I have been a vegetable farmer for four years, and I am going to be certified organic this year for the first time. The funny thing is that I will not change my growing practices — they will be as free of pesticides as ever.
The only thing that I’ll be doing differently is documenting things more thoroughly, and paying for an inspector to come to my farm and verify that I’m growing as I say I am growing.
But let me back up for a second: what does “organic” mean, anyway? Just a century ago, pretty much every vegetable farm would’ve been certifiable as an organic farm, because “organic” means that we use only organic inputs; that is, we only put things on our fields that come from a living source. We don’t synthesize petroleum products as fertilizers or pesticides, or artificially produce nitrogen.
Organic farmers just do what their ancestors did: we fertilize with manure and compost; we weed mechanically, using our hands and hoes and horses and tractors; we use all kinds of methods to get rid of and evade pests. I’ve spent many a day picking potato beetles off of leaves and squishing them into a juicy mess. In my mind, a big difference between “conventional” agriculture and organic is that organic agriculture uses human labor and physical tools in place of conventional agriculture’s synthetic chemicals.
In recent decades, after the onset of chemical agriculture, also called “conventional” agriculture, people who were growing food the traditional way wanted to distinguish themselves from the rest of agriculture. Pesticides and herbicides are poisons, after all, and over time it has become clear that some of those poisons were harmful to more than what they were supposed to kill in the crop field.
The most famous example of that is DDT, which was used widely until it was discovered that animals far up the food chain were being dramatically affected by its use. Organic farmers decided that they would avoid questionable chemicals by refusing to use them, and the USDA made a rulebook of standards so that organic practices could be verifiable by paperwork and an inspector.
It’s a complicated choice to become a certified organic farm. On the one hand, I think, “I know that I’m farming without chemicals, and I can tell my customers that. Why bother with all that paperwork and paying the certification agency?” On the other hand, “organic” is in the farmers’ market lexicon these days, and I would like to be able to answer “yes!” when people ask if I grow organically. In previous years, I would say yes, but would have to clarify that I was not certified.
Also, I grow crops for some institutional markets—college dining services, for example. My organic broccoli sells to those markets for more than my non-certified broccoli, because my growing practices are independently verified. In the end, I don’t have to change my growing practices but my farm becomes more profitable.
There is plenty of paperwork to the process of certifying organic. We have to show that our seeds are not chemically treated, and we are required to use organic varieties of seed if they are commercially available. We have to tell the certifiers how we manage fertility, pests, and weeds on our farm. We have to show how we plan to rotate crops, keep up soil fertility, and manage water on our farm. We have to tell the certifiers what we’re planting, and where, and what kinds of yields we expect from our crops.
Come to think of it, all the things we are required to show the certifier are pieces of information that are useful for us to know as farmers and business owners anyway! Going through the process this spring has me thinking organic certification, if nothing else, is going to make me a better and more organized farmer. I’m glad for that!
Farming is a complicated profession: speaking for vegetable growers, we have a lot of things to think about, and we’re required to be flexible based on the weather’s demands while consistently delivering produce to our customers. I’m reminded of all the thought and experience that our ancestors put into farming through the ages. And while it feels funny and left-brained to put all of that into a bunch of spreadsheets and papers for my little patch of land, I’m honored to do it, just as I’m honored to grow good food for my community.
Editor’s Note: Find everything you need to get your own organic garden started here!