As some of you know- this winter our farm did a lot of advocacy work around a pelleted lettuce seed called Salanova. Read our blog for more details (long version: https://zocaloorganics.ca/certifiedorganic/; abridged version: http://www.organiccouncil.ca/news/zocalo). The whole thing started in June and by February the stress of the situation had captivated us. We felt frustration about the organic certification system, and we felt inspired to do some work to speak out on the issue. We re-evaluated our farm’s “need” for certification.  At the same time we strengthened our connections to others working in the industry.  Despite the industry’s problems and quirks, it has an important role in ecological agriculture and food-system transparency.  We contacted most of our clients to get feedback on whether our farm should continue being certified. We dug deep in ourselves to figure out our personal feelings on the matter, and ultimately decided to try a year out of the certification program.  We decided to try at least a year out of certification, to simplify, to reclaim our autonomy, and to challenge the notion that we previously had been prescribing to, that “being certified is the best”.  And to also challenge the notion that if you are not certified you do bad things on your farm.  We stand behind our practices and strive for excellence but not perfection.

Our decision to drop certification was then tested at the beginning of March when, as a result of our LOUD voice and the incredible work of our peers- the seed issue was finally given due attention and Salanova (pelleting) became officially cleared for organic production in Canada. We received a personal call from Johnny’s Seed Company (a major supplier of seeds and tools for market gardeners in North America) thanking us for blogging, calling around, and for illuminating for them how big the problem had become. This was an incredibly empowering experience;  we got to see the result of advocacy work. At the same time we felt grief because our choice to explore our autonomy as a small farm by stepping out of certification… frankly we probably wouldn’t have considered it had we not leaned into the BIG questions about the system we were prescribing to that we’d previously breezed past.  These questions were both positive and negative.

We have faith that all this happened in the correct order, and that our challenge with Salanova was an opportunity to understand the complexity of one system that is in place to to enable and bolster the regenerative, healing, and nourishing ways we grow food.

Lastly, some of you might think we would jump right back into the program now that the Salanova issue is cleared. However, exploring what our business looks like as un-certified is something we intend to go through with.  We are not alone- many peers in the ecological farming community are not certified.  Growing a wide variety of crops on a very small scale requires the use of many different seeds and supplies from many different places.  Tracking this requires an incredibly complex record-keeping system, an ability to keep tabs with the ever-evolving Organic Standards, and an ability to adapt to changes in a timely manner.  In many ways the greatest benefit our farm derived from being certified was that it helped us evolve a record-keeping system that allows us to adjust our plans with ease and effectiveness, and it helped us understand the importance of scrutinizing every input that we bring into our fields.  There are many other reasons why an ecological farmer might not certify.  My overall sense, from our experience and talking with others, is this:  autonomy is important to small farmers, farmers value having the power to determine their own priorities and ask questions in their own unique way.

For those who want the inside scoop on our thought process here it is:

  • We made a commitment to try a year out of the program, knowing that there was a small possibility that approval for Salanova could happen. Many ecological farming peers of our scale are not certified and we feel that exploring our relationship to the Organic Certification System, without being financially or emotionally tied to it, is a healthy thing for us to try out. For example, next Friday Seb will be speaking on our farm’s behalf at the Organic Council of Ontario’s discussion on regulations around Organics. We feel more open to speak our thoughts on what we’d like to see from the industry without having a financial/business need for things to change on a particular timeline. If the system is unable to prove it can provide adequate support to farms of our scale, we can further inform our decision.
  • You can’t actually just “jump right back in” to being certified. There are many steps, hours of paperwork, and fees necessary to get back in the program. We’re not even sure if we could get back in the first year. Most importantly our office time is limited from now until November.  Field and greenhouse work has begun!  Our 3 interns move-in next week and we’re off to the races!
  • As mentioned in my last email, we have a desire to possibly start using a paper pot transplanter (https://www.highmowingseeds.com/blog/paper-pot-transplanter/). This is an incredibly helpful tool that fits our farm’s scale, and goes well with our choice to not buy a regular tractor which we could use for transplanting.   Not using a regular tractor reduces the fossil fuels we use to produce food.  However, this tool has the unfortunate downside of containing a glue that is not natural.  We don’t yet know what kind of effect this would have on the soil.  Many growers don’t know this about it.  After the Salanova Pellet issue we decided to do in-depth research on any new input we bring to the farm. So why buy a tool from across the world (Japan) that could potentially add something harmful to the soil?  Ideally we wouldn’t use any black plastic tarps or fossil fuels at all to run our farm. And ideally we could survive on running a 30 member CSA.  But we live in a world where we can’t afford to pay our labour a minimum wage, land-costs are extremely high, and soil health is enhanced the less tillage you do meaning transplanting provides for excellent soil-improving opportunities. In sum, we have to dig deeper and find the right answer for our farm.

And now we can finally ask the question, are we thinking big enough? What do we want to focus on with our farming advocacy in the future?

Is advocating for one input to be allowed in certified organic production, discovering the secrets behind a little bit of dust around a pelleted seed, is this enough for us?  Should we put time and energy into advocating for paper pots to be made with 100% natural materials so that all the ecology-loving farmers who have started using this excellent technology can sleep easy at night knowing they are not polluting their soil?  Should we put our energy towards supporting metrics and on-farm research to help us unpack many of our questions such as how does black plastic degrade?  How much fossil fuels are reduced by using our BCS tractor and hand-tools versus a large tractor?  How would using a tractor transplanter compare in terms of impact on ecology to the paper-pot transplanter?    Impacts on climate change?  And of course, what do WE want to do?  Where do we want to focus our passion?

As we enter our third full season on our farm we have so many questions, perhaps more than ever.  We have gratitude for these questions and for all the things we don’t yet know.  We have a renewed awe of the big picture and a humility.  We feel more vulnerable; we can’t hide behind a “certified organic” declaration, we have to show up for conversations and confrontations.

And we get it.  We get how powerful this work is.  We acknowledge the work so many of you are doing to direct humans back to the harmonious relationships with nature we are innately designed for.  We acknowledge the disillusionment we collectively feel in an uncertain time.  We acknowledge that farming, our work, is only one small part of the puzzle.  We welcome the clarity and the confusion.

Happy Spring!