November 9, 2006: I’ve just returned from
the October NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) meeting
in Washington, D.C., fully energized and excited about the
future of this industry. From every conceivable corner, organic
products are flooding into the marketplace. And every one
of them needs what you and I produce—the raw ingredients
from farm products, crops and livestock.
Even though I haven’t even finished harvesting our
2006 crops, it’s already time to order seeds for next
year to help feed that growing demand for organic goods. I
know I have to think about next spring, but it feels too soon,
sort of like the retailers bringing out the Christmas decorations
So, where will you be ordering your seeds this year? Same
place as last year that couldn’t find what you should
have planted? Or will you really be searching for the crop
varieties you want in the organic marketplace? This is not
merely a rhetorical question. And, it’s not really a
matter of choice—it’s the law.
What do I mean “it’s the law”? Well, I
mean the USDA National Organic Program rule clearly states
that farmers and growers must, and I repeat, must use certified
organic seed—unless the seed you really need is not
commercially available. Most accredited certifiers require
that anyone not using certified organic seeds must document
their search for organic seeds and document their non-availability
established through reasonable search efforts.
Need more evidence of the intent of the NOP regulations?
§ 205.204 Seeds and planting stock
(a) The producer must use organically grown seeds, annual
seedlings, and planting stock: Except, That,
(1) Nonorganically produced, untreated seeds and planting
stock may be used to produce an organic crop when an equivalent
organically produced variety is not commercially available,
Except, That, organically produced seed must be used for
the production of edible sprouts;
(2) Nonorganically produced seeds and planting stock that
have been treated with a substance included on the National
List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic
crop production may be used to produce an organic crop when
an equivalent organically produced or untreated variety
is not commercially available;
(3) Nonorganically produced annual seedlings may be used
to produce an organic crop when a temporary variance has
been granted in accordance with § 205.290(a)(2);
(4) Nonorganically produced planting stock to be used to
produce a perennial crop may be sold, labeled, or represented
as organically produced only after the planting stock has
been maintained under a system of organic management for
a period of no less than 1 year; and
(5) Seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock treated
with prohibited substances may be used to produce an organic
crop when the application of the materials is a requirement
of Federal or State phytosanitary regulations.
So what does “commercially available” and non-available
mean? Unfortunately the definition as stated in the federal
rule and printed below is open to a great deal of interpretation
by certifying agencies.
Commercially available: The ability to
obtain a production input in an appropriate form, quality,
or quantity to fulfill an essential function in a system
of organic production or handling, as determined by the
certifying agent in the course of reviewing the organic
The organic seed mandate is also vulnerable to “over-specification”
by some organic farmers. They list specific varieties they
know will be virtually impossible to locate in the organic
seed marketplace so they can purchase seeds—at a lower
cost—that are not certified organic.
Avoiding the purchase of organic seed simply because it costs
more or we don’t recognize the seed number should not
be our goal. As farmers we need to support the industry from
top to bottom. Our goal should always be to use organically
produced products in every way we can—including seeds.
Why? For many reasons. As I mentioned, it is the intent of
the law to require it. Even more importantly, it supports
other sectors of our industry as they try to move organics
forward. It also encourages seed producers to expand their
line of varieties, helps fund breeding programs geared to
the distinctive characteristics of organic production, and
will ultimately help secure your farm’ ability to prosper
in this exciting marketplace.
OK, you may say, but where can I find these seeds? Great
question! I’m glad I thought to ask it. The answer is—in
A good place to start is with your organic certifier. Many
certifiers keep a list of potential organic seed suppliers.
While certifiers cannot, by law, tell you where to buy seeds
or hand-pick specific suppliers to endorse, they can make
educational materials available.
There are several databases available for your use. OMRI
(Organic Materials Review Institute) has an online database
of seed suppliers who pay a fee to have their information
listed for your benefit. An individual, Brian Rakita, has
a web site at www.savingourseed.org
that will actually help you search for seeds. The Organic
Seed Alliance www.seeedalliance.org
is another excellent resource.
Finally, use your current seedhouse to locate the varieties
you need. If they can’t find any after you give them
plenty of time and variety choices, at least have them document
their search for you.
Now, once you find the seeds—buy them. Don’t
use end-runs to avoid supporting the good people trying to
build quality and integrity into the organic seed industry.
Find the sources that are doing the most for organic farmers
in their regions or across the country. We all need the support
of each other as we struggle to move organics into the mainstream
by keeping our organic values intact.
After all, that’s how we grow...
From One Farm to Another