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Growing Organically Since 1982

Applying for Organic Certification

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 April Issue Newsletter

By Laura Davis, Long Life Farm

Laura Davis

I am not a spontaneous decision maker by nature, but one who does the research, considers all sides, and then makes an informed and educated decision. That is exactly how I have approached my decision to apply for organic certification for our farm. Organic certification has many naysayers outside, as well as inside, the farming world, including organic farmers and my husband, who is also my farming partner.

When I shop for my family, I try to buy certified organic food most of the time.   Before I knew about genetic modification of seed, I was not so strict. Now I buy our food from farmers who I know are using organic methods, food that is labeled non-GMO verified, meats that are the product of grass fed or organically fed grain, and food that is certified organic (where GMO seeds are prohibited). This is not easy or inexpensive. 

My 8 year old has broken down in tears and screamed she does not want to be organic.  She and her sister buy lunch two days per week at school and take their lunch the other three, but I still insist on no Doritos, and this has caused a bit of chip envy and tantrum. 

It is also not easy to shop, as you have to be constantly vigilant. What did the animal eat?  Does the item contain corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola or sugar from sugar beets or one of its derivatives? If it is not organic or not non-GMO verified it is most likely genetically modified.  Whole Foods has started to label their shelves with the non-GMO tag, which helps save time at the grocery, but the process is still difficult. I pay the grocery bill every month, and I feel the health of my family is worth the extra expense of organic food. 

To me the decision to get our vegetables organically certified has taken on a much larger meaning and a greater commitment to the organic label despite the challenges this label faces. The decision to buy organic food is more than avoiding synthetic chemicals.

Long Life Farm chooses mostly certified organic seed for growing crops. Of the 174 varieties of seed we bought this year, 5 of them are not organic.  The National Organic Program (NOP) requires that organic farmers buy only certified organic seed unless the same variety is not available as organic.  I can only buy a non-organic seed if organic seed is not available and I looked for the organic version at three other seed companies. Of the 5 seeds we bought that were not organic, four were purchased from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds who tests their seeds for GMOs and also has signed the Safe Seed Pledge as has Johnny’s, the source of the last variety purchased as non-organic. All five varieties were not available in an organic version. 

There are tens of thousands more varieties available for non-organic growers than there are for organic growers. As I reviewed my catalogs, it is clear that organic seed prices average 30% higher than non-organic seed for the same varieties. This process of buying the right seed is tedious and difficult but worth it to insure the right start for our food.  Why go through this trouble of procuring certified organic seed if I am not going to seek certification for the harvested product? 

My husband Don’s argument against organic certification is based on the amount of paperwork and the cost to maintain organic certification.  While the paperwork is greatest upon first application, one needs to keep detailed records about crop rotation and daily activity such as weeding, fertilizing, tilling, harvesting, and must renew certification annually.  The organic system plan that I am preparing for my application details the seedling, planting, harvesting, handling and post-handling activity on the farm.  Try writing down everything you do on a daily basis.  

The cost is also a big consideration.  Besides the cost of our own record keeping, Baystate Organic Certifiers certification fees will be between $800-1500 each year. These fees grow as revenue grows.  This will cover inspectors visiting us twice per year and the use of the USDA Organic label. We cannot use the word “organic” without this certification. 

If you get to know us and the farm, you will feel comfortable that we are following the rules, but what if you don’t know us and you are new to Long Life Farm?  This label is important to me when I don’t know the farmer and their practices, and I believe it is important to our customers as well.  The “certified organic” label is the only truly regulated label amongst the many eco-labels you see.  Certification to the NOP provides assurance to our customers that the USDA and certifiers are watching to insure that the standards have been met. 

Has the organic label lost its relevance?  Some in the food world say yes, due to big organic companies gaining approval of questionable ingredients for food processing.  When it comes to processed organic personal care products, coffee cream, and snacks, you still need a dictionary to translate some of these labels. Eden Foods is one of the big organic companies that is also worried and refuses to use the organic label.  

Of the dozens of new farmers I’ve met, only a small number are applying for organic certification. All have given me different answers as to why they are not certifying. Some say their customers know them well by now and they trust them when they say they are following the NOP. Some say that large agribusiness has hijacked the organic label. Some just don’t want to manage the amount of paperwork and tracking of daily work that certification requires. Others find it unacceptable that certified organic growers have to prove what they are not doing, when it should be the conventional growers that are transparent about what they are spraying on our food. 

Being certified organic is one way to prevent state aerial spraying of pesticides that might take place to address pest infestation such as EEE, Asian longhorn beetle, etc. While overhead spraying is rare, I appreciate this added level of protection. Long Life Farm has also registered with the town of Hopkinton to avoid any future ground spraying. 

There was also last year’s Stanford study that showed that organic produce tested in the study was no more nutritional than conventionally grown produce. Thorough or not, this study may have made consumers stray from their commitment to buying organic. The NOP does not dictate nutrition requirements for produce on an organic farm. There is no current standard for how nutritious a fruit or vegetable should be. Long Life Farm focuses on balancing the minerals in the soil to increase the nutrition in crops, to try and regain the plant nutrition that used to be in our ancestors' crops.  We still must verify that any mineral we add to the soil be approved for organic use.

After weighing all the facts and many opinions about organic certification, we believe for a small vegetable farm, the organic label still has relevance to our family and our customers and can be a real badge of honor, so we are moving forward to finish our application this spring.  Wish us luck and perseverance! 

If you are new to Long Life Farm or are new to the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) here are a few good sources of information to bring you up to speed.

Laura Davis and her husband Donald Sutherland operate the non-traditional Long Life Farm on several plots of farmland in and around Hopkinton, MA. They operate a CSA and sell their produce at area Farmers' Markets. Laura also serves on the NOFA/Mass Board of Directors.

The upcoming 39th NOFA Summer Conference will feature the Saturday evening debate: Is Organic Certification Right for You?



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