Getting the farm Certified Organic

Before we even started farming we knew following organic principles would be foundational to our farm.  But somehow we never got around to filling out the paperwork and getting the inspections to certify the farm officially.  It always seemed like it was not quite the highest priority; it was something to put off until next year, or the next year, or the next year…

Enough procrastinating!  This week I took the momentous step of submitting all the paperwork to begin the formal certification process for Wrong Direction Farm.

For our grass fed beef, Organic Certification was never an urgent issue because our cattle have a simple diet, and we’re not dosing them with hormones and antibiotics, so there wasn’t a lot of differentiation between Organic and non-Organic grass fed beef.  But our pasture raised poultry can’t survive on a grass-only diet.  We need to provide additional feed for them.  The vast majority of poultry feed available (including most non-GMO feeds) contains grains treated with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Only Certified Organic feed avoids all these chemicals while also avoiding GMOs.  We have only ever used Certified Organic feed on our farm, but now we’re taking the steps to document and recognize this.

Certified Organic, non GMO feed for our pasture raised chickens.
Organic feed pouring into the five gallon buckets we use to carry feed to the chickens.

Why are we certifying now? 

The decision to certify came down to a desire to take a firmer stand on an issue we believe is important: poisons shouldn’t be part of our food.  We wanted something categorical to convey, to reassure our customers that harmful chemicals are never part of WDF’s poultry food system.

There are certain words used in food marketing that are red flags for meaninglessness.  “Natural”, “free range”, and “heirloom” come to mind. Despite any possible virtues these words conveyed originally, whenever I see them now I know that a brand messaging specialist selected them intentionally to confuse and to distract me.  Who would suppose that “natural” is capacious enough to include dyes and preservatives?  That “free range” can apply to chickens that never leave a barn or see a blade of grass?  Or that “heirloom” can describe poultry that are actually crossbred hybrids?

But “Organic” is different because it has a very specific meaning governed by extensive, strict rules.  There are multiple aspects to Organic, but my primary goal in standing behind the Organic label is to shine a spotlight on our chickens and turkeys, to show that they are never exposed to poisons.  Not in the fields, not in the feed, and not in the processing.

I don’t want to eat chicken with residues of Atrazine, Glyphosate, 2,4-D, or Dicamba.  I don’t want my kids to eat that.  I don’t want my birds to suffer the tissue and organ damage associated with those chemicals.  I don’t want to be complicit, even indirectly, in the exposure of farm workers operating the sprayers.  I don’t want those substances disrupting my soil biology or soaking into my groundwater.  And I know that this farm’s customers don’t want any of that either.  So I think the best way to convey that message is with the Certified Organic stamp, to show that our poultry never even come near that stuff.

Downsides to Certification?

There are a few criticisms farmers have about the certification process.

The first is about the cost, both in terms of cash and time. Maintaining certification annually will cost us a few thousand dollars to certify the farm and require several days of work filling out papers and meeting with inspectors. At the beginning of the farm, when we were losing huge amounts of money each year trying to get this started, just having the money on hand to pay for certification was out of the question. These days the farm isn’t exactly a cash machine, but it is breaking even. Even though I feel some buyers remorse writing these checks, I believe it is an investment we ought to make.

The second is about trust. Do I need a third party certifier to back up what I am already telling my customers about our chicken feed? Do the customers need the certifier? I’m not sure that framing this as an issue of trust is the best approach. I prefer to think of the rigors of the certification process as a kind of accountability, something by which our farm can continually and more objectively assess our progress. I would appreciate the discipline of outside observation to help me stay on track and perhaps even to show me some things I’m not currently seeing.

The third objection is the most insidious. What about Organic cheaters, people and companies that are certified but aren’t being honest?  Such situations sadly do exist.  There are even plenty of producers claiming to be “Beyond Organic” even though they don’t meet the baseline Organic standards.  But abandoning Organic is not the right solution to these problems. Pessimism and cynicism have their place, but they can’t carry us all the way to a new food system. We’ll need to rely on the combination of hope and hard work to arrive there.

What’s Next?

So when will the Certified Organic label show up at Wrong Direction Farm?  The wheels of Organic turn slowly with lots of paperwork, inspections, and verifications, but if all goes well you should start seeing it pop up later this summer or early this fall.  I’ll be sure to let you know when we get there, and if we encounter any interesting things along the way I’ll let you know about that too.

2 thoughts on “Getting the farm Certified Organic”

  1. there is no easy answer to this but there is a way that I work to get the message out to my customers…I talk to them!

    I love how you equate the integrity statements with the marketing department of these farms in the blog piece…farmers dont talk like that!

    But not all customers want to talk and many consumers are happy to let the labels think for them.

    I like to get to know my farmers (and customers) so they can understand how and why i farm the way i do. If they don’t like it cool, but at least you are going to understand how we grow our animals…but as our business grows we have begun to encounter a less interactive type of consumer.

    Should we scale back to only serve those customers who are actively engaged?
    Should develop better educational materials for those who want to learn more to access?

    I dont know…but i do know that just having this conversation is a step in the right direction

    Keep up the good work Wrong Direction!

    1. Jason,
      I think there’s always going to be a labeling dilution problem. Right now we have the high ground with terms like Regenerative, but I imagine someday soon there will be Regenerative Coca Cola and Regenerative Captain Crunch, and Regenerative Hot Pockets. To the extent that we need to be able to communicate in shorthand, there will always be a swarm of folks claiming that label.

      As a farmer you’ve probably also experienced this, but I’d say the most fulfilling sales are to the people who really get it, the ones who have done the study to understand what you are offering or who have asked you the kinds of questions that indicate that they are ready to think about the answer.

      The simple question, “Is it organic?”, whether the answer is yes or no is kind of a dead end question. Rather like the one-issue voter, a one-question customer probably isn’t there to stick around, and for small farms everything depends on a long term relationship. Small farms are faced with enormously high customer acquisition costs. A big brand is putting one message out to millions of people, but a small farmer can often spend a large portion of time at a farmers market talking to potential customers one at a time, or in our case a lot of hours answering emails and phone calls, and writing web content.

      Your questions about only trying to work with engaged customers or developing better educational materials are important. For the first, I’d be careful about expanding a farm into a no-man’s-land where it becomes so big it loses touch with its customer base and yet isn’t big enough to have the economies of scale to compete with national businesses. For the second, better outreach is always a benefit.

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