Last week I filled out our annual organic certification paperwork due February 15th. It’s one of those items on my To Do list that I often put off. When a farmer wants to be an organic grower and label her produce organic, each crop on the farm must be certified by a regional certifying agency. First, the applicant needs to demonstrate that for three years the land has been free from contaminating chemicals. Then, the crops must be grown according to organic standards; specifically, any material used on the crop must be on the Organic Materials Review Institute’s (OMRI) list of approved materials or individually approved by a certifying agency. If a farmer chooses not to become certified, yet still follows all the regulations, she can tell customers that the crop is grown according to organic standards, but cannot label it organic. The standards are stringent, and the United States Department of Agriculture can slap on a fine of up to $10,000 for each infraction.
Now that I am filling out the certification papers for the 11th year in a row it doesn’t take me as long as it used to. But I remember the first year I nervously submitted our thirty-page application, including maps of the land, a soil report, a list of materials I had used or planned to use, and harvest, selling, and storage plans. The certifier wanted to be sure that there was no possibility of contamination at any step in the process of delivering the crop to the consumer. The final requirement before receiving certification was the annual onsite inspector visit.
I knew that being certified would create our market. Our certifier had told me that there were no other pick-your-own certified organic orchards in Massachusetts. Without it, why would anyone be attracted to our little farm, when we were surrounded by so many commercial orchards that not only offered apples, but cider donuts, farmstands, mazes, petting zoos, and hay rides — big time agri-tainment?
On the day of our appointment, the inspector arrived with copies of our application and a clipboard of questions. He wanted to see the shed where we stored all of our materials, the tractor, the sprayer and other tools, our spray log, and receipts for all materials purchased—in short, everything related to the farm operation. It was a bit like having a nosy mother-in-law inspect your domestic abilities. I thought I’d done everything correctly, but the inspector noted some inconsistencies that needed to be addressed before the orchard could receive organic certification.
The most difficult issue to resolve was my early season copper spray for fire blight, a standard in the orchard arsenal. Copper is a mined material; I never imagined that it wouldn’t be organic. The product label said it contained copper sulfate and copper oxychloride, both Greek to me (I never took chemistry), and other inert materials. The inspector told me he was not worried about the first two materials, but that I would need to find out about the inert ingredients, which companies are hesitant to reveal because of trade secrets. Those inert ingredients could make us ineligible for certification for three years. With my friend Kavita’s help, we discovered that our product was on an older OMRI list. We were ecstatic and called the organic certifier. He said, “This is good news,” but he cautioned us. “The product might have changed—otherwise, why wasn’t it on the current list? If the material is the same as on the older list, you need to get the company to state that in writing.”
We called the company numerous times and sent beseeching emails. Fortunately, we reached a sympathetic person who explained that the product was changed to a different label due to a “consolidation of product line.” Neither the active nor inert ingredients had changed. He said the company didn’t list it because the paperwork was so arduous. We were very appreciative and the farm officially received organic certification a few weeks later. Now, I get approval for every product before I use it in the orchard. And because we are one of two organic pick-your-own orchards in the state, and still the only one in eastern MA, we are picked out every fall before Columbus Day.
Today, I wouldn't consider spraying a harsh chemical on our trees or herbicide under the trees, but I continue to apply for certification. Organic certification creates the market for our small farm. But I know that organic is only a minimum requirement for healthy food. The nutritional content of our food makes the big difference in human health and it’s the biological activity in the soil that feeds the plants that feed us. I’ll be writing about nutrient dense growing in a future blog. But that’s why it’s important to know your farm and know your farmer!