Organic Broadcaster

Farmers explain benefits of organic certification

By Ben Bowell, Oregon Tilth

“Organic certification has afforded us the opportunity to open the door to regional markets that would otherwise not be accessible, improve our environmental stewardship and farming practices, as well as provided us the framework to communicate the integrity and quality of our products.”

~ Mike Bollinger, Root River Farm, Iowa

There are many benefits to organic certification. Farmers become certified for a variety of reasons. Some producers see market opportunities while others have different motivations like consistent land stewardship.

In our workshop, “Impacts of Organic Certification: Stories from the Field,” at the recent MOSES Organic Farming Conference, Mike Bollinger and I shared farmers’ experiences with certification to illustrate its real value to farmers. This article highlights some of those experiences and benefits.

Communication, Marketing
Organic is a conversation in one word. When talking with customers at a farmers’ market or wholesale or retail buyers, the word “organic” is a concise way to explain farming practices. Organic certification answers questions and communicates that conservation practices are employed, production is free of GMOs, and animals are raised without the use of growth hormones.

Grinnell Heritage Farm in Iowa values certification as an important part of communication with CSA and farmers’ market customers. When drift caused the loss of certification for one field, they used the opportunity to educate customers about organic standards and the impact of the application of a prohibited substance.

“We are certified organic and that is something that our customers really like,” said Melissa Dunham, who farms with her husband, Andrew. “They like to know that there is at least a set number of criteria and this farm, our farm, is meeting that.”

Profitability
Certified organic products receive a premium price over their conventionally grown counterparts. A study from Washington State University that examined research from across the world recently found that profit margins for organic agriculture were significantly greater than for conventional agriculture.

Eric Nelson of Pendleton, Ore. transitioned his dryland wheat farm to organic in 2008 due, in part, to market opportunities.

“We are a small farm—900 acres is not a very big farm in today’s agriculture,” he said. “Get big or get out and I was doing neither one of those. So I did find higher margins and organic was a big reason for that.” Nelson now grows organic winter wheat, small grains, and alfalfa. “So far it’s been a fairly strong market for us and it’s worked.”

Being Counted
The organic industry is comprised of certified operations. Those operations that aren’t certified are not counted. An organized, large group of organic farms demands more attention and presents a stronger case to policymakers who can appropriate more funds for research on organic and sustainable practices.

On Dyer Family Farm in Ann Arbor, Mich., farm owner Diana Dyer wants everything they’re doing to count.

“We want to be a data point that might increase the amount of money that goes into research about and for the benefits of organic practices and impacts on public health,” she explained. Dyer is a cancer survivor and former dietician who has a strong interest in the connection between food and health. By being counted as an organic operation, her family farm furthers her interest in research, including the connection between soil, food and public health.

Better Records = Better Management
Processors and many buyers are requiring more records for crops used in production. This is in part the result of an increased focus on food safety and traceability. Due to the recordkeeping requirements under organic certification, organic producers are well-suited to meet the requirements from the market.

Red Duck Foods, a newer Oregon-based food company producing “unconventional” ketchup, found that the organic recordkeeping requirements helped them become more organized and accountable. They implemented a traceability system to understand each ingredient’s footprint, which enabled them to become much more efficient and increase overall transparency in production.

Overcoming ‘Cons’
Despite the many benefits of organic certification, some producers may be overwhelmed by the prospect of recordkeeping and inspections or the cost of certification. Fortunately, there are ways around these “cons” or challenges that make certification more accessible.

Certification does have a cost. The process of certification includes an on-farm inspection and a review of records and the Organic System Plan, which describes all farming practices. These activities are done by an independent third-party certifier, which has staff and other expenses. The cost of certification varies based on the certifier, size and type of operation, and volume of sales of organic goods. Many smaller farms (sales less than $50,000 or so) could expect to pay $1,000 or less for annual certification.

To make certification affordable, the 2014 Farm Bill authorized cost-share assistance, managed through state departments of agriculture. Cost share programs cover 75 percent of the cost of certification, up to $750 per “scope” (i.e., crop, livestock, etc.). With cost-share assistance, a $1,000 annual fee is reduced to $250—a serious savings for small to mid-sized producers.

USDA organic regulations require that certified operations maintain records about production, harvest and handling. These records must be kept on file for five years. However, good farm managers already keep many of the records required for certification: planting logs, harvest yields and sales reports.

Records serve two purposes. First, they verify that a producer is complying with the organic regulations. Inspectors can’t check the farm every day; they review records during a mandatory annual inspection to make sure practices match reality in production. Second, records are a source of good data for producers to empower decision-making around production issues on the farm.

As part of the National Organic Program’s “Sound and Sensible” initiative to make organic certification accessible and affordable for all operations, the USDA funded the creation of several tools to help with paperwork. Oregon Tilth created a series of farm case studies highlighting four successful recordkeeping models, ranging from small operations with a few crops to large, mixed production farms. These case studies are online at www.ams.usda.gov/report-publication/recordkeeping-case-studies.

Some producers believe they do not need certification because they already farm with organic production practices. Sometimes these organic methods are not the same as the practices required under USDA Organic Regulations. The regulations often are updated. Without the guidance of a certification agency that keeps pace with these changes, uncertified farmers can’t be sure they are growing according to organic standards.

However, if producers are meeting organic standards, then it will be relatively straightforward to obtain certification and be counted among the growing number of certified organic farms.

Many consumers place a high value on local food and connecting with the farmer who grows their food. While this is great for many reasons, local does not necessarily convey anything about farming practices. Not all consumers have technical agricultural knowledge and, therefore, can’t be expected to ask or understand what each farm does (or does not) use in its operation. There is a value in educating eaters about the source of their food, and certification gives consumers a point of entry to learn more about farming practices with the added assurance that the practices have been verified to a regulated standard by a third party.

Some consumers and producers are concerned about an erosion of organic standards and issues around the institutionalization of organic. There are many articles that explore these issues in detail, but it is important to remember that farmers and consumers asked for the regulation of organic to create a consistent standard and regulate the market nationwide. While certainly not perfect, organic certification is the highest standard under USDA labeling.

Ben Bowell works for Oregon Tilth.

References
1 Crowder, D. & J. Reganold. 2015. Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. June 1, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1423674112.

Resources:

MOSES

Certification process
Cost-share programs
Choosing a certification agency
USDA National Organic Program’s
Sound and Sensible Initiative
Additional resources on certification

National Young Farmers Coalition

Vegetable Grower’s Guide to Organic Certification

Oregon Tilth

“Big Questions Answered” addresses common questions around certification such as how to prepare for an inspection.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

Conservation technical assistance for transitioning to organic and certified organic producers

From the March | April 2016 Issue

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