Paperwork is a national organic program for farmers to certify organic.
USDA National Organic Program is implementing a Sound and Sensible initiative to help people into the process. The NOP’s Candace, a fictional character, said something in a video on “The Road to Organic Certification” that I know some farmers believe, “Every minute I’m doing paperwork is a minute I’m not farming.”
I’ve seen the burden first hand. I used to shuffle organic certification papers as the teenage helper of my dad Bryce. He was the chapter administrator for the Kansas 3 chapter of the certifier the Organic Crop Improvement Association for more than a decade, ending in 2013.
Imagine the excitement of a 16 year old who is tasked with keeping track of roughly 1,000 pieces of paper for 10 people each year. Those papers could be an Organic System Plan, an inspection report, a certification decision letter, supporting documents or you name it.
Chapter or program administrator, contact or whatever you call them, they have at least one thing in common: they can help you navigate paper-filled seas. Other chapter administrators could handle as few as five members’ files, up to more than 100. Several are farmers themselves who have been through the process.
“I’m there to help anybody,” said Leon Kruse, the chapter administrator for OCIA Iowa Chapter 2 in 2001, “whatever they need.”
Leon farms on his family’s 1854 homestead, near Fort Atkinson, Iowa. He said he visits some Amish farmers’ operations, or farmers can come to his place to work on an organic certification application. He asks for copies of files between OCIA and an operator after the application gets sent in.
If time goes by and he doesn’t get a copy or a farmer has a problem, he said he has called OCIA’s executive director Amanda Brewster or his regional coordinator, Ann Tvrdy. Other regions have their own OCIA staff, too.
“There’s always something to check up on,” Leon said.
A common question from new applicants is, “How long does it take to get certified?” said Marg Laberge, of St. Paul, Alberta, a chapter administrator of the OCIA Chapter Members Association – Canada. Organic certification takes 15 months on average, she said. She’s familiar with OCIA because she worked on the organization’s accounting and marketing for eight years, with 2015 as her first year as a chapter administrator. That 15 months could include the time it takes an operation to gather documents and actually decide if they want to submit papers for certification to OCIA. It takes OCIA less than 60 days to process a complete certification file. That’s long-standing service goal set in OCIA’s bylaw 4.1(a).
Marg emails new members with an introduction to OCIA and directs them to resources like the Canada Organic Regime regulation for certification in the country or the Organic Materials Review Institute for information on potential organic inputs. Beyond paperwork, knowing which inputs are allowed on organic operations might be the second biggest barrier to certification. Using a prohibited substance sets an applicant’s certification back into three years of transition.
An alphabet soup of organic regulations like COR, NOP, JAS (Japan Agricultural Standards), and so on, have changed how chapter administrators work in OCIA its 25-plus years in business.
Wilford Secker, a chapter administrator for OCIA South Dakota 1 since 2002, used to send applicants packets of renewal papers each year. Now OCIA staff deal more directly with applicants. People still have the option of working with one of OCIA’s 19 chapter contacts or other mentors in a chapter.
Even with the help, the paperwork burden can make you wonder why anyone would want to get certified. People should certify organic if they go to a commercial scale, Wilford said. Certifying is worth more than the hassle and expenses because of “premiums” you could get for products, he said.
There are also some private and government programs popping up to help with certification costs. OCIA offers a first-year discount coupon to new members, and it has another discount for those who show commitment to a chapter through the Small Holder Bursary Program. It’s safe to say a chapter contact in your area can help you figure out costs, too.
Wilford suggested people applying for certification should do research and talk to people already certified — Wilford himself has been certified 21 years and farming organically 30 years, near Shelby, South Dakota. A benefit in his chapter is soil improvement events. One-hundred-twenty-five people attended the chapter’s last event with Neal Kinsey, of Kinsey Ag Services, on advanced soil health in January.
Farmers, chapter administrators, inspectors, reviewers and everyone in between have put time and thought into certification papers. I must have grown to love paperwork because I maintain my family farm’s organic audit trail. Plus, I write 20-some-page minutes as OCIA’s board secretary, I inspect for a different certifier and I became OCIA’s newest chapter contact for OCIA’s Kansas 3 chapter in January.
I see it as a sign of success that my chapter members haven’t had to send me their renewal papers. And I’m confident that our fellow chapter members have a better understanding of how to farm organically after all of the hours Bryce and I helped them build their record-keeping systems.
Certifying makes a better planet for all, through the soil, seeds and food, as Marg put it, “Farm health equals family health equals future health.”
Date Published: April 4, 2016
Author/Title: Demetria Stephens
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