Registering Our Small Farm as Certified Organic

Reader Contribution by Holly Chiantaretto and Hallow Springs Farm
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Save seed receipts and packages.

Getting registered organic is more than an economic benefit; it is a statement of revolution against the current food chain. If you are prepared; your revolution may not cost as much as ours did. This article will hit some of the high points of organic registration preparation.

Research

Depending on what kind of organic certification you decide to get, there will be slightly different rules for them all. You may already be using organic practices; however, a minor infringement in the rules can set you back on getting your certification. For example we had a hay field that we we thought was organic and later found out that the lime we used was not approved so we had to wait three years in transition on that field. As soon as you decide to take the plunge to getting registered you should start trying to get a hold of the regulations for your certification. The rules will be long and complicated to anyone who is not a lawyer so you will also need to begin to cultivate a relationship with your local organic-program specialist; that person can typically be found by asking your local FSA or extension office. The more questions you ask initially the less mistakes you will make later.

Find other local organic farmers if there any to be found. The rules for organic certification change yearly; however, someone who has already been through the process will have valuable advice about what products are available that you are allowed to use and techniques that work in your area.

Inputs

I had never heard this word used for gardening and farming before we began our certification process. Inputs are anything you use on the land that is not a seed or plant; for example, fertilizer and pest control spray. A very large part of the organic process is using the correct inputs. There is a revised list every year and keeping up with that will keep you from using an input that can keep you from getting certified or make you lose your certification. If a product says it is safe for “organic” practices that does not necessarily mean it is approved. Inputs that have the Organic Materials Review Institute or OMRI label on them tend to be safe to use.  

Mulching

The overarching goal of a good organic program is that one day you will not need the aid of inputs. Mulching is an effective way to move toward that goal which is why most organic certifications expect you to use fewer inputs each passing year and will ask if you practice mulching. The purchase of mulch can be an economic load; or you can come up with mulch on your own. Again be sure to read what is acceptable within your certification guidelines. Cardboard boxes that have only black ink and no plastic tape on them are an excellent bottom layer for mulching; they block weeds for a long time.

Many mulching programs will suggest that you use straw rather than hay due to the danger of reseeding weeds into your garden. In an economically perfect world we could all mulch with straw; in the meantime we use whatever we have available. Last year’s hay that did not get fed out, leaves from the yard, and fodder from the last harvest, and whatever other goodies we have around the farm suited to mulching go on top of the cardboard. Just be sure you are using organically certified hay, straw and mulch.

Compost

Compost is essential for a good organic system. There will be rules for what you can put in your compost, what internal temperature your pile is maintaining, when you are supposed to turn it, and when you can safely use it on your garden. It will be beneficial for you to begin logging turn dates and temperature readings. Researching the rules for composting in your potential organic program will ensure that you are using correct practices and that you will be able to use your compost.

Organic Seed

What type of seed you choose will determine whether you get to sell your produce as registered organic. I would recommend that you spend the few extra dollars and source as many organic seeds as you can find. There are allowances for seeds that you may not be able to find or reasonably afford certified organic; but, you have to be able to prove that. Keep your receipts and seed packets for inspections. The cost of organic seeds can be from a little pricey to criminal depending on the type of seed you purchase. This will give you an excellent excuse to start using good sustainable seed saving practices. After all being sustainable is one of the perks of organic farming.    

Record Keeping

Keeping track of your farming practices is key to smoothing your path toward certification. We keep a digital log and print it out each month. I keep our farm logs, receipts, and seed packets in a binder to have for inspection. We keep a farm log for all sorts of practical reasons; however, when going down the organic path be sure to keep track of all inputs, your compost turning and temperatures, your seed and input purchases, and your garden maps. Your inspector will want to know where you planted everything. Create a good honest working relationship with your inspector; it is a relationship that is built off of trust.

Is it Worth it?

Initially it will not feel like getting registered organic is worth the effort and extra cost. Keep in mind that the costs reduce over time because your practices become more sustainable. However cost is not typically the reason people move toward certification; it is to effect change.  The best benefit to seeking certification is that you will not only be consuming real and healthy food; you will be providing your community with good food and changing the world around you one plate at a time.

Holly Chiantaretto is an organic farmer and goat breeder in Kentucky where she also raises cattle, pigs, and chickens and preserves the harvests from her garden. Connect with Holly at Hallow Springs Farm and on Facebook. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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