Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paperwork and the Farm

The concepts of paperwork and bureaucracy seem antithetical to farming, which we tend to think about as practically the most natural activity one can do, short of actually going to the wilderness and living off the land. The farmer pays close attention to her fields and livestock. She touches the earth with her bare hands daily, is far more in tune with the geography and weather than the average person, and depends upon the well-being of her beets and fennel, grass and sheep for her health and livelihood.

And yet... there is paperwork. A hefty amount of it, too. If you are USDA Organic Certified, that is. Which Brightwood Vineyard and Farm happens to be.

We must write down everything we do on the farm - and I do mean everything. We write down what we plant, which rows, how many feet. We record every "input" (e.g. compost or fertilizer) that goes on the plants. We meticulously catalog how many pounds of every single piece of produce we harvest, how many feet of each bed we harvested, the quality of the harvest, the seed lot numbers, and where it is going.

This, of course, is nothing compared to the leviathan piles of paperwork that Susan faces whenever her USDA Organic Inspection comes around, which it did last week. Documentation proving that her seeds are organic, and if they aren't, a minimum of two letters proving that she tried to find organic seeds and couldn't. Pictures of cover crops and videos of said cover crops being tilled into the field. Lists of every single seed she has purchased in the last year, if it was planted, where it was planted, and organized by a seed lot number that she assigns it. Maps of the farms, showing how they look in relation to one another, storage facilities marked, vegetable fields marked, livestock areas marked... heck, everything marked.

All this time and effort spent on paperwork appear, to me, completely anathema to the idea of farming. Most of the farmers I know became farmers because they wanted to be linked closely with the land, not so they could sit inside and stare at a computer for hours each week. That's certainly not why I chose this job.

Just how necessary is being USDA Organic certified, anyway? I just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and he does an excellent investigation of two opposing viewpoints of this topic. On the one side, you have "Industrial Organic": large-scale organic farms that farm hundreds of acres of crops or rear thousands of livestock without pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics. These include such enterprises as Earthbound Farm, Cascadian Farm, and Horizon Organics - familiar names to anyone who frequents the organic aisle of their local supermarket.

Diametrically opposing these farms is Joel Salatin, the farmer who runs the now infamous (in farming circles, at least) Polyface Farm in Staunton, Virginia. Salatin does organic livestock, but he isn't USDA certified as such. He refuses to be. And Pollan provides plenty of salty quotes to illustrate this point. For example:
We never called ourselves organic - we call ourselves 'beyond organic.' Why dumb down to a lesser level than we are?
And my personal favorite:
Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians - we just want to opt out. That's all the Indians ever wanted - to keep their tepees, to give their kids herbs instead of patent medicines and leeches...But the Western mind can't bear an opt-out option. We're going to have to refight the Battle of the Little Bighorn to preserve the right to opt out, or your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, barcoded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate.
So that's how Mister Salatin feels about the subject. And, honestly, I identify with him to a large degree. Big Organic has no soul - it has compromised the spirit of the organic ideal that started in the 60's.

But, if we compare conventional farming and Big Organic farming, there is very clearly a lesser of two evils. Although Big Organic farms may be "free range" in name only, may look exactly like a conventional farm from the outside, they are much more environmentally friendly. They aren't degrading their soil and polluting the land with pesticides. They aren't pumping their broilers or cattle full of hormones. Said chicken may not be living a life full of chicken enjoyment on the open farm, but at least we, the consumer, know that it is the healthier option, for us and the earth.

But honestly...the best option of all is to go to a local farmer's market and purchase food from someone you trust.

These are the farms that fall in the middle of the extremes. And the choice of whether or not to get USDA certification is a highly personal one that each of these farmers must make. Do their consumers care? Are they willing to put in the extra hours, poring over hundreds and hundreds of papers until their eyeballs bleed? (Figuratively speaking.) For some farms, it's a choice they feel is necessary. For others, not so much.

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