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Growing Organically: Helping Farmers Is a Passion at Pennsylvania Certified Organic

by on July 07, 2018 5:00 AM

It’s no secret the demand for organic food is growing, but for many consumers purchasing their produce at a local farmers market, the large role Pennsylvania Certified Organic plays in the chain of events bringing items from field to plate isn’t clear or even known. However, PCO is a vital link for both farmer and consumer.

According to the 2016 Certified Organic Survey, organic sales are up nationally by 23 percent. The number of organic farms in the country has increased by 11 percent and the number of acres dedicated to organic farming by 15 percent. Pennsylvania generated $660 million in certified organic sales in 2016, second only to California. Meanwhile, PCO saw a 45 percent increase in organic certification as the fifth-largest certifier in the United States.

PCO was founded in 1997 by a small group of organic farmers. The aim was to create an organization that would act as a resource for both organic certification and education. Current PCO executive director Leslie Zuck was one of those first farmers, though she certainly wasn’t expecting to take on such a large role in the organization.

“I graduated from Penn State in 1980,” she explains. “I went on to law school at Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle. I’d previously worked as a journalist and then I worked as an attorney for the first 20 years of my career. I never had any interest in agriculture as a career, but I’d always been an avid organic gardener from a young age. I was gardening since I could walk.”

At the time of PCO’s founding, Zuck was practicing law in State College and the newly-formed group asked if she’d be willing to assist with the legal matters and paperwork required to get off the ground. However, after the organization’s first year in business, the other founders realized they needed Zuck’s assistance on a full-time scale.

“We started out with 27 members,” she says. “By the end of the first summer, we had over 50 farms that had applied. That was kind of unexpected. [PCO] realized they were going to need more help, so they hired me on as a salaried employee the second or third year, to be able to rely on someone to manage all aspects of the organization. It snowballed pretty quickly.”

Now, PCO employees approximately 75 people, with around 30 full-time certification staff working out of the Spring Mills office and 40 contracted inspectors in the field. It additionally expanded its services beyond organic certification to also provide certification according to 100 percent grass-fed standards and forest-grown standards, according to PCO’s program director Kyla Smith. The grass-fed standard was the first ruminant organic grass-fed standard of its kind, while the forest-grown standard was the first program to verify sustainable and legal harvest of forest botanicals.

Together, this team fully focuses on assisting what is now nearly 1,500 farmers and processors in obtaining certification, taking the legal regulation jargon and communicating it to farmers and their families in ways that are clear and succinct.

“The certification team at PCO, they have the information,” explains Zuck. “They know the regulation. They understand [what] a legal regulation means when you take it onto the farm and you tell the farmer how they have to manage their compost pile in order to be in compliance with the standards, or what they have to put on their labels or what types of feed or mineral supplements they’re allowed to feed to their dairy cows…it’s a lot to learn. The staff is super knowledgeable and very, very good at communicating to the farmers.”

It’s a calling the entire staff, Zuck included, feels highly passionate about. “Very few people get to work with the amazing families out there who are growing our food. It’s a very special job to have,” she says.

As a result of the cooperative partnership between PCO and farm, consumers receive added assurance the products they purchase are, in fact, actually grown or produced according to consistent, uniform organic standards.

“It’s important for consumers to feel confident that, if they are choosing to purchase organic food, that it is in fact organically grown,” explains Kim Tait of Tait Farm Foods. “This is the role of a third-party, National Organic Program-accredited certifier. They oversee and inspect to the national rule, which ensures organic compliance.

“[PCO] is considered one of the top certifiers in the country. They have a great reputation, a skilled and helpful staff, and they are a great local resource…” she continues. Tait Farm Foods has been certified organic since 2004.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and also an organic farmer at Village Acres Farm & FoodShed along with her partner Debra Brubaker, agrees with Tait.

“The organic label is nothing but a consumer assurance label. If customers want to have assurance in the label, we have to make sure we have some sort of third-party verification of our practices and that’s PCO’s rule … [PCO] is able to come to our farm, inspect us, verify we’re following the standards, then the customer who buys from us knows, this farm had to follow these certain standards and there’s a third party verifying that they’re doing it. It’s not just [the farmer] saying they’re doing it.”

Village Acres Farm & FoodShed, near Mifflintown, has been certified organic for 28 years, working with PCO since its founding. One of the benefits of being an organic farm that Smith-Brubaker mentions is the conservation aspect.

“We have a really vibrant ecosystem here on our farm [and] we try very much to consider nature our partner, not something we have to control. Having pollinators and soil health that’s helping mitigate some of the risks associated with climate change, all those things that come along with farming organically, are really important to us.”

However, she also mentions the economic benefits that come along with organic farming. Those increased economic opportunities can be a big selling point for farms on the fence regarding obtaining organic certification.

Zuck recalls one interaction with a regional farming family, a young couple considering taking over the family dairy farm.

“The farm wasn’t doing very well and was in an area that didn’t have great soil, a very rural community where there weren’t options to go work off the farm. Both individuals had grown up on farms, gotten married, had a few kids and were ready to take on the farm, but it was a really hard choice for them,” she says. “They wanted to bring up their children on a farm in a rural community … but they [also] didn’t want to go through what their parents went through, which was extreme economic hardship at times, not being able to put their children through college, always having to scrape and save and not having a comfortable living. It was a big dilemma for them.”

The couple had been approached by an organic diary company, which was interested in potentially contracting the farm to produce organic milk for the brand.

“If these people didn’t have PCO in their community to call or contact, or a way to get certified or receive organic education or an inspection, they wouldn’t have had that option and their farm would’ve gone out of business or continued to produce poorly,” Zuck says.

The couple is still farming today and has converted other families in their community to organic farming as well, the option having provided them with the opportunity to enjoy a rural agricultural lifestyle, without the same economic worries.

During a time when family farms are going out of business because of these economic issues, Zuck sees organic farming as a way to potentially remedy the issue. “There [sometimes] isn’t a person in the family who wants to take over the farm, because they don’t see it as a successful business model,” she notes. However, if today’s children grow up with parents and grandparents farming organically, learning organic farming practices at their parents’ knees, they learn firsthand that organic farming can be a sustainable business plan and are less likely to abandon the family farm when choosing their own careers. “It’s more attractive to the next generation when they’re producing something that also happens to be a highly demanded product.”

For many organic foods and products, the demand still outranks the supply, though it might not be apparent in State College and the rest of the state, where Zuck observes there’s an abnormal amount of options.

“It’s a little bit of a bubble in State College, because it’s not common to be able to go out and directly buy from a farm or farmers market anything from eggs to goat cheese to lettuce to fruit. You can fill up your shopping cart by going to the farmers market or driving a few miles out of town to go to a farm. That’s not uncommon throughout Pennsylvania, but it is uncommon throughout the country.”

It helps that Centre County is also home to two other beneficial organic farming resources, both of which PCO partners with frequently. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is PCO’s sister organization, a network of growers and producers providing education, support, and advocacy. The other large resource is Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, which continues to conduct organic research on its farms, thanks to industry demand, and attract students interested in organic agriculture.

One bit of Penn State research particularly fuels PCO’s cause. An Organic Trade Association study, “U.S. Organic Hotspots and their Benefit to Local Economies,” by Penn State agricultural economist Dr. Edward Jaenicke, looked at 225 U.S. counties considered organic hotspots – counties with high levels of organic agricultural activities that have neighboring counties with high organic activity – to determine how the hotspots impacted the county’s economic indicators. The study found the development of an organic hotspot increases median household income by more than $2,000 and lowers poverty rates by as much as 1.35 percentage points. The thing all hotspots had in common? The existence of a non-profit organization, like PCO, providing organic farming education.

The chain reaction that begins at PCO and similar organizations and ends with economic improvement for the entire community and certified organic food on the table is summed up nicely as Zuck once again brings the discussion back to the symbiotic relationship between the PCO staff and farm.

“[The staff members] have a skill that, combined with the farmers’ skills, can come together and magically create this wonderful system of agriculture that we call organic and sustainable agriculture … It’s an extremely satisfying feeling for [us] to know that [we] were able to help someone do something that was not only important to the farmer and their family, but also for the outcomes, and the organic certification and the food that eventually makes its way to the store, the farmers market, or the table.”

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