Once a year we are inspected by Soil Association Certification Ltd., the certification wing of the Soil Association organic food and farming charity. They certify our organic status, and grant us the right to display their symbol and to describe ourselves as organic.
Our date for the annual inspection was 31 March: a beautiful spring day, blue skies, warm soil, garden beckoning. Not the sort of day us growers want to be stuck inside pouring over files of paper, but it has to be done if we want to legally sell our produce as organically grown.
More than a Soil Test
Since I have often been asked what the inspection entails I thought I would make it the subject of a blog. Many people think the inspection involves looking at the condition of the soil and testing it for traces of pesticides and herbicides, which in fact it doesn’t (although it can do if, say, malpractice is suspected).
I hold two Soil Association licences: one as a grower and one as a processor. The processing license covers any bought in produce that I process through my shop and the boxes--usually produce we can't grow here, such as citrus, bananas, pineapples or out of season produce. What I learnt on our latest inspection--for the first time in 20 odd years!--is that each Soil Association inspector comes fully equipped to send off material for the testing of any bought-in produce if we request it.
Most tests carried out are for cross contamination of, for example, the organic bananas we buy in for residues from neighbouring non-organic growers spraying their fields or some kind of contamination from storage. So, out of interest, I asked this year’s Soil Association inspector, Paul Farmer, to test my bought-in bananas (Fairtrade from the Dominican Republic). This involved relinquishing 2kg of bananas, which were divided into 500g packages: three of which went with him and the final one which stayed with me, giving me recourse for further examination if I disagreed with the results. This process will take about a week. I felt this was a very rigorous and confidence-inspiring element of the organic inspection. People often ask: how can you be sure that produce from half way around the world adhere to the same standards? I have always known that there is an equivalence officer whose job is exactly that. But it’s reassuring to know that further tests can be done should we feel we want it.
Walking the Land
The actual inspection always starts with walking the land. The inspectors (we never have the same one more than two years in a row) are usually very knowledgeable, as was the case with Paul, and it is always a good opportunity to discuss any concerns and glean some advice. We spent nearly two hours outside in the garden, the greenhouse and the polytunnels. Paul also looked at where we pack our boxes, and examined our packaging and our cleaning schedule, before we moved into the office to check out the dreaded paperwork.
This involves doing an audit from seed to sale of a randomly chosen home grown vegetable. He chose cucumbers: 60 seeds, resulting in 50 plants, resulting in approximately 3 1/2 months harvesting for boxes, shop and farmers’ market, and approximately 2,400 individual cucumbers. I then had to prove that I hadn't sold more than 2,400 cucumbers, as this would mean that I could have bought in non-organic cucumbers and passed them off as organic.
The invoices from my organic wholesalers were checked, too, as I could (quite legitimately) have bought in organic cucumbers to supplement my own. The figures all stacked up. I always feel a little trepidation at this point, as the Soil Association are working to paper yields—in other words, they use an industry average for how many cucumbers a single plant should produce—and anyone who has ever grown anything knows things don't always work out like that! But mine did (thank you cucumbers for performing to Soil Association guidelines!).
We then repeated the same audit process with something I had bought in: this time it was organic mushrooms. The amount bought in must be the same as the amount sold through the shop and boxes. Again, all was fine.
Paul then checked any derogations. Derogations are occasionally given when, for example, a particular organic seed variety is not available. In such cases, we are allowed to buy untreated seed from a non-organic source, but we must explain our reasons and keep full records. We also have to show organic certificates for anyone that supplies us.
Hey-ho: approximately 5 hours later we can breathe a sigh of relief. It was all over for another year and we could get back to 'proper' work in the garden.
A Skewed System?
At the end of the day, I guess the inspection is only 5 hours out of my and Tony's life (not to mention the necessary gathering of paperwork beforehand). However, they were 5 sunny hours and there was so much we should have been doing in the garden. But that wasn't the main point.
I resent that food production is so skewed that we have to prove that we do nothing to our fruit and veg other than grow them naturally and without chemicals. Oh yes, and we have to pay quite a lot of money, too, to grow them without interference.
If I was a conventional grower, however, I wouldn't have to miss out on a day's spraying to sit with an inspector, because no one would be inspecting me. Why should organic growers like me have to bear the significant burden of time and cost to prove we don’t use chemicals? Why shouldn’t non-organic farmers have to pay for an inspection of what they apply and when? Why shouldn’t non-organic food labels have to list all the different chemical sprays used? It all seems rather counterintuitive, don’t you think?
Worst still for me is the latest trend from supermarkets like Tesco to rebrand imported fruit and veg under a generic British-sounding farm name—Woodside Farm, Rosedene Farms, Pie-in-the-Sky Farm or some such fictional, bucolic farm. All giving the consumer the impression they are buying British, farm fresh, traceable food. Yet read the small print (which we don't—who has time or their reading specs with them??) and the country of origin is Spain or some other country, and could come from any one of thousands of suppliers.
By using misleading names like Rosedene Farms on the label, the supermarkets are clearly exploiting the growing public desire to support British farms and ‘buy local’--and our often slightly sketchy seasonal awareness (“surely we must be buying locally grown strawberries in April?”). I think it is about time the supermarkets were made to jump through a few hoops, too.
Ultimately though, and to end on a positive note, what I really appreciated about our inspection was that Paul used his common sense and intuition. He knew and felt from walking the land that the soil was cared for, the plants nurtured and all was well. In return, he did give me some fairly big hoops to jump through.
Sonia Oliver became involved with growing vegetables organically over 20 years ago and Coleshill Organics was established, initially selling less than 20 boxes mainly to friends and neighbours. She now runs the business on her own from the magical walled garden in the heart of the village.