Sunday, May 17, 2009

What is Certified Organic anyway?

Well, I'll get to that. But first I want to fast forward to the end of the day.  Did you all go home feeling as satisfied as I did?  What a great feeling to have planted out the last rows of beans and corn not to mention all those fabulous melons!!  Of course farm work is never done, but I really felt justified in allowing myself a private, "we did it!" when reflecting back on the last two months.
That being said, we sure had a Full (note the capital F) day on Wednesday.  Steve started off by answering a couple of questions from class members:
Q: Why rotate crops? A: How healthy is your soil?  A healthy soil (ecosystem) doesn't require rotation. Rotation serves two purposes: fertility and disease reduction.  So if you've planted a heavy feeder like corn, follow it with a soil booster like beans or peas.  If your tomatoes developed Verticillium Wilt, follow it with a brassica that is not susceptible.  Barring disease, tomatoes can be grown in the same location for years as long as you prepare your soil with lots of...that's right: COMPOST!

Q: What's up with corn? A: Corn is a grain like wheat and rice. It's in the grass family, making it a monocot. It's also a super heavy feeder. A minimum 5x5 plot is necessary to be productive but most important is human pollination (i.e. the artificial simulation of wind) to ensure that every silk gets pollinated.  Because this is a wind pollinated crop it is important to take the unusual step of sowing seeds against prevailing winds to maximize natural pollination.  Wendy likes to soak corn seeds in diluted Maxsea (a kelp based fertilizer) before planting the seeds in warm soil.  (N.B. How do you know if the soil is the right temperature? Stick your hand in it!)

Q: What's up with weeds? A: Check out "Weeds of the West" published by the Western Society of Weed Science, a great reference book on what weeds you might expect to find in our area. 
Q: Are all weeds bad? A: Most aren't pernicious (excepting bermuda grass, oxalis and convovulus!) and many are medicinal.  They also serve as a good indicator of the kind of soil you have.
Q: How do you control them? A: Rototill (let them grow, rototill, let them grow, rototill); hoe; mulch paths; drip irrigation; solarization. DON'T LET THEM GO TO SEED!

So back to the original question at hand "what is Certified Organic"? Certification is based on the adoption of USDA standards set in 2002 known as NOS (National Organic Standards). Certification covers livestock, human food and fiber and requires inspection by a credited certifier like MOCA (Marin Organic Certified Agriculture), CCOF, Oregon Tilth, etc.  In California we actually have two certifying entities: SOP (State Organic Program) as well as NOP.  Certifiers themselves (like our guest Anita) have to be "certified" as well through an auditing process conducted twice every five years (certification audits for imported items are conducted annually).  

The key information for certification is covered in the handout Anita gave us and can also be accessed online on MOCA's website:  But I think my biggest takeaway from the morning was this: keep meticulous records.  You can follow every regulation to the tee, but if you don't have the records to prove that you have done so, your diligence is worth nothing. 

As we concluded in the classroom, Wendy made an important observation.  While NOP certifies farms, it is us who certify NOP.  Just as public outcry was responsible for the USDA revising their first set of (lame) standards for Organics, it is public outcry that will keep them in line.  This is not just a privilege, but a responsibility of us all.

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