Three reasons to get your farm certified organic (and four reasons not to)

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Hugh showing the NASAA inspector around the farm during our certified organic audit

We’ve just had our annual organic certification visit from NASAA, our certifying body. We’ve written before about the process of being audited here, and our journey to organic certification here, here and here.

Is it worth being certified? It’s a relatively big cost for a small business (it cost us $950 this year, plus a levy on our produce over $40,000), but the actual amount you pay depends on the certifier you choose, and the type of certification program you enrol for – there are some designed for very small producers, or for exporters, for example.

Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan - thanks RDV and Maree Edwards
Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan – thanks RDV and Maree Edwards!

It’s a hot topic for us at the moment as we start the business planning process for the new Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance we’re setting up on the farm. Organic is in the name, but all the enterprises on the farm will be running their own business, so it will be their own decision to make. Plus, each business is so different that they have different considerations in their own “pros and cons” list, but here’s the ones on our mind as we start to figure out how to handle this issue:

 PROS

  1. It gives our consumers confidence that everything produced on the farm is grown according to Australian Organic Standards. Some people argue that because the organic certification system is flawed, it’s not worth bothering with, and that it’s enough just for producers to say they’re following the standards. We disagree! Certification may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got at the moment. We’re mates with lots of other small farmers who have chosen not to get certified for a whole range of reasons that suit their business, and we respect their decisions. But we’ve also stood next to other growers at farmers markets who claim they’re ‘organic’ just because they’re not using insecticides, for example, but they’re still merrily using Roundup to kill their weeds, because if the chemical’s not getting on the fruit it doesn’t count, right? WRONG!
  2. It gives us access to markets that demand certification for organic produce, like the wholesale market in Melbourne. For micro-businesses that can sell practically all their produce to people they know, this isn’t an issue, but if you’re producing enough that you need to sell into markets that can handle larger quantities (and realistically, most farms have to be this big to make a decent living), then organic certification is a definite advantage.
  3. Alliance members on the farm will be able to collaborate freely. If not all the enterprises in our alliance are certified, we’ll have to be very fussy about keeping our businesses separate, to make sure we’re meeting the Organic Standards. For example because the orchard is certified organic, we can’t put non-certified animals in the orchard without following a documented quarantine procedure first, even if the animals have been managed organically on the same farm. This might seem like bureaucratic craziness, but the point of the Organic Standards is to protect the integrity of the organic system, so there’s really strict rules about bringing non-organic elements into it, which we totally support. We can’t expect an organic auditor to take our word for it that other alliance members are ridgy-didge.

CONS

  1. It’s more expensive. Yep, it is, but one of the reasons we’re setting up the alliance is to look at ways for reducing costs, sharing resources and keeping overheads as low as possible for small farming businesses, so we’ll be looking at ways of sharing the costs of certification as well.
  2. It’s bureaucratic. Yep, it is, because that’s what you have to do to demonstrate that you understand and are complying with EVERY part of the Organic Standards.
  3. It takes more time. Yep, it does, but only to get your documentation systems set up to allow for easy reporting and traceability (which is good business practice anyway), and 1/2 a day each year for the audit, which is a great opportunity to spend time with someone who’s experienced at looking at lots of different organic farms. It’s definitely not part of an auditor’s role to give farming advice, but they’ll often make useful suggestions for solving farming problems.
  4. It can make the end product more expensive. Yes, it can. If there’s an insufficient supply of organic feed for animals, for example, it’s going to cost more than the conventional equivalent. This is one of the ‘hidden costs’ that can make organics more expensive in general, and highlights the fact that we don’t have enough organic producers at every level of farming!

Part of forming an alliance here on the farm is that issues like this will have to be discussed, thrashed out within the group and decided on collectively – which should be fun, actually. Part of the brave new farming world we’re trying to create is a model for how small enterprises can share land and resources together and work side-by-side to make all our businesses more successful, and working out issues like this together is going to be part of the journey.

What’s Slow Money?

Have you heard of slow money? Sounds weird, right? Maybe you’ve heard of slow food though, which is an idea that’s been around for long enough now that pretty much everyone knows what it means – it’s basically the opposite of fast food!

Isabelle-at-market-495x174Slow food is an international movement that got started in 1989 and has spread around the world as an antidote to the insidious spread of fast food and big agriculture. It promotes food that is:

  • good (high quality, flavoursome, and healthy)
  • clean (production that doesn’t harm the environment), and
  • fair (accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers).

We even have an accredited Slow Food Farmers Market once a month at Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, run by the wonderful folk at Melbourne Farmers Markets (disclaimer: I’m on the board so of course I think our operations team that runs markets is marvellous!) It’s a perfect fit, because Farmers Markets embody all the principles espoused by the Slow Food movement.

But back to Slow Money – how does it fit in? It’s really just an extension of the same ethos, but as it applies to money. It’s basically a movement to organise investors and donors to direct their capital towards small food enterprises, organic farms and local food systems, and through doing so improve the economic sustainability and resilience of farms and farmers, their communities and towns, and by extension our entire food system.

Slow Money was started in the US by a guy called Woody Tasch, and has now spread to Australia, as well as lots of other countries around the world. Since 2010 it’s invested more than $57 million into regenerative farming enterprises!

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It’s on our minds because we’ve been fantasising about attending the upcoming SOIL conference in Boulder, Colarado in October. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to attend a conference called SOIL? It actually stands for Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally, and will explore the links between actual soil and the soil of a restorative economy.

The demands of running a seasonal farm means we’re probably not going to get there, but of course there are many, many moves in the right direction here in Australia, like the new ORICoop Investment Trust that was launched this week. If you haven’t heard of it yet, have a look, particularly if you’re interested in finding practical ways to support and invest in organic farms. The best way to get involved is through their Pozible campaign (which ends in 14 days).

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Carolyn Suggate, founder of ORICoop, a new organic farming investment fund

Slowly, gradually, all around the world, people seem to be waking up to the fact that there’s a better way to grow, distribute and pay for our food, and that we – just simple, everyday people like us – have waaaay more power to influence it than we think we do!

 

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As organic farmers we experience this every day, whenever our customers choose to buy food from us rather than the supermarket. The growing number of people that care enough to seek out food that is produced locally, in a way that improves the environment rather than degrades it, who choose to eat seasonally rather than buying imported fruit and veg out of season, and who choose to buy direct from farmers through accredited Farmers Markets, online platforms like the Open Food Network or from the farm gate – all of those small buying decisions add up to a big influence, pushing our food system in the right direction.

So thank you. You all give us hope!

Organic farming across borders

This week we’re delighted to bring you a guest blog from Norma Tauiliili, who spent the week with us as a WWOOFer, but a WWOOFer with a difference!

Norma works for an organisation called Women in Business Development Inc (Samoa) (WIBDI), an organisation dedicated to strengthening village economies in Samoa in ways that honour indigenous tradition, use traditional and modern technology, and promote fair trade. The organisation works in 183 Samoan villages, and nurtures certified organic farming enterprises that annually puts more than SAT$600,000 (A$314,000) into the hands of rural families.

We very much enjoyed having Norma stay with us, and feel like we definitely learned as much from her as she did from us. We look forward to staying in touch and strengthening our connection with WIBDI.

We hope you enjoy her story.

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Hi, my name is Norma Tauiliili from Samoa. I have been offered the Royce and Jean Abbey scholarship by the Rotary Club of Bendigo to spend 3 months in Australia.

I work for Women in Business Development Incorporated (WIBDI), a nongovernment organisation in Samoa, as a senior field officer. I’m visiting Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens in Harcourt this week. My visit is all about learning organic farming, and gaining and sharing knowledge and experience.

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Norma learning how to pick pears (her “favourite fruit”)

So, my first day here was quite amazing. My first job was taking photos with Katie for International Women’s Day (taken by Larissa Romensky, from ABC). [MAFG: Norma was interviewed by ABC while she was at the farm. See the link to the story on ABC Online below.] Then it was time to go out there and start to learn something. Katie tells me they have about 20 Williams (pear) trees, and we went out picking some of them – we got 8 boxes of pears. This was very good and interesting for me to experience the work, even though we don’t have this sort of pear trees back home.

About ‘Women in Business’; it’s our vision that families in Samoa are valued and can contribute fully to their own development, and the development of their community and country through income generation, job creation, and participation in the village economy. We work with families and all Samoa to strengthen their capacity to generate and manage income, and lessen dependence on remittances for their daily needs. Therefore our mission is to provide and empower these families with knowledge and skills, and opportunities to access finance and markets.

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Chocolate and soap products produced by WIBDI

The Women in Business Farm to Table Project (FTTP) is about providing weekly organic baskets. It involves going out to our farmers and talking with them to see if they can supply produce we need for our fresh organic baskets. We give them the list of what produce we want them to supply and bring into the office (to be included in the baskets).

While at the farm our field officers check all the produce (quality control) to see if it’s OK or not. If it’s not good, it has to stay on the farm. We tell them to look out for a better quality of produce, because our customers will not be happy if it’s no good. Our customers send us feedback about the organic boxes, (negative or positive), as well as requests about what they want in the boxes, which is really good for us and helps us to improve our project work.

Once our farmers and produce arrive in the office, our FTTP Team spend their time assembling the produce into organic baskets, after paying our farmers. Farmers can choose whether they put some of their money into farmers’ savings through our microfinance manager, or they take it for their family needs, but it’s compulsory for every farmer to have some money saved in our microfinance – this helps them to save some money.

It’s up to our customers whether have their order delivered to their doorstep with our WIBDI fee of $5, or else pick up their basket from our office between 2 pm and 4.30 pm. Delivery of organic baskets will be ready between 12 noon and 3 pm.

Another thing we’ve done to support our local farmers is that we organized an Organic Night Market at the Samoa Tourism village in Eleele Fou in Apia. On a Friday night once a fortnight the farmers come together to sell their fresh produce, Meaai Samoa (Samoan cooking), fine mats, handicrafts, and plants to make some income.

Every night market our boys (field officers) go out and collect the farmers and bring them in so they can do the market. Afterwards they have to drive them home again. Our night market starts at 4 pm and goes until 9 or 9.30 pm. Most of our families, friends, and customers come down and buy our goods, and support the best of what our organic farmers have to offer.

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Norma learning budding (summer grafting), a technique she thinks will have application on farms in Samoa

You can read more of Norma’s story here at ABC online, and listen to the audio version on the Country Hour and on Pacific Beat, both on ABC radio on Monday 13 March 2017.

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Norma and Katie photographed for the ABC online story