Every year around this time, we start getting ready for our annual audit by our organic certifier, CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).
Of all the aspects of organic farming, I have found this is the one that most people — including people who buy mostly or exclusively organic food — know the least about. I have spoken to people who imagined government inspectors present at the farm on a daily basis, testing every tomato and leaf of kale to make sure that no prohibited pesticides were present. The reality is far less dramatic, actually bordering on boring.
The organizations that certify organic farmers are not federal or state government agencies. Instead, they are usually private third-party groups and less often, local government agencies such as county agricultural commissioners. In either case, they are approved as certifiers by the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and must follow the standards and rules established by federal law governing organic agriculture.
On the day of our audit, or “inspection”, a representative of our certifier (CCOF) visits the farm — a specially trained “inspector”. The inspector accompanies us around the farm briefly, to make sure that we are actually farming the land certified as organic. The biggest concern is not actually that we might be spraying our crops with pesticides, but rather simply buying someone else’s non-organic produce and repackaging it as organic. Dozens of farms have been caught doing this and prosecuted. All farms must be inspected each year prior to harvest. Since we are harvesting January through December at Terra Firma, we are almost always one of the last to be inspected each year.
Backing up for a minute: before certified organic farming existed, it was already a violation of federal law for farmers to use pesticides on crops without reporting their use to the state. Organic certifiers have full access to “Pesticide Use Reports” filed with the state. So the likelihood of any organic farmer getting away with intentionally spraying their crops with prohibited materials is very slim.
The real work of the organic farm inspection is in the office. There, the inspector conducts a full audit of our farm’s sales and purchases. They are looking for total sales that match the likely yields from our fields. And they are looking for proof that you are using the best possible organic farming practices — receipts for cover crop seeds, organic fertilizers, nursery starts, and organically approved pesticides. They go over the list of products you use to grow your crops and make sure they are all still approved.
If your crops are processed, they are looking for the paper trail that proves that the amount of crop you harvested matches the processed product, for example, that the number of truckloads of canning tomatoes delivered to the cannery matches the number that are canned. The more processing involved with a crop, the more detail they demand to see.
For a small farm that just grows one or two crops, the annual organic inspection can take just a few hours. For a large processor, it may take several weeks. At Terra Firma, it normally takes an entire day, 7 or 8 hours.
Once the inspector leaves, they file a long and detailed report with the certifier. That report is gone over a second time by an office staffer, which normally results in a long list of questions that must be answered and documented within a few days. When we finish the process, our organic certification is renewed for another year.
If you’ve always wondered how it works, I am happy to have provided you with a detailed explanation. If not, you are probably asleep by now.