First-time Certification in the Year of COVID-19

Rolling Hills Farm sits on a plateau above the Delaware River Basin in west central New Jersey. This farm has provided the livelihood for John Squiccarino and Stephanie Spock since they took on a solid multi-year lease in 2014. The fields were not immediately certifiable, but they converted an outbuilding to produce organic mushrooms in 2015, certified by the New Jersey Department of Ag (NJDA). Certifying the whole farm was a long-term goal, but the idea took a back seat as the couple put their energies into developing their soil, their year-round production systems, and their local markets.

They stopped producing mushrooms in 2017, but by end of the 2019 season, as their wholesale markets grew, John and Stephanie saw the need for organic certification for the rest of the farm.

Erich Bremer heads the Organic Farm Certification Program for NJDA, and keeps an office in the Department of Ag building. In a normal year, Erich gives priority to new farms that are anxious to start their spring markets as Certified Organic. In 2020, Rolling Hills was one of these farms. John and Stephanie had markets lined up for which organic certification would be a requirement, so they were diligent in submitting a detailed and complete Organic System Plan (their application) in a timely manner.

Being warned it’s not always a quick process, John and Stephanie remained optimistic that the NJDA would certify them in time for their expanded spring markets. But then COVID-19 arrived. Soon, New Jersey was dealing with tens of thousands of cases and hundreds of fatalities. The State abruptly closed all agency buildings, including the Department of Agriculture. Erich continued to work from home, but he had little access to his computer files, and no access to the paper files left in the office when the building closed. Because NJDA organic certification is still largely a paper system, his ability to move ahead on farm certifications ground to a halt.

One month passed, and then two months, as Erich tried to keep phone contact with the handful of new clients. Eventually he made an “appointment” to visit his office; he downloaded files and left with boxes of papers that allowed him to continue the review process at home. As John and Stephanie related, Erich’s concern for his farmers was genuine, even sharing his personal cell phone number in order to continue communication.

Inspection—seeing the fields, looking into storage buildings, checking records—is an integral part of the certification process. Erich uses a handful of trained inspectors, including both private contractors and state employees responsible for other types of inspections for the NJDA. Although no longer early spring, Erich finished the review of Rolling Hills’ application and was ready to assign an inspector.

Meanwhile, as the public’s fear of human contact grew, demand for Rolling Hill’s produce, certified or not, skyrocketed. The couple expanded their CSA, and Stephanie put her on-line marketing skills to work building a web-site store, offering produce in pre-packed boxes. Regional governors declared farmers’ markets to be essential businesses, and the demand at the markets also grew. Wholesale markets clambered for whatever Rolling Hills could supply, just to keep their shelves stocked with local fresh produce. Everyone, including their three full-time employees, was working overtime. With all the work and all the demand for their produce, the immediate need for organic certification waned while John and Stephanie waited for their inspector.

IOIA, the International Organic Inspectors Association, has been training organic inspectors since 1993. Most inspections were halted in March and April. In response, IOIA’s Director, Margaret Scoles, quickly put together a team to develop completely new types of training, focusing on COVID-safe practices for inspections and for conducting remote virtual inspections with or without a safe on-site component. At the same time, ACA, the Accredited Certifiers Association, was working on similar goals and soon the two organizations combined their expertise to produce “Best Practice Guidelines”. Training programs followed, conducted by IOIA for its independent members and by certifiers who had their own dedicated inspectors. For many inspectors, this training included new software and new electronic and physical devices. The state of New Jersey was providing COVID guidance to its many inspectors, including the two trained for organic practices.

The National Organic Program (NOP) oversees organic certification in the USA. It “accredits” or licenses all certification agencies, whether private or government, to certify operations to the organic standards. This certification is necessary to use the word “organic” under the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. It’s also the NOP’s duty to provide guidance to certifiers on implementing the law. Virtual inspections had been unheard of, but with the danger posed to inspectors and farmers from site visits, the NOP approved the ACA/IOIA Best Practices Plan to allow virtual inspections.

For John and Stephanie, though, there was one problem – the federal regulation states that for operations being certified for the first time, “certifying agent must conduct an… on-site inspection”. Rolling Hills’ mushroom certification had lapsed, so the farm was considered new and had to be physically visited by an inspector. The NOP made it clear – no exceptions.

At the NJDA, Erich Bremer typically uses private contract inspectors, who can generally be more quickly available, early in the season for new clients anxious to meet the organic certification requirements of their spring markets. But because of the partial state shutdown, a moratorium was placed on hiring outside contractors. The organic inspectors who are state employees typically have many other agricultural inspection duties, ranging from food safety audits to preventing overseas pests from entering with imported food. With the pandemic raging, organic was likely not the top priority of the state inspectors.

Finally, in mid-summer, John and Stephanie were contacted by their state organic inspector. A virtual inspection of their “paperwork” was conducted using Zoom and its screen-sharing capabilities. An abbreviated and socially distanced on-site inspection followed, and by September, the process was complete. Ironically, the pandemic that forced them to delay their certification was the same pandemic that drove their sales expansion, allowing them to do without their organic certification for one more year.

With the spring rapidly approaching again, the 11 high tunnels on Rolling Hills Farm are lush with greens and reds of healthy lettuces and other crops. Seedlings abound in the greenhouse, soon to join direct-seeded crops in the fields.

This time last year, the world was in chaos. Although the chaos hasn’t gone away, adaptations made at Rolling Hills Farm have provided a resiliency which has allowed John and Stephanie to enter 2021 with confidence. They have worked long and hard for their organic certification and look forward to the rewards it will reap in their markets.

Al Johnson has been an organic inspector for 32 years. He ran a certified organic farm in the 1980s and the original NOFA-NJ Certification Standards were written around his kitchen table.

Links and Resources
Rolling Hills Farm: www.rollinghillsfarm.org