Over the years I have met several Organic Inspectors, a few of whom have suggested I pursue a similar career.
To do this, I had to go to Des Miones, Iowa. There I took IOIA’s (International Organic Inspectors Association) training for Crop inspection. From what I gathered in advance, the class would be educational bootcamp, which was fine by me.
The first day was spent in covering the relevant standards in the NOP (National Organic Program) – a task that involved a lot of page flipping and highlighting. The NOP standards are the rules of the game. It’s what tells farmers what they need to do and Inspectors what to look for.
It covers topics ranging from the kind of seeds you can use and under what conditions, to biodiversity on the farm.
Later in the evening we were given an assignment – come up with a plan on how to inspect an orchard. Much of the way one goes about inspecting varies based on what kind of farm you’re visiting. Fortunately for me, having had experience at the local orchard, I had an idea what I was looking at.
In the morning we discussed the nuances of effective communication. Farmers tend to be a self-sufficient, self-reliant bunch, who prefer not to have ignorant college kids, who think they have the answers, telling them how they could farm better. The key to this discussion is respecting the farmers opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. As an Inspector, you aren’t there to tell him that he’s doing it wrong, but to observe what his farm looks like and tell the Certification Agency if there are holes in the operation, or tell them that he’s doing great.
We expect and desire respect from others, so why not give it to men and women who spend their time raising our food?
After our lunch break, we tackled the idea of OCP’s (Organic Control Points). They are points on a farm where an organic product could lose its organic integrity.
Along with learning the OCP’s, we studied the various inputs used by farmers on both organic and conventional farms. We looked at the NOP standards to see when and why different pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers can be used.
Our primary focus was how to study an Organic System Plan (Commonly OSP). That particular document is a plan of how the farmer is going to, in essence, “be and stay organic.”
After a break for lunch, we studied the report formats Inspectors write. We learned what styles were most effective for reporting. The most significant thing to remember is that you are writing your observations, not your opinions.
It is not an Inspector’s job to judge or make a decision on the Organic status of an operation, but merely to report back what he saw to the Certifier.
At the end of the day we were divided into groups and each given the OSP of a farm the group would be inspecting on the field trip. I spent a few hours reviewing it and wrote down my observations to share with my group the next day.
We met earlier than usual, at 7:30, and joined our various groups. Each group discussed what they learned from the OSP and what potential issues may be present.
Each person in the group was given a particular topic to ask the farmer about. It was their “moment” to be the Inspector.
The field trips went well, but cannot be discussed in great detail because of confidentiality, which is a staple of Farm Inspections. Each farmer was accommodating, and the field trips were incredibly informative.
When we arrived back at the hotel, each group debriefed, discussing what they observed and learned on the farm. The goal was that everyone would have access to the same information for their reports. Systematically we went through what we had learned about the farm’s biodiversity, crop health, pest management, harvest and storage, record keeping etc.
At the end of our information sharing, our instructors wished us luck, and sent us to write our reports.
Almost everyone in the class didn’t sleep well the previous night. Those who finished their reports early tossed and turned over it the entire night. Others worked on it until the wee hours of dawn.
Despite the lack of rest, we had a test. The final exam was Friday at 9:00AM, covering what we had been studying for the entire week.
Over all it was not as difficult a giant as might be supposed. Our questions were realistic, we were allowed to use our notes and textbooks, and had plenty of time to answer the questions.
The class was rigorous, but informative. I had been told that it was an educational bootcamp and that it was.