Here, Organic Valley farmer Jon Bansen discusses the steps organic farmers have to take to become certified, the cost of organic certification, and the help available for farmers looking to transition to organic production.
Q: Why is organic certification necessary if you know the farmer producing your food?
A: Organic certification assures the buyer that the food they purchase was produced using organic methods (ie: no toxic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic hormones or synthetic fertilizers). But most important is the fact that the farm is inspected at least once per year by an independent, third party inspector and reviewed by the certifier to assure compliance to the National Organic Standards. Local is good, local certified organic is truly the best.
Q: Are all farmers who sell organic products required to be certified?
A: The National Organic Standards has an exemption that allows farmers who have gross organic sales of $5,000.00 or less to represent their products as organic, but not certified organic. Anyone representing product as organic under this exemption must keep records verifying their organic management practices. They may not represent their products as certified organic.
Q: What steps do famers have to take to have their farms certified organic for the first time? How do these steps compare to those needed to maintain organic certification?
A: The most challenging time for a farmer transitioning to organic production is definitely at the beginning. Not only are there challenges learning to farm without all the modern day “band-aids”, but compiling the paperwork on the farm and the organic inputs for the farm is a bit of a challenge to most farmers who were used to just farming and doing limited paper work.
A farmer transitioning to organic must manage the land organically for three years prior to harvesting or selling any crop as certified organic. Livestock must be managed organically for one year prior to shipping livestock products (such as milk) as certified organic except for animals intended for meat products. These animals must be managed organically from the last third of gestation, in other words born from an organic mother and managed organically for its entire life. During the transition period accurate records must be kept to verify compliance.
After being certified and going through a couple of years of the certification process it becomes much easier to form a system of record keeping. Many of these records become very useful to running the farming operation. Our detailed records of fertilizations of our fields and where and when the cows graze the pastures have helped us greatly increase the amount of pasture we grow and has decreased the amount of purchased organic feed needed for our dairy farm.
Q: Is there a cost associated with organic certification and if so, is it the same for all operations or does it vary by the size or type of the operation being certified?
A: Organic certification costs include an annual certification fee, the expense of the annual inspection, and in most cases a user fee charged by the certifier, which is a very small percentage of the gross organic sales. Certification is renewed annually so the expenses occur annually. The range of expense depends primarily on the size of the operation, anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.
Q: What, if any, resources are available to assist farmers with the cost of certification and/or help with the paperwork that certification requires?
A: Many states have cost share programs to help out with the cost of certification.
The 2008 farm bill funded a certification cost share program that refunds 75% of the cost of certification up to a maximum of $750.00. The USDA provides the funding to the states; each state manages the cost share program. There are a variety of ways that farmers can get assistance with the annual paperwork. Many non-governmental organizations have a library of record-keeping forms and most buyers have knowledgeable staff to assist farmers when necessary. The dairy cooperative I belong to has staff that will assist farmers, especially new ones to organic, with their paperwork.
Q: What is the best way to determine whether a given product meets organic standards?
A: Look for the USDA organic seal. This is the real guarantee that the organic food you buy has been produced in accordance with the National Organic Standards and has been certified by an accredited third party.
About Jon and Juli Bansen
Growing up on a dairy farm in Humboldt County California, Jon Bansen learned early what a cow likes best - to eat grass. Bansen’s father, who worked the same farm his father had, kept his Jersey cows on pasture, carefully monitoring their intake to keep them healthy and productive.
Jon left the farm to attend college at Dana College, where he majored in biology like his father. It seemed natural, after his senior year, to come back to the homestead and work with his father. By then, he and Juli were married, and the recollection of his childhood digging carrots, hoeing, and enjoying the fruits of his grandfather’s orchards was a compelling reason enough to take up farming alongside his father.
After five years on his father’s farm, he and Juli bought their own farm a few hours away. “Those first years were pretty tiring,” he recalls. “I was 28 years old, my wife and I were looking at half-a-million dollars in debt, and we didn’t have a pot to put tea in.” With two children born, and two more during the first four years of running their own operation, the couple kept busy. Juli cared for the young calves and Jon milked. “It was tough,” he says, “but we did it.”
By the end of the 1990s, however, the Bansens were ready to make the transition to organic. The process of gaining organic certification under U.S. Department of Agriculture Rules requires a three-year transition involving the elimination of chemicals, hormones, genetically modified feeds, and antibiotics.
The simple premise of cows grazing on fresh pastures, passed down from father to son, informs the daily operations at Double-J Jerseys, the dairy farm that Jon and his wife Juli maintain in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. The couple cares for about 170 cows and calves using organic rotational grazing principles on their own 175 acres, as well as about 400 acres they lease from neighbors.
The Bansens celebrated the tenth anniversary of their conversion to organic. It’s been quite a decade. For one thing, Jon has taken on an increasingly active role in the Organic Valley cooperative. He regularly speaks to students, consumers, and other farmers about the role of organic farming techniques in a sustainable world. He serves on his regional Dairy Executive Committee, several other co-op committees, and is currently the West Coast representative for Organic Valley’s Farmers In Marketing Program.
To learn more about Jon Bansen and Organic Valley, click on the following: http://www.organicvalley.coop/who-is-your-farmer/northwest/jon-bansen/