Organic husbandry is based on the harmonious relationship between land, water, plants and animals. Respect for the physiological and behavioural needs of animals and the feeding of good quality, organically grown feed.*
Sound like our farm?
That quote is from an early version of the NASAA (National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Ltd) Organic Standards and is fundamental to why we chose to farm organically and to seek certification as organic producers.
When we first made the decision to go organic, we thought that we’d be able to find the information and resources we’d need. We had worked on conventional farming properties, so already knew about the issues associated with this type of agriculture.
A certified organic farm means no synthetic fertilisers (urea, superphosphate, MAP, DAP, etc) no pesticides or herbicides, no antibiotics or synthetic additives, no hormones, no GMOs. But organics is so much more than a reductionist approach of not using, or doing, something. It’s about developing a wholistic farming system, built upon interconnected, natural, ecological processes. Organic production takes a systems approach to the farm, from the soils through to the people. It means happy healthy animals, biologically active soils and a biodiverse farm.
Wander around any of the Victorian Farmers Market accredited markets and you’ll see the familiar farmers’ market ‘tick’ that signifies the grower who sells it has grown it. Many stalls also display a copy of their organic certification, perhaps through NASAA, ACO, DEMETER, or another certifying body.
But there’s another side to the story – farmers making claim to produce being ‘organically grown’, ‘spray free’ or ‘biological’. It may well be all those things, but without the independent accreditation or legitimacy to back that up, you can’t be sure. It is confusing for the consumer. The organic industry and ACCC have acted on a couple of cases (eggs, water) where growers were intentionally misusing the term ‘organic’ (see the links below), but at a local level it’s usually lack of knowledge or awareness of the organic standards and the perception of added expense. Our fees are currently 1% of our gross income to NASAA annually.
The best way to be assured that the produce is legit is to buy from growers who can demonstrate their organic credentials through certification (unless you can visit the farm and see how it’s produced first hand) so look for the certification number, the label, or the certificate. These growers are supporting and developing the organic industry. Of course many of our customers aren’t fussed about our organic credentials; they just love the taste of the cheese!
An audit inspection of Holy Goat is carried out by our certifier NASAA annually – our latest was in September 2013. We provide our records (production, sales, etc.) for the past year. Our soils, pastures, vegetation, goats, buildings and sheds are all looked over. We have to be able to trace a batch of cheese back to the milking date and the herd and what they were fed on that day and where that feed was sourced. All bought-in products – hay, feed, minerals, etc. – must also be certified organic and we must have that proof (everything but our NSW barley comes from within an hour’s drive of the farm). Machinery coming onto the farm must be cleaned. A farm diary and an organic management plan are kept. NASAA have a volume of Standards – NASAA Organic Standard – that must be maintained and these are regularly reviewed and updated as the industry itself develops.
Usually it takes three to four years to gain full certification. Our farm had been lightly managed, no history of superphosphate use and no soil residues, so we had a ‘precertification’ year and then only one ‘in-conversion’ year before we were fully certified in 2003. Ten years down the track and we have learnt so much from being certified organic. When issues or problems arise you have to look outside the box, because you can’t just treat an animal with antibiotics, or apply a fertiliser to the soil, or buy in feed from wherever you can get it during droughts. You have to know your farm really well. Knowing, through acute observation, is the key – and the benefit – to being a successful certified organic farmer.
All that record keeping isn’t just for NASAA. It’s useful to us – we can see exactly when a goat was mated, or what the weather conditions were on a certain day and what the feed mix was, which minerals were being selected, and how our milk production changed in relation to all those things. Over time, we can see patterns and make links.
The other attraction for us was the better welfare for animals under organic management. The focus is on allowing the animal to fully express it’s ‘animalness’, so we can let our goats be ‘goats’, expressing their own quirkiness and inherent nature, and not be ‘production units’.
Some farmers may say ‘I love my animals too much to be organic certified’, because they believe that they will not be able to treat and respond adequately to sick animals. We don’t believe that is the case. It hasn’t been our experience. If an organic animal is very sick and needs antibiotics, you cannot withhold treatment – it just means you cannot use the milk from that animal for 6 months. That can be a strain on a dairy enterprise. Some farmers will move treated animals into a ‘hospital ward’, or send them to a conventional herd, or cull. We will keep the animal apart and handmilk away from the dairy. Even if you do have animal health issues, antibiotics may not be the answer, often an underlying issue, perhaps nutrition or stress, is causing the symptoms which medication can only treat, not cure. We use a range of herbal tinctures, vitamins, homeopathics and minerals to assist with treatment of our herd.
The US based vet Dr Hubert Karreman has been a great resource for us in managing our herd organically. He stresses that the best dairy management tool is observation. We have a checklist of signs and symptoms to guide problem solving, as well as the other tools – checking temperature, CMT test for mastitis, breathing, rumination. We encourage our staff to get to know each and every goat – faces and udders especially – to become part of the herd.
(Here’s a test … can you match the goat with her face and udder?! See the link to find out who’s is whose)
A small herd, say less than 100 animals, lends itself to organics, because you get to know the individual animals and their behaviours. Knowing when a goat is acting abnormally, (eg she is hanging behind at the milking line up when normally she’s up first, or she’s not standing with her group of mates, or her coat is fluffy) means you can identify a problem very early on. Even then, the goat has probably been ill for a few days. Early ID is critical because organic treatments take longer (a week, rather than a day or two) to have an effect and are more time consuming to administer and monitor than conventional ones.
Being certified organic has meant we’ve had to find our own solutions to problems, rather than just relying on conventional wisdom or science. It has made us better farmers. And usually the organic solution has been superior to any conventional one. Enterotoxemia (Clostridium) is an example – even in conventional herds it is difficult to treat and farmers usually consider vaccination. We worked with a vet to understand the clostridium bacteria and how it works (it actually exists in the gut naturally) and eventually found charcoal to be an effective treatment.
Likewise, we now understand our soils and their influence on animal nutrition much more clearly. In this granite country, the uptake of some minerals is limited, including magnesium. The Calcium-Phosphorus pathway is the only one really talked about in dairying, but we have found Magnesium is every bit as important (in mobilising vitamin D) in the goat metabolism. We supplemented with a Magnesium salt lick and this year no goat has shown symptoms of any metabolic disorder. Organics has helped us to understand the biochemical and metabolic systems on our farm in a way no conventional textbook or course could.
We didn’t achieve organic certification to maximise profits, although organic products do generally command a higher price than conventional in the marketplace. For us, it was the organic philosophy and approach; it fits our farm. We enjoy the creativity and the constant learning and application it demands. The sense of camaraderie amongst other certified organic farmers who supply our feed and hay. And the fact we make a quality, ethical and nutritious product.
Why wouldn’t you be organic certified?
*NASAA organic standards 2006