In September 2016 my farm, Good Heart Farmstead, became Certified Organic by Vermont Organic Farmers. We’d been growing for 3 years, but it wasn’t until our 4th season that we decided to make it official and become certified.
What deterred us in our first 3 years:
When we began our farm in 2013, our vision was for a 40-share, full-diet CSA. At such a small size, we didn’t feel it necessary to go through the certification process, as we planned all of our sales to be direct, giving us the opportunity to converse with each customer and build a level of trust and transparency about our growing practices.
A renegade streak runs through us, and in early conversations about certification, we often came back to the line “Monsanto doesn’t have to label anything. Why should we pay
money and increase paperwork when we’re already growing organically?” We ended these conversations looping back to the ideal of direct communication creating long-lasting relationships with customers.
Cost and paperwork. I know, I just mentioned these two, but as beginning farmers with a bootstrap budget and already feeling stretched thin on all fronts, we didn’t know how we could add another budget line or more office time.
What changed our minds:
Over the past 4 years, our farm has changed a lot from our original vision. We stepped away from livestock farming, focused on vegetable growing, and increased our CSA to 80 shares, with a future goal of 100-120. Clear communication with customers has always been important to us, and as we reached for more CSA members, we began to see how the certification could help us by simplifying our language while increasing trust in our growing systems.
As a non-certified farm, we were not allowed to use the word “organic” in our marketing, unless citing specific products such as certified-organic potting soil. But without that clear, concise word, describing our growing practices often required a paragraph or two, and not everyone has time for that. The certification allows us to be transparent and concise and still communicate how we farm.
Verification matters. Certified farms are required to do their homework, and it must pass a third-party’s test. Farmers must prove that what they put into the soil and onto crops is organically approved, and third-party verification ensures that farmers are meeting every standard. We’ve found this makes us better farmers by learning where and how to source amendments and fertilizers that not only meet organic standards, but our standards, too.
Cost-sharing decreases the expense. Organic farms are able to apply for a cost-sharing program through the government that reimburses up to 75% of the certification cost. While this doesn’t completely erase a budget line, it does make it easier to manage.
How the certification helps us:
We’re better farmers. Part of the verification process is keeping records: field records, application records, seeding and planting records, harvest records. If you did it, you keep a record. This makes us better farmers by making us pay closer attention to inputs and yields. We’ve updated our tools to track efficiencies, productivity, and profitability on our farm.
Customer satisfaction. In our first three years, we did create some amazing long-lasting relationships with customers, and nothing can quite replace the conversations and direct communication that creates those relationships. Since we’ve become certified, though, we’ve heard from a number of people how it matters to them. Just as it gives us a greater ability to communicate, the organic certification also gives customers a better understanding of our farm from the get-go.
Growing the movement. After a while, the argument that Monsanto doesn’t have to label anything lost its shine. As NOFA-VT members, we were already part of the organic community in Vermont, and we feel excited to deepen that relationship and join the organic movement in a more meaningful way. Because every farm matters. Food matters, and how we produce our food matters. Each new certified farm sends a louder message to the food industry that the roots of organic are growing stronger, and we know that can only yield good.