June 5-8, 2017
We had our annual organic certification inspection last week, spending the day with staff from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program. So, we think it’s an appropriate time to share some details with you on organic certification, how it works, and the value it brings. Part of this story is a reprint from last year, and at that time Kimmye, founder and owner of The Weekly Juicery, told us this article was the inspiration behind her decision go completely organic with her business, which has proved to be a good move.
Over the course of the year, we will describe the reasoning behind our interest in organic farming and eating. Here, I will take a moment to explain the mechanics associated with the USDA organic certification process itself so you understand what our organic certification means. This third-party certification is strict but not rigid. It is based on the laws of nature, scientific knowledge and transparency of information exchange.
Without nature-based cultivation methods, we would not have a basis for organic certification at all. Evidence of evolution shows us how nutrient cycling grows healthy plants. We “fertilize” our fields with the incorporation of plants that release their nutrients to feed our crops and with the droppings from the herbivores—namely, our cattle and sheep—that consumed them. Science tells us we are actually energizing the intricate soil food web that envelops the roots of the plants. These nutrient-cycling systems create such healthy plants and animals, there is no need for toxic, synthetic, chemical fertilization and rescue treatments. How we carry out all of this is described in our Organic System Plan, a 40-page document that we submit for review and approval each spring to the KDA, which is an organic-certification agency accredited by the USDA.
The USDA has statutory authority to administer the regulations that inform producers and processors what can and cannot be done to achieve certification through its National Organic Program. The regulations, referred to as “The Rule,” allow for individual interpretation, because all farms are unique, while maintaining strict restrictions of materials and substances that cannot be used by organic producers. Our OSP documents source and quantify that the 250+ seed varieties we purchase are from an organic source, ensuring we are not using genetically engineered products, synthetic fungicide treatments, or countless other potentially harmful materials. Our plan includes information about buffer zones between us and neighbors to prevent contamination, greenhouse potting-soil mixes, pest- and weed-control strategies, poultry-feed sources, individual animal-ID and animal-welfare strategies, post-harvest produce-handling practices, and much, much more.
When our OSP is submitted to the KDA for review, a reviewer, who has passed rigorous training, pours over the plan with its accompanying documentation and then notifies an inspector to verify our plan is accurate and thorough enough to demonstrate that we are working within The Rule. The inspector, also intensively trained, reviews the plan again before scheduling a farm visit, where they have unfettered access to our fields, buildings, files and records of the operation. Part of the inspection includes an audit trail protocol to verify authenticity. This means the inspector can pick any one of those 250+ seed varieties and ask to see documentation that verifies that the quantity of crop we harvested matches the quantity of seed we say we used. The records we keep show when and where they were planted, how many trays were seeded in the greenhouse, when they were planted into which field, their harvest yield, and where they were sold. These records are part of good farm-business management anyway, so we would keep track of these details even if we didn’t need them for organic certification. Inspectors can arrive unannounced, take samples for pesticide residue, and verify systems are being employed as described in our plan. We welcome them anytime.
The inspector submits a report to a final reviewer (often a committee of several people), who sets a third set of eyes on the plan to ensure a thorough review has been performed to confirm compliance. Only then will a certificate be issued. The certification agency also goes through a similarly thorough accreditation process to verify they have the capacity and capability to administer a sound review of the operations. This year, the USDA auditor shadowed our inspector to ensure KDA is thorough in their process of verification.
The Word Organic
The USDA essentially owns the word “organic,” or at least how it is used in the market place. Farmers and food processors must have completed the certification process before they can use the term. Misuse can result in an $11,000 fine, per transaction, and there is a well-financed enforcement division within the USDA-NOP. If it is not certified, it is not organic.
It seems more than a little ironic: Farmers that are restricted to mined minerals and plant extracts to produce food for their communities have to spell out every detail of their operations for scrutinized review. On the other hand, producers that have access to genetically engineered seeds; formulate chemical cocktails with synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides; or confine their animals, don’t have to report to anybody.
When you see the seal or the term organic, it’s legit. And our third-party auditor can vouch for us. —Mac Stone
In Your Share
English Shelling Peas