October 24 , 2003: “Come on, Mom, go
faster! There’s never any cops along this road and we’ve
got to get there!” My son’s urgency made a certain
amount of sense. I’d never seen a police car along this
stretch of backroad that was arrow-straight with good visibility,
and getting to our destination early had definite advantages.
My foot eased down on the gas pedal as I watched the speedometer
rise to 60, then 65.
The Martens' Farm
Location: about 60 miles southeast
of Rochester, NY, on the western shore of Seneca
Important people: Klaas and Mary-Howell
Martens, Peter, Elizabeth, and Daniel. Plus Robert
Hall (employee/asst farm manager)
Years farming: We've farmed this
farm together since 1991. Klaas has farmed all
Total acreage: 1500
Tillable acres: 1300
Soil type: Honeoye Lima silt
Crops: corn, soybeans, spelt,
wheat, barley, oats, triticale, red kidney beans,
sweet corn, snap beans, cabbage, edamame soybeans
Livestock: sheep, pigs, chickens
for our own use
Regenerative farm practices:
diverse long term crop rotations that incorporate
legumes and small grains, under seeding all small
grains with red clover, actively increasing soil
Marketing: corn & small grains
are sold to Lakeview Organic Grain LLC, our organic
feed business. Soybeans, red kidney beans, and
spelt sold to brokers and processors. Some spelt
is sold as kosher organic spelt. Sweet corn, snap
beans and edamame are sold to processors who freeze
them under brand name labels. Cabbage is made
into sauerkraut and packed under the Cascadian
Farms label. Some of the oats, wheat and barley
are being grown from Foundation Seed to produce
Certified Organic Certified Seed.
For the story of the Martens' transition
to organic, check out How
Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens made the transition
But suddenly, it occurred to me
that this was not much different from obeying organic standards.
I doubt there is a single person driving a car today who hasn’t
exceeded the speed limit or driven without a seatbelt at times,
even though we all know we shouldn’t. But when we really
have to get there and no one is watching . . .
Recently, NewFarm.org held a poll on organic certification,
asking farmers whether certification was “worth it”.
Leading the results, two answers basically were tied--"No,
its not worth the trouble" and "Yes, because I believe
in it". This strikes us as intriguing, since neither
of the leading answers reflect a marketing decision, which
is of course what USDA thinks organics is all about.
But I am concerned that a survey like this also reveals a
deeper philosophical challenge in the organic community: What
indeed is the point of organic certification today? Is it
merely to get that magic certificate that will bring a premium
price? Or is it to follow the rules because they will make
us superior farmers, improve the environment and are better
for our health and the health of our children?
What indeed is the point
of organic certification today? Is it merely to get that
magic certificate that will bring a premium price? Or is
it to follow the rules because they will make us superior
farmers, improve the environment and are better for our
health and the health of our children?
How do we keep organic certification from heading the way
of certain traffic laws--following the rules only when we
think we might get caught?
How indeed can we refresh organic farming’s philosophical
roots in today’s Brave New NOP World?
Part 1: Looking
Where did American organic certification come from?
Let’s start at the very beginning, or at least, let’s
go back about a hundred years ago. The philosophical roots
of American organic certification standards can be traced
through several ‘family trees’.
In the early 1900’s, Rudolph Steiner in Germany developed
an agricultural philosophy that came to be known as Biodynamics.
He recognized pure food from a healthy earth was essential
for human health and agricultural sustainability. Biodynamics
is centered around the ideal of a self-contained farm; there
should be just the right number of animals to provide manure
for fertility and these animals should be fed from the produce
of the farm. Steiner also introduced what are known as Biodynamic
Preparations. Naturally occurring plant and animal materials
are combined in specific recipes at certain seasons of the
year and then placed in compost piles. These preparations,
when used correctly, bear concentrated energetic forces that
restore soil health, biodiversity and balance.
At the same time in Japan, Mokichi Okada advanced a similar
concept that he called Nature Farming. Like Steiner, Okada
made the connection between soil health, pure food, and a
well-balanced spirituality. Compost also plays a key role
for soil management, but unlike in Biodynamics, Nature Farming
typically does not utilize animals, it does not put the same
emphasis on crops grown for animal consumption, and avoids
the use of animal manure and waste products as soil amendments.
(See the series Farming
to create heaven on earth for more on Natural Agriculture
in Japan today.)
In the early to mid 1900’s, scientists and agriculturists
from many places were developing similar alternative agricultural
concepts, often in opposition to the coming of agricultural
chemicals after World War II. Dr. William Albrecht, Louis
Bromfield, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour and others
all promoted a healthy soil and well-planned crop rotation
as the basis of productive sustainable agriculture, recognizing
with concern that agricultural chemicals damaged soil life
and long-term soil health.
During the 1960’s, the Back to Land movement brought
many non-farmers to the land, often without an agricultural
background. These new farmers frequently came with strong
philosophical, political and spiritual motives and limited
financial resources. They generally avoided chemicals, outside
inputs and large equipment, working small acreages to produce
fresh market fruits and vegetables. Vegetarianism, frequently
a part of the Back to Land movement, recognized that the best
tasting, highest quality food was grown in a natural, non-chemical
One man, J.I. Rodale, was extraordinarily instrumental in
pulling these threads together for American organic pioneers.
Influenced by proponents of Biodynamics and Natural Farming,
along with the early organic agriculturists and European organic
developments, Rodale wrote numerous publications that promoted
crop rotation, avoidance of chemicals and soil health as the
foundation for agricultural sustainability and human health.
The Rodale Institute® and California Certified Organic
Farmers (CCOF) were among the first groups offering American
organic certification, as buyers and farmers increasingly
demanded uniform verified evidence for organic claims and
a definition of what ‘organic’ meant.
The Rodale Institute®
and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) were
among the first groups offering American organic certification,
as buyers and farmers increasingly demanded uniform
verified evidence for organic claims and a definition
of what ‘organic’ meant.
The California Organic Foods Act of 1979 was considered by
many to be the de facto national organic standard for much
of the 1980s. In the East, farmers and non-farmers in MOFGA
and the NOFAs worked closely together to reach agreement in
defining what organic farming and organic food should mean.
Other groups throughout the country were working on the same
issues simultaneously. In 1990, the Organic Food Production
Act was passed in Congress at the request of the industry,
authorizing a national organic program to be developed and
administered through USDA. On October 21, 2002, the USDA National
Organic Program went into full effect.
By the late 1970’s, the Rodale Institute’s publication,
Organic Gardening®, was considered the bible for many
organic market farmers. Indeed, our good friend Al Johnson,
who was farming a market garden at that time, said that every
month, Organic Gardening was read avidly by everyone and it
was their favorite source of information on farming practices.
Ehrenfried Pfieffer wrote many articles for Organic Gardening,
bringing Biodynamic principles to a wide audience. Klaas read
the original Rodale New Farm magazine with equal enthusiasm
until it was discontinued in the mid-1990’s. For many
midwest farmers, the favorite source of information was Acres
USA, the publication of economist and agriculturist Charles
Today, many new organic farmers are like us, conventional
farmers who have sought alternatives for diverse reasons--better
health, aversion to chemicals, improved economics and environmental
concerns. These conventional converts are accustomed to professionally
farming large acreages with powerful equipment. Many conventional
converts have come initially for economic reasons, but decide
to stay when they discover how organic practices actually
improve their soil and crops. Large-scale farms of 200 to
even 3000 acres are becoming as equally common as the more
stereotypical 10 acres of organic vegetables. Many new organic
farmers also come from Plain or Evangelical Christian traditions,
recognizing the organic approach is in harmony with their
religious beliefs and lifestyle.
Like many conventional converts, we came into organics in
the mid-1990’s for reasons of economics, our health
and that of our young children. The first few years were remarkable,
the organic system worked so well. We eagerly converted more
acres, tried more crops, and enthusiastically learned our
way through the new agronomics and new beauracracy that organic
certification brought. A good friend once told us that we
didn’t just start organics on the ground running, we
started with all wheels screeching and gravel flying!
In our enthusiasm for our new found practice, we brought
others along on the grand adventure, the neighbors and others
who had watched our experiment suspiciously, then with interest.
We cooperated with other New York organic farmers to form
New York Certified Organic so we could learn together and
develop a farmer-friendly and farmer-supportive certification,
initially as an OCIA chapter. Those last years of the 1990’s
were heady times of rapid growth and of terrific positive
reinforcement--our experiment had worked astoundingly well
and we all were so impressed! Because we believed so strongly
in organic farming and in the integrity of organic certification,
we had little doubt that everyone else in the organic community
felt exactly the same way.
Part 2: Understanding the present
What is the organic state of the union?
Many people will say that the coming of the National Organic
Program changed everything. It hasn’t, but the NOP has
changed many relationships and attitudes subtly, markedly
altering the balance of power and influence in the organic
community. Much of the change has been for the good, but not
For us, the NOP has neither changed our farming practices
significantly nor our commitment to organic certification.
We are still trying to find better ways to farm organically
and to manage our soils and rotate our crops more productively.
The past four years of extreme weather have certainly challenged
our understanding of organic processes. Things that worked
under near-ideal conditions of the late 1990’s have
not always worked well under the extreme wet of 2000 and 2003,
nor the extreme dry of 2001 and 2002. We’re also seeing
that some of the soil fertility practices that worked well
when we first started organics need to be altered and re-thought
as our soils change. Increasingly we humbly realize that it
will be quite a while before we really “have the system
Regardless of what the weather brings, it is still important
to us to stay strictly within the organic certification boundaries.
We do this, not because we fear surveillance and enforcement,
but because we believe organic standards generally guide us
to doing the best thing for our soil, our crops and our environment.
Occasionally though, we question whether using some practices
outside organic standards might actually be better agronomically
than using allowed ones. Take for instance the Great Potassium
Because of the successive years of adverse weather, especially
this spring, there has been a suppression in microbial activity
in our soil. We’ve done everything we possibly can to
stimulate microbial activity but the weather has been working
against us. Certainly there is plenty of native potassium
in the soil, but our soil tests show it dropping precipitously
and our crops can’t get at it without good microbial
activity. So, how do we supplement potassium within organic
Potassium sulfate would be the best choice, it is the easiest
on the soil, but the only mined source we could find locally
had been treated with a petroleum-derivative as a dust suppresser.
Our other choice under NOP rules is potassium chloride or
muriate of potash. Muriate is allowed, but it hard on the
soil, especially on the very microbes we are trying so hard
to stimulate. In our minds, potassium sulfate would have been
the better agronomic choice, but muriate is what we have had
to use to stay within the standards.
To be perfectly honest, it would be quite easy to get away
with using prohibited materials or practices on our farm.
The inspector is here for only a few hours one day a year--it
wouldn’t take much effort to make sure they never see
anything suspicious, for after all, too often the assessment
of organic integrity seems based primarily on the “if
it says so, then it is so” mentality. However, what
would be the point? We follow the organic standards because
we WANT to, not because we HAVE to, and certainly not because
the government, our certifier or the inspector is looking
over our shoulder. We still believe that the vast majority
of organic farmers feel this way too, unfortunately there
are exceptions. We find it interesting that as new Organic
Trade Association members, we were expected to sign the OTA
Code of Ethics which, among other things, obligates us to
report organic fraud if we know about it. Not a comfortable
position to be put in! But, this is particularly interesting
since a friend who works in certification once told us that
inspectors most often pick up mistakes or poor judgement,
but outright fraud is usually reported by neighbors or buyers.
We follow the organic
standards because we WANT to, not because we HAVE to, and
certainly not because the government, our certifier or the
inspector is looking over our shoulder. We still believe
that the vast majority of organic farmers feel this way
too, but unfortunately there are exceptions.
That’s the Big Stuff, but with deep concern, an inspector
friend of ours recently spoke of what he calls “an increasing
level of sneaking non-compliance”--an attitude of seeing
how little you can get away with, a “one foot just under
the fence” mentality. He feels this represents a pervasive
shift in attitude among both new and long-time organic farmers
and processors because the teeth of enforcement are sometimes
actually less effective under NOP.
An inspector friend of ours
recently spoke of what he calls “an increasing
level of sneaking non-compliance”--an
attitude of seeing how little you can get away
with, a “one foot just under the fence”
mentality. He feels this represents a pervasive
shift in attitude among both new and long-time
organic farmers and processors because the teeth
of enforcement are sometimes actually less effective
Certifiers are now in hot competition with each other to
keep clients and keep costs down, sometimes there appears
to be a lack of desire to alienate customers with stern warnings
and sanctions. A minor non-compliance is not very serious,
usually not enough to cause decertification, so most punishments
may not be sufficient incentive to “toe the line”.
Also, because organic certificates no longer expire, this
year has seen a surprising number of producers who have simply
not applied for annual renewal. They still hold unexpired
certificates that make their products salable, buyers don’t
necessarily know if a producer has renewed, and under NOP,
it is hard to use the lack of renewal to take away a certificate.
There is also concern about the attitudes of new large conventional
companies getting in, wanting part of the organic action but
not honestly valuing organic as anything intrinsically different.
This undercurrent is a serious concern to anyone who respects
the integrity of the organic system, but to address it adequately,
it is essential to consider where it may be coming from.
Part 3: Finding answers
How to improve things . . . right
Organic certification at its best is like good parenting.
OF COURSE it is important to have strict but sensible rules
that, when followed, lead to good productive acceptable behavior.
But children respect parents who administer rules fairly with
understanding and caring. Frequently, rules must be explained
and repeated with patience, and there must be enough flexibility
to recognize that all situations are not equal. Occasionally,
punishment will be necessary but as a last-resort way to better
explain the rules and not in an arbitrary spirit of vindictiveness
or simply to prove who’s in charge.
In our opinion, the very best solution for non-compliance
problems is strong proactive education and a supportive local
organic community. A farmer is much more likely to comply
to the letter of the law if they understand how the standards
will make them better farmers.
- Educating a farmer on the agronomic value of crop rotation
and helping them find additional markets for more crops
will usually ensure that they rotate wisely.
- Educating a farmer on what soil fertility amendments they
can use for different problems will usually ensure they
choose something allowed.
- Educating a farmer on good pasture management and organic
animal health care will usually ensure that they will have
healthy animals that don’t need antibiotics.
- Educating and helping a farmer develop an appropriate
audit trail will usually greatly improve record keeping.
- Reminding a farmer regularly of the all the rules and
requirements will generally ensure they make better decisions
Much of this information is simply not intuitive and very
few farmers are eager to spend long hours digging the information
out. Simply knowing that a local community cares and is both
helping and watching will usually make decisions more honest,
365 days a year.
Unfortunately, NOP rules prohibit both certifiers and inspectors
from ‘consulting’ or providing information about
overcoming barriers for certification. This has meant that
the usual channels of accurate certification information and
education have largely dried up. While certifiers are permitted
to present certification information through newsletters and
group meetings, many of the certifier newsletters we have
seen this year seem to contain less truly useful certification
information and are coming less frequently. We can somewhat
understand why this provision was added to the NOP, neutrality
is certainly important, but unfortunately it is already producing
a lower educational and awareness level which will invariably
lead to greater non-compliance, both intentional and unintentional.
There is a serious need for accurate information and education
that no one is now filling.
Unfortunately, NOP rules prohibit
both certifiers and
inspectors from ‘consulting’ or
providing information about overcoming barriers
for certification. This has meant that the usual
channels of accurate certification information
and education have largely dried up.
Equally important, though, is that many farmers are losing
a sense of respect for certifiers and the organic certification
system. Without respect, it becomes very easy to justify low-grade
cheating. We all know that lack of respect for ‘cops’
often is one common justification for disobeying traffic laws.
How can we maintain respect throughout the organic community
for the authority of organic certification, when frequent
derisive talk and articles about NOP staff and their decisions,
and about schizophrenic, unresponsive or lax certifiers convey
a message to others that the certification authorities do
not deserve respect. Even if we personally have no intention
of being non-compliant, our listeners may draw a very different
conclusion from our words.
Perhaps in some ways, we as a community may be reaping what
we have sown. I am reminded of an article I once read in the
Amish magazine, Family Life (Pathway Publishers, Rt. 4, Aylmer,
Ontario N5H 2R3 CANADA, or 2580N-250W, LaGrange, IN 46761
USA), that said if parents are disrespectful of a teacher
at home, almost invariably the child will be disrespectful
of the teacher at school. It is important for the leaders
of the organic community to show respect for the certification
system and for the NOP supervision, even if we don’t
always agree with it. Without an environment of respect, the
level of ‘sneaking non-compliances’ is likely
to increase and be considered more widely acceptable. BUT,
it is also equally critical that the NOP staff, the NOSB and
the certifiers are worthy of this respect.
It is important for the
leaders of the organic community to show respect for the
certification system and for the NOP supervision, even if
we don’t always agree with it. Without an environment
of respect, the level of ‘sneaking non-compliances’
is likely to increase and be considered more widely acceptable.
BUT, it is also equally critical that the NOP staff, the
NOSB and the certifiers are worthy of this respect.
Does this mean that we all should be brainless Pollyannas,
cheerfully accepting whatever comes down the line? Of course
not, we have a serious responsibility to make sure that organic
certification is the very best it can be, and when we see
problems, we have a responsibility to address them constructively.
But it does mean that dissent and change must be done in a
respectful manner, so that the wrong message is not passed
on to others inside or outside the organic community. Most
of us are trying our hardest to do a good job in an imperfect
world, even when our efforts may seem misguided or inadequate
Several years ago, at a conference at The Rodale Institute,
we heard Bob Anderson, formerly of Walnut Acres and of the
NOSB, speak eloquently on certification under the NOP. In
his opinion, as the playing field levels and certifiers have
to compete head to head for customers, two factors will ultimately
determine which certifiers are successful:
The first is SERVICE
- being responsive, consistent, fair and transparent with
their customers, answering questions, providing information
and providing certification services in a farmer-appropriate
The second factor is VALUE
- providing all these services at a competitive and fair price.
Recently a friend told us that one certifier had quoted him
$900 (all fees including inspection) to certify his 30 acres
of corn and soybeans. Obviously no one had considered whether
this was an appropriate fee for the potential income!
Come on, folks, let’s get real, farmers aren’t
rich, especially not this year! Certifiers might want to determine
what percent of organic farm income that certification is
worth (1%, 5%?) and then make sure that ALL fees do not exceed
that total percent, regardless of what method they use to
calculate their fees. But, farmers also need to realize that
there is a heck of a lot more work involved in processing
their certification from start to finish than they realize!
Bob Anderson likened certification decisions to how a farmer
buys a tractor. The dealership offering the best service and
value for the product most suited to the particular farm will
be successful. Other dealerships may offer similar products,
but without on-going farmer-appropriate service and value,
they are not likely to be chosen.
Unfortunately, SERVICE and VALUE don’t always also
include high INTEGRITY. Relaxing certification surveillance
and enforcement may reduce costs and attract a certain type
of customer but that will not usually engender respect. Some
certifiers may make it unduly easy for an operation to certify,
especially large operations that will bring in substantial
user fees, while other certifiers may make it unduly difficult.
But true respect is something that must be earned. Hopefully
those certifiers that fairly and consistently exhibit and
expect high integrity, while still providing good service
and value, will ultimately be ones the most respected.
Part 4: Looking forward
Facing new challenges in a global
workplace. Where do we go from here?
The National Organic Program, now a year old, is here to
stay. This is where we are, it is not a choice. Our customers
now have a fairly consistent uniform definition of what ‘organic’
Is it perfect? No, of course not. There are “up”
sides and “down” sides to the new NOP system and
there have been some well-publicized stumbles along the way
this year. The certifiers are under greater supervision, some
wish this supervision was stricter and more evenly administered.
Some wish it was less strict, and many wish that more NOP
resources were better allocated to combat non-compliance at
all levels. No doubt, at times, expectations of the NOP have
both exceeded and underestimated reality, but for the most
part, we feel the overall trend has been positive.
We do worry that currently there is a real potential of losing
the forest (integrity of the overall system) for the leaves,
or shall we say, a hair on an individual leaf (approval of
individual minor ingredients). Far too much effort is being
spent on approving inputs, which are, of course, what a sound
organic system should be taking us away from. A fine example
of this is aloe juice which is an excellent product for stimulating
an animal’s natural defenses and avoiding antibiotics.
Aloe juice is currently being prohibited by some certifiers
because it contains trace amounts of potassium sorbate as
a preservative. Hopefully there will be ways for the organic
system to evolve as we learn more, becoming more inclusive
of some materials that may not fit strictly within the current
Far too much effort is
being spent on approving inputs, which are, of course, what
a sound organic system should be taking us away from. A
fine example of this is aloe juice which is an excellent
product for stimulating an animal’s natural defenses
and avoiding antibiotics. Aloe juice is currently being
prohibited by some certifiers because it contains trace
amounts of potassium sorbate as a preservative.
We must not forget that organic certification was far from
perfect before the NOP. Turf battles, superiority complexes,
and inconsistent standards and enforcement were all too common.
At least now no longer are OCIA dairy farmers prohibited from
using NOFA-NY hay, no longer do NOFA-NY farmers have to get
document reviews approved before using OCIA hay. There is
still a distressing amount of variation between how different
certifiers interpret and enforce the same basic NOP standards,
but hopefully that will even out in the next year.
The organic community is a much more diverse place than it
was just 10 years ago, making communication and agreement
more challenging. Small organic farmers may have trouble trusting
the legitimacy of large scale farmers, traditional organic
farmers may have trouble trusting the intentions of conventional
converts, and vice versa. And, very importantly, we must see
that our community is much more complicated--and larger--than
A recent Reuters news service article highlighted the extensive
growth of organic acreage in China, stating that the Chinese
farmers “are no hippie farmers shunning conventional
farming practices for the sake of the environment. They are
poor farmers who can’t afford expensive chemicals used
in intensive farming, going organic to boost their meager
incomes.” These Chinese farmers, and the businesses
backing them, are selling increasingly into our markets and
it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential impact
of this coming international supply in a world of rapid transportation.
As we face these new challenges, hopefully we can see that
our organic community really can be richer for the increased
diversity and that we must to learn to respect each other
for our unique contributions.
Why do we certify? Quite aside from the fact that our buyers
and the government now require ‘organic’ to mean
‘certified organic’, we still believe that the
discipline of organic certification, even in this Brave New
NOP World, is definitely worth it and that it makes us better
farmers. And we still feel strongly that working within the
system to improve organic certification is also absolutely