Judi Morton raises organic and pasture based free range meat birds at Tulaberry Farm in the Slocan Valley.

Judi Morton raises organic and pasture based free range meat birds at Tulaberry Farm in the Slocan Valley.

Province moves to regulate the definition of ‘organic’ food

The Kootenay Co-op, the EcoSociety, and many farmers agree that the word ‘organic’ has become meaningless.

“Any farmer can call themselves organic,” says Judi Morton. “The public doesn’t understand that it means nothing.”

Morton has grown organic produce and raised organic meat at  Tulaberry Farm in the Slocan Valley for the past 20 years.

The BC Ministry of Agriculture is drafting legislation that would require anyone selling products as organic to be certified by a provincially or nationally accredited certifier.

One of those certifiers is Kootenay Organic Growers, of which Morton is a board member and  past president. She is also on the board of the Certified Organic Associations of BC. She welcomes the proposed change, as does Jocelyn Carver, the marketing manager at the Kootenay Co-op.

“Because organic food is priced higher,” Carver says, “there is obviously a strong profit motive for a business to use the word ‘organic’ misleadingly in order to charge more. We have seen this happen with a number of products over the years, actively advocated against it, and called attention to misleading labeling where we are able.

“I think it is an important vote for honesty and transparency in advertising, a quality sorely missing in North America,” she said.

Jesse Woodward, who runs the Baker Street and Cottonwood markets for the West Kootenay EcoSociety, echoes those opinions and adds, “I have talked to a farmer in the valley who is certified organic and worked incredibly hard and spent a fair amount of money getting that done and they feel strongly that because they have done all that work they should be able to truly use the word  ‘certified organic.’

“But I have also heard through the grapevine that some other smaller farmers are feeling hard done by, because they either cannot afford the process of certification or are not willing to go through it, but have what would be considered an organic farm. But like  ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ these terms get thrown around, and no one knows what they mean. I think it is a good move to have some rules around it.”

What does getting certified involve?

Farmers have to apply to a local certifying organization which, in turn, hires a highly trained independent inspector certified by the International Organic Inspectors Association.

“The Kootenay Organic Growers initial application is 15 double sided pages,” says Morton, “and starts with a map of your farm, and you have to make some rough guesses as to size of the fields, of what are you certifying, if you are just doing your garden or your entire farm.”

The application asks farmers to provide details about such things as land use history, farm management planning, water and soil testing, protection from contamination, farming equipment, soil management, soil fertility, manure, compost, seedling production, greenhouse operations, weed management, pest management, processing, and transport.

When the paperwork is done satisfactorily, Kootenay Organic Growers hires the independent verification officer who visits the farm and spends several hours there.

“For instance, we certify organic birds, and he went step by step over what we do in the abattoir,” Morton says. “We dry our birds off before we bag them so he asked if we use food grade lubricant for the air hose.  I said, ‘you bet I do’, but I had to pull the paperwork to show him.

“He measures my barn and asks ‘How many chickens do you have?’ and I can see him doing the math in his head. You have to have two square feet for every bird. If you don’t have it you are non-compliant and it is a problem you have to fix.

“They look to see if your tractor is leaking. They poke their noses in your sheds, they want to know if the fence posts enclosing your farm have been chemically treated. It is very encompassing.

“I look at that verification officer as my best friend because they are so knowledgeable.”

The annual cost of certification is about $350. Morton says she considers it a cost of doing business.

Nelson’s downtown market has ten to 14 farmers and the Cottonwood Market six to eight, according to Woodward.

This year, the EcoSociety will be responding to the proposed legislation, and to the fluid definition of “organic” by giving each farmer in the market a sign with the EcoSociety logo that they must post at their booth.

The sign will have three options: certified organic, locally grown, or Kootenay Mountain Grown. The seller must tick one of them.

“It’s the honour system,” says Woodward. “We don’t go out and check their farms.”

Kootenay Mountain Grown is a local certifier of farms that purports to use organic standards but has not gone though the provincial certification process. Its president, Marvin Work, also welcomes the tightening of the definition of organic.

Woodward says one downside of the new rule is that farmers might see it as Big Brother.

“In the past, people would grow food and sell it to their neighbours and it was good, there was no fight about it. I think some people who have been growing produce for a long time out in the valley could feel hurt by this, just because they have this whole lifelong experience of growing good food and they are proud of it.”

Another change at the EcoSociety’s farmers markets is that produce vendors must have grown 80 per cent of their products themselves. Previously, some vendors were re-selling food from elsewhere, and the organic status of that food is especially hard to keep track of, says Woodward.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s news release about the proposed changes states that it will first consult with the Certified Organic Associations of BC and the organic agriculture sector in the province.