The Inspector’s Notebook #1
Expecting the inspector?
9 tips to shorten your inspection time

By Jim Riddle

Editor’s NOTE:

Certified organic farmers do an odd thing – they pay people to visit their farms with a critical eye to assure they are adhering to every aspect of the USDA’s national organic standard.

The farmers should already be trying to produce, harvest and market their organic crops, livestock and related products by these rules. The on-farm review of fields, facilities and records by an approved inspector sent by the farmer’s accredited organic certifier is the critical point in confirming that the farmer and the farm meet the organic standards – and can prove it to anyone who needs to know.

The visits are pivotal for applying farmers to become certified, and for certified farmers to keep that certification. For the good of organics, we want to help build the foundation for effective inspection visits. We’ve asked Jim Riddle to provide an inspector’s inside view to help farmers understand an inspector’s role, responsibilities and limitations. In the months ahead, Riddle will elaborate on many of the items mentioned in this introductory column to help farmers understand regulations that apply to them, and how to document their compliance.

Jim Riddle has been on hundreds of farms in the inspector role, and he’s been inspected himself during his time as a farmer. His leadership in bringing professional training to inspectors helped to earn greater acceptance of organic farming in the U.S. He serves as vice-chair of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic agriculture policies and regulations. He has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer.

He was founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, (IOIA), and co-author of the IFOAM/IOIA International Organic Inspection Manual. Riddle has helped train hundreds of organic inspectors throughout the world. In 2003, Jim was appointed Endowed Chair of Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota.

He serves as an organic policy specialist for NewFarm.org.

Posted August 3, 2004: For me, the best part of being an inspector is interviewing the farmer. I get the opportunity to hear first hand the stories of organic farmers - their successes and failures, their excitement and pride in what they are doing.

As an inspector, I try to make the inspection a good experience. I want the farmer to get something out of it. At the same time, I have to make sure the information is accurate and the paperwork is complete. Otherwise, certification can be delayed or even denied.

On one memorable inspection, finishing at midnight was no fun for me or the farmer. We had started the inspection at 6:00 pm. After inspecting numerous fields and locating the beef herd in a distant pasture, we sat at the kitchen table to complete the paperwork.

What took so long was the fact that the 50+ fields had acreage and number changes (and new maps) since the farmer had completed his Organic System Plan (OSP). He also had some changes in the crops he planted versus what he had planned to plant – a common occurrence. He had not prepared a new acreage list or updated the farm map. Consequently, we spent about two hours redoing his “crops requested for certification” table, since accurate information is required for organic certification.

Many inspections take longer than necessary, often due to the fact that the farmer is not prepared: previous certification conditions have not been addressed; maps and field histories are not up to date; records are not accessible; seed and other product labels are not saved or are not accessible; organic harvest and sales records are not available; or records are not organized to track products from sale back to the field(s) of production.

Other factors can delay the inspection. For example, farmers often keep old products or containers from prohibited substances formerly used on the farm. The presence of such containers raises additional questions, extending the length of the inspection.

Here are some simple ideas to shorten the inspection time:

  1. Read the letters you get from the certifying agent. Prepare any information requested by the certifying agent. During the inspection, I review all previous conditions for certification and issues of concern identified by the certifying agent. These letters clarify what issues I will be discussing with you, so be prepared to respond.
  2. Organize your records in file folders or a ring binder with separate sections. Have your records readily accessible for the inspection.
  3. Provide accurate and up to date written information. If your crop plans, planting dates, field sizes, crop locations, or input plans have changed since the OSP was submitted, be prepared to provide written documentation to the inspector.
  4. Verify your acreage. The total of individual organic field acreages must equal your total acreage requested for certification. To be sure, add up your individual field sizes and compare to the total acreage requested for certification, before the inspection.
  5. Keep all labels and receipts – this includes seed bags or packets, soil mix ingredients, and all inputs including fertilizers, pest control products, animal health care products, animal feeds, and feed supplements.
  6. If you use a lot of inputs, use an input inventory sheet (with columns for the brand name, source, location used, date first used, date when approved by the certifying agent, and date discontinued use). This helps clarify what inputs are used, and if they have been approved. If an input has already been approved, the inspector does not have to write down all label information, saving valuable inspection time. Input inventory sheets can be used for fertilizers, pest control products, and animal health care products. ATTRA has free downloadable examples of all types of records available on the website, www.attra.ncat.org or call 1-800-346-9140 for hard copies.
  7. If you sell bulk commodities, keep accurate harvest totals and sales records per crop. The inspector will choose one of your crops to do a “sample audit balance” to see if your records can track the crop from sale back to the field(s) where it was grown and to assess if the amount you harvested and sold was realistic for that crop.
  8. If you are a market gardener or if you sell products directly to consumers, keep daily or weekly sales totals, along with accurate input and production records. The inspector will need to review your production and sales records.
  9. Walk through your storage areas before the inspector arrives and get rid of any products you no longer use. Check with your local Extension Service office for proper disposal options.

Thanks for being prepared. It helps me do a better inspection and facilitates your organic certification.