sales. I am not sure why it is required to pay this or what benefit this organization does for the organic industry. Despite several letters written to the California Department of Food and Agricultural – Organic Program, I have received no response to my questions. I suspect that all of the revenue generated from this tax is used to fund the few people required to bill and collect money from the organic farms, but they provide no other service to the organic community that I am aware of. It is an understatement to say that being certified organic has turned into a huge bureaucratic process.
While the certification process does force organic farms to keep good records, it does not prevent the use of non-organic substances on organic products. The certified organic process also permits farms to produce the same products both organically and non-organically. The potential for the intentional mixing of non-organic products into organic packaging can be very lucrative for dishonest farmers. The certification also lacks the legal authority to address farming methods (which have huge impacts on our environment and society) – they can only address what substances are applied to fields. The certification also fails to address the issues of corruption in third world countries, where many “certified organic” products are grown and shipped to the United States for consumption.
My suggestion is to buy organic from a farm you know and a farm that you can visit. This is the only way to ensure you are getting a genuine product. All produce that our farm grows and delivers are genuinely certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and are grown in a sustainable fashion that benefit our environment, employees and society. These are the principles that our farm was founded with and the reason that our customer base continues to grow.
The Romantic Aspect of Organic
The term organic is one that is often used with a swaying and romantic tone trailing off of it. When organic started it was a movement, a statement about life and something that people felt very strongly about, strong enough in fact to make a stance within society. The root of the movement had many other issues tied to it, issues that were much larger than any one industry. I remember my dad once telling me about a class he took when he was a graduate student at UC Davis: “We were taught that if we wanted to fix a system, we had to start from the ground up. Farming was just as good a place to start as anywhere else.”
It was true; once they had started growing produce it was necessary to define a new way to sell and distribute the produce. For this reason my childhood memory of organic is staged at the farmers market in Davis. My job was to sample the melons that Dad had cut, and his orders were to hold the sample platter out and tell people they were organic. At first we had to explain what organic was: “It’s grown without the use of chemicals.” At a time when DDT was used as liberally as water, it didn’t take long for people to take note of what was going on. The other detail was that we were growing types of melons that tasted good. In a post-WWII society, food was food, and people remembered a time when there wasn’t enough of it. As the agriculture industry transformed with the new technologies many traits, like taste, disappeared. These were some of many reasons the organic movement gained steam.
The other reality was that my parents and most of the other founders in the organic movement were not farmers. In their toils to figure how to farm without the common chemicals and fertilizers, the results of their produce were sometimes downright ugly. With the time already invested, the product often went to market and the story of how difficult it was to grow yielded a premium. People who purchased the produce agreed with the cause and realized the value of the unique products.
It was not long until the premium that rode with organic made it to the other aspects of the produce industry. Chefs were successfully using the produce and retail stores were putting in organic sections that profited much better than the other sections. The public had spoken. It is here where the romantic story of organic ends and the story of capitalism takes over.
The same farms that scoffed at the hippies and their “organics,” realized that the hippies had turned to yuppies. There was money in this organic thing and everybody in the agriculture business is interested in making money. It wasn’t long until large growers turned their land “organic.” On many farms that grow certified organic produce, the method used is the conventional farming practices with a limitation of what amendments are applied. These farms are able to produce huge volumes of organic produce, much more efficiently than small farms. The question of the sustainability of these farms remains a debate.
There is also the tale of the crooked farmer who has made a small fortune by getting into the “organic” market. When asked what his secret was, a wry smile developed and the answer was smirked, “The secret is to grow half organic and half conventional but sell all of it organic.” It is impossible for the certified organic process to prevent this and even when the certifying agencies have been pointed to suspicious behavior from farms, there is no authority by the agencies to correctly investigate the problem.
Our farm has made significant advances in production in the past 30 years. There is an economy of scale that is required in the business of growing fruits and vegetables. Our farm uses large tractors, hybrid seeds and modern irrigation equipment like most farms. Our farm also practices healthy crop rotation, harbors a complete ecosystem around all of our fields, uses water that wasn’t transferred from hundreds of miles away, takes an individual interest in our customers, selects varieties of produce that taste good and plays an active role in our local community – not like many farms. These too were traits of the original organic movement that at times have been lost in the shuffle. These traits are also the reason our farm is so successful — customers who care about knowing the land, people and methods that grow their food have found a partner.
The moral of the story is to learn about the farms and land that grow your food. Find out the name of the person in charge of the day-to-day operations. If you take the time to do this you will find the people that you should support. Taking the “black box of distribution,” out of the produce industry results in farmers working with consumers – this is the key to the most superior style of growing and distributing food.