The USDA outlines standards for organic agriculture on their website. The following is an exert from their website introducing these standards:
“Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use.
Organic farmers, ranchers, and food processors follow a defined set of standards to produce organic food and fiber. Congress described general organic principles in the Organic Foods Production Act, and the USDA defines specific organic standards. These standards cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives.
Organic farms and processors:
- Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
- Support animal health and welfare
- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
- Only use approved materials
- Do not use genetically modified ingredients
- Receive annual onsite inspections
- Separate organic food from non-organic food”
There are so many descriptors and labels used now in the alternative food movement it is nearly impossible to keep them all straight. There is Certified Organic, Certified Naturally Grown, Certified Non GMO, Biodynamic Certified, Beyond organic, Deep organic, Locally grown, Certified Environmentally Friendly, Certified Sustainably Grown, and there are No-till farms and there are Grass-fed and Pasture raised animals, and the list goes on and on. While some of these labels provide more substantive assurance as to how the food was grown or raised, many labels are not much more than a weak attempt at luring environmentally conscious consumers.
Eighth Day Farm is not certified organic by the USDA. The reason for this is that some of the ingredients we incorporate in our compost piles are not certified organic (for example, the spent grain from local breweries). We have not encountered any literature that persuades us to believe this grain contaminates the quality of our finished compost and we further believe that recycling this waste material into soil makes good ecological sense for urban context. While we respect the certification standards and believe they serve an important purpose, we’re of the persuasion that rules can only bring us so far. In all but one area we are following the letter of the law, but we are much more concerned with the spirit of the law. And just like in Christianity, the Spirit will lead you better than the letter. Pyganic is an OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved insecticide but it is broad spectrum and will kill almost everything. The rules give it the thumbs up, but the guiding spirit of the rules (“preserve the environment”) puts this product into question. Copper fungicide is also blessed but all farmers know it is a heavy metal that can build up in your soil over time.
Two schools of agricultural thought have played a significant role in shaping our practice. These are bio-intensive mini-farming (out of Ecology Action) and permaculture. We have gravitated towards these schools of thought because we believe they have done the best job of keeping questions of sustainability and ecological wisdom at the center. These schools emphasize a regenerative agriculture that mimics living systems and attempts to facilitate resilience that doesn’t simply sustain, but enhances life. As a species we have done tremendous damage to the earth, but it is possible to cultivate systems that accelerate a positive succession- building soil organic matter, creating wildlife habitat, diversifying species, purifying water, sequestering carbon. While these schools respect and seek out the insights of genuine science, they have not disavowed the accumulated wisdom of ancient and traditional agricultural practices around the globe like our reductionistic modern industrial system has. We’ve attended farming conferences where it was made quite clear that the only matter of concern for those present was increasing profitability. The land grant universities had their professors spelling out on power-points how to do this, but there were no larger questions asked about the ecological soundness of it all. Wendell Berry probed this problem when he wrote, “What is the point of further study of nature if that leads to the further destruction of nature?” (Berry, Life is a Miracle). Our goal is to continually be learning from and about nature so that we can best fulfill the commission assigned to us in Genesis 2:15, to “serve and protect” it.