What it takes to become Certified Organic
In this week’s episode, we speak with Cori Skoloski, executive director of MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association), about what it takes for a farm to become certified organic. (Hint: It takes a lot!)
MOSA’s Jenny Cruse, Wisconsin Senator Jennifer Shilling, MOSA’s Cori Skolaski, and Rootstock Radio guest host Anne O’Connor outside the MOSA office in small-town Viroqua, Wis.
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ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, sitting in for Theresa Marquez while she’s on vacation. I’m in the studio today with Cori Skolaski, the executive director of MOSA, the world’s second largest organic certification agency. Welcome, Cori.
CORI SKOLASKI: Hi, Anne. Thanks for having me.
AO: Great to have you here today. So we’re going to talk today about organic certification. This is kind of one of those wonky, murky worlds that people don’t understand very well.
CS: Right, right—it’s kind of how the sausage is made.
AO: And you’re right at the center of the sausage-making industry there.
CS: Oh, that’s pleasant!
AO: So, Cori, tell us what MOSA does for its business.
CS: Well, what MOSA does is it verifies the organic integrity of products before they hit the market. We work with producers and handlers—that’s farmers and marketers. And we look at their products and how they produce them, how they handle them, and verify that they’re following the National Organic Program standards for organic production, and if so, then we issue them an organic certificate. So then they can have the “Certified Organic” label on their products.
It’s the most verified label there is. It means that we’re following standards that have been put together by the National Organic Program, which is part of the USDA, and we are verifying each step of the process. So if it’s a grower, we’re verifying that the seeds aren’t GMO or that they’re organic, and we’re verifying that there’s no prohibited substances being put on the field; that the packaging that the product is going into is allowed by the rule. And we’re verifying that the transportation is clean, that the produce or the products are being hauled in trucks that have been cleaned correctly, according to the National Organic rule. So every stage of the process is verified. And then at the end of the day we either verify that it is organic or it is not.
AO: What does organic mean for us?
CS: Well, of course, there’s rules. Of course, this is a regulatory process. If somebody is a small-time farmer and is selling things just on a local scale at their local farmers’ market, earning less than $3,000 a year, no, they don’t have to be certified as organic. But if they are an Organic Valley producer, yes, they do need to be certified as organic. So there’s not a lot of loopholes.
We also do marketplace inspections, what we call them. And we just, when we’re in the store, when our staff is in the store, we look at the products on the shelf to see what the labels look like, to see that things are labeled correctly. And the National Organic Program does take that pretty seriously, and they do have some teeth. So if we or consumers have questions about a product that they see, they’re free to call either the certification agency that’s listed on the label of an organic product—all certification agencies must be listed on their products—or they can contact, directly, the National Organic Program and make a complaint, register their concern about the product. And then an investigation will occur to verify that everything is correct in this product.
AO: Right, because when you say organic, there is a lot, as you’re suggesting, that goes into it. It’s a regulatory process. It’s actually an act of Congress, right? And so when people say organic, one of the things that we’re noticing here at Organic Valley, which is an all-organic company, of course, so all of our farmers, all of our 1,800 farmers have to go through this process for every single product that they produce. But one of the things we’ve noticed is, particularly with the millennial generation, as people come up, they don’t necessarily understand what went into the making of the word “organic” or the process or what is required in order to use that word “organic,” or in order to use that label that you mentioned, the “USDA Organic” label. Like, if you have that label, it means that you’ve gone through this inspection that you’re speaking of every single year, right? It’s not just like a one-time deal, “Looks good to us.”
CS: No, right, it’s every single year, sometimes more than a year. If there is a question at a company or a farm, we will go and do an unannounced inspection—we call it a surveillance inspection—to verify the question that a consumer might have about a product. So at least annually, every organic producer is inspected.
AO: And so that kind of additional inspection could look like somebody calling and saying, “Hey, my neighbor is supposed to be organic, but I know that he just bought feed that’s not organic,” or something like that, right?
CS: Exactly—that’s the kind of thing we hear about.
AO: And do you run into the kind of situation where you have to investigate a complaint and you find evidence that actually there’s a problem here.
CS: Oh yes, yes. I wouldn’t say it happens a lot, but it definitely does happen. Either sometimes as a surveillance inspection or just in the course of an annual inspection, we uncover something that we have questions about. Sometimes it’s innocent on the part of the farmer or the handler. For example, they used an antibiotic to treat an illness within their livestock, and it’s a prohibited substance. And we have to remove either the animal, or occasionally the whole herd or group of animals, from the organic cycle, which is an incredible financial hit to a farmer.
AO: But basically—I mean, just I want to reiterate that: if you use antibiotics on an animal, they’re taken out of organic production forever.
CS: Right. Yeah, there’s no coming back from that. So it’s really important that farmers have a good relationship with a veterinarian who does, especially if they’re… There’s a lot of farmers that are organic farmers, kind of in an island of conventional farmers. And so their veterinarian might not know a lot about the organic rule and what’s allowed. We can provide resources. There’s a lot of agencies and organizations throughout the country that can provide resources to veterinarians. But it’s important that farmers do, too, have their antennae up, because, you know, you don’t want to lose your herd of cattle, you don’t want to lose your flock of chickens; you want to be careful about those things. That’s their income, and we treat this really seriously. But on the other hand, we feel sympathy for the farmer, but the organic label must mean something, so we do hold their feet to the fire if we do have questions.
AO: And what about those other, more rare circumstances, where there’s somebody trying to get something by?
CS: Yes, it does happen. I wouldn’t say people—you know, people are generally good. So I don’t think that there’s a lot of nefarious farmers out there that are trying to cheat the system as much as possible, but there are farmers that take shortcuts. Maybe their neighbor has a crop of hay that they want to buy that’s real cheap and it’s not organic, and they’ll do it, hoping that we don’t check and that we don’t find that out. And I can’t say that 100 percent of all product is always caught in situations like that, but we do our absolute best. Part of the organic inspection is to verify inputs to the animals. And so we do audits on that sort of thing and hopefully catch 99.9 percent of the cases.
AO: Right, I mean people who—farmers have to account for all of their feed and they have to have receipts and they have to have—it’s pretty complex, yeah?
CS: It is, it is. And so we actually go back upriver too. So they have receipts that they bought this hay; we demand to see the organic certificate of the person that they purchased it from. So we do do those checks too. So it’s pretty widespread.
AO: So what are the consequences for somebody who does do something? You talked about getting animals out of a herd. But what if somebody’s actually cheating?
CS: Well, we take that pretty seriously. And they could very well have their operation suspended. And in that case, we report it to the National Organic Program, and it takes a lot then for the farmer to be certified again. They have to verify that their new operation, if they start a new farm, is “clean.” So the reach of the National Organic Program is pretty broad, and hopefully cases like that don’t occur a lot and don’t slip through the cracks.
AO: Right, and as you say, so most of the people who go into the industry of organics are there because they either understand that this is a method that is going to give them an additional profit, and also that this a way of doing farming that is better for the nutritional value or for the planet, or they have some beliefs around this, that they’re doing this. Because it is more work.
CS: Yeah, for sure it’s more work. There’s probably a lot of various reasons people do organic production. Income, for sure, has got to be high up there. They put in a lot of extra work, but they do get a premium price. The organic label is a marketing label. But also, too, there’s a lot of people super passionate about the organic label, as I am, as you are, Anne. A lot of people believe this is the way to save the world. The health benefits, but also the benefits to our natural resources, can’t be underestimated. And organic production really respects the earth and saves the earth, and it’s regenerative in a lot of cases. So that’s important to a lot of farmers. They might not talk about it a lot, but that’s at their core of their beliefs.
AO: Right. And so one of the things that I was talking about before is that as a younger generation comes up, they don’t necessarily understand all those nuances, and they think, you know, they might need a new label to say, oh, it’s non-GMO. Well, organic is alwaysnon-GMO, right? And if you look at the environmental issues, well, that’s covered in organic. If you look at the use of antibiotics—you can’t use them in organic. And if you look at the ways of working with nature… I mean, one of the things that you do in your inspections, I know, is when you go to a farm, if you see places where the land looks like it’s eroding, or that there’s some problem with the way that the earth is being treated, you call that out as well, right?
CS: Absolutely. That’s a big red flag for us, that maybe rotational grazing isn’t being practiced, or something is amiss on the site. And so we work with the farmer to see if we can correct that and start improving their land.
AO: Mm-hmm, because the essence of organic farming is a good soil and the proactive soil, right? So a strong soil keeps pests away so you don’t have to use those pesticides, and keeps animals healthier so you don’t have to use those antibiotics.
CS: Right, and the water table. You know, I mean there’s tons of leaching of chemicals into our water table and back into our cycle. So all of that is covered under the organic inspection and the organic label.
AO: So every day, Cori, as the executive director of MOSA, you are deep in this world of the rules, the regulations, the things that are required of organic farmers. You see the tests that they go through and the ways that they have to do something really quite different in order to use that “Organic” label. And yet we both know that there persists some cynicism around the label. Can you talk about what, how you keep those two things in your mind, when you’re every day working in this and yet you know that out there there is this “What does organic really mean?”
CS: Mm-hmm. Well, yeah, I mean that’s an ongoing issue, of course. Something happened about three or four years ago that really surprised me. I have a niece who went to veterinary school at UW, University of Wisconsin-Madison. And after her first year, she and I had a long philosophical conversation, and she came to the point—because her professors talked to her about this—that there is no way you can operate a farm organically. It’s just not a viable production method.
And that blew my mind and made me so sad. And you know, it’s really hard to…like that is an entrenched educational system belief that’s being passed on to these young, starry-eyed pre-veterinarians. And so my niece now is a veterinarian, and she works in rural northwest Wisconsin, and she’s got a lot of organic clients. And I think she’s switching—she’s seeing it from a different angle right now. And she’s actually come back and apologized, seen that yes, it is actually possible to have a healthy herd and not use antibiotics, and to have your chickens free-ranging, you know, give them outdoor access, and grow your crops without using Roundup, and those sort of things. You can do it.
So I guess, you know, to get to your question about how I handle the cynicism: The one thing I talk about a lot is organic integrity. That’s what we’re a part of, integrity. And that is, to me, really an important word, something to remember. And it kind of makes me feel like we’re holding ourselves above the fray, above the criticisms and the critiques. As long as we have integrity and as long as we believe the system is working, it is. It is. You know, I have no doubts that what we’re doing is right. I feel like that we’re not cheating; our clients aren’t cheating; the National Organic Program holds a very high standard. And that’s about the best we can do. That’s about the best we can hope to do.
AO: So part of is just continuing to believe that what you’re doing is right, and part of it is an education piece and saying, “No, look—here’s what this really means.” You know, in terms of your niece and that entrenched thinking that organic can’t feed the world, that you can’t really do it this way, you know, I just have to say this, because just last week Organic Valley passed the one billion dollar—
CS: I saw that. Congratulations!
AO: Yeah, thank you. And so here we have an all-organic organization. It’s a cooperative, it’s a collection of 1,800 farmers across the country. Small farmers—our average herd size is seventy-seven, you know. And there are people who would look at that model and think, “No way! Average herd size is seventy-seven? Who could do it?” And yet we are doing it. And it’s a model for a new way of farming and a new way of looking at a financial system, a structure, that is viable, and it is better for the animals.
I mean, I hear all the time about farmers who say, “When I was a conventional farmer, I had to use antibiotics all the time. And now it’s not that I’m holding them back from my animals—I would give them to them if I really needed to. But I don’t have to, because the feed is healthier, because being outside is healthier, because they’re stronger, they live longer.”
CO: Right. This past spring there was an epidemic of avian flu that swept the country, and especially the flight paths of the birds as they migrated north. And none of our clients were affected by that—none of them. Conventional farmers in the same counties as our clients were, were affected by it. And a big part of it was size of the flocks. You know, the organic flocks tend to be smaller because they’re easier to maintain. So a disease isn’t going to wipe out, you know, 500,000 birds in one fell swoop. And it didn’t wipe out any of the organic flocks of our clients.
So I thought that that was an interesting point. And you know, I kept an eye on it the whole season, and it didn’t resurge, like we had feared in this past fall. But we’ll keep our eye out again next spring—it might crop up again.
AO: Right, and we certainly at Organic Valley were also very aware of that, and we had some conventional farms that were right by our farms. And of course, you just hate to see that in any farm—just so hard for the farmers to lose their flocks that way. But also, yeah, we were able to not have any of the organic farms affected in that way.
So, you know, it’s certainly something that you’re not going to push that point and say that won’t happen on an organic farm. But we do hear over and over again from farmers that one of the things that they appreciate about, especially when they’ve switched from conventional farming, is that their animals are stronger.
So you have farmers—you do certify some Organic Valley farmers, but you have farmers from all kinds of organizations and all across the country. Can you tell us a little bit about your scope at MOSA?
CS: Sure. We have about 1,750 clients throughout the country in about twenty-five states. We have, the staff of MOSA, there’s twenty-eight people on our staff, and we contract with about fifty independent contract inspectors throughout the country who perform the inspections for us onsite. About a third of our clients are Amish, and they’re located, oh, mainly in Wisconsin, pretty much in the community in which we live. Vernon County has got a heavy Amish community, but also Pennsylvania—we have a lot of clients in Pennsylvania also who are Amish. And then, you know, “the scopes” is what we call it in organic, in the organic language—it’s like crops, livestock, and handling operations. So we’ve got pretty much everything in the organic world.
The Amish farmers are some of the most interesting farmers. When I first started at MOSA, I was a little surprised by how many Amish farmers we had that were certified organic, and I guess that was because I thought, I had this idea that, you know, they reject a lot of things from the government, and I thought like a label would be something also that they would reject. But that’s not the case. They embrace it wholeheartedly. Farming is something that’s kind of a natural for a lot of the Amish communities, and organic certification makes a lot of sense for them as well.
AO: Yeah, it’s pretty fascinating, isn’t it? There’s a lot of alignment with the values of caring for the earth and caring for small communities and having family farms, right? And you know, at Organic Valley we have about 42 percent of our farms are Mennonite or Amish.
If you’re just joining us, this is Rootstock Radio, and I’m Anne O’Connor. I’m here in the studio speaking with Cori Skolaski. She’s the executive director at MOSA, the organic certification agency here in Viroqua, Wisconsin. We’re talking about what it means to be organic, and who can use the word “organic” on their labels.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve come up with at MOSA as you go out to farms and you inspect them to ensure that they are following organic practices?
CS: Well, I think the farming itself, you know, that end of it is fairly straightforward for farmers. I think probably the most challenging piece of it is the paperwork that’s required. It is a regulatory process, and there’s a lot of paperwork that they need to fill out. We need to know about their fields and what previously was done with them, if they’re just entering into organic production. We need to know where they buy their seeds, where they buy their feed; we need to see receipts of all those things. We need to see their crop rotation history—on and on and on.
And that’s a burden. It could be a paperwork burden, especially, as we were just talking about, all the Amish farmers we have. When you don’t do anything using a computer, and you’re doing this all on paper, it really is quite the challenge. And we do have an electronic process for our “English” folk, which is what the Amish call non-Amish. So our English folk do use our online system in a lot of cases and fill out their paperwork that way. So I think that’s like the most challenging piece.
And apart from that, it’s just always… Oh, you know, sometimes the National Organic Program will change a rule or tweak something a little bit, and then that always kind of has a ripple effect. Our clients take a while to catch up on it. Like a couple years ago the big thing was if an organic farmer added new land, we could just add it to their organic certificate. They’d describe it to us—I mean, we wouldn’t just do this blindly; they’d describe the land to us, and we’d believe them and then verify when we went and did the actual inspection. The National Organic Program didn’t like that and wanted us to be able to inspect the land before it was added to the organic production. And I think that that’s a good idea—that’s a very sound decision. But what that does is it changes kind of the time frame for a lot of farmers. Like if a farmer suddenly found land right next door that they could add to their organic certificate tomorrow if we could be there tomorrow, suddenly no, we can’t actually get out and inspect that for a month or something. So that kind of thing is always an issue for farmers. But you know, that’s just the details, really.
AO: So I want to just follow up on that a little bit, to help maybe our listeners to understand that a bit. So if you’re a farmer and you want to sell an early-season crop, and you don’t have your land verified yet, you can’t sell that organically.
CS: No, you cannot. You cannot, and it’s not retroactive either. So for example, if you just came across this great crop of maple trees and you want to make some syrup, you know, hopefully you can let us know that before you’re actually tapping those trees, so you can get the premium price when you sell your maple syrup. If not, well, there’s always next year.
AO: So how long does it take for a piece of land to become organic?
CS: Well, three years is what we require if it had been farmed conventionally. If it had just been standing fallow and nothing was going on with it, you know, we might allow it into production immediately, but we need to see that verified.
AO: Mm-hmm. So verification looks like…
CS: Oh, an affidavit from the previous landowner to what that land was used for.AO: So all of it, every step of the way, there’s some sort of verification, there’s a legal process. When we talk about all these things, these are the details, right? They’re the nitty-gritty, they’re the things that… But what matters the most to the consumer?
CS: Well, I think, you know, what matters to me and you: I want to be able to pick up this product and know I can trust it, know it’s going to be healthy for my family, and know that I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t want to think about it, I just want to be able to buy it and use it. I don’t want to have to do that verification on my own. And I think that that’s probably the most important thing.
That being said, you know, just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I mean, you can get cheese doodles that are organic, so…
AO: Organic cheese doodles!
CS: So that is something to—I mean, my children always try to pull that on me: “It’s organic!” Yeah, no.
AO: Right, yeah, there’s a whole array of organic food now that is not necessarily healthy. So it’s a good distinction, right? And actually, organic is not verifying an outcome, right? It’s verifying a process. And what is the most trusted label for organic? If you want to be sure of something, what’s the most trusted label to look for?
CS: Well, “USDA Organic” is a label that you’ll often see, or you’ll see the label of the certification agency. So for us it’s “Certified by MOSA.” Or there are probably ten, fifteen, twenty different organic certification agencies across the country. That’s what you’d see—that’s what you’d want to look for. But you’d want to see that “Certified Organic” label—
AO: From the USDA?
AO: Because that always is on there. Whatever agency it is, it’s always the “USDA Organic” label, right? Do you think consumers understand that?
CS: No, I don’t. I think that there’s a lot of label confusion in the industry. Right now the FDA, Food and Drug Administration, has got an open comment period on the “Natural” label. And so, listeners, if you’re interested in this, I would suggest you visit the FDA website and find out about this. And what that means is there’s a movement, there are petitions in place, asking the FDA to actually make the name “Natural” mean something or not allow it at all. Because right now you can put “Natural” on anything. So, you know, depending on how you want to define natural.
So I think that label confusion is true. You know, you go into the grocery store and you want to look at chicken. And so you can always find, in your local grocery stores, “natural, local, farm-raised” chicken. That doesn’t mean anything. That has absolutely no meaning whatsoever. And it’s easy to believe that it does mean something: “Oh, it’s local, so of course I’ll buy it.” Well, you know, I drive by farms all the time that I wouldn’t want to eat the chicken off their farms.
So I would like to see natural mean something. I really would like to see it mean something. And that’s up to the FDA and the USDA to come up with what that actually means. And good luck—that could be fairly interesting to try to figure that out. Like does natural mean really no processing from the time it’s raised till the time it hits your plate? I mean, that would mean a beet that was just watered.
AO: Well, so I guess that that means that the cheese doodles would be out, right?
CS: Absolutely! You could never claim natural cheese doodles—unless you find a cheese doodle tree somewhere.
AO: And wouldn’t we all be happy about that! Cori, thank you for joining us today.
CS: Thanks for having me—it’s been fun.
AO: It really has been. And thank you, listeners, for joining us at Rootstock Radio. If you’d like to hear more from Rootstock Radio, you can find all our episodes online at Rootstock.coop/radio, and on iTunes and Stitcher. We’ll see you next week!