By Porter Mitchell
What’s certified organic produce?
“It’s the kind people are buying,” said Michael Wall, Georgia Organics’ Farmer Services Director.
According to the Organic Trade Association’s most recent report, 82 percent of Georgia households purchase certified organic produce, and national sales of organic produce have skyrocketed to become a $49 billion dollar a year industry.
Despite booming consumer demand, a casual perusal through a Georgia grocery store’s organic produce section shows that the majority has been shipped cross-country from California. In fact, despite Georgia’s rank as the country’s third most prolific vegetable producer, its number of certified organic farms is a fraction – of the nearly 41,000 farms in Georgia, only 136 are certified organic, a paltry 0.3 percent.
This means that Georgia farmers are missing out on the enormous economic opportunity of certified organic produce. But why?
“To be totally honest, becoming certified is a huge pain,” admits Michael, pictured above helped Sed Rowe become certified organic in 2016.
Organic certification requires extensive record-keeping and the 33-page application is dense and convoluted. Farmers must be able to prove that their land has been free of banned fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs for three years, and the application and inspection fee can frequently exceed $1,000.
Compounding this is the fact that in many areas, especially rural ones, farmers frequently turn to their peers and to agricultural extension agents for advice. But, these farmers and educators often have almost no knowledge of organic farming, so without a community and without mentors, farmers have few resources to learn about growing organically.
That’s where Georgia Organics’ 200 Organic Farms Campaign comes in.
“It’s great to have someone I can just call up when I have a question about the certification application”, said Rahul Anand of Snapfinger Farm, who’s due to earn certification in the next few months. “It makes the process much easier.”
This campaign is designed to fill that knowledge gap and to assist with covering certification costs so Georgia farmers can tap into the lucrative organic produce market. Since the campaign to reach 200 organic farms in Georgia began, the number of certified organic farms has slowly creeped upwards.
Michael spends most of his day working on the 200 Organic Farms Campaign, fielding calls from farmers about everything from organic pest management practices to where to purchase organic seed to how to fill out the organic application form. He is trained as an organic inspector so he can offer farmers in-depth knowledge about the process as well as valuable resources like sample record-keeping templates and on-site mock inspections.
This work is worth it for Michael because certification equals income for farmers.
“Being certified organic has really helped us with our wholesale accounts,” said Matthew Bagshaw of Hungry Heart Farm, who Michael helped become certified in 2017. “It helps us get a slightly better price and a better profit margin, which really adds up over time.”
Despite Michael’s hard work, significant structural barriers still remain for farms seeking certification. For example, for meat to be certified organic, the animals must be slaughtered at a certified organic slaughterhouse. There are none in Georgia or in neighboring states. A long drive to a certified organic slaughterhouse is expensive and time consuming for the farmer and stressful for the animals.
“I work really hard to take good care of my animals, so to put them in a truck for eight hours totally undermines what I’m trying to do,” explained Allyssa Ferguson of Woodland Valley Farms.
Farmers who want organic certification face an uphill battle–against pests, weeds, cost, paperwork, and policy. Georgia Organics can’t reverse decades of momentum that heavily favors conventional agriculture, but we can help one farm at a time get certified. Slowly but surely, we’ll reach our 200 organic farms goal.
Interested in where to find certified organic farms near you? Check out the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database. Are you a farmer interested in organic certification? Reach out to Michael Wall at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From now through the end of December, we’ll be writing about and spotlighting our farmers and the work of our farmer services team. We hope you keep reading, and to invest in our farmer services efforts please click here to contribute $100, $50, $25 or any amount that’s meaningful to you.