When Growers Trade Seeds for Spreadsheets

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Carol Ann Sayle


The lady in the audience for a panel discussion following the movie FRESH (a more hopeful cousin of Food, Inc.), asked my husband/co-farmer Larry, who was a member of the panel, what it costs us to be USDA certified organic. "Well," he said, "it's kind of ironic, but to obtain verification that I am not putting poisons on the produce you will eat costs $700 per year."

Included for that fee is an annual inspection of our paperwork, farm plans, seed choices, fertilizers, and the few "pesticides" that we are permitted to use. Most importantly, leaves from our crops and our native vegetation are collected and sent to a lab to determine if we've used prohibited substances. The lab test is the proof of the "pudding," but often I think paperwork is the main focus.

Larry added that if we were not certified organic, but instead were addicted to chemicals, "we could spray them on the produce you eat, for free." No fee. No inspection. And no paperwork. (Note: I'm not referring to aerial crop dusters; I imagine there would be fees associated with that.)

We are not fans of pesticides, even the "approved" ones, as many of them kill "good" insects as well as "bad" ones. We tend to think that all the insects are somehow necessary. If we see aphids, we wait for the lady bugs and lacewings to ease the problem. And if we lose a crop now and then, our great diversity of varieties and crop types insures a good harvest.

At any rate, we are comfortable with the organic inspection, and we realize a fee is necessary to pay for the program. We justify being certified organic as it satisfies new customers that our produce won't add to their personal chemical overload. We find the paperwork onerous, but life is filled with paperwork. What would people do for jobs if there weren't prodigious piles of paper to scrutinize?

Of course we didn't become vegetable farmers to fill out forms, but alas, my desk has its share, and the computer contains one e-ledger after another (plus a photo of our snapdragons). I guess that's what hot afternoons are for in Texas. Turn on the air conditioning and sit down to fill in the blanks.

Often we receive surveys which require us to use "pull-down" menus with officially accepted answers, such as the abbreviation of the name of our state. I find it odd that it takes me longer to scroll down to the "T's" in the list than it would to just type in "TX." But the most irritating list is the one that asks our occupation. Many standard professions plus some exotic ones are there, but not "Farmer." We have to select "Other."

Maybe they don't think farmers can fill out paperwork—and Larry says he can't—or there are so few of us that we might as well be lumped in with tattoo artists and other specialists. And surely, they all must pay fees and fill in the blanks too.

So I'll continue to spend way too much time in the office, as someone somewhere will want to examine my every notation! All the while, our bugs are blissfully living a pampered life, with no paperwork.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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