31 August 2010
She gave me an earful, but it boils down to two main elements. First, as an undergrad, she read a lot about food systems on the side and her interest grew over time. Mhonpaj believes that many health problems could be prevented by switching to organic, from ADHD to cancer to diabetes.
Second, the Minnesota Food Association trained the Lee’s to farm organic. The MFA’s program sessions include “Intro to Organic Farming,” “Farmers Market Success – Learn new ways to … emphasize local, certified organic,” and “Record Keeping – Learn how to keep good records for business planning, organic certification, and for financial institutions.” Becoming certified was the natural outcome of Mhonpaj’s focus on health and the MFA’s program.
Whenever I talk to people about Mhonpaj’s Garden, I say that it is the first Hmong-owned and operated certified organic CSA. This introduction highlights their unique position in the Hmong agricultural community, their adherence to national standards, and their method of distribution, but it fails to capture the depth of the operation. I wrote in July that Mhonpaj’s Garden is “a curious blend of subsistence, organic, and mission-driven agriculture.”
This better captures the essence of Mhonpaj’s Garden. The organic piece is important, but not the whole story. “Subsistence” refers to how the Lee’s are really farming for themselves, a point Mhonpaj emphasized in our most recent conversation. What they put in their CSA boxes, sell wholesale, and vend at the farmers market is really just the extras. That said, they need to break even and so sell through different channels. They are sharing their produce with the people who know its value and are willing to pay the true cost.
And mission-driven? When I started, I noticed that their web site lack a mission statement. I asked Mhonpaj about this, and she said that every year her vision changes. And while winter is the time for organizing and planning for the year ahead, sitting down to pound out a mission statement is consistently the last thing on her mind. Still, her passion for education and outreach and the cooking demonstrations that she and May do signal a deeper purpose for their farm than just sharing their extra vegetables.
Mhonpaj pointed out that early American settlers started out farming organically, but would make the switch to reduce labor costs. “There’s not enough community discussion” around organic farming, she said. “The only source of education is the stores, [but] they are not there to educate; they are there to sell a product.” Why would someone selling herbicides tell you how to rotate your crops to control weeds? “Learning to farm organic is almost like a hidden education,” she continued. “It’s like it’s top secret, behind the counter - you gotta ask for it.”
Mhonpaj plays an exhausting role. Not only does she call the business shots on the farm in addition to her job as an interpreter at HCMC, but she is a solitary liaison between organic agriculture and Hmong farmers, along with the MFA. “No one besides the MFA is helping the farmers. Nowhere else speaks Hmong,” she said, “We have to show by example.”
Photo by Chue of red oak lettuce growing at Mhonpaj's Garden.
30 August 2010
Let’s take the Midwest Organic Services Association as an example (Riverbend Farm has been certified through MOSA since 1994). Their cost of certification includes Base Certification, Inspection, and User Fees. The base fee for a first year crop certification is $200, and for an update, $150. The inspection fee starts with a $200 deposit, and the final cost is the inspector’s fee for service, mileage, and lodging. The user fee is a percentage of sales, with a minimum of $200 per year. For annual gross organic sales of a producer (versus a handler or processor) between $0 and $200,000, MOSA takes 0.75%. For over $200,000, it drops to 0.1%, and is capped at $7,500.
How does this compare with other agencies? Let’s take a look at the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association. MCIA charges a membership/application fee as well as a base fee, an inspection fee, and final fees. The application fee for the MCIA is $50. The base fee for a first-timer is $375, and for an update, $325. Inspection charges are listed as $75/hr; Cornercopia’s inspection fee is usually around $600-$700. The final fee is 0.5% of total organic revenue for the first $500,000, 0.25% for $500,001 to $750,000, and 0.1% for $750,001 and up. So the more you make, the less you pay (percentage-wise).
And, of course, there are all sorts of additional fees and charges Joe Organic could rack up: late fees, additional inspections, adding products or services at another time, etc. Barring those extras and assuming $30,000 in sales, an initial certification could cost between $625 and $1,175. Is it worth it? Depends on the farmer and his market.
Next up: why certification is important for Mhonpaj’s Garden.
27 August 2010
Looking at her formidable black binder, Ms. Rogers opened by noting that last year, Cornercopia was cited for using biocontrols not included in their OSP (organic production system plan). Courtney confirmed that they did not use any controls this year. Ms. Rogers then noted that she had not received documents regarding the high tunnel. Courtney made a note to turn them in. Subsequently, Ms. Rogers noted that Cornercopia had sold seedlings. Yes, Courtney replied, but not as certified organic.
Thus the pattern for the meeting was set. Ms. Rogers perused the OSP, made check marks, and occasionally asked clarifying questions. The first area of review was seeds. Ms. Rogers went through page after page of seed records, stopping to double-check each nonorganic entry in the master list against the nonorganic seed list, which included the companies who did not carry organic versions of the desired varieties. The list was daunting, but Courtney’s clear organization made it a breeze. “This is almost too fast,” Ms. Rogers said.
She went on to ask questions about the likelihood of greenhouse staff interfering with seedlings, the status of unplanted strawberries, previous soil tests, the rotation plan, and soil fertility. A brief discussion ensued about compost requirements. Courtney had been applying raw compost (plant material) to fields at the end of the season to avoid monitoring the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, temperature, and age of their compost heap. Ms. Rogers clarified that those requirements are only for compost containing animal products, not including plant material-based worm castings, which are, in her words, “just like magic."
The questions continued: what about chickens, wildlife, spraying, water testing, straw from the poultry barn, disease control, buffer zones, reuse of berry boxes, equipment cleaning? Courtney got dinged on that last one – she did not have records of the mower being power washed between fields. “I’ll have to get those from Mike,” she said, making a note.
Courtney was also missing hard copies of sales records, and while she went back to her office to print some samples, Ms. Rogers turned to me and politely asked what I was doing there. I gave her the run down of my recent activities and hopes for the future, then fired some questions at her (for a change) about her time with the MCIA (lengthy), who she inspects (vegetable gardeners), how much of Minnesota she covers (from Norman to Big Stone to Pine to St. Louis - look here if you need a refresher on the counties of Minnesota), and when she inspects (May to September, generally).
Courtney returned with the sales records. Ms. Rogers glanced through them and the harvest records, and was satisfied. She reviewed the few points needing follow up and then it was over.
After Ms. Rogers left, Courtney revealed her secret to success: they’d been going through this process for six years now, the first three during the transitional period, when meeting every single requirements isn’t as big a deal (except for the application of prohibited materials to land, which would set you back to month 0 of 36). With plenty of time to work out the kinks, this year’s inspection was “pretty painless,” Courtney said.
So there you have it: a ground-level look at how a certifying agency applies the National Organic Program’s rules and regulations. Discuss.
Photo from the UMN website.
24 August 2010
Fortunately for me, Cornercopia was scheduled for an inspection last Thursday and Courtney Tchida, head farmer, let me tag along. While waiting at the new field for Brenda Rogers, Courtney explained that she chose the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association because they are conveniently located on the St. Paul Campus, convenient because inspectees pay for the inspector’s mileage. Also while we were waiting, I rustled around in the bushes picking ground cherries, a variety of tomato I’d never tasted before.
Once Ms. Rogers arrived, Courtney handed her a map of the new field with a list of all the crops growing there. We wove through the hot peppers in paper mulch, crossed the section previously dedicated to melons (got too weedy, was mowed down), and checked on the interplanted potatoes and beans. We paused at Casey’s research plot of tomatoes, and she explained how she’s been grafting Celebrity tomatoes onto various root stems to develop cold hardiness. The hardier the root system, the sooner you can plant and mulch the tomato.
We moved on to an onion patch, covered with landscaping fabric for weed control. Courtney is very excited about this project because a) it really keeps weeds down and b) they can roll up the fabric in the fall and use it next season. Synthetic mulch is listed as an option under Section 8 of the questionnaire, with the follow-up question, “If you use plastic or other synthetic mulches removed at the end of the season?” Courtney’s in the clear.
Having checked off every crop from Ms. Rogers’ list, we left the new field for the hoop houses (aka, high tunnels). The smaller of the two is new this spring and I have no idea what’s growing in there because in the high tunnel were the biggest, most profuse raspberries I have ever seen. I paid attention just long enough to hear that I was eating Caroline and Britten raspberries, which are ever-bearing, meaning they produce in the summer and the fall.
Before I could get a stomach-ache from the berries, we headed for the old field. There lies the Keyhole Garden, home to perennial herbs and flowers, and hops growing on a trellis (that was the students’ idea) and the corner garden. The latter field is where I first encountered purple asparagus and black raspberries. Even more fruit grows here: four plum trees, elderberries, black berries, choke cherries, and an apple tree.
Too soon, we left the corner garden for the more mundane parts of Cornercopia’s operation. The farmhouse stores equipment and last year’s hops harvest. The Plant Biology Building provides a place to wash veggies; spin-dry salad greens (a washing machine works great); and store turnips, seeds, and potting soil. Attached is the greenhouse, forlornly empty by late August.
This part of the process was surprisingly low key. Ms. Rogers literally walked around and looked at the plants. Occasionally she asked a question – whether grafting involved chemical, what plans Courtney had to control the quack grass in the keyhole garden - but mostly it was about verifying that Cornercopia grows what it says it grows, keeps its processing facility clean, and its storage facilities aloof from conventional crops.
Next up: Jane Growright grills Joe Organic.
Ground cherry by Jaspenelle, and Laura and Michael in a hoop house by Lance Brisbois.
20 August 2010
The sixth section of the questionnaire deals with Crop Management. Here we get into weed, pest, and disease management. A quotation:
NOP Rule requires a crop rotation plan that maximizes soil organic content, prevents weed, pest and disease problems, and manages deficient or excess plant nutrients.► After asking for the identity of your problem weeds, the questionnaire follows up with, “What weed control methods do you use?” (Note “control,” not “eradicate,” which probably isn’t an effective use of resources or even possible.)
Black fallow: Tillage without a crop for a season. Doesn’t seem to be as popular as green fallow.
Smother crops: Densely-growing crops that shade or crowd out weeds. Winter rye, vetches, and clovers work well.
Corn gluten: This natural preemergence herbicide, a byproduct of corn wet- milling, inhibits root formation of germinating seeds.
Monitoring soil temperature: Many seed germinate between 40 and 50°F. If you monitor the soil temperature, you can apply a preemergence herbicide, like corn gluten, before the weeds get going.
Soap-based herbicides: Nonselective (will affect weed and crop alike), these kill only the part of the plant with which they come into contact by penetrating the plants’ protective outer layer.
Steam weeding: Destroy weeds’ cells with hot water under pressure.
Electrical: High voltage pulses electropermeabilize the cell membranes of germinating weed seeds. I'm really not sure what this is all about.
Prevention of weed seed set: Plant weed-seed-free crops and keep weeds from going to seed.
► On to pests. MCIA asks, “What strategies do you use to control pest damage to crops?”
Timing of planting: Know when your particular pest is prevalent and plan accordingly. For example, carrot root flies peak in late May and September, so sow as early as possible or in June after the first wave is over.
Companion planting: Grow specific combinations of plants that benefit one or both of them; for example, grow flowers that attract parasitic wasps or hoverflies, which will attack aphids, beetles, caterpillars, etc.
Trap crops: Crops that are more attractive to the pest than the harvest crop due to appearance time or physiological properties. Did you know that stink bugs like black-eyed peas?
IPM: Integrated Pest Management, which takes into account the ecosystem as a whole, incorporates regular monitoring, and understands that the presence of a pest is not necessarily a problem.
► We’re not through with all the potential threats yet. Do tell, “What disease prevention strategies do you use?”
Solarization: A soil pasteurization technique that suppresses damaging nematodes. You raise the temperature of tilled, moistened soil by trapping solar heat with clear plastic sheets.
Vector management: Vectors are insects or other living organisms that transmit diseases, as deer ticks do with Lyme’s disease. Manage the green peach aphid and you’ll manage the Potato virus Y.
Compost/tea use: Compost tea, which is compost extract brewed with a microbial food source, has fungicidal properties.
Field sanitation: Removal or destruction of diseased plant residues
Soil balancing: Adding nutrients to correct deficiencies in the soil.
Whew! Crop Management is finally over. The only thing that puzzled me about the seventh section, Maintenance of Organic Integrity and Crop Storage, was “gravity wagons.” I had an inkling that I knew what they were, just didn’t know the name. And in fact, I had met a gravity wagon at Kent and Linda Solberg’s farm that stored chicken feed.
The eighth section is Record-Keeping System. The questionnaire lists twenty categories of records to be kept for five years, including input records for soil amendments, seeds, manure, foliar sprays and pest control products (“keep all labels”); compost production records; equipment cleaning records; and storage records that show storage location, amounts stored, and cleaning activities. Farmers, start your spreadsheets.
Sections nine and ten are Final Fees and Affirmation, exciting only because it means you’re almost done... with the paper application. Later on, an inspector will come to tour your fields and go over your records with a fine tooth comb. As luck would have it, Cornercopia is going through the inspection process right now and yours truly gets to sit in on the fun. You'll hear all about it on Wednesday.
Corn gluten from Planet Natural and green peach aphid from DPVweb.net
The certifying agency Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) put together an Organic System Plan Questionnaire (find it here under "Organic System Plan Producer"), each section of which refers to a specific part of the USDA’s National Organic Program’s regulations. Farmers could develop an OSP independently and then fill out the questionnaire, or could use the process of filling out the questionnaire to codify their practices into an OSP.
The questionnaire has ten sections - we'll tackle the first half in this post. The first section is General Information. Nothing very exciting, just your farm's name, legal status, etc.
The second section is Farm Plan Information, which requires copies of field history sheets and field maps that show the boundaries and buffer zones of all organic and transitional fields. This is where the MCIA verifies that no prohibited materials have been applied within the past 36 months. If you are renting land and the previous landowner has no records of chemical application, you’re out of (organic) luck for the next three years.
|Dragon tongue beans. Photo Credit: Sarah Gilbert|
The fourth section is Seedlings and Perennial Stock. Pretty much the same as above – use organic.
The fifth section is Soil and Crop Fertility Management. Here’s where we do more than refrain from using pesticides. A quote:
NOP Rule requires active management to build soil fertility, mange plant nutrients, protect natural resources, and prevent soil erosion.Enter sustainability. Joan Gussow and Katherine Clancy (1986) defined “sustainable” as capable of being maintained over the long term in order to meet the needs of the present population without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This includes the broad activities mentioned in the NOP Rules. But how specifically does one maintain land over the long term without diminishing its value?
Time for the nitty gritty. The questionnaire has a number of boxes to check:
I’ll leave out terms and procedures that are probably familiar to most, like “Compost,” or self-explanatory, like “Incorporation of crop residues,” and focus the head-scratchers, like “Side dressing.”
► MCIA wants to know, “What are the major components of the farmer’s soil and crop fertility plan?”
|Valerian flowers. Photo credit: Wikipedia.|
Interplanting: Planting different crops together. Certain crops, like corn and beans, are complementary (beans fix nitrogen, corn uses it).
Soil inoculants: Dry or liquid preparations of microorganisms, like mycorrhizae, which live in or on plant roots. These fungi promote nitrogen fixation and absorb phosphorus and other nutrients much faster than the plant would on its own.
Subsoiling: Breaking up soil layers below the reach of normal tillage. Improves water infiltration and drainage, root penetration, and breaks up compacted layers without inverting them. Thus, surface residue remains on the surface.
Foliar fertilizers: Nutrients sprayed onto the leaves and stems of plants, such as BD 508 (diluted horsetail). Can be 8 to 20 times as effective as ground application.
Side dressing: Applying fertilizer around growing plants.
That was A. General Information. We’ll skip B, C, and D (Compost Use, Manure Use, and Natural Resources) for now.
► MCIA also wants to know, “What practices are used to protect water quality?”
Micro-spray: A high-efficiency, low-pressure cross between surface spray and drip irrigation. Water travels through micro tubing to nozzles on risers.
Laser leveling/land forming: Leveling the land with the use of lasers or reshaping the surface of the land to increase uniformity of water distribution and improve surface drainage.
Tensiometer: A device used to measure soil water tension, an indicator of soil moisture.
That’s it for Soil and Crop Fertility Management. The next post will cover the second half of the questionnaire, which includes green peach aphids and gravity wagons!
Updated 6 Oct. 2010 to reflect the comment made by Michelle Menken, MCAI Accounts Coordinator.
18 August 2010
The US Department of Agriculture is a busy department and cannot review all ~13,000 of the organic producers in the US. So they delegate the certification responsibility to outside organizations. The chain of command goes something like this:
USDA►Agricultural Marketing Service ►National Organic Program ►Accredited Certifying Agents
So, part of NOP’s job is to accredit private businesses, organizations, and state agencies which then certify organic producers and handlers. According to a data set here, in 2008 there were 20 state and 40 private certifiers, and according to NOP, there are 56 domestic and 42 foreign certifiers.
Mhonpaj’s Garden and Cornercopia (UMN’s student organic farm) are two of fifty crop producers certified through the MCIA. Loon Organics is another organic crop producer in Minnesota, and they are currently certified through Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA).
Which begs the question: How does one pick an Accredited Certifying Agent among the almost one hundred out there? For one, some agents serve only certain areas. Case in point: MCIA serves only six states in the Midwest. To tease out other differences, the Rodale Institute has a nifty guide that lets farmers search certifiers by attributes, compare two side-by-side, and more. For kicks, I compared the top five (self-identified) strengths of MCIA and MOSA:
|Personal contacts||Prompt, courteous service|
|Timely service||Always someone in the office to answer questions|
|Long history of independent status||Organic plan questionnaires are user-friendly|
|Professional||MOSA information meetings, conferences, events|
What about the certification process itself? The basic process is as follows:
- Farmer Joe Organic contacts MCIA for information.
- Farmer Joe Organic receives introductory documents and fills out application.
- MCIA office staff reviews application and sends it to Inspector Jane Growright.
- Inspector Jane Growright inspects farm and files a report. Farmer Joe Organic corrects any noncompliance issues.
- Organic committee reviews farmer's file, accepts it, and sends Farmer Joe Organic a contract and a bill.
- Farmer Joe Organic signs contract, pays bill, and receives certificate.
What the application process lacks in self-reflective essays, it more than makes up for in management techniques, as probed in the organic plan questionnaire, #3 of MOSA's strengths and the topic of the next post.
16 August 2010
This summer, the HECUA class "Environment & Agriculture: Sustainable Food Systems" was responsible for supplying a steady stream of new ideas and experiences to my brain. From the opening day of hearing about the lens through which my classmates view the food system to the closing days of my internship with Mhonpaj Lee, the class planted seed after intriguing seed. Some have germinated, but a lot I haven't even watered.
Through this final project for the internship, I get deeper into the practicalities of the food system. I have spent plenty of time reading books like Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, by Raj Patel, and Remaking the North American Food System, eds C. Claire Hinrichs and Thomas A. Lyson, that gave me an overview of food system issues. The field portion of E&A showed me that my knowledge of how systems like dairy farms and small towns work day to day is limited.
For example, at the Symposium for Small Towns at Morris, I attended a breakout session entitled “Local Governments: Doing more with Less – LGA, Leadership, and Communications.” In case you don’t know, as I didn’t, Local Government Aid is a critical source of revenue for cities whose property tax revenues cannot cover the costs of services. In 2009, St. Paul received $62.6 million in LGA, Morris $2.3 million, Delano $179,684, and Inver Grove Heights, zilch (numbers found here).
When LGA from the state drops, towns are left wondering if they can increase revenues and where they can cut the budget. And if the state issues a mandate about storm drains at airports, towns are in an even greater bind trying to come up with the money to pay for it. During the session, I was so caught up placing these new concepts into context that I missed the bigger picture of how to grapple with budget woes.
This project then, is about stepping back from a top-down view of food system issues and getting closer to the problems that actors in the food system face, specifically, organic farming, nonprofits, and farmers markets. I explore these issues at personal, organizational, and ground (pun sometimes intended) levels through interviews, personal experiences, handbooks and other publications. Stay tuned for the next couple of weeks for the inside scoop on organic pest management techniques, 501(c)(3)s, and the St. Paul Farmers Markets.
11 August 2010
One goal of my final project is to have a handle on the management techniques used by organic farmers, some of which the Organic Producer Questionnaire mentions. To jump-start that goal, I present this week's Wordy Wednesday, taken from Section 5: "Soil & Crop Fertility Management." Definitions of crops are taken from ATTRA's Overview of Cover Crops and Green Materials.
“The producer must implement a crop rotation including but not limited to sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and catch crops that provide the following functions that are applicable to the operation: maintain or improve soil organic matter content; provide for pest management in annual and perennial crops; manage deficient or excess plant nutrients and provide erosion control.”
Sod: a section of grass-covered surface soil held together by matted roots.
Cover crops: any crop grown to provide soil cover, to prevent soil erosion by wind or water. Try hairy vetch, rye, clover, medic (legume related to alfalfa), or field peas.
Green manure crop: any field or forage crop incorporated into soil while green or soon after flowering. Use legumes like cowpeas, soybeans, annual sweet clover, sesbania, guar, crotalaria, and velvet beans; or non-legumes like sorghum-sudangrass, millet, forage sorghum, and buckwheat. Green manuring will improve biomass, smother weeds, and improve soil tilth (physical structure).
Catch crops: a cover crop planted after the main crop’s been harvested with the intent of reducing nutrient leaching. Rye after corn, for example, helps “scavenge” leftover nitrogen, which could otherwise contaminate groundwater.
Picture of hairy vetch from Jarrett.