Monday, January 11, 2010

The Great Certification Impasse

Ok...this is a long post, with the caveat that the photos really have nothing to do with the words. We have been careful not to bore you with too much chatter but, it is January and it gets dark early, so there's a bit more time for writing. Grab your coffee first and then settle in to help us think this through.

I am reluctant to admit it, but I am very attracted to smart packaging design. I try hard to rise above this. It is evident that if I buy the house cleaning product with the lovely label and shapely container I am no more likely to clean the house than if I were to purchase and less expensive, more benignly packaged soap product. Enough failed attempts has proven this to be the case. No matter how pretty the soap is or how nice the new mop head is, I still hate to clean the house. However, when I stand in the aisle at Whole Foods, assessing the options, I struggle. Do I choose based on price, design, smell, lack of smell, ingredients? Then, I find myself over-processing the entire shopping event, wondering if they placed things on the shelf to encourage my eye to travel first to the product they prefer me to buy...What's the catch, who's conspiring, I ask. This retail shopping experience is a weekly event, not isolated to cleaning products and it renders me helpless in one or another section of the grocery store. This week, I happened to get stuck in not only the house cleaning products aisle, but also the baking supplies aisle. Little did I know before leaving the house that day that there exists such a thing as vegan sugar. I thought this was a clever little marketing scheme at first but, come to find out, conventional sugar is processed with bone char filters to obtain that white color. This answer came in the form of a Whole Foods employee who heard me exclaim under my breath after seeing the vegan sugar on the shelf. She was patient and kind and informative. She told me that organic sugar is always vegan because the standards don't allow for the use of the bone char filtration. A simple Google search revealed a site reviewing the attributes of sugar and differentiating between sugars, including vegan, organic and conventional. And, it turns out I'm not the only one curious about the vegan sugar. Who would have thought there was anything un-vegan about sugar. All I can really say about sugar that is profound is that all the folks who sell sugar cane in the markets in Central America have no teeth and that seems worth noting as encouragement to consume with moderation and brush your teeth well afterward.

Probably, you are wondering where I'm headed with this. Here at the farm, we are gearing up to apply for our organic certification. This is a tiresome process that we re-assess the value of every year. There are a few reasons we feel compelled to continue to be certified: Inherently, we believe in producing food using methods that promote soil, plant and animal health. We also have a strong desire to feed ourselves products produced with this value set and are always happiest when they can come from our handiwork. We love the community and professional support we have received since our arrival on the farming scene here in Maine by MOFGA. Nothing about our production would veer from the spirit of organic because that would mean we are compromising our value set. And, the label of Certified Organic speaks to people in the marketplace. What we struggle with when considering whether or not to re-certify is the indirect paternalism apparent in any type of certifying system. When the USDA took over the responsibility of certifying organic operations, it never considered the scale of operations. At approximately 8 acres of cultivated produce and flowers, we are subject to the same restrictions as organic agribusiness farms of 100 acres in mono crops. For example, under organic certification, farmers are suppose to attempt mechanical methods of pest control before resorting to OMRI certified pesticide products. At 8 acres of mixed produce, this is sometimes possible. At 100 acres, you would need a legion of farm workers to scour that land and remove pests. The USDA also criminalizes the use of the word organic on a food label without proper certification.

Another example is the raising of certified organic pork. Pigs are omnivores by nature. They love a variety of food products and, in our experience, thrive best on a mix of foods. If we were to choose to certify our pork products, we would have to prove to the certifier that all the food the pigs consume is organic and that the sow was raised with organic methods during her pregnancy with the piglet you are raising as organic. How many humans do you know that could wear a USDA organic label? This would mean that during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, a mother would need to consumer only certified organic products and keep a record of all she consumes to present to the certifier. Then, while breastfeeding, her diet would need to continue to be organic. It goes on from there. The other fact about pigs we have come to love is their relationship in the food cycle and the waste stream. Their palates can handle food that is a little less fresh than we can. Pigs are the perfect composters. They can eat all the food scraps and produce manure that readily fertilizes the area they are plowing up for you. Our pigs are raised on old bakery bread, whey from a cheese maker and all the kitchen scraps they can handle. During the growing season, they are also given excess produce from the garden, the one scrap we can readily say is certified organic. They only true way to certify our pigs organic would be to feed them store bought grain that itself is certified organic and save the receipts to show the organic inspector when they come around. This comes with a hefty financial price tag, in addition to a hefty environmental price tag when fuel cost for production and transportation are factored in. Additionally, it compromises the pigs natural tendency to subsist on an omnivorous diet.

The more we pick apart and analyze the organic certification as it pertains to us, the less inclined we are to participate. However, what if all our customer are subject to the same delusions I am when it comes to smart packaging. If they buy organic than they are more likely to cook delicious, healthy meals. If they buy organic, they are supporting small family farms. Should we drive the market to focus more on scale and regionality? Should we focus on food miles? Does the label on our produce increase profitability? Has our community developed enough confidence in us for them to trust our farming practices to be sustainable such that we could keep our prices the same and still maintain our market share? Shouldn't we have more trust and faith in our customers and our community to be educated enough to see beyond a label? This is the conversation that is dominating our meals and, maybe this is too much information, but also comes up as we are falling asleep at night.

The process of certification and the financial cost are less restrictive to us when deciding than the potential of loosing support from our MOFGA farming community and loosing market share. We know we won't change our farming practices but the quandary of wondering if that is enough is what creates the impasse for us.

Tell us what you think.....Help us decide what the right direction to go in is. We want to hear from you, our community, our customers, our friends. Tell us what is most important to you when you are buying food, paying specific regard to concepts such as local, certified organic, scale of farm operation, and seasonality. We are talking ourselves into circles here so we are looking forward to enlarging the conversation to include others.

So, if you've made it this far in the post, you are patient with my ramblings and I thank you! John and I are so appreciative of all the wisdom and advice that you all share with us. We promise less talk and more photos in the next post. To end the longest Broadside post to date ....

Blessings on the meal,
Stacy and John


  1. Love your blog! I really appreciated this blog! Keep pressing forward! E-

  2. Stacy and John,
    The National Organic Certification act was put in place at the demand of consumers, to help standardize the word "organic" and prevent fraud in the marketplace. Just like "natural" (which still has no legal definition), "organic" had no legal meaning and groups felt that it was important to make the food industry follow a set of rules. This way everyone is playing on a level field. While this may be of great importance when purchasing food that is produced thousands of miles away, it has a much less of an impact when you can see where your food is grown, talk to the farmers and are aware of their personal value system. For me, to have you spend the time and money to try and make a multi-faceted farm comply with these rules is a waste. Sustainable and local is more important to me than being allowed to use the word 'organic'. As long as you are clear in what farming practices are being used and are committed to keeping people aware of any changes, those who demand 'organic' products will certainly still find Broadturn Farm an important part of their meal planning.

  3. Very well written! I think the most important part of being a consumer, is being an educated consumer. Meet your grower, your butcher, your dairy man. In my opinion, local is organic. Buy your wares from a local farmer who is doing things the way they should be done. Visit their farm. See how the farm runs and if it is agreeable to the way it should be done. To me, this seems like the most benifical thing that a person can do to change the way America eats.

    A USDA Organic label is just that, a label. I feel that our chickens are being raised organically but their is no way we could ever certify the eggs that we sell to our friends.

    great blog too. I enjoyed reading!