Posted on September 25, 2006

Organic certifier: ‘look at the Earth and let the land talk to you’

OneCert's Sue Baird inspects 130-plus organic farming operations

Dan Kelly and Sue Baird roamed around Blue Heron Orchard in Canton, Mo., stopping once to nibble a fresh-picked apple and again to pick a vine-ripened tomato.

As they walked, Baird asked Kelly questions about production practices and potential insect and disease problems. It wasn’t just idle conversation. Baird was gathering information for Kelly’s annual organic certification inspection.

"It’s important for me to be on the farm to make sure he’s following the organic protocol," said Baird, an inspector with OneCert Missouri. "This is a consumer-driven market. Consumers need to know somebody’s out here to certify he’s doing what he says."

Baird inspects 130-plus organic farming operations around the state from the dairy and beef operations common in Southwest Missouri to grain farms in the southeast and northwest and one apple producer — Kelly.

A typical inspection takes four hours and involves a walk through of the farm and its buildings, checking the surrounding environment and auditing the books. On the walk-around, Baird checks garages looking for chemicals, watches for potential cross-contamination from neighboring fields and measures the farm against its organic management plan.

"The book audit is the most boring, but the most important," Baird said. "They have to open up all the books, from the beginning when they set it in the ground all the way through the process."

Tracking the numbers helps ensure organic practices are being followed on the farm. For example, if a soybean producer typically raises 400 bushels on 10 acres and raises 600 bushels one year, Baird wants to know what happened and whether it compromised the organic certification.

"Keeping records means more work for the producers, but "you get your ducks in order," said Kelly, certified since 2001. "It’s a good business benefit."

Kelly bought the 26-acre farm between Canton and LaGrange in 1989. He planted the five-acre orchard featuring 12 varieties of apples in 1990 and has a half-acre vegetable garden. When he started getting an apple crop 10 years later, he looked into organic certification as a marketing tool for the orchard.

Farms or orchards can be certified three years after the date of the last application of chemical fertilizer or chemically-treated seed. The actual certification process takes as little as three months in some cases after producers file the necessary paperwork which is reviewed to make sure it meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program standards.

Prices and numbers for organic production continue to be promising with sales of $11 billion in 2002 and a projected $30.7 billion in 2007, annual growth of 21.5 percent and prices for some dairy producers at $24 per hundredweight.

Baird began working with organic certification in 2001 when the Missouri Department of Agriculture launched an in-state program requested by producers. She already worked for the department, and had grown up on a small dairy farm in Arkansas, but had no organic experience.

Baird did some research — "I spent months reading everything I could find on organic production" — then started work to develop state program standards.

The state program ended in April 2005 due to budget cuts by Gov. Matt Blunt, leaving the 100-some producers Baird worked with looking for certification help. Baird and her farm clients found a new home with Nebraska-based OneCert, which provides organic certification services.

Some days Baird would rather be on her farm near Prairie Home tending her garden and chickens instead of on the road, but "I leave my farm to help other people stay on their farms," Baird said.

Along the way, she picks up a taste of some of the state’s best produce, some ideas for her own garden and a better understanding of her grandmother’s philosophy.

"My grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. I was always a Type A personality, but Grandma would say to sit down on a log and let the Earth talk to you," she said. "With an organic system plan, you look at the Earth and let the land talk to you."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *