Ξ May 8th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News |
In this, the second and final part of my interview with Peggy Miars, we get down to the practical realities of certification, the nuts and bolts of California Certified Organic Farmers’ (CCOF’s) core activities. Some of the details do not make for the most compelling reading, such as the procedures for achieving certification or the training required of its inspectors, but like many goals of lasting value, rules and processes are important.
Should a reader be contemplating a career in the organic industry they might do well to look into the requirements asked by the CCOF. One of the more charming aspects of Executive Director Peggy Miars’ biography, touched on in part 1, is how being in the right place at the right time provided unexpected opportunities. It is clear to me that the organic industry is growing very rapidly. Indeed, ‘green’ employment opportunities are increasing and show no sign of slowing. One need not wait for the development of new, advanced environmental technologies to begin a promising career.
The organic industry is here to stay.
Pt 1 may be read here.
Admin Do you think Rodale and other early founders of the organic movement in the 50’s, and even earlier, would recognize the organic farming of today?
Peggy Miars That’s a good question. I think they would. And the reason is that just as everything else in our lives is evolving and changing, organic is evolving and changing. In fact, you mention Rodale Institute, they’ve got a great publication called The Organic Green Revolution where they talk about organic farming and the benefits to the environment and how it can help global warming. So, I believe that the philosophy is the same as it was decades ago. It’s just the regulation, paperwork, and the scrutiny that’s different than what it used to be. It’s not as laid back, I would say.
And is it also fair to say there is a great deal of, not exactly ‘push-back’, but an ongoing negotiation from within the movement, the federal government and the various biochemical companies? There is room for constant refinement. So ‘evolution’ is built into the system itself.
PM Yes. I believe that.
And it is completely transparent, is that about right?
PM It is true. In the organic industry everything is transparent! (laughs)
I’m sure you hear quite a bit! I can imagine what the chat boards read like when decisions come down…. Another question, what is your understanding of the differences between organic and biodynamic? The Demeter organization, they have their own certifying agencies, of course. And enthusiasts will sometimes make the claim that organic is somehow the bastard child of their more profound, their more spiritual approach. Do you have an opinion on biodynamics, generally?
PM I’m not really familiar with biodynamics as far as certification and what’s involved. I just have a general knowledge of what I think it is. And my expectation is that organic is the foundation, and if you’re doing organic you’ve already made the first step toward biodynamic. My understanding is that biodynamic includes more of a holistic, whole farm approach. So I think the two could potentially go hand in hand.
I think so, too. But you might have a hard time convincing biodynamic producers of that! They employ certain spiritual principles, lunar cycles and other astrological considerations. All the best to them.
Now, the question of GMOs, what is CCOF’s position?
PM Yes. We at CCOF are opposed to the use of GMOs in organic production. We believe that there is not sufficient research on the impact to both the environment and to human health. And until such research is done we do not believe that GMOs should be allowed in organic production. And there is the matter of labeling. If GMOs are going to be allowed then I believe they need to be labelled. The product needs to be labelled so that consumers have a choice. Without labeling there is no choice.
I completely agree. This is a problem for some nation’s exports, nations with a more tolerant approach to GMOs. Importing such foods is prohibited in many countries.
Can you tell what has been the increase in organic certification in, say, the last five years?
PM Yes, actually. I have a spreadsheet that I maintain here. I can tell you from CCOF statistics, that’s what I’m most familiar with, and I think it’s probably reflective of the organic industry.
What I like to do is go back to 2002 when the NOP [National Organic Program] took affect. So, looking at CCOF’s growth in certified farmland, we’ve experienced a 29% growth in acreage, the annual average. The actual growth between 2002 and 2008 was 340%. And that’s in acreage. In terms of certified operations, the average annual growth was about 13% and the overall growth from 2002 to 2008 was 110%. So I would say, yes, that’s pretty indicative of the industry as a whole.
That is very encouraging news.
PM It is. And that’s why we had to move to a larger office and hire more staff, to keep up with the growth.
How are you funded?
PM We are funded primarily through certification fees, we are paid for certification services, we are also supported by what we call Supporting Members, those are individuals and businesses who may or may not be certified by us, and they make an annual donation to support our advocacy and out-reach programs. We also do events. We have a really nice beer and wine tasting at the Ferry Building in San Francisco every year. That’s starting to become a bigger source of revenue for us, the out-reach events.
Is the organic certification done both in the office and the field? Does a farmer fill out an assay form of some kind? And are specialists, scientists, or trained staff then sent out to the farm itself to perform an inspection? How does it work exactly?
PM The first step is to fill out an application and submit an application fee of $275. You also submit what is called an Organic System Plan or OSP. That’s required of all organizations that want to be certified, whether you’re CCOF or any other certifier, you’re going to have to fill out an OSP. I like to call that your Organic Business Plan. It walks you through the thought process of ‘what are you going to do and how are you going to run your business’. For example, what are you going to plant? How are you going to fertilize it? How are you going to take care of pests? If you’re a processor, what sanitizers are you going to use? What pest control measures are you going to use? And so forth. It walks you all the way through the process. That is all submitted and, yes, our trained staff reviews the information to determine if we’ve got all the necessary information at that point.
Once that step is completed it is assigned to a trained inspector, and that individual goes on site, to the operation, and verifies that what you said you were doing on paper is what you’re actually doing in practice. The inspector writes up a report and submits it back to the office. And if there are any variances or discrepancies then the operator needs to explain why and possibly change their practices. Once we’re satisfied that they are doing what they said they were going to do, and it’s all in compliance with the National Organic Program, we issue them a certificate, it’s an actual license, that they can grow and sell their product as organic.
Once that’s done they go through the whole process again next year. It’s a yearly renewal. The one thing that’s important is, on their OSP if they change any practices they need to tell us right away. They don’t wait until the following year when the inspector comes out. They need to tell us as soon as they make those changes.
That aspect of it is voluntary compliance, essentially. How do you approach the possibility of deception or fraud?
PM The first thing I’ll say is that when we do the inspection it is scheduled. We want to make sure the appropriate people are present that we need to talk to. Certifiers are required to do a certain amount of unannounced inspections every year where we just show up and inspect. So that, I think, will reduce the desire for deception. If you know that on any day an inspector could show up I think you’re going to be much more careful and adhere to what you should be doing.
Could you explain the kind of training the inspectors undergo?
PM Yes. The inspectors have to go through training through the International Organic Inspectors Association. It is a week-long training, I went through it myself, and it is very detailed. We go through the organic program itself. There is a booklet that we go through; it talks about what’s allowed, what’s not allowed, inputs… it covers everything an inspector must know and that an operation would need to do in order to be certified organic.
As part of the training inspectors do a mock inspection where they actually go out to a farm and then come back to write a report they then submit to a certifier. It’s rigorous training.
There is training for crops, which is one session. There’s training if you want to be a processor inspector. And there’s separate training if you want to be livestock inspector. The training is very detailed, it’s very specific. A crop inspector cannot inspect livestock, for example.
And wine grapes? How much is under organic cultivation?
PM In terms of wine grapes, I’ve got the figures from 2005 to 2008. We experienced growth of 21% in those three years. It is a growing category, not only of wine grapes but also the certified wineries as well. And another area where we’re seeing growth is certified organic beer and certified organic spirits. As mainstream food goes, so goes organic wine, beer, and spirits. Whatever you can buy in conventional form you can get in organic form now. Including spirits!
Can you tell me of a few items on the legislative agenda that are of interest to you?
PM Right now we’re looking at food safety issues, certainly because of the various outbreaks that occur. We want to ensure that any food safety regulations, whether they are at the state or federal level, don’t over ride organic regulations. We are very concerned with food safety.
Another issue is that of liquid fertilizers and increasing the fines and adding potentially jail time for anyone who commits fraud when selling organic fertilizers. We’re working to crack down on fraud and put in place stricter laws.
And how large is CCOF?
PM At CCOF we are over 2100 certified operations. We are one of the largest.
Well, excellent. Is there anything you’d care to add?
PM I think I would like to leave you with notice of our events we have planned that might be of interest to your readers. We have our first organic beer and wine tasting at the Pruneyard Shopping Center in Campbell, near the Silicon Valley area, on Friday, June 12th. That’s our first time there. We’ve already got about a dozen breweries and wineries signed up for that event. There is also a 4th beer and wine tasting event at the Ferry Building I mentioned earlier.. It takes place on, Friday, October 23rd. We’re almost to capacity. Our maximum is 26 beer, wine and spirits vendors. We’re almost maxed out.
Thank you very much, Peggy.
PM You’re very welcome, Ken.