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Organic police come knocking

11/27/02 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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The siren stopped and there was a knock at the door.

"Who's there?"
"The Organic Police"

I rose from my seed catalogs at the kitchen table, and opened the door. A young man showed me some official papers, and a badge. He fit my image of an organic policeman, if I'd ever thought about it: L.L. Bean pullover, Birkenstocks, sideburns just a little too long. He tossed his ponytail to the side and pulled a clipboard from his backpack.

"What's the problem?" I asked innocently.
"We have a report that you're selling vegetables and calling them organic, but they're NOT certified. That's been illegal since October 21, 2002."
"I do call my vegetables organic," I said, "but the national organic standards say I'm exempt from certification because I sell less than $5,000 a year."
"I know that," he replied "but you still have to prove you're following the standards. I'm here to inspect your documentation."
"I thought the Feds weren't going to visit any farms," I complained "only local certifying agencies."
"We're making an exception for you," was the gruff response "to show that the United States Department of Agriculture cares about the integrity of organic food."

I went back to the kitchen and pointed to a shoe box stuffed full of papers on top of the fridge. "It's all in there."

"Okay, let's start with your organic production plan. We need a description of your farm practices, as well as every material that was applied to the soil, crops or livestock."

I let out a gasp, then remembered. "Wait, doesn't the rule say I can substitute another state or federal plan for my organic plan? Well, I've got my Act 60 homestead valuation and pre-bate forms right here. "

"Nice try," came the reply, followed by ominous notations on the clipboard. The officer glanced over at the kitchen table. "Reading some conventional seed catalogs? Don't you know about the requirement to use only organic seeds?"

"But that's only if the varieties I need are commercially available," I objected "and besides, I haven't even bought any seeds yet, I'm just browsing. That's not against the rules is it?"

"Maybe not, but impure thoughts are the first step to impure foods. I'm afraid you'll have to come downtown for a hearing before an organic jury of your peers." He slapped a pair of handcuffs on me and led me out to the organic paddywagon - a '67 Volkswagon bus with a lava lamp on the roof and USDA's organic seal on its doors.

"Okay, okay, take it easy. I'll stop selling my vegetables as organic. I'll call them local, or authentic, maybe pesticide-free, or just... grown with love and tenderness."

He stopped and uncuffed me. "Very well, see that you do. Just remember: no more 'O' word. I'll be watching."

With a certified ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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