The Organic conundrum

Our farm is proudly certified organic through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA). We went the certification route consciously and on principle: we believe in the importance of distinguishing our produce based on organic, sustainable land management practices. 

For me, acting as a conscious and caring steward of the land is at the heart of farming. I love this piece of earth with my whole being. This land is my life, my blood, my sweat, and my tears. I work every day to protect and care for it and ultimately eek out a living off of its fruits. This is not a glamorous or lucrative business. This is a lifestyle; a choice to move through to world in a way that allows me to sleep well at night and wake up every morning proud of what I do and what we are building. This, to me, is what it means to be an organic farmer. 

I also believe (although perhaps a bit less strongly) in the importance of "organic" from a policy standpoint. I believe it is important for consumers to have a label to help them identify produce that has been grown in a healthy, sustainable way. For the most part I believe that produce labeled "organic" will be better for you than conventionally grown produce. However, if I had to choose between buying conventionally grown produce from a local farmer I knew and trusted or buying "organic" California produce from Kroger, I pick the local conventional produce. The organic label isn't perfect. It doesn't tell you everything about how your produce was grown and there are a lot of ways to "work the system". I worry about large producers who jump through the hoops of the USDA Organic Certification program but who are otherwise really just conventional Big Ag businesses. And yet, I still think the label is worth something and it is a step in the right direction. 

So, we carry on, filling out the paperwork, paying more for organically approved inputs and trying to toe the line with OEFFA to keep in good standing for our certification. But, I messed up. We were sent an official letter of notification that we are "out of compliance". Apparently I haven't been clear enough in our marketing and I may have left room for misinterpretation from our customers about the status of our land and therefore the status of some of our produce. Here's my formal apology for our apparent "commingling" of transitional and organic crops. 

Here's the deal: we currently grow on four vegetables fields. Two of them were eligible to be certified organic starting our first year of production. The other two fields fall in to the "transitioning" category. This is because some inputs deemed prohibited under USDA Organic code were used on the land prior to my management. One of the fields is what we call the "Main Field". Before I came home to farm, this field was a hay pasture. As a hay pasture my father annually put down a small amount of a very common chemical fertilizer. The amount of fertilizer he used was limited to that which was needed to replace the nitrogen taken out of the land in the form of hay. The other field that is "in transition" is an expanded incarnation of a garden that our friend and former farm-hand, Bobby, used to manage. Bobby is a great grower and I respect his use of the land, but he's kind of cranky and never believed in the Organic standards so I can't say for sure what kind of pesticides he may have used on some of his crops. Both chemical fertilizers and inorganic pesticides can be big problems for sustainable land management. If overused (which was never the case on this farm) the chemical fertilizer can run off into our water sources and cause significant damage to the wildlife and water ecosystems effected. Even more problematic, inorganic pesticides are bad for humans and bugs. In no way do I think a reliance on pesticides (even the organically approved ones) is a good management practice. Under my management all of our vegetables are produced strictly according to the USDA Organic standards and my own passion for healthy, sustainable food.

But, all of that is beside the point. Up to this moment, in order to deal with the confusing and (in my opinion) relatively inconsequential difference between crops coming out of the "transitional fields" and the crops coming out of the "organic" fields I have aired on the side of generalities. I don't directly advertise any of our crops as Organic and I don't have any signs up at our stand suggesting one way or the other. Instead, I focus on talking to people directly about our organic practices and the fact that some of our land is transitioning. Nonetheless, that isn't really appropriate protocol according to our certifiers and I can see why. It makes sense that farmers shouldn't be able to just automatically decide a bunch of land they've been managing conventionally can all the sudden be under the Organic umbrella. For big farmers selling large quantities to third party grocers and wholesalers I can see how "commingling" organic and "transitioning" crops would be a problem. But I chafe under the issue regardless. It reminds me of the reason I got out of public policy four years ago: you just can't write a federal policy that's going to work for everyone. I want certifiers to be policing Big Ag and helping maintain the "purity" of the organic standard. BUT as a tiny farm in nowhere'sville (sorry guys) Virginia I just don't believe I should be under the same onus of reporting as they are. And I'd chide myself for being lazy, but that's just not a trait you can really associate with farmers.

So anyway, after hemming and hawing over this for a few weeks, I've decided to put my big girl pants on and do what it takes to get the farm back in to compliance. That means, from now until March 2017 (when the Main Field will be out of "transition" and all of our produce will be eligible for certification) we will be labeling our "transitioning" crops at market and online. These crops include:

  • Broccoli and mini broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Kale (more than half of our kale is coming out of the hoop house which is Organic, but I can't bear to segregate the leaves in the wash station so we're just going to call it all "transitional")
  • Swiss Chard (same deal as the kale)

I hope and assume that none of you buying our produce will care at all about the scarlet "T" on your broccoli, but if I'm wrong, please come chat with me about it! As you can see I have lots of opinions about the Organic Certification process and always love to share :).