Confused about the different labels claiming organic at your grocer? So are we! Already in Corvallis at the Linus Pauling Institute, the opportunity presented itself to explore this thorny topic.
With a story begging for imminent release and interviews behind us from our Western States tour, Lee stayed in the Café of the Institute to write. I drove off to the headquarters of Oregon Tilth. Chris Schreiner, mover and shaker, met me to discuss their mission.
Rich in the history of the organic movement, Oregon Tilth, a 3rd party, non-profit, organic certification service, touches on all stages of the organic food chain. Growing out of a 1970's counter-culture group dedicated to small-ag farming, Tilth is consistently way ahead of their time. Their focus coined two important new phrases in agriculture:
• Biologically Sound
• Socially Equitable
Wendell Berry, Key Note speaker at their first grass-roots conference, expressed Tilth's ultimate mission. As per Chris, "...to infuse a new direction in the marketplace by delivering uncompromised, good food."
Tilth's strategy was to codify a certification process for all segments of the organic food chain: farmers, distributors, processors, restaurants, composters, mulchers, even spinners to dyers to weavers to the shirt on your back.
As we learned from Bob Durst at Linus Pauling, a handshake deal no longer conveys trust in the business world. His studies include investigating economic fraud and identifying adulterated products that do not meet the claims on their labels. Rampant in the food industry, it's easy to imagine unethical food suppliers slapping an "Organic" tag on their products to gain an edge.
Enter Oregon Tilth. Founding fathers of formal organic certification, they helped shape efforts to develop standards for USDA Organic Certification through the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. OT and CCOF, a similar California non-profit, are proposing a strategic partnership to combine forces for strength in numbers and a broader reach. Tilth also has an ongoingpartnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for educational outreach on sustainable practices.
The health benefits to the food chain are found in their certification criteria:
An organic farm must be free of toxic and persistent chemical inputs for three years.
Soil fertility must be maintained by improving the physical, chemical and biological condition of the soil.
Organic seed must be used, though non-organic, untreated seed may be used if an equivalent organic variety is not commercially available.
Farms must implement an integrated pest, weed and disease management prevention program
As a consumer, what should we look for at the grocery to get the real deal... in short: The USDA Organic seal of approval, backed by trusted organic certifiers like Oregon Tilth or CCOF. If the product doesn't feature these seals, then question the product! Other locales have their own 3rd party certification services and/or programs, but you have to do your own research as to their credibility.
The guarantee from Oregon Tilth-CCOF: Strict production standards, inspections and legally binding contracts to protect the producers and buyers of organic products. Sending inspectors into the field to farms and production facilities, as well as tracking the paper trail from farm to trucker to supplier to producer to retailer, is part of the program. Using knowledgeable professionals and consultants such as Bob Durst through his independent company Simple Organic Solutions, they do the legwork to ensure that an organic product is as advertised.
The pitfalls of not seeking out certified products became apparent recently with our purchase of Miracle-Gro Organic soil. Miracle-Gro, owned by The Scotts Company, certifies their organic products through The Mulch & Soil Council, "a voluntary program." The small print on the bag says this council's "...standards do not contain a product category for pesticides and this certification mark does not apply to pesticide claims." Hmmmm... isn't that part of the important rationale for using "organic"?
For organic farming and home gardening, Oregon Tilth also spearheaded the "OMRI Listed" program for fertilizers, compost, mulches and soils inputs. The Organic Materials Review Institute certifies that inputs do not contain unapproved pesticides or herbicides, petroleum products, or antibiotics and hormones sourced from animal waste... so when in doubt, look for the OMRI listed label when buying for your home garden.
Committed to improving our food supply, Oregon Tilth has also developed strategic partnerships with conventional roots. By funding the Oregon State University extension service Small Farms Program, Tilth supports four important aspects of their portfolio:
Education for new farmers: a curriculum offering participants academic and pragmatic perspectives on agronomic, economic and environmental stewardship skills using input from local, successful farmers.
On-farm based cover-crop research studying nutrient cycling to "...ground-truth the research in practice and real-life production conditions."
Education for organic and transitional farmers.
Ongoing OSU needs assessment to establish a future research and education agenda.
As per Chris, "Farming is often an extractive industry and OT plans on changing this model."
They believe organic systems can be regenerative. In Lake Oswego, Oregon they have created a demonstration garden and education center as the nucleus of a 60-acre city owned farm... the subject of an upcoming story of community garden plots, indigenous insectaries, a dynamic CSA and a unique living flower museum.
Credible it is... Oregon Tilth's roots run deep.