As an Organic Farmer, I choose Certification

One thing I enjoy about Winter is the opportunity to reconnect and converse with my colleagues. There’s your–ahem–garden-variety gossip, but, organic farmers being a pretty spirited bunch, there is also a lot of healthy debate that takes place during the colder months.

One such discussion that I’m sure I’ll see resurrected in email conversations and at conferences this year is the perennial one about the merits of organic certification. Many who label their practices organic are certified according to Canada-wide standards overseen by the Canada Organic Regime, but many others have no certification. At the grocery store, you’ll only find organic products produced by the former group, since retail stores are not allowed to advertise non-certified food as organic. At most farmers’ markets, you’ll find both certified and non-certified organic products on offer.

I’ve seen organic farming from both points of view. The first farm I worked on was an organic one, not certified; currently, I manage a certified organic vegetable garden.

In a minute, I’m going to explain why I’m an advocate of certification. But before I do, allow me to suggest what are not barriers to certification, as well as a couple of true barriers.

Record-keeping is not a barrier to certification. Neither is the cost for any farmer grossing north of around, well, I don’t know. Twenty thousand dollars, certainly. So, most farmers attempting to make their living, or a good deal of it, from farming. Those of you grossing less than ten: I wouldn’t fault you for suggesting your certification costs are approaching prohibitive.

First and foremost among the true barriers to certification is a lack of land tenure. Since the years-long process of gaining full certification is tied to the land and not the farmer, those of us who lease our land–particularly the majority of us with leases shorter than five years–face a strong disincentive to certify.

Such is the case for many new farmers and growers. Such is definitely the case for the rising swell of urban farmers, most of whom operate on small, leased backyard plots peppered around their city (incidentally, there is a movement afoot to create an organic accredication for farmers facing this conundrum).

In an abstract way, the public’s (and even some farmers’) limited understanding of the word organic is another type of barrier. Or, if not a barrier, than an enabler of those who refrain from certifying. Too many seekers of organic food define organic very narrowly as: no chemicals. Worse, they define no chemicals as: no pesticides. Aside from being incorrect (Hello, Safer’s Soap! Look alive, BT!), this definition is so reductive as to make a mockery of organic farming philosophy.

Here’s why I count this as a barrier to certification, and, ultimately, a threat to the certification regime. This season I got a call from a fellow veggie grower who wondered if I thought it was okay to use the word organic in her signage, because she only uses pesticides that we certified organic farmers are allowed to use, and wanted to communicate that to her customers. I asked her if she uses synthetic fertilizers. She did.

You might write that off as one uninformed grower unintentionally abusing the concept. But I can’t blame her for simply wanting to cater to her customers’ demands, in their own (incorrect) language. In this case, the better-educated eater would lead to a better-educated farmer with more incentive to embrace true organic practices, and maybe even, dare I hope, consider organic certification.

Okay. So, here’s why I’m an advocate of certification:

1. Being certified requires a focus on environmental stewardship: Many people believe organic farming is mostly about what farmers don’t do–we don’t spray use synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds, etc.–but being certified requires me to demonstrate what I am doing on an ongoing basis to improve the health of my farm’s ecosystem and prevent disease, weed propagation, and insect problems. My yearly re-application form is twenty pages long, and in it I must outline, among many other things, my crop rotations, weed management strategy, and how I am maintaining the fertility of my soil. Philosophically, I’m committed to all of these practices, certified or not; but without the oversight of my certifying body, I would be much more likely to let certain management strategies slide during the busiest part of the season.

2. Trusting your farmer only covers what they know: “I don’t need to be certified; I know all my customers, they know I have integrity so they trust me, and they can come see my farming practices any time they want.” This is probably the most commonly cited defense of non-certified organic farming. The problem with that statement is that it only covers what a farmer and her customers know…not what they don’t. I’ve met farmers selling ‘organic’ eggs at the farmers’ market who were feeding their birds conventional grain. They weren’t being dishonest; they just didn’t know better. When I filled out my first organic certification application, I learnt a lot about sustainable farming that I hadn’t considered before. Which leads me to my next point…

3. Being certified has made me a better farmer: The organic certification system began when groups of organic farmers got together to discuss their practices and develop definitions and standards about what it means to farm organically. The system is more complex today, but its foundation still rests upon farmers getting together to evaluate one another’s practices. For a young farmer like me, this translates into mentorship that is built into the certification system. In addition, there’s my yearly farm visit from an organic verification officer, who is generally very knowledgeable and can identify ways to improve my practices.

4. My options are limited when things go badly: Most farmers, organic or not, care about their land and the environment. But they also need to make a living in an industry with, generally speaking, slim profit margins. This can lead to situations in which what’s best for stewardship is not good for one’s bank account. It’s easy to avoid pesticides when you haven’t got bug problems, but when a pest or disease arrives unexpectedly, it’s the certified organic farmer whose temptation to save the crop is curtailed by the limitations imposed by certification.

The system is by no means perfect, but on the whole, I believe it is a positive force for sustainable farming and the ongoing improvement of farmers’ practices. Which is why I plan to maintain my certification for the foreseeable future.

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