Cooking Together

Cooking Together: Small Farmers’ Challenges with Organic Food Certification

By Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff 

I love Sundays! That is when I go to our Outer Sunset Farmers Market in San Francisco, on 37th Avenue at Ortega Street. The market opened a few months ago and it is booming with activities; families walking around with fresh produce from farmers, cooked food from vendors and live music in the open-air!

I especially enjoy the colorful produce, still smelling like the earth, some of it picked just a few hours before I buy them. One day, I was looking for pickling cucumbers that were not sprayed with chemicals, because the peel is an important part of the pickle. Not all farmers at the farmers markets sell certified organic food, but they sell what they grow. Some farmers report that they are not certified organic but they don’t use chemicals on their crop. I saw some pickling cucumbers at the Jacob’s Farm booth. The sign did not say Jacobs was organic. When I inquired about the cucumbers, Rocio Nunez working there told me that they do not use chemical spray or fertilizers. For details about their farming, she asked me to talk to Carlos Islas.

When approached, Carlos, asked me to come to the market half an hour before it opens to chat. It was an extremely informative conversation as Carlos who has worked for Jacobs for four years and knew all about organic farming. Influenced by a high school friend, Carlos got involved in farm work at young age. (It would be great if more teenagers got interested in farming, as nowadays, older farmers have difficulties finding young farmers). Carlos spoke to me at length about the small farmers’ plight to go “organic”.

I have read extensively on organic farming. Organic food is in great demand, especially in the Bay Area. But the growth of this industry nationwide is still marginal (1 to 1.5% of total food sales). We love organic food, but do we know about the ordeals the farmers go through to get the organic certification?

I knew that land and capital is not easily accessible to farmers who want to start an organic farm, or to those who wish to convert a conventional farm to organic. In addition to the labor and skill-intensive organic methods, farmers must go through a rigorous route to label their food organic. I didn’t know some of these details.

Carlos told me that Jacobs Farm was already fully certified organic for more than two years. When the owner, Mr. Ivan Avila, bought a new conventional farm, he had to certify all of his three farms (including the land that was certified). While his team is trained for years as organic farmers, Jacobs has to maintain records, pass the periodical tests, and pay the fees for all three farms for three years — or longer if it does not pass the tests. While the farmers have obeyed organic rules for years, Jacobs is unable to sell its products at a premium price. Carlo can directly explain to his customers about their farming methods and inform them that the farms are on their way to become organic. Jacobs Farms sell products to restaurants that trust their practices. But they cannot sell their food to retail stores or to wholesalers as organic.

The costly transitional phase is particularly unfair to Jacobs Farm that has had organic status. To help the farmers who are converting or starting an organic farm, the USDA is working on a method to label their crop as “transitional organic” after a year of passing the process, but this has not happened yet. Discouraged by the entire ordeal, some 20% of the farmers drop out from the process, according to a study done by U.C. Davis. In this survey, a farmer cited that if he has a steady clientele that trusts his practices (which he claims go beyond the minimum guidelines) then …. “hell with the certification!” He will sell his organic food without the label. However, for Carlos and many other organic farmers who believe in keeping the integrity and standards of organic food, this is not a good solution.

So, what can we, the organic farm lovers, do to help out farms like Jacobs Farm with above mentioned hurdles? I asked Carlos. The short answer is: Buy produce from your local farmers at the farmers market and speak with to them about how they farm. Meanwhile, here are some issues and possible solutions.

The certification fees are significant (typically $1,000 per year) for farmers with a limited budget. National Organic Program (NOP) currently offers the farmers up to 50% of the certification costs (not to exceed $500 per certification). This amount is lower than the 75% given in 2019 and not enough for farmers working on a very thin margin. Farmers who want to convert a leased conventional farm to an organic farm should be incentivized as they may be reluctant to invest in a land they do not own.

Some of the certification regulations are vague (example: unclear definition for a buffer zone between an organic and conventional farm). The certifying officers are of little help at explaining these rules as many of them are not farmers. These rules need to be clearer for farmers to understand and follow.

Record keeping during the certification process is onerous; with updating field notes, planting schedules, soil tests, fertility observations and more. Regulatory issues associated with certification are reported as the major hurdle by farmers converting to organic methods. Most organic farmers honor the regulatory system, but it can certainly be less costly, simpler and more farmer-friendly, according to them.

Here are some solutions. Speak to your local farmers. Farmers markets are a great venue, a school for learning about farms. Usually, each stand is staffed with at least one person willing to speak to you about their farming methods if they are not busy. You may have to come back when the business is slow. They will tell you what farm practices they follow; for example; how they control pests, how they fertilize the land and how they rotate the crops. Carlos told me that you can even book a date to visit Jacobs Farm.

Demand your government agencies help small- and medium-size farmers that are struggling to get or maintain the organic status. Unlike some European Union countries that promote their organic sector through “green” payment for organic conversion, the USDA currently offers no such direct incentive for converting to organic farming. Support from private organizations is helpful, but USDA needs to do more.  Carlos told me that some farmers do not know how to find the existing aid. More intermediate agencies such the Agriculture Institution of Marin are needed to help these farmers walk through the process.

Ask the CEOs of private companies to help organic farmers with paperwork. Technical assistance with record keeping can be provided by computer companies that can donate smart phones, computers, data programs and training to small organic farmers. After all, the tech folks want their apples organic, right? 

Another dream solution: How about forming farmer-owned cooperatives? In California, there are many marketing farm cooperatives formed to sell farms’ goods together. But there are very few cooperatively owned farms. I am not a farmer, but I have been a cooperator who co-owned a business for more than 35 years and solved many business hurdles collaboratively. Farms owned by a few small farmers together can pull their resources and expertise to help each in order to maintain organic. Just a thought and a vision.

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copyrights © by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff 2021

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, a Sunset District resident, was a worker/owner of Other Avenues Food Coop for over 35 years. Shanta’s cookbooks and her local history book, “Other Avenues Are Possible: Legacy of the People’s Food System of the San Francisco Bay Area” is available at Other Avenues. Shanta writes recipes and food related articles. She has a monthly cooking column on the RichmondSunsetNews.com website. Shanta’s “Cooking Together” column with recipes will return in October. In the meantime, to view how to make the pickles mentioned in this article click Shanta’s YouTube video https://youtu.be/ZsFY2z9JLXg 

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