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

Organic certification audit taking place
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.

Learn to Love Your Weeds

We’re on a mission to help you think differently about your weeds.

plantain
Plantain

Every time we talk about weeds during a workshop, there’s always a few people that are very resistant to the idea that we should welcome—and dare we say it, even encourage—weeds under our fruit trees.

First let’s have a think about what a weed really is. In most cases what we really mean is a plant that got there by itself, i.e., we didn’t plant it. Even for experienced gardeners, it can be difficult (almost impossible) to know all the plants in your garden, and when we don’t know what a plant is, many of us have a slightly unfortunate tendency to take the approach of “if in doubt, rip it out.”

Yorkshire fog grass
Yorkshire fog grass

Actually, no plants are intrinsically “bad”, even the ones that have characteristics that make them unpleasant to have around (Gorse, anyone?) or possibly dangerous to an ecosystem (think wild blackberries in the Australian bush). But even blackberries are valued in their native England, where they form natural fences and barriers along many a country lane, and are valued for their fruit. So really, a weed is just a plant that we have decided is in the wrong place.

Many plants we think of as weeds are also herbs, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine or perfume.” They also have other uses such as stock feed, dyes and cosmetics. Suddenly, weeds start to look useful!

Onion grass in pear block
Mixed weeds in the orchard

From a biological farming point of view, we also prefer to having living plants under our fruit trees (as opposed to bare soil, or even to mulch), for a long list of reasons: they keep the ground cooler, provide habitat for soil microbes on their roots, provide organic matter for microbes and earthworms to eat, pump carbon into the soil, attract predator insects, and fix nitrogen – just to name a few!

So, with that very long list of positives in mind, it suddenly becomes much easier to find reasons to love each and every one of the plants in your garden, regardless of whether you think of them as a “weed” or not.

Marshmallow
Marshmallow & Capeweed

Learning the name of a plant is the next step to appreciating its attributes, and deciding whether or not deserves a place in your garden.

But it can be overwhelming, because there are literally thousands of plants that are commonly found in gardens and backyards. So, take it one step at a time. In the Grow Great Fruit program we look at one new weed every couple of weeks and go in-depth into its properties, how to identify it, and all its potential uses. It’s a neverending (and endlessly fascinating) topic, but these are some of the ones we’ve covered so far:

  • Great Mullein
  • Gorse
  • Marshmallow
  • Cleavers
  • Plantain
  • Capeweed
  • Yorkshire fog grass
  • Oxalis
  • Wild radish
  • Knotgrass
  • Borage
  • Dandelion
  • Tansy
  • Ivy leaf speedwell
  • Blackberry
  • Fumitory
  • Catsear
katie-picking-blackberry-mt-alexander-270x480
Harvesting wild blackberries

Wannabe an organic farmer?

Since we started sharing our farm with the Gung Hoe Growers and their market garden, we’ve suspected that there’s a groundswell of people out there who would love to do what we’re doing – running slightly too small (by commercial standards) organic farms for profit or love.

ggf-facebook-pageSo to test our theory, recently we wrote a post on our Facebook page inviting comments from people who want to be organic farmers or live a self-sustaining lifestyle, asking what’s stopping them? What are the biggest barriers that get in the way of people realising their goals and ‘living the dream’?

Well, what a massive response! We got an outpouring from many people who expressed in equal measure their passion and desire to be growing their own food, along with the frustration and disappointment of how hard it can be to make it work.

Here’s just a selection of what people had to say about…

unnamed-1…their dreams and aspirations:

  • to become semi self-sufficient and trade with others nearby
  • just for home use…I would like to be able to supply family
  • I want to set up an organic/permaculture veggie garden and orchard integrating traditional fruit and vegies as well as bush tucker foods
  • I want to start my own organic market garden, buying land and a house somewhere cheaper, I think I know what I need and have the funds to do it, I just need help with a business plan and would love a mentor. I know what to do, just need support. I love growing organic vegies!
  • It’s a dream to one day have a patch that we can live off sustainably
  • implementing food garden and chooks, animals
  • I want to make a living out of my farm – but I don’t know how

img3494…the biggest challenges and barriers:

  • lack of infrastructure
  • lack of machinery
  • lack of TIME
  • having to work full time to pay for the farm
  • knowing what you want to get out of it
  • knowing what you need to do to get the best return from your soil type
  • understanding how to use organic principles
  • the skills to be water wise and knowing how to improve an old, outdated, inefficient irrigation system
  • weed control
  • pest control
  • compost making
  • setting up networks for support and marketing
  • planning and working with what is there with progression plan
  • structure, fencing, water
METADATA-START
METADATA-START

…the questions people need answered:

  • what can we produce what there is a demand for?
  • how do we know if there will be a market for what we want to grow?
  • how to develop a small farm into a profit-generating enterprise?
  • how do I engage neighbours in productive conversation re spray drift and chemicals in waterways?
  • how do I improve soil as quickly as possible?

…and the wishlist of what people want or need to help them realise their dreams:

  • I need a business plan and a mentor
  • being able to read the wisdom of weeds
  • the money to buy the farm
  • designing farm layout (keyline principles)
  • I need a basic design

Wow. Basically, these guys wrote our life story. We have shared these dreams, asked those questions and felt frustration at all those barriers.

But when we look back over the last 20 years, we’re also incredibly lucky that the pathway that this farm has taken us on has answered so many of those questions. We’ve done courses, read books, had mentors, employed business consultants, done farm planning, done market research, established marketing supply chains and networks, learned to value and understand our weeds, and learned the wisdom of continuously working on improving our soil.

Not that we would ever claim to ‘know it all’ – far from it! After all this time, we’re still learning and evolving. But what we do have is many years of experience, lots of runs on the board, and the successful experiment of Mel and Sas starting a micro-farm at our place, which has opened our eyes to a whole new way of farming, where we can use our land, resources and experience to provide a pathway for a new generation of farmers and food growers.

And judging by the recent outpouring on Facebook, this is just the beginning!blog-2015-08-27-1