"As an organic farmer, you're not done until the paperwork is done!" While this is fast becoming the norm across much of agriculture, love it or hate it, organic farmers have lots of experience filling out forms. Documentation and record-keeping is an essential element in maintaining the integrity of organic produce and tracking it from the field to the final consumer. This is the time of year when organic farmers go through the annual rite of the certification application.
For a farmer just entering organic production, the certification process usually starts with a call to one or more certification agencies to request information. There are a handful of certification agencies with clients in Ontario. Because they all have very similar standards, farmers usually make their decision based on level of service and price. Farmers often need quick and specific answers to their questions (whether or not an input is allowed, for example), so it is important to find a certification agency with staff that are available, knowledgeable, helpful, and easy to communicate with. Recognition and accreditation by national and international bodies is important for anyone planning on exporting product.
Certifiers usually require an application and inspection one year prior to actual certification. Therefore, farmers need to apply for certification in the spring prior to their final year of transition. (Ideally, they will have contacted the certification body and obtained a set of organic standards prior to this to ensure that they have been following all the requirements.) The two main certification bodies currently active in Ontario are OCPP (Organic Crop Producers and Processors Inc.) at 1-877-867-4264, and Garantie Bio-Ecocert at (519)681-9359.
After determining which forms are required (ie. crops, livestock, greenhouse, etc.), the certification agency will mail out a package which includes the forms, a set of the most recent standards, as well as any other specific information and instructions. For a farmer receiving that pile of paper for the first time, it can look pretty daunting.
Do not be intimidated, however. Larry Lenhardt, CEO of OCPP, Ontario's largest certifier, reminds farmers that the standards and forms are designed to apply to farm operations across the country, and not everything will apply to each individual farm. "Take it a line at a time," is his advice. If something doesn't apply to your farm, simply mark it "NA" for "not applicable" and move on. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Call the office of your certification body or talk to an experienced organic farmer. The OntarBio Organic Farmers' Cooperative offers in depth advice and assistance to prospective members, so give me a call or send an email.
Once the certification body receives the application (and payment), staff reviews it for completeness and then forwards it to an independent inspector. The inspector contacts the farmer to arrange an appointment. Depending on the complexity of the farm operation, an inspection can take from two to four or more hours. The inspector will review all the paperwork and walk the farm to evaluate the crops and any potential concerns like drift from neighbouring fields. The farmer should have all records, calendars, and logs on hand for review by the inspector. Based on his or her observations, the inspector writes a report, usually containing one or more recommendations, and sends a copy to both the farmer and the certification body. A certification committee then evaluates all the information and makes the decision whether or not to grant certification. They may also impose certain conditions or restrictions.
In addition to the certification application, a chronological log of all activities is essential to the organic certification process.
The farmer must document all field activities; the clean-out of any equipment also used in non-organic; any treatment of livestock; input purchases and crop sales; contamination monitoring; soil and water tests; and any thing else related to the organic production, processing, and sales.
According to Lenhardt, "it can be as simple as a calendar or as complicated as a computer program." The key is to find a system that works for the individual, and to keep it updated on a regular basis (daily in some cases).
Say you do it (on your application), do it, and then record that you did it (in the chronological log) - that's the process in a nutshell. Few farmers like paperwork, but the sooner it's done, the sooner you can be back in the field or barn!
Here's wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and safe start to the 2003 cropping season!
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