Pathway to certification
Rupert Emerson - 12 September 2011
Like any assessment, going through organic certification can be stressful. But we have been lucky so far. Our inspector, Pete Douglas, has been great, looking and listening with interest at our project. He is thorough but subtle about it.
I remember him asking about what we had grown on a vegetable patch. We went through each raised bed in turn and on the second last I could not remember for the life of me what had been grown there. He waited patiently but wanted an answer. Suddenly it came to me. Tomatoes. Right-o, he said and we moved on. After he had gone I was walking by the patch and saw a pile of dead tomato plants. I realised he must have seen these and knew perfectly well that tomatoes had been grown, but he had used the incident to confirm for certain that what I had claimed was true.
Somehow I had imagined the inspector might take samples or make a test of some kind but instead he went through records thoroughly, checked that the records seemed to match what was being done and then got a feel for our aims and ideas. I was surprised that our wider project to be sustainable, wildlife friendly and community orientated was valued and that when the report was printed, he had made positive notes about our new orchard planted with local help, the wildflower meadow for walkers to enjoy, our newly planted woodland and the plans for a forest garden.
My sense of the procedure is that it is as much about assessing our intentions as it is about our actions. Where we slipped up, he recognised that this was not out of trying to avoid a standard but was about ignorance. He put us on the straight and narrow, explaining what was and was not acceptable without making us feel stupid or naughty.
He spent most of a day with us, shared lunch and wrote his report in the afternoon, going through it with us personally so we had no shocks. During the day he had highlighted issues anyway so we knew the score.
There are off putting parts of gaining certification. The record keeping for one. But as we have become better organised we have come to think of the Soil Association standards as a pathway, not a set of rules. Along the path are signposts. And as we go, we make a log. Nowadays, keeping records is second nature. It makes you think about origin of anything that comes in, whether it will be suitable to grow and provides a basis to review progress at harvest time.
Sarah, my partner, deals with the certification of the Bed and Breakfast. Sarah goes to tremendous lengths to find local, fairtrade and seasonal ingredients for cakes as well as the breakfast ingredients because we gained the gold standard in the Food For Life standard and have kept that going, even though we no longer get inspected for it.
Of course there are ups and downs, and when our blind dove, Snowdrop died recently, Sarah was very sad, having cared for it for eight years. But around the corner was a happier event.
We had not set out to gain external accolades for our efforts but when the Taste of Dorset awards came round, we found ourselves in the final, thanks to so much support from our customers. When the judges visited they saw how we had thrown ourselves into the project from every angle, trying to get natural beekeeping started, recognising valuable wild plants on our land, even converting the Rayburn to wood so that we can feed it from a local source. To our amazement at the awards dinner we won Best Organic Business 2011 and were presented with a beautiful hand painted plate that we will cherish for ever, no matter what. Does anyone know where we can get a wire frame to fix a big heavy plate to a wall?
Rupert and his partner, Sarah, arrived in Dorset to fulfil a dream to run a 100% organic Bed and Breakfast, create a wildlife haven and be energy sustainable. The result is Orchard Farmhouse in the village of Wonston.
Earlier this month they were awarded Best Organic Business in the Taste of Dorset Finals. Simon Conibear, from Duchy in Dorchester, presented a handmade plate, highlighting their efforts to not only convert their fields and gardens but to live the organic way.