George Kalogridis is a certification officer for ECOCERT ICO LLC. In his role, he reviews the paperwork required to become and maintain Organic Certification for farmers, handlers, processors and retailers. He knows farming and the organic side of the industry as well, because he grew up in a family, conventional citrus business in Florida as growers and brokers until the freeze of 1983 wiped them out. Since then, Kalogridis transitioned to the organic side of the industry and has developed a strong history working with the Organic Trade Association in developing organic standards and federal organic regulations.

“I got into organics and set up the first wholesale produce operation in Florida and froze out in 1989. Then I moved to Southern California in 1990, opened an organic ingredients company providing organic products to domestic and international processors,” he went on describing, “Organic as a ‘Process Verification System,’ which means paperwork; however, once you get past the initial set up it becomes maintenance, so the process is not so difficult.”

Kalogridis said farmers interested in starting through this process must contact an accredited organic certification company, like the one he works for, “The USDA oversees the work of all Organic Certifiers, via the National Organic Program (NOP). The certification company (you choose) will send you an initial application, either paper or electronic, in which you will describe your farming operation, provide maps and a history of the previous farming operation.”

“To become Certified Organic a field (on your farm) must not have a prohibited substance applied for a period of 36 months,” he explained. “If you use conventional fertilizer and made one pass of an insecticide, the 36-month clock would start ticking on the date of the last insecticide application.”

“Paperwork is the same from any state or certification company. It may be a different format, but all the information requested is the same,” Kalogridis pointed out. “There is a Federal Cost-Share program that helps defer the cost of Organic Certification up to $750 available to all farmers.”

Kalogridis said most farmers will produce either 100 percent organic crops and livestock or organic products such a cow’s milk, “Processors can produce 100 percent organic or ‘made-with-organic products.’ A few companies, like us, offer Certified Transitional Certification. While the transitional market is under-developed, some farmers like to go through the Transitional Certification process to make sure they are not making a mistake prior to Organic Certification.

The unique aspect of organics is the value-added starts on the organic farm. An organic product cannot be produced unless it first starts on a Certified Organic Farm.”

Farmers considering transitioning to organic should not be intimidated because, he said, “Over 90 percent of all organic farmers used to be conventional farmers, which means they all had to go through the relearning process of how to farm without chemicals. The three-year transition is difficult as your soil goes through the process of moving from chemicals to organically-approved inputs. If you’ve ever known someone who has stopped drinking or smoking, you saw how they go through a physiological change – the same thing is happening with the soil. During this transitional period, there will be a yield drag and farmers still receive conventional pricing for their commodity crops. But, the fact remains, that organic farmers have continued to have higher returns-on-investment (ROI) than their conventional counterparts over the past decade.”

Kalogridis said his work goes in cycles, much like farming, “We are very busy in the spring with the paperwork each farmer files at the beginning of each year and then in the fall after their annual inspection which can uncover short-falls in the farmer’s recordkeeping. After farmers have been in the certification process for a few years they, like their soil, become acclimated to the routine. It’s always a pleasure to see everything come into balance. The best is when farmers have their farm in balance with cover crops, crop rotations and healthy soils that don’t require a lot of off-farm inputs. That’s a joy to behold.”

Organics continues to be the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, he said, “And, there is little doubt that the trend that started in the early ’90s will not continue as millennials, the largest segment of the population, keep buying organic products for their family.”

He added that organic production has also ramped up in output throughout the years, “It’s not uncommon for organic corn to out-yield conventional. Some Land Grant programs now offer degrees in Organic Ag and a new breed of Organic Extension Agents are helping farmers in the Midwest. Farmers entering the organic market today are not pioneers. They are entering a market that provides support with a wide-array of inputs to build fertility and organically approved pest control. One of the reasons farmers are getting into organics is that once the soil is balanced, you go from the cost of soil building to maintenance, which costs less. Anytime you tell a corporation they can control cost they will listen. Anytime a farmer can control their cost, they have a better chance to be profitable.”

Kerry Hoffschneider can be reached at kerry.hoffschneider@midwestmessenger.com.