NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Loon Organics, Eagan MN

Certifiable
As daunting as it may be, the “i” dotting and “t” crossing involved in coming up with a farm plan makes one a better farmer.

By Laura Frerichs
Posted June 2, 2005

Farm-At-A-Glance

Loon Organics
Eagan, MN

Farmers: Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip

First season: 2005

What they raise: Specialty vegetables and herbs

Marketing strategies: Local food co-ops, neighbor’s established roadside stand, plan to start a CSA next year.

May, 2005. This time of the year in Minnesota the weather always seems to be suffering from an acute case of bipolar disorder. Beautiful, heady summer days are mixed with dreary, blustery cold. There is a big snowstorm heading for North Dakota that will drop 6 inches of snow!? Luckily, I think the snow will miss us, and we have had breaks in the weather to allow us to do our initial field planting. Our beds of arugula, spinach, salad mix, and beets are up and growing, and I hope to be able to harvest and deliver our first orders the beginning of June! Finally, we are starting to put all of our planning over the past six months into action, and it feels good to see some results. But it still feels like the calm before the storm; our big field stretching out before us is a testament to all the work yet to be done.

While waiting for dry days, we received a letter from our organic certification agency stating that our 20-plus page application was reviewed and deemed “good” and “well thought-out.” I know that organic certification is a controversial topic among farmers, especially in places such as California. But, in our area, the majority of farms that set the quality standard for excellent, fresh, and local produce (grown with or without chemicals) are certified organic, such as our neighbors—Gardens of Eagan. Now don’t get me wrong people—there are also great farms that use organic practices without being certified, and I’ve worked on some of them and learned a lot, but in our case we decided to go for it. I think it is useful to illuminate what it’s been like and why we decided to do it.

Our decision to apply for certification was based upon numerous factors. We wished to challenge ourselves as farmers to meet organic requirements. Then there’s the fact that we rent land from a 30-year certified-organic farm; in order to sell our product at their roadside stand and surrounding co-ops, we needed to be certified. We also felt there would be a marketing advantage to having the certified-organic label, especially with regard to a CSA operation. More often than not, CSAs that serve our area are not certified organic, thus we felt we could fill a niche by offering a certified-organic option. Additionally, in Minnesota (at least for this year), the state will reimburse organic farmers for certification fees.

The production plan (the first step for first-time applicants) we wrote was a veritable 20-page essay that rivaled many of my college exams. It really felt like a test of authenticity—“so you call yourself a ‘farmer’, eh?”. We got some help and guidance from farmers extraordinaire, Martin and Atina Diffley of Gardens of Eagan, without which we would have been lost. However, I did spend my fair share of time reading, researching, and scanning old farm journal notes I’ve kept from previous seasons to supplement my knowledge of rotations, green manures, soil fertility, and the rest.

When all was said and done though, what we had was an extremely detailed and thorough farm plan, and I am thankful for that. We addressed details I would never have touched beforehand, such as developing an audit trail that will log all of our plantings, field work, harvesting, input applications (such as compost) and sales. Yes, it will entail a lot of paperwork, but I ultimately agree with our certification agency that it makes one a better, more-observant farmer. Frankly, hell would have to freeze over before I developed an audit trail or something similar without prompting.

The completion and approval of our production plan is just the beginning, albeit the most exhaustive. We still have the inspection, the certification committee review of our inspection, and then, if they judge our practices to comply with NOP standards, we will be stamped verifiably, certifiably organic. But I am confident that we laid out the process well enough to be able to follow it with good practice. The certification committee is excited to see our progress in implementing our production plan. I am too. That is, if the weather ever gives us a chance to “do” something with all these plans!