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NOFA/Mass Launches Organic System Plan Experts Program

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 February Issue Newsletter

Laura Davis, Certification Assistance Coordinator

Farmers who follow organic farming techniques and want to take the next step to gain organic certification often find themselves wondering how to get started. I was a sitting board member of NOFA/Mass when I started my agricultural business in Massachusetts, but the organization did not have any resources to help me navigate the process. I muddled my way through the paperwork and gained advice from other certified farmers. Another certified farmer shared her Organic System Plan (OSP) with me, to which I referred for the questions that stumped me. I also used resources online from various websites. This path was not the most efficient and involved a great deal of perseverance to find the information I needed. Over the course of a year, I became a member of the NOFA/Mass staff as the Certification Assistance Coordinator and now find myself trying to solve this problem for other farmers.

So why not just call a third party certifier for help with certification? Would they not be the most knowledgeable of people when it comes to the certification process? Unfortunately, certifiers hands are tied and can not give advice as they must abide by a conflict of interest clause in the National Organic Program standards.

This is a sensible approach to avoid conflict of interest. But, it is unfortunate that those with so much knowledge are not able to help those that need it most. Before the NOP went into effect in 2002, NOFA/conducted certification of farms. I spoke to Jack Kittredge, Policy Director, NOFA/Mass and editor of The Natural Farmer, about his nine years sitting on the NOFA/Mass Certification Committee, starting in 1986. “At that time a committee member and one inspector would go to the farm for inspection. There was no real training; it was self-training. They could consult with the farmer to help them get their techniques in order and tell farmers what they should do to follow organic practices. We also had one person who was one of those that helped farmers to get their paperwork in line before presenting to the certification committee.” So I asked, “what happened that NOFA/Mass is no longer involved in certification nor giving the farmer help to get their techniques in order?” Jack replied, “In MA, the NOFA/Mass board decided to separate entirely once the USDA’s official standards came to be, as it might compromise us to be agents of the federal government.” The responsibility of organic certification was spun off from NOFA/Mass and became Baystate Organic Certifiers, who now certifies farms and food businesses in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. There are many other certifiers that certify farms in businesses in these states as well.

Since 2002, NOFA/Mass has offered workshops on organic farming techniques, but has not been involved in assisting farms and businesses in gaining organic certification.

In December of 2013, NOFA/Mass and Baystate Organic Certifiers came back together to talk about the needs of the farming community as it pertained to organic certification assistance. Don Franczyk mentioned Baystate received many calls from farmers and processors that needed help. Baystate could not help them because they are not allowed to offer consultancy services. After receiving a donation from a member interested in helping beginning farmers with organic certification, NOFA/Mass Certification Assistance was born.

In early 2014, Don Person from Baystate conducted five days of training for Suzy Konecky and myself. We prepared mock OSPs for Crops, Livestock and Dairy, Cranberries, Mushrooms, Maple Syrup, Wild Crops and Processing. We went through these plans and learned the nuances of the standards through the requirements for each section of the OSP. This was a good first step in acquiring the knowledge to enable NOFA/Mass to help inquiring applicants.

Last summer the USDA sought applications for their Sound and Sensible program, which sought to remove barriers to certification. Don Franczyk led a team from Baystate Organic Certifiers, New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) and NOFA/Mass to develop a proposal for the USDA’s program. The proposal was approved and enables NOFA/Mass to deliver the Organic Experts Program and a video that will bust preconceived myths about organic certification. NESFI is working on a program that will train compost experts on the requirements of the Organic Standards concerning compost production. Baystate Organic Certifiers, in addition to coordinating the work of the contract, will be authoring training manuals and “how to modules” for the Organic Experts Program. NOFA/Mass is proud to announce the launch of the OSP Experts program. 

NOFA/Mass is now doing something completely different from holding workshops about organic certification. We are working on a program to write OSPs from beginning to end, taking certification assistance to a whole new level. After an initial orientation visit to the farm that is interested in certifying, I save the certification application and associated forms to a file sharing drive in Dropbox.  As the Organic Assistance Coordinator I share the files with the certifying farm. This enables the farmer and me to see and complete the questions independently or together, streamlining the work. In the case where the farmer needs time to list out equipment, Dropbox sends me a notice when the file has been updated. This way I know that we are ready to move on to the next step. If there are any questions that I might need a certifier to answer, I can ask those questions confidentially to the certifier without naming the farm. This protects the integrity of the farm application as well as the certifying agent. This year NOFA/Mass will assist one livestock farm, one farm raising crops and one food processor complete their OSP. We have identified the livestock and crop farm that will be submitting an OSP. We are looking for a farm processor or food business that would like to gain organic certification for one of their products.

If you are a food processor or a farm that produces a product that you want to certify organic, we hope that you will participate.  You will receive help from me to complete your OSP so that you can submit for certification. This is almost as good as having your own secretary for free! Certification fees are still applicable through the certifier of your choice. Please contact me at lauradavis@nofamass.org if you are interested in exploring this opportunity. 

More questions? For additional resources on where to start if you want to get certified visit www.nofamass.org/content/organic-certification.

Laura Davis is a Board Member and the Certification Assistance Coordinator for NOFA/Mass. Laura operates Long Life Farm, a certified organic diversified vegetable farm in Hopkinton, MA.

 

 

 

 

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