What to expect when the inspector comes calling

You’ve decided to take the plunge and transition your conventional farm to an organic one. You’ve contacted a certifying agent and written and submitted your farm’s organic system plan that outlines in detail how you intend to produce organic food. You’ve changed your approach to seeds and how you manage your soil, and you’ve done your research on organic methods for pest and disease control. All along, in the back of your mind, you’ve known that someone will be paying you a visit to make sure that your operation is up to snuff. That certain someone is an organic inspector and, for many, their first visit is anxiously anticipated. For some, it is flat-out dreaded. If you are one of the many that lie in bed at night, simmering over what is to come, rest easy.

The first thing you should know about farm inspectors is that they have an agricultural background and are genuinely interested in organic farming systems. They are also quite knowledgeable, having participated in educational workshops and training sessions specifically geared toward the organic inspection process. In fact, many certifying agents, before contracting with a new, fledgling inspector, ask them to attend a workshop conducted by the International Organic Inspectors Association. The IOIA, based in Broadus, Mont., is a highly respected nonprofit association of organic inspectors, and one of its missions is to standardize the inspection process. It does this by providing regular training sessions around the world for both novice and experienced inspectors. Session topics include crop inspection, processing inspection and livestock inspection. In a nutshell, organic inspectors are an informed lot and have as good a grasp on organic regulations as anyone can have.

Another thing you need to keep in mind is what is and is not the inspector’s role in organic certification. The purpose of their visit is to verify the paperwork you’ve submitted and report their findings to the certifying agent. They are not there to educate and tell you what to do or what not to do, and they are not the one that determines whether or not your farm can be certified. It is the agent who will make the ultimate decision on whether or not your farm qualifies. Think of inspectors as an objective link between you and your agent, a link as important for consumers as it is for the agent. Consumers and agents alike rely on the inspector’s keen senses and knowledge to detect nonorganic farming practices and uphold the integrity of the organic label.

Because it is a visit to verify, your inspector will thoroughly review your farm’s organic system plan before arrival. You can be certain that when they get to your farm, your plan has been gone through with a fine-tooth comb and sections of concern or interest have been highlighted. They will be prepared and so should you. If your OSP has changed since you submitted it, be sure you’ve documented those changes and are prepared to share them.

The visit will likely start with a tour through your fields, greenhouses and equipment storage, packing and crop storage areas. As you walk, they will be paying particular attention to your soil and how you manage it. What type of inputs are you using? Is there any sign of prohibited substances, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides? What about genetically modified organisms, are they being grown? What type of equipment is being used on the field, and is its use contributing to soil compaction? Is there any sign of erosion? If your farm is a split operation, particular attention will be given to how those conventional crops are grown, harvested and handled to ensure they’re kept separate from the organic crops. What about adjacent land use practices? The inspector will assess the risk of contamination from your neighbor’s land by taking a hard look at your buffer zones. Buffer zones are a notorious gray area, because federal regulations do not stipulate how wide a buffer should be. With this inherent, intentional flexibility built in, buffer requirements vary from farm to farm due to differences in landscapes, buffer plant compositions and variation in adjacent land use practices. It is the inspector’s job to apply their knowledge and assess the adequacy of your buffers. Finally, this tour will also help the inspector verify the map you sent to the certifying agent, and they will make sure the fields are accurately portrayed and that major features were mapped correctly.

The visit will also involve a sit-down with paperwork. It is the inspector’s job to make sure your record-keeping system makes sense and that a clear paper trail exists. Legible, orderly bookkeeping goes a long way toward keeping this phase of the visit short and sweet. Organic certification is notorious for its ongoing demands for documentation, from seed to sale. If you are a detail-orientated, organized person, you should not have any trouble. If you are sloppy and disorganized, your organic endeavor has a good chance of failing.

Most visits last two to four hours, and then the inspector leaves to write a report for the certifying agent, who then uses the report to assess your farm’s eligibility. A letter reporting a decision will be mailed shortly thereafter.

If you’ve done your reading, rubbed elbows with other organic farmers and spoken with organic ag experts, it’s likely you have a handle on what it means to be an organic farmer. Consider the inspector as part of the process that will allow you to succeed in your new enterprise. Pay attention to what the inspector is paying attention to, and you’ll be that much more prepared for future visits.

The author is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.