|By: Farmer Thaddeus Barsotti
|The Process of Certification | The
Romantic Aspect of Organic
|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 “organic” only addresses
the issues of amendments used for farming. It does not address
methods of farming that are harmful or beneficial to our environment
|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 form are not considered organic. Sulfur is a good example,
it is an item 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 it 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, which are chemicals like urea
(form of nitrogen) which 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 standard that are referred to
as the National Organic Program or N.O.P. This is the set of standards
that define USDA Organic, making a national standard for organic.
A board of appointed officials decides these standards. The USDA
does not do the annual inspections; third party inspectors do
|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 insure 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 and are grown in a sustainable
fashion that benefit our environment, employees, and society.
These are the principals 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 tailing 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 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 to 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 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 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 thirty 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 a 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 we play an active role in our local
community – not like most farms. These too were traits of
the original organic movement that 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.
|There are unspoken tragedies of the maturing of the organic
industry, the certifiers. Our farm has always been CCOF (California
Certified Organic Farmers) certified. Annually this organization
would come out and look at a farm’s methods and determine
if they were organic or not. It wasn’t long until everyone
had an organization defining “organic” and shortly
after the Federal Government took the term. Now all of the certification
agencies are third party certifiers who are bureaucratic extensions
of the rules the questionable board of elected officials adopt.
The standards and influence of the standard now are driven by
big money, not by the public or the sustainable-minded farmers
that started the movement.
|The moral of the story is to find a farm. Find out where the
ground they grow their produce is. 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 be surprised by how many farmers you cannot find
and the ones that you do find are 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