Organic: should we be certified?
By Sadie Chrestman, Sprout subcommittee member
If you ask Jilly Middleton whether her blueberries are organic, she can tell you, and she will tell you proudly, that her farm has been certified for twenty years. Her parents went against conventional wisdom to plant blueberries when apples were still booming and they also helped set up the initial organic certification system in Tasmania. Today Jilly and her partner, Kris, run Twelve Trees farm, selling their certified organic blueberries at farmers’ markets in southern Tasmania. They also, and this is where certification makes economic sense, export them to the mainland. Jilly and Kris don’t get more for the blueberries than any other farmer direct selling to customers at a Farmers’ Market, but they get a premium when they sell interstate. Enough of a premium to justify the expense (and bother) of certification.
Tony Scherer supplies his certified organic garlic and vegetables, including gloriously flavoured tomatoes, to Hill St Grocer and various restaurants around Hobart. Tony became certified, in part because he thought it was the right thing to do and the right system to support (more on that in a bit), and because it pays: supermarkets can charge their customers, and pay him, a premium if produce is certified. And, some overseas markets are only interested in looking as far as Tasmania for produce if they can be sure of its certification.
But what about growers who only direct sell to their customers? Do they need to be certified? Is a better export price the only thing that counts, or is certification, like organic food, better for you and better for the planet? Well maybe… and, depends… It’s about trust, says, Michelle Dyer from Harvest Feast, the woman behind those splendid piles of (mostly certified organic and biodynamic) vegetables at the Salamanca Market. Michelle sources a small amount of chemical free produce from farms that she has visited and knows well. She trusts farmers with whom she has an ongoing conversation and her customers trust her. But if she buys from further afield, from a farmer she doesn’t know, or a farm she hasn’t visited, she buys certified produce, preferably biodynamic, otherwise certified organic. Neither Jilly, nor Tony, believe that certification is necessary for small farmers who sell directly to their customers through, for example, farmers’ markets. Especially if those farmers are open to questions and transparent about their practices. Perhaps even host farm visits. However, Jilly has noticed that face to face customers are becoming more educated and are starting to ask trickier questions: what methods do you use to prevent cherry slug, cabbage moths, slugs? Do you use a little bit of herbicide on your paths or driveways? What do you wash your vegetables with? Do you use poly or PVC pipe for irrigation? Are your farming practices regenerative? Is the water that runs off your farm cleaner than the water that runs on to it? What goes into your compost? There are plenty of stories that suggest misrepresentation is rife. But so is miseducation. The Australian Certified Organic Standard is a vast detailed document that is the result of a lot of brainy farmers arguing over the tension between the best and the most pragmatic practices. You don’t need to be certified to read it, follow its recommendations and reassure your customers, that, yes, you follow organic principles, or be able to justify why you don’t follow all its’ principles. Poly pipe, by the way, is approved by the Standard. PVC is not.
Tasmania’s pristine image is continuously and carefully cultivated. For mainland and overseas customers, organic farming is becoming the basic minimum for niche farmers, even broad acre farmers. Kindred Organic’s grains, seeds and beans are a great example. For a while, as farmers’ markets blossomed across the state it seemed as though being able to tell our customers that we were spray or chemical free was going to be enough. It seemed as though organic certification had had its day. Conventional farmers launched into the debate to defend good conventional practices that avoided herbicides and pesticides. But organic certification is still on the rise. It may not be a perfect system (we’ll save how to improve organic certification for another day) but, for the customer, the shopper and the cook, it still seems the most reliable system to tell from afar whether food has been grown in a way that is good for us and good for the soil.