Behind the label: Certifiers weed through plenty to keep organic farmers in the green

Oakland Tribune, October 29, 2006

Robert Magenheimer depends on ducks, mosquito fish and smart irrigation techniques to take care of his 500 acres of organic rice on a farm northwest of Lodi.

Doug and Joseph Perry of J.E. Perry Farms say they keep track of every batch of vegetables from the field to the truck that hauls it away. The Perrys grow certified organic lettuce, cabbage and broccoli on 90 acres near Fremont. (Bea Ahbeck – Staff)

“It’s a fun challenge,” he said.

But early one morning in September, he waited at the edge of his property for a different sort of challenge: inspection day.

Once a year, every certified organic farm in the United States is required to prove it deserves the organic label. An inspector pores over the farm’s records and its fields, looking for paperwork problems, obvious violations and potential problems.

Magenheimer met Steve Bird, an inspector from California Certified Organic Farming, at the gate to Crane Ranch Farms.

The relationship between farmers and certifying agents such as Bird has become the core of consumer trust in organic farming. Without the organic label, Magenheimer’s rice might be just another bag on the shelf.

When a farmer, rancher, packer or processor decides to take its business organic, a certifier helps prepare a strategy to move production and practices away from conventional fertilizers and pesticides.

The certifier then conducts annual inspections to make certain the organic producer makes good on its promises.

“Farming changes all the time,” Bird said. “A grower might change his tactics from year to year, but he’s required to update the organic plan filed with his certifier.”

While certifiers keep busy watching organic growers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the certifiers.

The USDA launched the National Organic Program in October 2002 as a division of its Agriculture Marketing Service. The program handles accreditation and annual audits of 55 U.S-based certifying agents, plus 40 more foreign certifiers.

Organic certifiers come in a few varieties. Some are for-profit firms, such as Scientific Certification Systems in Oakland. Others are nonprofit groups, including Santa Cruz-based CCOF. In Marin County, a municipal organization, Marin Organic Certified Agriculture, manages certification and inspections.

Working out of Marin County’s agricultural weights and measures office, Anita Sauber and two of her colleagues inspect and certify 23 organic farms. The county employees are the same ones who give growers permits to sell produce at farmers’ markets and check to make sure their scales are up to code. “We know our people,” Sauber said. “We see them all the time.”

Warren Weber is one of those people. An old hand when it comes to organic farming in California, Weber owns Star Route Farms in Bolinas, where he has grown organic greens, herbs and flowers since 1974. “We pre-date the USDA program,” he said.

Weber said transparency is a key to the certification process. Certifiers expect farmers to keep meticulous records of every seed, bag of fertilizer and heap of compost that goes into their fields. “It’s not insurmountable,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated for mixed operations where they have both conventional and organic crops.”

Jake Lewin, certification services director at CCOF, said certifiers can help organic producers develop better methods of tracking how they maintain their land, crops and equipment. “A lot of very good farmers are very poor record-keepers,” he said.

Doug Perry of J.E. Perry Farms said he usually calls CCOF six weeks in advance to schedule the farm’s annual inspection, so that he has enough time to pull his paperwork together.

Joseph Perry and his son, Doug, grow certified organic lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli on 90 acres on the outskirts of Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont.

“We hold on to everything,” Doug Perry said. “We document everything we put in the ground.”

Perry said he tracks every batch of vegetables from the field it was picked to the truck that hauls it away. If a buyer has a problem with a particular box of cauliflower, he can find out exactly which organic fertilizers and pest-management techniques were used on the piece of ground in question.

When inspector Steve Bird visits an organic farm, he looks at more than just soil tests and paperwork. He might walk the rows of a field, looking for the little things, like an empty bag labeled with the name of a forbidden pesticide that could indicate a bit of conventional cheating on an organic farm.

At Crane Ranch Farms, Bird rode in Magenheimer’s truck as the pair tooled around the rutted roads that cut between the rice fields. “Mostly, I’m looking at the edges,” Bird said. By taking a closer look at how a grower’s neighbors manage their land, Bird said he gets a better idea of the potential problems the organic farmer might face.

Bird said he looks for buffer zones between organic and conventional fields, to make sure pesticides and fertilizers prohibited by the USDA don’t float over or seep into organic crops. “It does happen,” he said. Some crop-duster pilots won’t spray farms anywhere near organic growers because they’re afraid of lawsuits over contamination, Bird said.

Magenheimer grows conventional rice but on a different piece of land miles away. As for the fields adjacent to his organic crops, they’re organic, too, certified by CCOF. “The nice thing about this place is that there aren’t many neighbors,” he said.

Magenheimer’s fields grow within the borders of the Consumes River Preserve, serving as a temporary home to migrating Sandhill Cranes every winter. In fact, the ducks, geese and other wild birds that frequent the fields provide all the fertilizer his crops need.

Bird and Magenheimer passed paperwork back and forth across the hood of a truck, checking off tags listing the annual yield of each rice field and matching the numbers to the receipts from the trucks that carried the crops to a dryer in another town.

Magenheimer, who started growing organic crops in 1997, opened a thin gray binder to show Bird a nearly empty form with a list of all the different products he’s used on his land this year. The list is only two lines long.

“Even if it weren’t better for the environment, it’s better for an individual not to deal with chemicals and fertilizer,” Magenheimer said.

At harvest time, Magenheimer drives the machinery himself, getting help from a few farmhands to bring in his crops.

If the birds do the fertilizing and the fish take care of the mosquitoes, then what’s the hard part about growing organic rice? Magenheimer said it’s keeping a close enough eye on water levels to dry out the weeds but give the rice all the moisture it needs.

Bird said he watches out for red flags, like organic crops that look too good to be true. “If it’s a field completely free of weeds, full and dark green and plush, that gets me worried,” he said.

The inspector didn’t find much to worry about in the rice fields that day. Magenheimer promised to fax over a copy of a late soil test, and Bird helped him tick off a few unchecked boxes on his organic plan as “not applicable.”

If an inspector does find a bigger problem — whether it’s as severe as the use of a banned pesticide, or something more subtle, like a missing receipt for a bag of fertilizer — it ends up in his report.

“If there’s something serious enough to warrant fines, we send it up to the state,” Jake Lewin said.

Far more often, he said, CCOF issues a “notice of non-compliance” and opens up lines of communication with the client to work out the problem.

When that fails, a certifier can resort to suspending or revoking certification until the issue is resolved. This year, Lewin said, CCOF had suspended 13 certifications by the end of August and revoked one.

“It’s important to realize it’s not about the operations being perfect,” Lewin said. “It’s about holding operations to the standard.”

But which one? Magenheimer has to play by stricter rules, Bird said, because some of his rice ends up getting exported to Canada, invoking an international standard.

In the United States, the lists of allowed and prohibited fertilizers and pesticides are compiled by the Organic Materials Review Institute, a nonprofit industry group.

“What may be on that list today, may not be there tomorrow,” said Doug Perry. “You really have to pay attention to everything you order.”

Some certifiers go beyond the USDA standards, offering their own requirements to label products as sustainable or pesticide-free.

“Organic agriculture describes a set of growing methods that embrace the use of biological and mechanical controls,” said Linda Brown, executive vice president of Scientific Certification Systems. “But it doesn’t deal with the issue of pesticide residue in food.”

Scientific Certification Systems, an Oakland-based company with about 15 certified organic clients, also puts its own label on produce it verifies as pesticide-free.

Brown said certified organic produce can get contaminated by pesticides even from the conveyor belt to the grocery store shelf. National organic standards don’t require produce to be completely free of pesticide residues.

Twenty-two years of experience gives her company a good idea of what’s going on in the fields of her clients, Brown said. “We can ask all the right questions.”

As one of the largest certifiers in the country, CCOF inspects more than 1,300 clients once a year. But the certification office’s staff of 10 operates out of a modest office on Mission Street in Santa Cruz, farming out the inspections to a network of around 40 inspectors.

Lewin said some are professionals who do hundreds of inspections a year, and others are farmers who sign on as inspectors to supplement their income.

“It’s important for us to get the work done,” Lewin said. “That means we need to have a wide base of inspectors.”

Steve Bird, in addition to performing around 100 inspections a year, owns Celtic Gardens, an organic farm in Camino, east of Sacramento.

But Bird plays another role for CCOF, as the treasurer of its board of directors. The board supervises CCOF’s advocacy and educational programs, as well as its certification division. “I’m involved in a lot of things,” Bird said.

It’s a thin line between marketing organic farming and certifying organic farms, and a potential conflict of interest.

The National Organic Program revoked a certifier’s accreditation for the first time in July, when it cited the American Food Safety Institute International, a Chippewa Falls, Wis., for-profit firm with seven violations of USDA policy.

Among the violations were multiple failures to disclose conflicts of interest.

Jake Lewin, who moved from a position as director of marketing at CCOF to his current position in charge of certification in June, said CCOF keeps its marketing and certification operations legally and financially separated.

Competing interests are also a problem within the National Organic Program itself, according to a December 2004 American National Standards Institute audit report. The auditors found the program didn’t draw sharp enough boundaries between its dual tasks of marketing organic farming and handing out accreditations to certifiers.

A July 2005 audit by the USDA Office of the Inspector General concluded that the program needed to pay more attention to the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory committee composed of industry insiders, farmers, certifiers and environmentalists.

Andrea Caroe, a member of the advisory board, said the relationship between the organizations is still evolving. She said the standards group hasn’t always been a government-savvy entity.

“At first, it was grassroots,” Caroe said. “It was filled with great ideas and passion, but that didn’t necessarily translate to regulation.”

The organic movement has been dealing with an evolution of its own in recent years, as grassroots organizations have given way to agribusiness giants. Small operations no longer have a monopoly on the organic or organic ideals.

Processed organic food brands have become a common buyout target for companies such as Tyson, ConAgra and Kraft.

Consumers of Odwalla orange or carrot juice might have noticed in 2002 when Coca-Cola bought the company, which was founded in 1980 by a small group of musicians in Half Moon Bay.

What about Cascadian Farm, a granola and frozen fruit producer born in the mountains of Washington? It’s been a subsidiary of General Mills since 2000.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales topped $13.8 billion in the United States last year. That’s just 2 percent of total food sales nationwide, but it’s an increase from 1.3 percent in 2004.

Recent food scares, such as the E. coli-tainted California spinach, cast doubt in some consumers’ minds about organic’s advantages. But that outbreak, caused by water contamination from a neighboring cattle ranch, had nothing to do with organic farming.

Overall, the public’s appetite for organic — for real or perceived health reasons — appears bottomless.

Retailer Wal-Mart has taken notice. The chain of mega-stores expanded its offerings earlier this year to include organic milk, produce and processed foods.

“I think organic food is poised to become mainstream,” said Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a book about how eating choices can have nutritional, environmental and socioeconomic effects.

Pollan, a journalism professor at University of California, Berkeley, said consumers have reason to be concerned about the industrialization of organic farming.

“There’s a reason organic costs more,” Pollan said. “It’s a more difficult, labor-intensive agriculture.”

The race to match Wal-Mart’s prices could lead to cutting corners at some organic farms, Pollan said. “There are ways you can meet the letter of the law and still violate the spirit of the law,” he said.