Consumer demand for chemical free and environmentally sound high quality produce is increasing. Organic food and farming is now being more widely recognised as an economically viable option to meet this demand. With retail sales of organic food increasing by twenty five percent per annum both on a domestic and global scale, the market is growing at a faster rate than any other area of the food and beverage industry.
What Is Organic Farming?
Organic farming is a whole (or holistic) systems approach that aims to prevent problems from developing rather than relying on cures. Since there are effectively no quick fixes in organic farming, planning and preparation is absolutely critical to achieving success. Farm/rotation design, maintenance and enhancement of biodiversity, attention to detail, resistant varieties/breeds, and soil health should form the backbone of pest and disease control and nutrient management on the farm. These integrated measures will not eradicate pests and diseases but will serve to maintain them below economically damaging levels. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, which lead to healthy animals, which in turn lead to healthy humans; therefore the importance of good soil management should never be underestimated.
A limited number of organically acceptable ‘controls in a bottle’ are available if and when problems do occur, but these must be seen as a last resort and cannot be relied upon. These products should not be regarded as substitutes for non-organic chemical inputs. Continual problems or failure of one particular crop would suggest there is an inherent problem in the system, so it would be better to change this rather than fight an ongoing problem. A similar approach should be looked at when considering pests, diseases, and biodiversity; that is organic farmers should work with nature rather than fight against it.
What Should I Consider Before Farming Organically?
Prior to organic farming, many factors should be considered, including:
- Soil fertility and structure
- Crop spacing
- Field size and margins in relation to natural enemy presence
- Varietal selection
- Compatibility of previous crops in the rotation
- Compatibility of the site to the crop
- Seed and transplant health
- Selecting animals that are suited to the local environment
- Water availability
- Animal welfare
- Patience and confidence to allow a biological balance between pest and predator to develop. If a natural balance can be achieved problems should not get out of control.
What Is Organic Certification?
Organic certification is important to ensure that we protect the integrity of the word 'organic'. Any certified organic product sold in Australia must, by law, display a certification symbol and number. When consumers see one of these symbols they can be sure that the product complies with the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Practice. This is currently enforced on behalf of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). The organic certification program was set up in the 1980’s to ensure that what is sold to consumers as certified organic produce is indeed just that.
There are a number of different certifying bodies in Australia, all of whom have their own private standards. However, all these private standards must, as a minimum, meet the baseline AQIS National Standard. If you are thinking of becoming certified it is best to contact the certifiers directly for their fee structures so you can work out which one best meets your needs. A list of the certifiers can be found at the Organic Federation of Australia website. The Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) also offer a small growers certification scheme for those producers who do not want to sell into the wholesale market.
Organic standards are very strict, and as an example animal welfare is extremely important. Organic livestock must have access to food and water, and outdoor grazing wherever possible. They must have plenty of space in fields and indoors in winter. If it is a herd animal, then they should be kept together and not isolated. These high welfare standards usually prevent organic livestock from becoming ill and stressed. Organic farmers are prohibited from routine use of veterinary medicines, but if an animal becomes sick then medicines can be used after seeking permission. Animal health and welfare are the priorities. Transportation times must also be kept to a minimum and slaughter need to take place at a registered organic abattoir.
How Long Does Organic Certification Take?
Certification is maintained by organic farmers through the following means:
- Annual audits and spot (unannounced) checks are carried out to ensure full compliance with the Organic Standard.
- All operators must complete a Statutory Declaration, maintain an Organic Management Plan (OMP) and update it annually.
- There must be a clearly auditable trail of all product sold by a certified operator to prevent fraud.
Australian farmers require a minimum of three years of organic management before they can hold a certificate and sell their produce as 'Certified Organic'. At the initial audit a soil sample is taken and sent to a laboratory to ensure there are no residual Organophosphates and/or Organochlorines left over from previous land management that could contaminate future organic crops and animals.
Upon a successful audit, the farmer then goes into a 12 month period known as pre-certification. During this 12 month period the farmer has to follow, and farm in accordance with the organic standards, but cannot sell or label their food as organic. After a year of pre-certification there is another audit and upon passing that, a transitionary certificate is then issued to the farmer - 'In Conversion to Organic'. Foods bearing an in-conversion label are those products being grown organically in accordance with the organic standards, but the land has been under the organic programme for less than three years. After 24 months of being in-conversion, and upon completion of two more audits, the farmer then has the right to label, sell and market their produce as 'A’ grade or 'fully organic'.
What Are The Reasons For Organic Certification?
Reasons for organic certification are:
- Protecting consumers against deception and fraud in the marketplace.
- Protecting producers of genuine organic produce against misrepresentation of agricultural produce as being organic.
- Ensuring that all stages of production, processing and marketing are subject to inspection and meet predetermined requirements.
The Organic Food Market
As with any business venture it is important to have a good market for your product. Although there is a strong demand for organic produce, the market is still relatively small and it is therefore easy to get an oversupply of a particular crop. Therefore, thorough market research is required before starting an organic farming venture. If you are a small to medium size organic farmer then selling directly to the public through farmers markets, farm shops and home deliveries are certainly worth considering as you will get a better return for your produce. It is also a good idea to create a unique identity for your produce in the market place by giving your farm or business a name and logo. Never underestimate the power of marketing and make the most of advertising the fact that you are selling a genuine clean and green product, that has been produced by natural means in accordance with a strict set of standards.
Want To Learn More About Organic Farming?
For more information on how to farm in a way that cares for the environment, including: information on composting, earthworms,converting to organics and certification, order your copy of Organic Farming: An Introduction by clicking on the image below.
The author, Alasdair Smithson has extensive practical experience in organic farming and has an honours degree in Organic Agriculture, from Aberystwyth, University of Wales. Alasdair now runs his own certified organic farm and home delivery business, promoting local and seasonal food production in the Byron Bay hinterland.
- Organic Farming: A whole (holistic) approach to farming that aims to prevent problems from occurring rather than relying on cures.
- Organic Certification: Process of labelling and recording, ensuring that products comply with the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Practice.
- Pre-certification: The twelve month period in which farmers have to follow, and farm in accordance with organic standards. They cannot sell or label products as organic during this period.
- In Conversion to Organic: Period after pre-certification where a transitionary certificate is issued. Products meet organic standards; however the land has been under organics for less than three years.
- 'A' Grade or Fully Organic: The right to label and market products as organic.