Originally published March 13, 2018 on Alberta Farmer Express
By Jennifer Blair
It’s important for organic producers to understand the standards — and how certifiers interpret those rules
Organic production comes with its own headaches — but that’s nothing compared to organic record-keeping.
“It’s a crush of paperwork,” said Ward Middleton, an organic grain producer from Morinville.
“It seems thoroughly intimidating, and we need to make it as easy as possible. Otherwise, we’ll never entice larger farms to go organic.”
Organic certifying bodies rely on reams of records both in the initial startup phase of an organic operation and throughout the growing season to guarantee that any product bearing a certified organic label meets stringent production requirements.
But it’s actually not a whole lot different from other traceability and certification programs out there, said Middleton, who spoke at the Organic Alberta conference last month.
“Where there are laws, we have an obligation to know those standards — and you can know it, or you can just know where to find it,” he said.
Sometimes, the laws are clear. Other times, less so. It’s up to each individual organic producer to understand how the laws apply on their own farms, and how their certifying body interprets those laws.
“For those rules that might be a little bit interpretative, it’s up to us to see how our certifying body feels about it,” he said. “Just like there might be strict cops and less strict cops, it’s the same thing with certifying bodies. Your certifying bodies are just providing the service of ensuring that you’re meeting the standard.”
Once you know what your certifying body needs, try not to get bogged down in the details, said Middleton. He takes the KISS approach on his farm — keep it simple stupid.
“Find whatever works for you — a notebook, a calendar, a daily log,” he said. “Whatever it is, make it a habit, and write it down.”
Certifying bodies and inspectors care less about how things are documented and more about having the detailed information they need, he said.
“Don’t be confined to the documents they give you. They’re after the information,” said Middleton. “As long as you can make them understand the information, it doesn’t have to be that document.
“They love paper. If they want paper, bury them in paper.”
Then find the easiest way to comply with the standards. Middleton, for instance, found the equipment cleanout logs to be onerous during his farm’s transition from conventional to organic grains. Each time he used a new piece of equipment, he needed to log its usage and record how he had cleaned it out. So instead, he simply developed an equipment cleanout standard operating procedure for each piece of equipment detailing how the equipment would be cleaned out after each use.
“In my field notes, I would just write down which activity we did, which equipment we used, and that it was a standard cleanout,” he said.
“That’s all I have to document each time. It’s the same every time.”
The paperwork process might seem intimidating — particularly during the initial application when “they want to know everything, including how many pairs of socks you own” — but there’s a purpose for it when all is said and done.
Without it, it would be impossible for organic growers to meet those stringent organic standards. Otherwise, they may as well just switch to conventional production, said Middleton.
“Even I’ve been sarcastic and said, ‘Oh, if I sign a piece of paper, suddenly it’s organic,’” he said.
“What I’ve realized over time is that all of the documentation has forced good behaviour in me. If I didn’t have that stupid piece of paper to fill out every time, I don’t know that I would make certain that I asked all the right questions every time.
“To me, the benefit of all this onerous documentation is assurance that I will have good behaviour and be consistent.”