Organic Certification: Farmer Al talks Process & Perks, by Guest Columnist Christy Lyle
Christy joined us late this summer as part of a trip around North American farms. She quickly became part of the family and part of this excellent team we have. We’ve been lucky to have her. Sometimes we get caught up in the work to do and Christy’s nearing departure has been nagging at me that farming is about people more than it’s about plants. I hope you get a chance to meet her before she moves on to her next farm after this week.
Christy posted the story below on her blog, The Traveling Farmer
. Check it out there for some great pictures and to follow her as she heads back West. She’s on Instagram, too: @travelingfarmer.
As the gloomy sky turned darker and the density of rain intensified, it was time to call it a day out in the field and get some inside chores done. The crew at Willowsford Farm, the Agri-hood where I have been farming at for the past two months, huddled up in the barn and cleaned garlic for the rest of the afternoon. Our crew leader, Alex Restaino (but everyone calls him Al) has recently become an official USDA Organic Certification Inspector. This was the perfect opportunity to pick his brain about the topic and get a better understanding about the process, perks, and downfalls of a farm becoming Organically Certified.
I can’t go without mentioning how Al got into farming in the first place. Having studied business in college, Al landed a job in a cubical as an “excel jockey” for a catalog company in Cleveland, Ohio. Like many farmers who lacked an agricultural upbringing, Al found himself very unhappy in the office environment. Luckily, he was able to connect with a few friends who he played college soccer with that had established an urban farm in Cleveland. He began volunteering with the urban farm around the age of 24, soon working there part time alongside his marketing-advertising job. Al’s love for organic farming overwhelmed the money his office job had to offer, so when the opportunity arose to acquire a small amount of land in a highly rundown neighborhood, he took it. This 5-acre urban farm was operated by a co-op funded by Ohio State University and the city of Cleveland. Al was one of a dozen farmers who shared tools, irrigation, and infrastructure to do whatever he pleased on his parcel of land.
Al shared with me a fun fact about the recent history of Cleveland. After the steel industry began to decline in the 1970s, there became a number of properties that had been sitting vacant for many years. Al’s new urban farm was residing in one of these severely economically depressed neighborhoods where land was cheap and opportunity was waiting. He worked with the urban farm for about three years until he and his now-fiancé moved to DC area.
While attending a friend’s wedding in Charleston, South Carolina, Al spoke with a guest who is a USDA Organic Farm Certifier. After this conversation, he became inspired enough to begin a course through IOIA (International Organic Inspectors Association) that following Spring. This Inspection Association is responsible for all the training for any type of organic farming inspections; from produce to livestock to processing and handling. Once Al passed the course, he then had to attend 10 shadow inspections before he had an inspector shadow his very own. After last week, Al is officially an inspector for all crop certification.
You know those green and white “USDA Certified Organic” stickers you see at the grocery store? That is the degree to which Al can now inspect farms to potential certification. This is more than just a sticker; for a farm to have their operation organically certified, it gives them the repertoire to demand certain market prices for their product. This certification lets the consumer know that a farm follows holistic, chemical-free practices in order to achieve the most flavor and nutrient-dense organic products. What about the farms that choose not to be certified? The scale and economic market of a farm both play a big role in the deciding factor of whether or not to go through the certification process. For example, the farm I currently work for, Willowsford, already has a set and reliable market; the community in which the farm was established for. Though Willowsford Farm is solely an organic operation, we only sell through our own farm stand and our 300-member CSA. With the high number of acres currently in production and in cover crops, becoming USDA Certified Organic wouldn’t influence our market prices. On the other hand, Mike Snow (head farmer at Willowsford Farm) is thinking of certifying a couple dozen acres in order to potentially sell excess produce to local grocery stores and co-ops.
Another major perk of a farm becoming USDA Organic Certified is that it makes farmers more accountable for their record-keeping. When inspectors like Al come by, a farm is expected to have their “Organic Systems Plan” filled out (a large questionnaire provided upon certification request) and many Excel files of records. These records include outlining what crops are being produced, when they are seeded, the source of seeds, harvesting schedules, cultivation (mechanical weeding) history, any pesticides or herbicides applied and to what quantity – the list truly goes on. Not all farmers see it necessary to keep track of all these things, even if they are an organic operation. But to maintain the extensive records as listed, a farmer can better assess what worked and what didn’t to improve for next season. The beauty about organic farming is that it’s always trial-and-error, with the goal of higher yields each following season.
Once all records and paperwork is looked over by an inspector, they get to do a farm tour (my favorite!) to verify that everything checks out. An example that Al gave me of paperwork not matching what he sees is this: say that a farm claims that they used a certain tractor attachment for mitigating weeds. Al is walking around and finds that the machinery described in sitting in an overgrown grassy area, clearly unused. This is when he searches a bit further to verify that chemical herbicides like Round Up (yikes) were not used. Once the physical inspection is completed, Al creates a write up and a pass-or-fail for the inspected farm. I asked him how often a farm fails an inspection and he was proud to say that many organic farmers hold integrity in their practices and pass with flying colors (I went too long without saying something cliché).
Without a doubt, Al taught me a lot about the organic certification process, how it benefits (or doesn’t) farms, and a tid-bit about the history of Cleveland. Though it’s wonderful to support USDA Organic Certified Farms, don’t shy away from the uncertified small-scale farmers you see at your local market. The little guys take just as much pride in organic and sustainable practices without seeing certification necessary. At the end of the day it’s always nice to know your farmers, face-to-face, as they’re the ones who feed our souls (couldn’t let go of one last cheesy remark). Cheers and buy local!