Recently, five new members were nominated for five-year terms to the 15-member board. The Obama administration has had a schizophrenic relationship with agriculture, on one hand cozying up to the likes of Monsanto Co. by advocating for GM crops, and on the other hand winning plaudits from small farm and organic advocates for programs like Know Your Farmer Know your Food and the White House organic garden.
So I was interested to see what type of NOSB appointees were selected. Fortunately, for a firsthand look all I had to do was get in my car and drive 20 miles up the road to Shelburne Farms, where Jean Richardson, an organic inspector, was conducting the annual inspection of O Bread bakery one recent afternoon.
For the past 10 years, Richardson, whom I know personally, has worked primarily for the Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF) certifying organization, which is part of Northeastern Organic Farming Association-Vermont (NOFA-VT). That will change in January: As one of the new NOSB members, her decisions and suggestions will affect any American who grows, produces, processes, or buys organic products.
Clad in well-worn jeans, a denim vest over a salmon-colored turtleneck sweater, and a pair of scuffed work boots, Richardson, whose inspections do occasionally lead to a company or a farm losing its certification, snooped from one end of the bakery to the other, and from floor to ceiling, at times jolly, at times serious, getting down on her hands and knees to peer under counters, running her hands over cooling racks ("What do you clean these with?"), flipping over 50-pound sacks of flour, and peering into mixing machines. Regulations required her to document that every ingredient in the bread met organic standards, following a paper trail that led all the way back to the mill where it was processed and the field where it was grown. It also required her to ascertain that the bakery maintained adequate standards of cleanliness and that there was no chance that food would be contaminated by mice, moths, flies, or other pests.
O Bread's co-owner, Carla Kevorkian, provided Richardson with a fat sheaf of certificates, invoices, and lot numbers proving that the ingredients she used met organic standards -- all except for the raisins in her raisin bread. Kevorkian couldn't find the invoice for the raisons. She had the box -- clearly labeled organic -- from which they had been scooped, but that wasn't enough. Organic guidelines demanded a document with a lot number verifying that the specific raisins used in that batch of bread were organic.
"It must be at home," Kevorkian said. "My husband's coming in. I'll have him bring the invoice." Richardson smiled, showing her jolly side. "I like to find errors, Carla," she said, then paused for a flawlessly timed beat, "It's my raison d'être."