Local, Organic or Both?

Grocery Manager Paul Kelly talks about local products and the unique and important role of organic certification.

As an “eater” in the West Kootenays, you are lucky enough to be in a climate where you can grow much your own food, and many of us do! If you have a bumper crop of squash or tomatoes, you can trade your surplus with a neighbour who shares your view of agriculture, and hopefully has an excess of something delicious that you didn’t grow yourself.  It’s unlikely that any of it is “certified” organic, but that’s OK with you, because you’ll only trading with the neighbours you trust. That other neighbour, you know the one with the broken fence and chicken-eating dog, who lives upwind and burns plastic and garbage in a barrel on Sundays? Well, maybe they can fend for themselves.farmstandWe love hyper-local barter transactions, still humming along like they have for millennia. It is a pure form of libertarian commerce, unfettered by long distribution chains, health regulations, taxation, food safe certifications, registered commercial kitchens, or organic certification.  Willing parties get together, assign relative value to their goods, and carry on, each the better for the transaction. If someone gets sick from the food, they’ll be more hesitant, or won’t trade with that neighbour the next time around, and as a producer you’ll tend to keep your food safety and farm biosecurity skills in check. The risks are relatively understood and taken, based on trusting personal relationships. Everyone strives to be a good neighbour, because the number and valuation of these transaction depend on it. At the end of the year, everyone submits their taxes based on the value of these exchanges (wink), and everyone’s happy.

Barter can only extend so far and feed so many, though. Thanks to modern culture, our homes, insurance, bank fees, taxes and cars cannot be paid for in squash or bacon.  Most of us now live in cities and have demanding jobs, making it difficult to “grow our own” currency.  Enter the almighty dollar. You get paid in dollars, and buy the food you need. The farmer’s market or farm gate sale is the most basic of commercial transactions, however you’re no longer bartering with a neighbour, but a farmer & business person who’s in the business of producing and selling food for dollars. The farmer has bills to pay and needs cash money.
You want to eat the farmer’s food, and they want your dollars, and like any business person, they’d prefer to get as many dollars for their product for as little investment on their part as possible. That’s business. Can’t blame them, because farming is extremely hard work and high risk for generally low returns. Agricultural technology companies (hawking seed, feed, fertilizers, pesticides and preservatives) promise farms that their novel products will accelerate growth, increase yields, and preserve farm output to generate increasingly better economic returns. That’s enough to sway nearly any business-savvy farmer.  These advances for the most part work extremely well, and have led to amazing efficiencies in farming –we simply can’t deny that fertilizers and antibiotics have worked wonders for agricultural efficiency from a volume output and dollar perspective.
Farm-Stand-Ahead-12Now, back to the farmer’s market or roadside stand, where the farm business will try to convince you to spend the most dollars they can, and will use any variety of catch-phrases to do so: No-spray, pesticide free, grass-fed, natural, pasture-raised, even organically-raised or ‘grown using organic practices’. Some farm businesses will bring in product from another farm business that produces an item better or more cheaply than they can, and they’ll sell you that product at their stand too, acting as a reseller.
So now you’re choosing some great looking produce or meat, and are being wooed into buying a product that potentially local, but isn’t certified organic, though close to it, right?   Wrong. If the farm isn’t Certified Organic by an approved third party inspector, the farmer is likely not even 100% familiar with what the certification standards are and what record keeping is required. Potentially, that could mean:

the corn, soy, and canola oil & meal in their chicken feed may be transgenic (GMO)
the wheat, oats and barley they feed their animals has been treated with chemical pesticides and fungicides to control granary pests in storage well before it showed up at their farm.
the water they use to irrigate their crop or water livestock may contain heavy metals, synthetic fertilizers, or various other wastes or pathogens from activities higher up in the watershed.
None of this is clear, let alone tested.

Even our experienced buyers here at the Co-op have, on occasion, been convinced to try products that tout their “naturalness”, but turn out not to meet our Buying Guidelines. Trouble is, if it isn’t Certified Organic (in production, processing and handling), the wholesalers, brokers, handlers and haulers often do not know what it is that they are selling, have not seen where it was produced and according to what standards, but they’ll swear up and down to convince you that it’s “practically organic”. Organic certification is possibly more important now than ever, as the crucial and reliable link between local farms, their customers, and if involved, the retail supply chains. Each person in that chain–from farm to table–needs to understand what ‘certified organic’ means with regards to the careful (and third party audited!) record keeping, paperwork, seed and feed sourcing, growing methods and processing.

produce dept

For the local operator of a mixed farm in the Kootenays, the cost to become Certified Organic through an accredited certifier such as the Kootenay Organic Growers Society (KOGS) is under $500 + the Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC) is about $75 & inspection fees (variable), so the total is usually under $1K per year.  That’s less than the price of a tractor tire, and is recoverable by the farms who market it skillfully to their advantage. Other certifications, such as Kootenay Mountain Grown and SPCA (livestock only) are less costly and still have unique strengths and benefits, and it’s important to note that they do not have the same requirements as Certified Organic with regards to on-farm chemical use, processing aids, and other factors that are strictly controlled through the Canadian Organic Regime (COR).

At the Co-op we carry local products that are, in some cases, completely conventional (such as Chocofellar Chocolate), Certified Organic (ex. Spicer Farms Produce, Lazy River Organics Mushrooms, Kootenay Meadows Dairy, etc.), and “natural” (ex. Queen City Crisps). It is certainly a challenge for us to keep on top of what you, as a member, want to see on the shelf–especially as we begin planning to have a much more space for more products in the new store. To find lists of currently certified organic farms in the West Kootenays, (as well as instruction on how to become a certified organic farm or processor!), visit www.kogs.bc.ca or www.klasociety.org or www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca.

Visit your local farmers’ market this Spring to seek out some great local and certified organic produce, and shop for certified organic and True Local foods and products at your Co-op, all year long! If you have a perspective you’d like to share with the co-op regarding the variety of products stocked, organic or not, or how these are labelled in-store, we’d love to hear from you! Fill out a member comment form at our customer service desk the next time you are shopping, and we’ll make sure that they land on the right desks!

– Paul Kelly, Grocery Manager

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