Farmer finds organic certification opens doors
By Mary Maier-Abel, Blooming Hill Farm
Change comes to us all. Sometimes slowly, purposefully, and gradually. Sometimes quickly, suddenly and unexpectedly. But one thing is certain, change comes. An event can be a precipice, and life afterwards takes on a different shape and meaning.
That is what is happening for us here at Blooming Hill Farm. What was the precipice event that started all this change? Organic certification. We became certified in September 2012. It has opened up opportunities that we never expected: access to better markets, requests to farm neighboring fields, and appreciative new customers who would not be our customers without it.
Many people in the sustainable farming community are at the same place we were a few years ago, farming using organic practices and marketing under sustainable, natural, or no-chemical labels. Like we did, they believe that organic certification is too cumbersome, expensive and of little benefit to their operation. They wonder, “Is there really that much to be gained for all the efforts needed for that piece of paper?”
My husband, Steve, and I had that same mindset. We were growing with organic practices, marketing our products as chemical-free and not seeing any need for the extra effort of certification. Yet, the question of whether it might be worth it kept coming up.
The push toward certification finally came in the fall of 2011. That season ended with an abundance of carrots for our farm. We had done something right, and we had lots of carrots—more than we had intended, more than we could sell. Our small local co-op bought as many as they could. We sold as much as we could at farmers’ markets, and we prepared storage for what we couldn’t sell right away.
The produce buyer at our co-op directed me to a larger buyer in the Twin Cities who offered to buy some, but not at the price the smaller co-op was paying for our “chemical-free, member-grown carrots.” Without certification, our carrots could be sold only as “local conventional.” The larger buyer already had a lot of uncertified carrots, but was looking for certified organic carrots to meet customer demand. If we had been certified, we could have sold them all on the spot for a premium price. How many other opportunities had we given up by not being certified?
That was the tipping point for us. We began to get serious about going for certification. We used the certification cost share program through the USDA-NRCS to help cover the costs associated with the paperwork involved in certification (such as a new copy machine and file cabinet). Then we went to the MOSES Conference and talked to all the certification agencies there. We decided to go with MOSA. They helped us figure out how to comply with the rules with just the right amount of paperwork.
The inspection came, and we were pleasantly surprised to find it more helpful than intimidating. We were certified in about six months from the day we decided that we were going to do it. It wasn’t as hard as we thought. At the time, we didn’t know if it would be worth it, but it felt good to have accomplished the certification. We were (and still are) proud of it.
The real proof of the certification’s worth came to us last winter while planning our upcoming season. Each winter our co-op produce manager meets with local growers to discuss what each farm plans to grow for the co-op in the upcoming season. She explained the process the co-op goes through to keep certified and uncertified product separate. When uncertified local spinach comes in for sale and is put in the bulk bin, that bin must be cleaned thoroughly before certified spinach can go in it. So if a farm only has a portion of the co-op’s spinach for a week, the staff has to go back and forth between local spinach and certified California spinach, creating a lot of work for them. With our certified spinach, though, the staff only has to switch out the sign to “certified local.” This makes it much more attractive to work with us on the edges of the season when our production is not high enough to meet all of the store’s needs.
The certification also allowed us to be bumped up to “preferred grower” on crops that the co-op’s customers simply won’t buy unless they are certified organic—specifically those on the “Dirty Dozen” list. Some consumers are devoted to that list.
That meeting with the co-op’s produce manager started off my year with a new perspective about certification, and it only got better. We had been selling “chemical-free” produce at the Downtown Eau Claire Farmers’ Market during the week for a few years. The market’s policy states that product labeled as “organic” must be certified organic—no “we use organic practices” allowed. I had regular customers, and an idea of what we would make there in a day. But I was surprised when we made almost twice as much as we did before we were certified. We gained over a dozen loyal, regular customers who thanked us every week for being at the market and being certified. In my mind, I had always grown organic produce. But in the educated customer’s mind, I wasn’t growing organic until I had the certification to prove it.
The customer response to us was amazing. They pushed the market manager to get us into the busier Saturday market. By the first Saturday of September last year, I had a stall—I had to float through the market, but I had a place each week! The market is very popular and there is a lot of competition for stalls at peak season on Saturdays. The market board has ruled that no new stalls will be available to vegetable vendors. If we were not certified organic, we would not have any chance of a Saturday stall until one was given up through retirement, death, or other means. Instead, we have a very good chance of being in the market every week this season because we can offer something most vendors cannot. Consumers are demanding organic choices. We can deliver.
In addition to our produce, we grow organic grains, hay, and straw. When I look at the biggest benefit the certification brought us it is in the grain enterprises. Before we were certified organic, we were growing non-GMO corn and soybeans and transitional oats and barley. Getting any premium for the non-GMO crops was very difficult. Many buyers promised a premium price, but it didn’t materialize come harvest time. After certification, we were able to secure a contract with Organic Valley for our grains. This is such a comfort to us. We have a reliable buyer for our grain—one that we know will pay us and will value the effort put into those crops.
The most surprising change that has occurred since we have become certified organic is the attention we have received from area landowners. We live in an area of western Wisconsin that has a lot of new, absentee landowners who have an interest in conservation and environmental issues. They want to realize an income by renting their land, but do not want it farmed in a conventional row crop system. Several landowners have asked us if we would be interested in operating their land organically. We are being approached at a time when many conventional farmers in our area are seeking land to rent and paying record high prices to do so. Most of the landowners approaching us are willing to take much lower rates to get us to farm their property organically.
Organic certification has brought us new opportunities and renewed confidence in our choice to farm. Steve and I are old farm kids who have seen the ups and downs of farming all our lives. We know that farming is a difficult career choice. We have struggled for a long time over if and how we should farm. We feel like we made the right decision by certifying. We are proud to be certified organic farmers. And, we look forward to seeing our farm business grow further.
Mary Maier-Abel and her husband, Steve, own and operated Blooming Hill Farm, an 80-acre diversified operation near Plum City, Wis. They have been certified organic through MOSA since 2012.
From the May | June 2014 Issue