Lisa Fisher is protective of the word organic. She guards it like one of her precious artichokes, pays close attention to the term as she tends her string beans, and cares for it like the tomatoes that are just beginning to ripen.
There are nearly 90 certified organic farms across Massachusetts. Ms. Fisher’s Stannard Farms in West Tisbury is the only one on the Vineyard.
“Back when I started I knew I wanted to do what was better for the soil because it was my soil, it was going to be my place, it was my land,” she said during a visit to her farm on Sunday afternoon. “I wanted to do what was right for that and certainly growing organic is better than loading it up with chemicals.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in order for a farm to apply for certified organic status the owner must submit a history of substances applied to the land for the previous three years, name produce being grown, and create an organic system plan that describes monitoring practices, upkeep, record-keeping, and prevention of contact between organic and nonorganic products.
Ms. Fisher has been farming organically since 1990, when she and her husband, Tommy Reynolds, started Stannard Farms. “I sort of had this fantasy that if I went ahead and did it someone else might also,” Ms. Fisher said. “But it didn’t happen.”
To grow organically, Ms. Fisher abides by the list of materials she can use from the Organic Materials Review Institute, and grows by the USDA’s National Organic Program standards. In order to maintain her certification, Ms. Fisher must submit renewal papers, an application fee based on a percentage of her projected income, and have her land surveyed once a year.
She paid around $400 for this year’s certification renewal, a fee some farms aren’t willing to pay, while others do not want to deal with the paperwork involved. “The fee can’t be it, hello people, the fee is not a big deal,” Ms. Fisher said. “And then they say the paperwork, but aren’t you keeping records of what you’re doing anyway?”
On a list published by the USDA of farms whose certifications were revoked, the most frequent reason was not failure to abide by regulations; more often it was a matter of a licensing fee not paid on time or an application that had not been renewed.
An application, a fee, and an annual survey. Seems simple enough, but some farms on the Vineyard have nevertheless made a conscious decision to grow organically without being certified.
Allan Healy at Mermaid Farm in Chilmark is one such farmer. He said the small Island community provides a unique opportunity for trust between farmer and customer. “We use organic feed and fertilizer,” he said, “and my customers know me.”
Matthew Dix from North Tabor Farm in Chilmark said his farm abides by the Northeastern Organic Farming Association’s rules, and he echoed Mr. Healy’s sentiment. “We don’t need it to sell our [produce],” he said. Mr. Healy and Mr. Dix both said if the application process was simpler, they would definitely consider getting certified.
Ms. Fisher took another view. “I resent people claiming to be organic; it’s false advertising when you come down to the bottom of it,” she said. “They’re diminishing the integrity of certified organic by claiming to be organic.”
She wishes farmers would not use the label organic if they are not going to be certified. “You can say sustainable, chemical free, there’s a whole lot of other ways to describe the product without using the word organic,” she said.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 created national standards that Ms. Fisher says assure customers there are no chemicals or toxins involved with the food. “You know that person is taking better care of the land,” she said.
Another benefit from eating organically is the reduction of your carbon footprint. U.S. cropland is estimated at 434 million acres. According to the Rodale Institute, if all that land was converted to organic farming methods, we could reduce nearly 25 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions.
Ms. Fisher comes by her profession honestly; her grandparents were organic farmers in Greenwich, Conn., in the early 1900s. She remembers as a child being able to eat right out of the field when they needed extra help picking.
“Mom figured out which rows not to send me down,” she said. “Don’t send me down the strawberry row, and don’t send me down the bean row. Other than that I’ll bring you something back.”
Standing outside her grandmother’s glass greenhouse that she and her sister disassembled and moved to the Vineyard, Ms. Fisher said farming organically isn’t always pretty. Challenges include bugs chewing away at crops and the low germination rate of organic seed.
As a result, Ms. Fisher plants four different varieties of collard greens, seven types of soybeans, and 10 different varieties of kale. When she’s not tending her favorite asparagus, potatoes or English peas from mid-April to Thanksgiving, Ms. Fisher is in Aspen teaching disabled kids how to ski.
She finds any excuse to be outside. “I’ve learned that if you call it gardening you can play in the dirt all you want to,” she said.
Walking through her garden, Ms. Fisher whispered to the string beans ripening, “Hurry up blossoms, hurry up,” but even with a carefree attitude toward her land, she’s still concerned with the proper use of the term organic. Plus, she would like some company.
“It’d be neat if people would get certified,” she said.
The Island is lucky to know for the most part where its food comes from. But if it’s only a matter of filling out paperwork, paying a small fee, and having a yearly visit from an inspector, why not become certified? On the other hand, in a small community like the Vineyard where people greet you by first name at the market, is trust enough? In the end it’s up to the buying public to decide.