Small Farms, Big Decisions
Fairview Farm, a vendor at the Montavilla Farmers Market, no longer carries certified organic goat’s milk. I state this not to call them out, but to highlight a difficult decision that many small farmers face in the reality of this global food market. Before getting into the details of the situation, let me backtrack.
What is the value of an organic certification? For customers, it is the reassurance that what you’re eating is free of chemicals, GMOs, and synthetic fertilizers. For farmers, certification is a marketing tool and a means of adding value to one’s product. For farmers using sustainable practices, it may seem like a no-brainer to go through the process of obtaining a legally recognized organic label. However, certifying is expensive, takes significant time and energy, and can be overly constraining for small farmers.
What does it take to become certified organic? The process with Oregon Tilth—a national certifying leader—initially involves producing an Organic Farm Plan. This plan includes a detailed map of the property with field and crop locations, record keeping techniques, pest and disease management practices, and methods used to prevent contamination. The next step in the process is an annual inspection that evaluates farm operations to confirm compliance and provide insights into potential practices. Both the Organic Farm Plan and Inspection Report are examined by the Application Review Committee, who makes the ultimate decision on certification.
This involved process is done to improve consumer confidence, which is great; everyone should know what’s in their food and the practices that were used to produce it. However, the entire procedure takes upward of three months and, for first time applicants, one-year of certification costs almost $700 (although there are partial reimbursement funds that small farms can access). For many farms, it takes several years of compliance before certification can be obtained. These factors make organic certification unobtainable to many small farms, even those who agree with the principle.
Despite a change in their official organic status, Fairview Farm’s milk is virtually unchanged. It is still free of antibiotics, hormones, stimulants for breeding, and chemical parasitides. Their practices are still holistic and natural and their goats are still certified Animal Welfare Approved. The only notable change is Fairview’s goats are no longer consuming industrially produced, organically certified corn or soy. Instead, the goats get a custom mix of pumpkin seeds, peas, flax, oats, and other grains from a local mill.
While they continue to be organically certified with their other products, choosing to drop the organic label for their milk was based on inability to source specific farm inputs locally, affordably, and in a timely manner. It was not an easy decision, but was disclosed to their customers in an upfront, honest manner. This openness and direct communication regarding food production practices is considerably more powerful and assuring than any organic label, especially as the lines between industrial operations and organic food production have blurred. This notion is highlighted by Michael Ableman’s concept of Beyond Organic, which suggests that the height of food confidence comes from knowing your farmer—their character, practices, capabilities, and motivations.
Instead of being overly critical of small farms that are not certified, use the uncertainty as an opportunity to reestablish a healthy, direct dialog between producers and consumers. It is through these conversations that we can build an informed consumer base and lessen one of the many obstacles to small-scale food producers. I encourage you to stop by Fairview Farm’s booth this weekend and ask them about their products and their decision to drop the organic label on their milk. What you learn may surprise you.