For organic producer Susan Graff, the daily grind is performed far from a cubicle.
At Crestview Farms, her family's 26-acre operation in Arcadia, she tends daily to so many different crops, it's hard to keep count. Tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, carrots, turnips, onions, leeks and garlic peek from the earth in various stages of growth, a greenhouse is filled with dozens of varieties of herbs and salad greens and an orchard shows promise of grapes, pears, peaches and apples as the weather warms.
Her office mates are a trio of dogs — Bandit, Lotto and Nick — a couple of farm cats, and her most diligent workers: ladybugs. The red and black spotted critters eat the aphids that threaten her crops and are a natural form of pest control.
On a recent morning, Graff gave The Oklahoman a tour of her farm. As a wasp buzzed overhead in the greenhouse, she was not worried.
“It's ok. They eat caterpillars,” she said.
Crestview Farms is one of about 75 Oklahoma operations certified organic by the U.S. Agriculture Department. Each undergoes a rigorous initial inspection, including a site visit and soil testing, and must be recertified annually.
Interest in the program has grown dramatically, said Bryan Buchwald, section director for the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, which became accredited through the USDA to perform organic certifications in 2002.
In the summer of 2003, there were about 10 Oklahoma operations certified. Now, the department has given a seal of approval to more than 125 (some carry multiple certificates, which is why the state count is higher than the USDA's).
Nationwide, organic farming also is growing. At the end of 2011, there were 17,673 organic farms and processing facilities — 478 more than at the end of 2010 and a 240 percent increase since the USDA's National Organic Program began overseeing organic operators in 2002. Worldwide, there are now 28,779 certified organic producers in 133 countries.
The national database is updated annually and the most recent version was released March 23. But the USDA says it is working to develop a system that will allow more frequent updates and ultimately, provide information in real time.
Oklahoma's organic producers include vegetable and herb growers, cattle ranchers, coffee bean roasters, egg producers and pecan farmers. Even The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, an educational center in Poteau, is now certified — in part to better educate their farmers and ranchers on the process.
What it takes
The cost of organic certification is $200-500, depending on how many acres an operator uses, and some producers qualify for partial reimbursement through a USDA cost hare program.
The initial application is about 12 pages and on-site inspection lasts about three to four hours, Buchwald said. Inspectors test the soil and check the property for chemical fertilizers and pesticides; producers can't have used prohibited chemicals in at least three years.
From application to certification, the process takes about 45 days.
While producers can grow organically without the certification, it's advantageous to market their products as certified organic, he added.
Michael Hall, a cattle rancher in Sweetwater, near the Texas Panhandle, has gained organic certification for his hay and is working through the “meticulous process” of certifying his beef.
He started raising cattle in the late 1970s and began to go organic to have a healthier product. But it's not easy, he says. When weeds are growing, it would be easier to call someone to spray the field with weed killer instead of cutting them before they go to seed.
“I've never liked herbicides. I'm not pure — I will spray my yard. But as far as what I eat, I really want it to be healthy,” Hall said.
At Crestview Farms, Graff will use fish emulsion and kelp-based fertilizers. Both are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute, an agency that sets the standard for products used in organic farming. And controlling the weeds is done with a basic garden hoe.
Because of the organic process she uses, Graff won't hesitate to snack straight from the garden. And it has helped her build a client base, too.
“Now, people come to me because I am organic. They want the best for their children and themselves,” she said.
What this symbol means
Organic is a labeling term that indicates the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.