Let me say it right from the get-go: one of our core values as farmers, as Catholics, and as human beings is good stewardship of the land. “The land” in a general, planet earth sense, and “the land” in a specific, Ghost Fawn Homestead sense.
In terms of agricultural practices, organic farming is better stewardship than conventional. It is the sort of farming we practice here.
However, we will not get our farm certified organic, and if you’ll bear with me during what is going to be a lengthy post, I’ll explain why. You may not agree with all our reasons, but it is important for consumers to be as educated as possible on what is going on with the production of their food.
Since 1990, the federal government has “owned” the word organic. That means any farm that makes over $5,000 a year cannot describe themselves as organic unless they have undergone the USDA certification, even if they follow all the government benchmarks for organic farming.
This presents the first two problems with organic certification. One: the certification process itself is lengthy, costly, and rife with red tape. The nature of the inspection process alone is not geared towards improving agricultural practices, but rather checking off boxes and establishing punitive measures for failure to hit every point. It is not stewardship, it is bureaucracy.
The second problem is the nature of the benchmarks. They are not designed to be organic in spirit, but rather simply by law. For example, poultry can be labeled “organic” if they’re fed organic feed and not confined to cages. But as there’s no regulations on how long the chickens spend time outdoors, it’s possible to pack thousands of “organic” birds together in a warehouse for their entire lives. Additionally, the USDA now approves hydroponic operations as organic, despite outcry from numerous agricultural organizations. How a farming practice that completely divorces itself from soil and soil health can bill itself “organic” is a testament to the flaws inherent in the USDA’s system.
Additionally, there are a number of practices required for organic certification that are at odds with our ecological, agricultural, and religious values. For example, if a certified organic animal gets sick, it may not be administered antibiotics. If the animal does receive them, it is no longer ever allowed to be labeled organic. Ever. To put that in practical terms, let’s say our very small goat herd was certified organic and we used the does’ milk to make organic soaps. If one of the goats got listeriosis (which can kill an animal very quickly), we would have to chose between letting that goat die, or losing her forever as part of our organic herd. For a huge operation, the loss of one animal isn’t a big deal (and there are routine reports of sick, untreated animals being used for production until they die of a curable disease), but for smaller farms, it can be devastating. What does a small-scale organic farm do with an animal no longer organic?
Our livestock are not pets. They’re here for production reasons, and keeping an animal that can no longer produce isn’t financially responsible. However, allowing an animal to suffer and die when treatment is only some antibiotics away is in direct opposition to our religious and ethical beliefs.
Then there is the whole notion of pesticides. To the average consumer, “organic” = “no pesticides used” which isn’t the case. There are a number of pesticides that are permitted under USDA organic guidelines, and since they are generally less efficient than synthetic versions, they must be applied in far greater amounts. This means that a broad-spectrum organic pesticide like Pyrethrum, which kills beneficial insects as well as harmful ones, is applied at greater levels than a conventional pesticide would have to be. An acceptable practice, according to the USDA.
Another huge sticking point is the seed that must be used for organic certification. According to the USDA, the seed itself must be not only non-GMO, but certified organic as well. This means that farmers are severely limited in the seed we buy and from whom we buy it. Two of our favorite places to purchase seed, St. Clare and Baker Creek, either sell no certified organic seed, or sell a very limited amount. St. Clare is a small, family-run business, and Baker Creek does enormous amounts of work protecting biodiversity and pure seed- these factors are huge in our decision to purchase from them. Yet, if we wanted to have an organic certification, we’d have to stop using these companies in favor of megacorps like Burpee, who have the funding and corporate interest to offer USDA certified seed.
One thing that we’ve found which expresses the fullness of our agricultural philosophy is the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Farmer’s Pledge. Specifically, it addresses our concerns about seed sourcing and treating sick livestock to an extent that we are able to embrace. You can take a look at the pledge here. We are members of CT NOFA and take that pledge every year.
For us, pursuing the government’s organic certification would result in our being less robust stewards of the land and less able to support companies that align with our values. And when it all boils down, we view ourselves as YOUR farmers, not the USDA’s. It is an honor to be trusted with growing food for you, and to tend to this section of earth. And the lack of a government-issued label cannot change that.