The week before last, Martin Todman arrived first thing Monday morning for what must have been our 25th Soil Association organic inspection.
Although I have become quite relaxed about the whole process over the years, I am still always a little nervous on the day itself. And, having never met Martin before, you never know how the inspections are going to go. Gathering all the necessary records is time consuming, and the inspector can choose to examine in detail any aspect of the business—from sales to seed purchases—and they often do.
Circumstances weren’t ideal: I still have very limited electricity in the house after the fire, the ‘office’ is crammed with stuff stored from other rooms, and the internet connection here is intermittent at best. But, after making acquaintances and brewing some coffee, Martin began making his way through the extensive paper work we are required to keep.
People often assume the organic inspection is about chemical tests of the produce we grow or our soil, to see if we are using any prohibited fertilisers or pesticides. While this can happen—particularly where the inspector is suspicious of any malpractice—the inspection primarily consists of detailed audit trails, examining our records to follow a particular product from seed right through to sale.
The inspector usually chooses a number of vegetables to examine, both home grown and bought in. In our case, Martin chose to look at our home-grown celery. Celery is particularly difficult to raise from seed, so I buy ours in as transplants (young plants) from Defland Nurseries, a well-known certified organic plant nursery. I found the invoice for that particular purchase (I bought 788 from Defland) and gave it to Martin. Next, we then had to go through our records to add up all the home-grown celery I had sold throughout the year. Martin was basically checking that I hadn’t sold more celery during the growing season than I had grown. (In other words, was I buying in non-organic celery and passing it off as organic.)
He then did the same process again, randomly choosing to audit all the cauliflower that I had bought in from our organic wholesaler to supplement our veg boxes on a particular week. Martin checked the invoice to see how many caulis I had bought in (a total of 60 heads) and then followed our sales records to see how many I had used in the boxes on that particular week. Bingo! The numbers tallied up exactly.
Other procedures were checked, such as how we clean the packing shed, the certificates displayed in the farm shop, the details on our packaging labels, and so on. Martin also checked all our seed purchases and compost invoices to make sure everything we are buying in is organic or fully complies with the organic standards.
We then went outside, where we walked the garden with Tony. No soil tests were carried out, contrary to common opinion, but Martin asked testing questions about our crop rotations (are we giving enough time between growing certain plant types to minimise risk of pests or diseases building up?), weed control methods (no herbicides here!) and our home-made compost (are we making it properly or using any prohibited materials?).
We passed our 2017 Soil Association organic inspection with flying colours. But it is never an easy or stress-free process. Nor should it ever be.