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Previously in Patti's Garden

Patti on the farmAugust 15, 2005

Lovely rain fell last night breaking the heat wave and reviving the gardens which are at their peak. The colors of August are dazzling - electric bright zinnias and sunflowers, misty blue ageratum and star-bright verbena bonariensis and every shade of green imaginable.

All about Organic - and why we won't be using the "O" word after this year

I'd been helping my Mum in her gardens for years when I decided to take a course called "Organic Farming and Gardening" offered at UMass in the spring of 1974 when I was 20. (Although I was an undergraduate psychology/animal behavior major, I tried to take a course in Botany or Plant/Soil Science every semester to help keep me grounded.) That summer I had the first garden of my own in Amherst, and so began my lifelong passion for growing food and flowers and herbs and berries - and investigating plant/insect relations and soil science and plant pathology - and all that is organic gardening and farming.

I came here, to Ralph, in the spring of 1986 after having farmed in Leyden for eight years. By the next year, organic certification was being done in New Hampshire by the Northeast Organic Farmers' and Gardeners' Association (NOFA). Since I've always been a proponent of consumer protection and since I'd seen produce touted as "organic" that was not, both at Farmers' Markets and food coops, we became part of the program right from the start. The next year the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food began certifying farms - a progressive action that used the professional agriculture inspectors in the state to inspect and verify what was organic.

I believe the cost was $30.00 annually.

As years passed, the use of the word "organic" came to mean different things in different states. New England was perceived as being stricter than California. People began clamoring for national standards. Well meaning people worked hard to come to compromise. Throughout, we remained certified organic. After all, we've dedicated our lives to building up our soil and creating a sustainable ecosystem here. We've never used chemical fertilizers or pesticides of any kind and of course, we never will. We have always exceeded anyone's standards.

When the national standards were set, we stayed on board. Certification fees rose to ten times our original 1987 fee, but we knew that it was important for our customers to know that we were organic and that that word is a large part of our identity.

Last summer we were told by our inspector that, unfortunately, due to the new laws we could no longer use the word "organic" on the labels of our products without also being a "Certified Organic Processor." That we were a farm putting up our own produce didn't matter - we had to have dual certification or we could not even put on our label that, for instance, the tomatoes, garlic and herbs in our Pizza Sauce were grown organically, or even that Cheshire Garden was a Certified Organic Farm. We had to have both certifications.

It was the middle of the summer and we had already paid for our farm to be certified organic (and endured the voluminous paperwork and inspection), and since all our labels refer to the farm being certified organic, we felt we had no choice but to jump through these new hoops.

And we did. And as of last year, we became Certified Organic Processors. But we're not going to do it again. Our expenses for certification now cost more than 30 times our original fee. But that's not all.

Even though we stayed with the program when the federal government got involved, lots of other farmers left. Our best friend Tom Ashley of Dancing Bear Farm (and the Dancing Bear Peaches) became disgusted at the paper work and quit, so did our friend Peter Tusinski, In fact, of the four organic farmers at our Newton Market, only I remain certified - Tom, Tim and Richard dropped out. If we stayed certified organic, we would not be able to use Tom's peaches, or the onions he grows for us for our JazzBerry, or anything from his farm even though we know that his farm is completely, absolutely, undeniably, organic. Tom is the very model of the organic farmer, but he cannot use that word.

I have another friend who is an apple grower and makes an apple cider vinegar from apples he grows organically. Since he is not a Certified Organic Processor, he cannot sell the vinegar as "organic." Last year I needed to find a vinegar to replace the white wine vinegar I'd used for more than a decade and chose an organic red wine vinegar from the original company. What I really wanted to use, though, was Tim's. It's an excellent vinegar put up by a friend on a neighboring farm. It keeps my money right here in New England, supporting a New England apple grower who is stepping outside of the box to market his apples. Since his vinegar is not certified organic (even though the apples are), he can not call it such and I cannot use it.

The final joke on Patti and Ralph came when our Organic Processor's Certification came through. It mandated that our labels now contain the new designation and number - necessitating reprinting the labels after all........

But we're not playing the game any more. The farm is certified this year but we're not going to be certified organic processors any more. In 2006 we won't be a certified organic farm either. We won't change a thing, we just won't be able to use the word. It feels, like someone said, as though I've just removed a really tight bra. (Those who know me know I probably wouldn't have come up with that metaphor myself, or been inclined to share it, but it is completely apt.)


So what do we call ourselves now? Some farmers have joined together to certify themselves as "Naturally Grown." Although I admire the cooperation, I've never liked the word "naturally." (Actually, I've never liked the word "organic" either...reminds me too much of organic chemistry and those nasty pesticides known as organo-phosphates!)

Sustainably grown? Pretty confusing unless you read lots of agriculture journals. Ecologically grown? My favorite because it addresses my original reasons for choosing to grow organically...protecting the ecosystem - the plants, birds, insects, animals that live here and that mean so much to us.

Or maybe I should just emphasize that we make things by hand from what we grow here carefully, respectfully, with tender loving care.

Please let me know what you think, dear readers (oh my, I sound like Miss Manners....) I hope you'll email me with suggestions, comments, (criticism if you think we're crazy to do this). I'm going to ask Steve to keep this on our website's homepage for the rest of the year to get your thoughts.

I hope most of you agree with my dear friend and customer Nina who overheard Tom and I discussing this at market and exclaimed "You have to pay a thousand dollars a year to be called organic!?!?!? They should be paying YOU!!!!!"




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