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Becoming certified but not in the way you are thinking

Stirling Keayes, May 2023

[Stirling Keayes is a Contract Auditor for Australian Certified Organic (ACO) certification. He is also an organic/biodynamic certification consultant, particularly dealing with vineyards and olive groves – Ed]

The thought of growing crops, running livestock or any form of produce grown using only organic methods on a commercial scale once seemed farcical to me.

Now the very idea that we would consider growing clean, nutrient dense produce by sustaining plants and stock with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers is unfathomable and unbelievable.

Wow, what a shift in mindset in just 10 years, having finished Ag College to go working on cotton farms where the thought really was “Here is the chemical book. Which mixture are we going to use to control said weed, pest or disease?”

Moving to the Hunter Valley and shifting into the viticultural industry is where I started to notice that no matter what herbicide or fungicide was being applied, all the while using the latest of techniques and products, understanding the correct timing and rates for said chemical, we seemed to be going back over the same ground ‘controlling’ the same weeds and diseases. This is bizarre; there must be a different way to approach this game. Then the best opportunity for me in my agricultural career occurred and I still can’t explain how it happened. I was approached to manage a 20 hectare established biodynamic vineyard. ‘Can be lucky sometimes.

There has been some reading, questioning and head scratching going on since 2012, but with that one door opening I haven’t looked back and don’t intend to. A new world of seeing farming as growing soil, encouraging micro life and promoting activity on the leaf surface has changed my outlook on what we are trying to achieve.

Add on to my steep learning curve, the influences of the cosmic and lunar cycles… here we go, wish I knew this was out there twenty years ago!

The one opportunity to say yes, to question the mainstream mantra and embrace the organic/biodynamic practices has brought me to a place where I can consult and assist growers to establish their biodynamic programs and begin to read what the plants, soil and stock are trying to tell us. Don’t just assume we know what that does!

Not only do I have the opportunity to work with some interesting organic growers, but I am also a contract auditor for Australian Certified Organic Certification Ltd (ACO). In Australia we are fortunate to have so much choice in all realms of our lives, and organic certifying bodies are no exception. I work for ACO, and this article is written with the knowledge of how this body carries out the audits and the documentation structure from that point of view. There are six certifying bodies in all, ACO, NASAA, OFC, AUS-QUAL, Demeter, Southern Cross.

All six certifying bodies use the Australian Government (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Standards using the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce as their base standard. In addition to this, ACO and NASAA can also provide certification to other Standards that allow access to the international markets such as USA, Japan, Europe, South Korea to name just a few.

A frequently asked question is:  “How do I become certified organic?”

The first response is: “Why?”

Why should my business formalise its organic status, why become organic certified?

By becoming a certified producer, processor, wholesaler etc this is another way for your customer base to be reassured that your business plans, documents, and day to day procedures are tested for rigour on a regular basis. This ensures that the practices employed by the operator will comply to those standards to which they are certified. A structure of compliance is to ensure your recorded/logged information kept for the business can match the plans and procedures that were intended to be monitoring the operation. Many sections of the fresh food and produce market are quite rightly becoming increasingly connected to where their produce is coming from and how it has been growing and cared for.

The organic standards are open and freely available documents, such as the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce and the Australian Certified Organic Standard. This allows the public to trust but also verify the process, giving value to the effort in procuring and maintaining the certification.

On the financial side of organic certification, many crops and products do enjoy a premium due to their organic status.  There are a number of wholesalers that either specialise in organic and biodynamic certified produce or they are openly promoting the organic certification logos as a badge to differentiate themselves from the other mainstream products of the same variety. Australian Organics Ltd is a not-for-profit peak body that is supporting and lobbying for greater access of organic operators in new markets in the various states. To grow the sector, the volume and scale has to also be there, hence the promotion of the organic industry.

The ’How’ question is next.

Firstly by contacting the certifying body, you can select and have the package sent out directly from the ACO website or the ACO staff can help you through choosing the correct document package depending on your type of business. This comprises a certification checklist, application forms and the appropriate plans for the enterprise, be it an Organic Farm Plan, Handling Plan (for wholesalers, processors, restaurants etc), or Livestock Plan. There is a plan and package for just about every potential organic business out there, from livestock and beekeeping, annual and perennial cropping, mushrooms, allowed inputs suppliers and cosmetics.

These various plans will step you through a series of questions regarding your business. These range from the size and scope to the breadth of products intending to grow or sell and the methods of controlling environmental issues that may arise including erosion or reducing the impacts on the surrounding landscape.  The control of pests, weeds and diseases will need to be explained plus a listing of inputs that could be used for the operation. These will be checked off from the available list from the standards of allowed inputs and cleaning products etc.

Labelling needs to comply with the standards, marketing and transport of the products to name two of the sections in the organic plans. These questions are all to start the thought process of how to ensure the organic integrity of your own produce and prevent any co-mingling or misrepresentation of the products that are being sold as organic/biodynamically produced.

The plan may seem an arduous task but in reality, it is actually only taking what is already in one’s head and putting this down on paper, so the organic side of the business plan is not kept to oneself.

There is no need to feel that you have to be an IT guru; many small producers are still effectively running a paper-based business. The plan is to say what you intend to do, and the records should reflect that by showing how you have carried out that intention.

All certifying bodies come with a logo. These have an intrinsic value by way of confirming the integrity of the organic products which carry that labelling.

Just because a roadside stall has a handwritten sign claiming their vegetables are ‘organic’, how do you know, has their business and growing procedures been independently tested under a benchmarked set of standards? How often is their fruit and soil tested for residue content to give the public the reassurance that the ‘organic’ label means what it says?

“Is all of this paperwork worthwhile, seems like a lot of bother?”

For large or small, micro business or a corporation, planning the path for the next week, the next growing season or how you envisage the operation will look in five years’ time, are all important milestones to visualise.

By documenting how the procedures will be laid out for the short term, also the medium term, it allows all members involved in the operation to see the direction and to refer back to the operational documents.  As an organic business the auditor will want to know that there are training programs for new staff on equipment, how to keep the organic ingredients separate from the conventional, the cleaning procedures between batches are a few examples.

Having these documents in place breeds a contingency in the business in case the unmentionable does occur to the owner or leading production manager for instance. It does take out the guesswork for the future for at least for one small part of the business. Still can’t control the rainfall, sorry.

Finally, once the procedures are in place the recording systems can be created. Below are just some of the records that you are probably keeping without even thinking that you are keeping records.

Receipts and invoices, daily/weekly work plans, paddock logs including operations in each paddock, timing and rates of applications, write on the Astro Calendar when biodynamic preparations have been applied, inputs and an inventory for the preparations storeroom, consignment notes for dispatch, soil and water tests, harvest and processing of crops records – the list continues.

Now you are well on the way to having a complete set of records for the auditing. What I tell my clients is that when the auditor says no more documents are needed, you have won! I find an Excel spreadsheet will keep these records for most operations, but a written diary or logbook and an expanding file/folder can suffice for small businesses also.

These are some of the base records that a farming business will be able to lay their hands on. With these records you and the auditor can test a mass balance of the stock coming in and being sold.  A trace back will be the next test to be performed, in which an invoice is selected and then the operator can show a document trail back to when first coming in contact with one of the ingredients on the sold invoice.

By being able to carry out these few record/document tests, your business turns from ‘well um,…. I think so’ to an answer of ‘I know what’s happening, why we are doing it that way and here is the reason’.

I hope that I have been able to answer some questions, present some thoughts and spur some new thoughts and potential ideas for your business in taking the next step to becoming certified organic/biodynamic.

I won’t say the process is simple, but it is not difficult either. One step at a time; there will be questions raised that you haven’t thought of and these will cause you to look a little deeper into the operation. Being certified opens doors to further promoting the organic sphere to a wider “audience” and to demonstrate to the public why we should care about the food we consume and the products we use. It is amazing to produce food that is highly nutritious… naturally.

Farming in a way that actually grows soil, gives back as much as it takes, promotes cycles that can last into the future and not to the detriment or expense of other species, and in a way that I am so proud of the business that I love telling people I am a farmer.

Why do it that way?  Well, it just makes sense!

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