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Going Organic! An Inspector Called

Behaviourist and broadcaster, Jez Rose, blogs about the process of achieving Soil Association Organic Certification for his Cambridgeshire farm and home to The Good Life Project.

Irritable, soil-obsessed and socially awkward, the Soil Association inspector was not. Thankfully. I found myself getting a little bit stressed the morning of the inspection; double checking that there wasn’t any plastic that had been overlooked in the compost bin; going over the documents I’d been sent to complete to make sure I hadn’t made any mistakes and snapping at Mrs Jez for leaving a Kit Kat wrapper on the side – a non-organic chocolate bar! What would they think of us?!

As it happens, Mike was nothing short of lovely. In my last blog I said that our inspector was called Andrew – only a few days after writing that Andrew called me to introduce himself; he’s actually our “certification officer” (they all have quite militaristic titles, which make them sound much more intimidating than they are in real life). Andrew’s job is to help support and guide us through the process of becoming certified as organic by the Soil Association. Our inspector, who visits the farm and goes through our plans, paperwork, and site, is Mike. How can I describe Mike? Calming, professional, incredibly knowledgeable and experienced and with more than a little similarity to Michael Parkinson – and he loves (organic) ginger biscuits.

Admittedly dreary, the beginning of our organic journey, recording everything we do.

We sat and discussed our plans for The Good Life Project Farm and what the research was about, which fascinated Mike because he himself had been involved in research in a previous role as a research scientist and his entire life has been involved with nature. I’d already completed the paperwork recording where we were growing and what we were growing there; what we had brought onto the site and from where (there’s a requirement to record literally everything: what you feed your crops, when and how much; what you grow and every time you touch or interfere with the soil in some way; what you purchase, from where and whether or not it is from an organic source – it’s a little overwhelming at first but surprisingly simple to master once you get going).

This is when our first mildly disapproving “hmmm” came from Mike. I’d bought a lot of “organic” compost in good faith. It turns out that the term “organic” is protected in some way, so whatever you’re selling as “organic” has to have been approved by a body like the Soil Association to ensure that it is truly traceable as organic. On closer inspection, the company selling our compost had been perhaps a little clever, using terms such as “organic matter” in their descriptions. What this meant in terms of our inspection was that we had bought a load of non-certified organic matter onto what was to become an organic farm.

Not only that but I’d also bought a non organic King Edward potato seed, too. That was okay, reassured Mike, as long as I hadn’t planted them. Only, I had. “Hmmmm”. Then there was the matter of the other compost I’d brought, recommended by the RHS no doubt: Daylesfoot wool compost, which I’ve written about before.

“Not certified as organic”.

My first meeting with the Soil Association inspector was going from bad to worse, showing me up as a total failure before we’d even started and there was only one (organic) ginger biscuit left.

Bracing myself for being chastised, expelled or perhaps even physical violence (I’m new to working with the Soil Association and wasn’t sure how they’d respond), Mike explained that there are ways to manage situations like this. The correct procedure is before I buy anything that is not certified as organic, to call our certification officer (Andrew) and effectively put my case forward and ask permission. Sometimes it will be allowed if there’s no organic alternative and a good enough reason for wanting that particular flower, or vegetable species. In this case, as this was our first inspection and its purpose really is to set us on the right path, we got away with a “hmmmm”, education and warned not to let it happen again. I offered Mike the last (organic) ginger biscuit and he smiled.

I wrote copious amounts of notes while Mike was with us: he offered advice on changing the rotation I’d planned for the vegetable garden; we discussed using one of the raised beds as a spare bed to grow clover and other green manures and how to manage that; consideration that our chickens would need to be sourced organically, too; what products to avoid and which were permitted – on that front I was especially relieved to know that one particular slug killer was permitted: ferric sulphate. The thought of being wrapped up in my nightgown and wellies, armed with a torch and a plastic bucket patrolling the vegetable patch at 5am, hand-picking slugs off of my cabbages was not something that especially excited me. Slugs don’t lie crossing copper either, so surrounding your crop, or even the perimeter of your beds with a strip of copper pipe is another useful deterrent.

But what about my bad composting decisions and seeming incompetence in being able to establish an organic farm? How was this going to affect our certification?

It turns out that the journey to becoming certified as organic – or the “conversion” as the Soil Association refer to it – is 2 years. Mike couldn’t offer me an explanation as to why it was 2 years, which to me seems like a fairly random amount of time. Providing you satisfy the inspections, which happen just once a year, and keep adequate records demonstrating precisely what you do and when, from the date you officially become organic, you can sell produce labelled as so. Except apples and fruit on trees (otherwise known as “top fruit”) – that takes 3 years. Again, no idea why.

Pages of recommendations and notes to action.

By the time Mike was ready to leave, he nodded in the direction of the pages of notes I’d made with plenty of things we needed to adjust and complete, smiled and said: “that’ll keep you busy until we see you next!”… only it didn’t. It kept me busy all of that week and I’m very pleased to humbly brag that we’ve done everything required! Working out the crop rotation was especially tricky but I realised it was because the form the Soil Association provide isn’t extensive enough – I wanted to use it as a plan and a guide for me, too, to record that I’d lime the soil, then plant peas, then lime again, then plant brassicas, within the growing seasons but it only gives sufficient space for the minimum information (IE what are you going to grow this year?), expecting you to grow just one crop in that space.

I wanted to get on top of everything so that we could relax and enjoy the rest of the year doing this correctly – purchasing only certified organic manures, composts, feed etc; working according to0 our official organic plan and keeping records of the exact dates we purchased items, planted them, fed them etc. Now our systems are in place, it becomes much easier to just use them.

So, our kitchen herb garden has been watered and fed with certified organic seaweed extract; I’ve ordered 30 bags of certified organic general compost to top up the raised beds and to use for potting; I’ve started planting the certified organic seeds (cucumbers most recently); we’ve sourced a supplier of certified organic hens; completed all of our paperwork and working records and are thoroughly enjoying our new, mindful journey to growing organic.

Jez Rose is a behaviourist, broadcaster and Faculty Lead of The Good Life Project. A recipeint of the Beverly Hills Book Award, he is recording his experiences of setting up an organic farm on his blog.

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