A close-up photo of a yellow-brown fungus growing on the side of a tree

When we first applied for organic certification, back in 2014, we were quite confident we were doing everything right. We had met the requirement that the farm be managed organically for three years prior to our application. That meant three years of sourcing organic seeds, refraining from the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Not using any synthetic fertilizers. We spent those years carefully planning our fields, with an eye toward crop rotations and how best to prevent soil erosion. We planted habitats for pollinators. We built the fertility of the fields by planting cover crops to suppress weeds and to capture nitrogen, and we introduced carefully composted manures and other green fertilizers into the soil. While today we produce our own potting soils for seedling starts, back then we were buying it. Organic potting soil. Said so all over the bags. Stacked in the organic section of the supplier’s storehouse. So by the time our application was complete and the requisite inspection of the farm scheduled, we felt good. Quite good. Hard work, well worth it. The inspection took hours, still does every time we are inspected. The grounds are walked, notes are taken, records reviewed, questions are asked, more notes are taken. Every representation made in our application had to be verified. All off-farm inputs, meaning anything used on the farm that was procured off the farm, are vetted. Including, at the time of our first inspection, potting soils. No problem, we’d been careful in getting only organic.

In support of the National Organic Program and the farmers who adhere to it, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) reviews, and publishes a list of, materials and products acceptable for use in organic operations. It is a valuable reference, when referenced. Our inspector checked our potting soil against those listed by the OMRI. We had not, checked it. We’d read the bags. “Organic & Natural”. Printed everywhere, in big, bold letters. The OMRI publication has two sections, one listing generic materials, and one listing specific products and their manufacturers. Potting soil is not a generic material per se, it is a composite of materials, which may include tree bark, peat moss, kelp meal, green and other natural fertilizers, such as worm castings. Our potting soil would have to be checked against the specific product section of the list, which the inspector did. To no avail. This product was not on the list. The inspector said we should not worry, no problem, he would just confirm that
each individual component of the soil mix was on the OMRI generic materials list. He checked that list. And he was wrong, a problem, we should worry. Every component was on it except for one. Worm castings.

There are actually not too many materials that, if present, disqualify a farm from organic certification. One of those materials is sludge. Sludge. Noun, the solid waste in raw sewage – can cause diseases, kill marine organisms and pollute beaches. Add to that, farms. And, you might ask, this affects your farm how? Here’s how. Sludge, the solid waste in raw sewage that causes diseases, kills marine organisms and pollutes beaches and farms, is a cheap food source for worms. It’s added to whatever medium in which they are being kept, and it ends up in any collection of their castings. We may have unwittingly introduced sludge onto the farm through the potting soil. Crap. No pun intended.

The OMRI lists manufacturers whose worm castings do not contain sludge, as not all
do, but the list of ingredients on our soil disclosed only the ingredients, not the ingredients’ manufacturers. This, we would learn, is “proprietary information”. From where the castings came would turn out to be a closely guarded trade secret. Telephone calls to the local supplier led to the manufacturer’s sales rep. From there, eventually, to the manufacturer’s corporate
headquarters. Emails led to formal letters, all on the subject of worm castings. Corporate counsel stepped in. Then the company’s CEO. He could not have been more helpful. He provided both the name of the castings manufacturer, and documentation that the manufacturer was OMRI approved. No sludge, no problem, big relief.

We received our organic certification very shortly after resolving the casting issue, for
everything – fruit, vegetables, herbs, everything we grew. Except our mushrooms. We had inoculated our farm-cut logs with certified organic spore, and sealed the spores with wax. Over-the-counter wax. Not on the list. It wasn’t worth the exercise, we traded the logs to a non-organic farm for wood ash. That’s on the list, wood ash, and we could use it in our certified greenhouse. This past year, some five years after our original certification, we inoculated a new set of logs. Certified organic spore, sealed with certified organic wax. We now grow and sell certified organic mushrooms.