My relationship with organic certification has been kind of interesting. It began when I laboured on a certified organic beef operation in Nova Scotia. I was present during the annual inspection of the farm, and my employer brought me along to some of the committee meetings that his small certifying body required he attend. I also sat with him at the farmers’ market, where he occasionally grumbled about the ignorance, blissful or otherwise, of some of the non-certified, “organic” vendors. It was the three-bucks-a-dozen, small-flock-at-home egg seller across the way that bugged him most. “There’s no way he’s feeding his birds certified organic grain, at $21 a bag,” he would say. That was in 2007.
In 2008, I worked for a veggie grower on Vancouver Island. She had been certified organic before, but had dropped it, citing a lack of concern from her local chef customers, and even less concern from her hyper-local neighbours, who flocked to her on-farm market 40 weeks a year. “I was tired of the paperwork and expense,” she told me. “And I still follow the regulations. And my customers trust me, so I don’t see the point.” Her reasoning made perfect sense to me at the time, and for the next two years I parroted it to anyone who asked if the farm’s produce was organic.
In 2011, my wife and I started our own veggie business on leased land on a certified organic farm in BC’s Okanagan Valley. We felt a responsibility to learn the regulations quickly, lest we make any mistakes that could jeopardize the farm’s standing. Record keeping was the hardest part, but we figured it out and before too long we were sitting on certification committees just like my employer in Nova Scotia.
Ever since, I’ve advocated for certified organic farming. The system isn’t perfect—I‘ll get to that—but it’s the closest we’re going to get to defining an ideal that people can understand and trust. Without understanding and trust, an ideal can’t help us make important decisions about what we choose to consume, nor can we have an ongoing, spirited debate about how the ideal might need to change to be an even better version of itself.
That’s what organic certification is, primarily: a really complex, codified definition, the result of untold thousands of hours of debate, that includes a guide for farmers who want to farm by that definition and an audit system to ensure their compliance. This codification began with about the only idea that everyone could agree on: the first goal of farming should be healthy soil. After that, the process of definition got messy. But here we are.
On a personal level, I most appreciate that organic certification has made me a more knowledgeable grower. It turns out that in farming, there are many unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld put it—so many unforeseen, negative consequences that can arise from the myriad decisions a farmer makes each season. On numerous occasions, the regulations have shielded me from undesirable actions I would have taken out of ignorance. Smarter people than I helped craft the regulations, and I—and my customers—benefit from that work all the time.
Certification also keeps me honest. Not that I lack integrity. But the reality is that some of the system’s rules are nit-picky and irritating to a busy farmer, and, taken alone, of little consequence if ignored—which is why it would be so darn easy to ignore them if I didn’t have to face an audit each year.
These two types of undesirable actions—of ignorance and of indolence—are why I now consider the words of my second employer and so many other non-certified farmers a little hollow. It’s ignorance that leads to farmers’ market “organic” eggs whose layers ate conventional feed full of GMOs, and indolence that leads to dozens of tiny corners cut that add up to a production system that at some point crossed from organic to…not.
Acknowledged: organic certification complicates my life as a farmer. But it simplifies my life as a seller, which is another aspect I appreciate. When someone asks me if my produce is organic, I don’t have to tie my tongue in knots trying to explain my production system. “Yup.” Done.
What’s not done, what will probably never be done, is the process of making the Canadian Organic Regime better. I’m an advocate, yes, but a grumpy one. Many of us are. The biggest problem is that the system is perennially underfunded, and its bureaucrats, many of them volunteers, overworked. The system is notoriously slow to address new questions and challenges. Many advances in farming production must be approved before they can be used on an organic farm, and it can be frustrating to the more innovative among us to have to wait months or years for approval.
Inadequate funding also hurts the auditing process, a key component to the system. As I said, auditing keeps me honest. But it’s also expensive. Higher budgets would translate to more comprehensive audits that would catch more cases of ignorance and indolence. Everyone would benefit from this, but none more than the consumers who place their faith in the organic label.
To be clear, though, these are just the gripes of a committed Certie. I just made that word up, so don’t try to use it to prove your credibility should you find yourself in a dive bar, probably called The Hay Bale or The Compost Heap, full of tough-looking Certie farmers—you’ll look foolish.
Jordan Marr began farming as an apprentice on farms in Nova Scotia and on Vancouver Island. He currently operates Unearthed Fine Veggies & Herbs, an organic market garden near Kelowna, BC with his partner Vanessa. He publishes a blog and podcast about small-scale farming innovations and other good ideas for farmers called The Ruminant.