The Honor System

This fall I’ve been working through my paperwork and inspections for our farm’s annual organic recertification. And the process is always unsettling.

Fundamentally, I really do stand behind the foundational tenets of organic farming. The definition of organic from the USDA is: “These methods integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.” I choose organic because that’s the way I want to eat and that’s the way I want to farm.

But I have to admit that the annual slog of completing the organic certification wears on me. Each year the forms grow longer, the recordkeeping gets more intense, and the process entirely neglects to inquire whether we have made any progress toward the previously mentioned goals of resource cycling, ecological balance, and biodiversity. The certifying agency wants to make sure that I have all my feed receipts and that my chickens are getting the amino acid methionine in accordance with the rules stated in AMS-NOP-11-0063. Are boxes of stored supplies sealed with tamper-evident closures? Do I have records showing that the manure spreader was sanitized between uses? Everything seems to devolve into checklists. Nobody asks what I consider to be the most important questions, like whether my chickens are becoming healthier, or whether my pasture soil texture is improving, or whether there are more songbirds on our farm than ten years ago, or whether the entire farming enterprise is successfully supporting our family.

The process of creating all this documentation serves to add burden to the rule-followers, without doing anything to dissuade the rule-breakers. If someone wanted to secretly spray pesticides or to feed conventional genetically modified grains, it is unlikely that any amount of paperwork would be able to detect the deception. Ultimately, organic certification is just an honor system, where we really are left with nothing more than the promises of the participants that they are actually producing the food in a manner consistent with organic standards. But it is a weird honor system, one that has been mashed up with an inflexible, punitive, and paperwork-heavy bureaucracy. Imagine all the informality of your local 4H or Scout troop’s unstaffed bake sale table with a cash box set up in front of your town’s diner or hardware store, and then imagine that after the sale someone is tasked with reporting on the measurements of the table height and detailed records about the color of the table cloth using forms designed by the DMV, the IRS, or the Air Force. This sledge hammer approach to record-keeping never arrives at any understanding of whether the bake sale was successful for the kids or whether it served the public.

Someone once called me to ask if our chickens were vaccinated, because she didn’t want to eat vaccinated chickens. I replied that they were not, that we do not vaccinate them at any point in their lives. Her next question was to ask if that was the best assurance I could give, and whether I could prove it so she didn’t have to trust me. Neglecting the problem of the impossibility of proving a negative, my response was that everything in life depends on trust. Any lie can be certified true by someone sufficiently motivated to do so. Doubling the compliance paperwork only doubles the hassle, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce noncompliance, and indeed the more the paperwork burden increases, the more the regulators are bogged down in their own internal compliance and the less chance they have of doing any of the forensic investigations that might uncover deception. Anything short of 24-hour surveillance will have to rely on trust.

The numbers I’ve seen are conflicting, but the USDA and other agricultural organizations report a general trend that consumer demand for organic products is increasing while the number of farm acres moving to organic certification is slowing. If this is indeed the case, then I’d make the argument that the organic system has itself to blame. Organic is self sabotaging. I’ve discussed the possibility of organic certification with farmers and food processors in my area, and their primary objection is not that they hate organic principles, but that the hassle seems too overwhelming. Farmers aren’t identical clones of each other, but if I may generalize, I’d say that the industry self-selects for a personality type that doesn’t do well when forced to submit to trivialities. Think of the beginning of The Incredibles, where the former superhero is trapped in a cubicle answering phone calls and denying insurance claims on weekdays from nine to five. Nobody would willingly sign up for that job, and we shouldn’t expect that people who make their livings by the sweat of their brows and by the frostbite of their fingers would put up with it either.

I’m not planning on walking away from our organic certification. I still believe that our having the organic badge conveys something to our customers. At the very least, maybe it suggests that if we’re dedicated enough to persevere through the bureaucratic process that we must be truly dedicated to the organic ideals. But ultimately, the organic certification only says so much about the farm. It’s all an honor system. And I appreciate all the folks who trust us to give them the kind of food that they believe is good. All we have is each other. Let’s all keep doing well for one another.

20 thoughts on “The Honor System”

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and about the process of certification. I have heard that many people cheat, and like you said, I have no choice but to trust that what I buy as organic is indeed organic .

  2. I feel sorry for all the crap you have to endure. It seems to me, going organic should make things simpler for you, but not in this bureaucracy, it seems. The paperwork increases, the results decrease. They just don’t get it.
    Mike Gent

  3. Another example of an inefficient bureaucracy. I want Country of Origin labeling when I do buy meat in the store. Sanitizing a manure spreader? C’mon! Our corporate-captured government agencies aim to make it tough for the small business owner.

    1. I agree that an honest country of origin label would be an improvement over the current mess. Although I have doubts about whether that could be implemented in a way that wouldn’t also be a burden.

  4. Thank you so much for what you do, providing the best possible product, ease of ordering, quality and Trustworthiness. So glad to have found you!

  5. May I say that your statement here goes a long way to certifying your farm is organic, perhaps even more than the official seal of approval. Shall we put our trust in the faceless bureaucracy we think is infallible, that we think really gives a damn, or the person who is putting their reputation and livelihood on the line?
    I say tell the ‘expert class’ we’ve had about enough of their rules. Especially these days.

  6. I trust you and we have not even met in person. If you wanted to delete all the certification BS, I would still buy your meats. Dropping out would likely eliminate new customers who find your farm on Official organic lists but you would get new customers via word of mouth. Your choice, I’m still buying!
    Steve McCarthy, Wellsboro, PA

  7. Thanks for your honesty and integrity. It is too bad you have to annually put up with mostly meaningless
    paper work. The rules obviously need to be rewritten. Keep up your good work.

    1. Thanks Trevor. I don’t mean to overplay the paperwork aspect as a burden on me, because all of us get stuck with some bureaucracy. But I think it really holds back organic from becoming more broadly adopted. So if there were a way to redo the rules in a more useful way, I’d be very interested in seeing how things could change.

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