Bryan and I started our farm business in 2011 on leased land. Since we had no idea how long we might be farming on that piece of land, we didn’t want to start the organic certification process. We were also kind of on the fence about certifying. We had both only ever apprenticed or worked on farms that followed organic (or biodynamic) growing practices. Some had been certified organic, certified biodynamic, certified naturally grown, some had been certified and decided to stop, and some had never been certified at all. However, everyone we had ever worked for had seemed to genuinely believe in the principles of organic farming.
In our personal lives, we buy almost exclusively certified organic food when we don’t know the farmer who produced the food. The organic label/logo is important to us. We have come to food-growing from health- and environmental-conscious backgrounds and feel very strongly that food grown in accordance with organic principles is what we want to be eating.
But to certify our farm as organic costs money, quite a bit of money for us as new farmers just starting to build our business. We knew that if we were to sell to a supermarket or restaurant chain, we would need to be certified organic because the eaters of our food wouldn’t know who we were or how we approached growing food. But, as a business that wants to sell everything directly to the customer and wants the customer to ask questions and visit our farm, should we pay the money to certify?
One of the main benefits, in our opinion, to paying for the certification costs, is that we would be saying, with our hard-earned dollars, that we valued all the hard work that farmers and consumers have gone to establishing the National Organic Standards. Which we really do. The paperwork, while extensive and time-consuming, benefits us and our business through having clearer records thus being able to better figure out costs of production and adjust our crop planning from year to year. As a small business owner, in general, it’s worth it to keep good records.
The main downfall, for us, was definitely the added yearly expense. We found out, during our research phase, that NB and PEI both have funding available to help farmers out with the cost of certification. Nova Scotia, as this point, has none.
We also know that many people value knowing their farmer and the farmer’s growing practices more than they value their farmer being certified. Every farmer needs to decide for themselves whether certification (and all decisions relating to their farm business) is right for them. Whether certified organic or not, isn’t the point of the organic movement to encourage more people to use what nature has provided and stay away from synthetic versions of nature that come accompanied with negative side effects? I think organic farming should be about wanting to make the world a better place (see how idealistic I still am?).
There are also other certifications that interest us. We have already become a Certified Bee Friendly Farm. We have worked on and visited farms that are Certified Naturally Grown, which is less well-known than organic but follows many of the same principles, has a grassroots style, and is farmer-peer reviewed. There is also the Ontario-based Local Food Plus and Fair Trade Certifications. Some of these certifications include standards on labour treatment and the humane treatment of farm animals. However, none are as recognized among the general public as Organic.
Side note: I just read a really great book called Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman which goes into great detail about the livestock industries in the U.S. Nicolette mentions that organic is a step in the right direction but that the standards on outdoor access and pasturing are not quite there. Of course, many organic livestock farmers (especially small-scale farmers) do pasture their animals.
Well, this has been a very lengthy few paragraphs to basically say that we’ve decided to pursue organic certification.
After this decision had been made, we contacted Roxanne Beavers, who works as ACORN’s Organic Transition Specialist. We had already been contacting Roxanne whenever we had a question about allowable inputs and she has always been super helpful (and an amazing person all around). She recommended we contact some certifying bodies and other farmers to see what their certification experience has been.
I called 4 certifying bodies (ACO, Ecocert, OCIA, and Procert). I left messages for all of them. The first person to get back to me was Caroline from Ecocert. She outlined a certification package for the Small-Scale Diversified Farm that sounded ideal for us. This option would include cropland under 2 hectares, livestock units under 5 (that means 357 laying hens!), and our honeybees (if we could certify the bees, which we can’t because there would need to be a 3000 m isolation distance from any synthetic pesticides or GMOs on flowering crops…we live in blueberry country). I eventually spoke with somebody from all of the certifying bodies I had called and everyone was super helpful and kind. However, all would cost us about double the price of the Small-Scale Diversified Farm fee that Ecocert was offering.
It seems that CBs (certifying bodies) either charge based on the sales per year the farm does, or the acreage they are farming. For us, paying by acreage works out more to our advantage. Our business model is to make more money from less space by farming the area more intensively with more human power. If we had more space and more tractor equipment, it would make sense for us to use more of the space and make sure our tractor equipment had enough room to do their jobs properly. But we have a small farm and the part of farming we love is getting in there and touching every plant. Hand-tending those plants. If we certified our farm based on sales, (hopefully) our cost would go up every year. But having it based on acreage, it will stay close to the same (every year, prices go up by a bit in general). Depending on the type of farmer, they may need to increase their acreage but expect the same amount in sales. In which case, it makes sense for them, financially, to go with a CB that bases the fee on acreage.
One of our other considerations has been the business structure of the CBs. The majority of them are for-profit businesses. One of them, ACO (Atlantic Certified Organic) is a non-profit. Many of the people who sit on the Board of Directors are farmers that we know and admire greatly. ACO is also a local organization. Those are all qualities that we value. Many farmers we’ve spoken to have chosen ACO as their CB because those are things they value.
During our research, we’ve also learned that, while the Canadian National Organic Standards are the same for the whole country, CBs can interpret the standards in their own way. Which ends up meaning that not all “products approved for organic production” are approved by every CB. Although, a farmer can always submit a product for review to their CB and possibly get it approved.
It’s interesting also that different countries can have quite different takes on the same product for use under organic certification. For example, organic farmers in the US can use Chilean Nitrate (a fairly controversial product due to the way it is mined) but those in Canada cannot. Also, I know of some farmers in the US who have decided not to certify organic because the US standards don’t allow the use of Biotelo, the non-gmo, corn-based, biodegradable mulch that is allowed under Canadian and EU Organic Standards. Biotelo (see previous post), replaces black plastic (non-biodegradable) mulch and removes the labour costs (and annoyance) of removing it from the fields and taking it to a landfill at the end of the season.
Also, I’d like to add a link to a farmer I highly admire (from afar…I’ve never met her), Atina Diffley. She recently wrote an article on the importance of certification (she is also from the U.S.).
Anyhow, this is basically where we are at in our certification journey. We are excited and looking forward to the rest of the process. We’ll keep you informed as to how it’s going. And if anyone has any advice or thoughts for us, we would greatly appreciate it.