LANCASTER, Pa. — Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but it could be said that agriculture exists on a spectrum, with conventional practices on one side, organic on the other, and lots of degrees in between.
For example, many produce farmers adhere to organic practices but aren’t certified under the National Organic Program, meaning they can’t officially market themselves as organic.
Are these farms organic or not? It gets tricky.
You might call it Big O vs. Little O.
And this is fine for lots of produce farmers, especially the ones who sell their wares at farmers markets where they themselves are present to meet customers and answer questions.
It’s easy for a farmer to look a customer in the eye and say, yes, we practice organic agriculture. No, these tomatoes were not sprayed with pesticides. Yes, we value our soil health. And so on.
But what happens when the farm gets into wholesaling and suddenly its produce is out there in the world without anyone on hand to speak for it?
That’s where organic certification really earns its keep. The organic label does the talking for the farmer.
For some farmers, making the leap to organic certification can be daunting.
Julie Henninger is one of those farmers, which is why she attended a question-and-answer session about the transition process during the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s conference Feb. 6-9 at the Lancaster County Convention Center.
Henninger’s operation, Good Keepers Farm in Gardners, offers a full-diet community-supported agriculture program.
Henninger has been using organic methods for four years, and she worked on organic farms for 8 years before that.
She feels now is the right time to get organic certification — for her customers’ sake, for marketing purposes, and for improving her operation all around.
“It’s the one edge up that we’re looking for in the market. But it’s an area that we want to pursue for a lot of different reasons, because we do grow organically and we want recognition for it,” Henninger said.
She’s also heard from regulators and other farmers that certification makes farmers better at their job.
“It makes you track data better. It makes you see benchmarks and it makes you really take care of your fields a lot cleaner. You’re not double applying something because it’s been documented,” she said.
Henninger attended the meeting for encouragement. She started the process of getting her farm certified a few months ago but has felt a little overwhelmed.
Luckily, there were actual people on hand to field her questions.
The Q&A was led by Anaïs Beddard of Lady Moon Farms, which has been growing organically since the 1980s.
With farms in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida, it is one of the largest organic produce farms on the East Coast.
Beddard was joined by Justine Cook, a certification specialist from Pennsylvania Certified Organic, which verifies that farms are following the organic rules.
Cook said the first step in getting certified is choosing the right certifier.
There are more than 50 different certifying agencies in the U.S., and farmers can shop around based on the groups’ price and speed in processing an inspection.
“I would urge you to reach out to them and discuss those items with them, just so you’re prepared,” Cook said.
The application process usually takes four to six weeks, but transitioning the land itself takes three years and requires documentation that the land is free of restricted materials.
This initial documentation is good practice for maintaining the certification in the ensuing years, as an organic farm needs to document everything that happens at every stage of production.
Beddard said all of that recordkeeping can be a pain, but it can also come in handy.
“In our heads we’re like, ‘Eggplants were down this year,’ but when you look at the numbers, it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re not,’” she said.
A rep from a certifying agency can help a farm develop best practices for documentation, and can provide information on which chemicals are allowed — and more important, which ones aren’t.
“Materials misuse is a big one,” Cook said. “It’s a big mistake that we see from applicants who aren’t familiar with materials restrictions.”
As Henninger moves through the process of certifying her farm, she can offer some advice to those who may be daunted by the process.
“I wish I would have just called and talked to a certifier, just to get over that hump of, like, this seems too intimidating,” she said. “I think I would say, just talk to a certifier. Talk to a person.”