Last week we had our annual organic audit by NASAA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia), our certifying body, and as always, it got us thinking about why we bother going through all the palaver. Don’t get us wrong – we’re huge supporters of organic certification, and we’ll tell you all about the reasons why in our next post. We just question a food system that requires organic producers to carry the burden of proof that we’re doing everything by the book, while chemical farmers have no obligation to tell their customers anything about how their food is produced!

But first, here’s one from the archive about our audit in 2011, to share the audit experience with you. Sorry about the quality of the photos – phone camera technology’s improved a lot since then. Hope you enjoy it!

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mt alexander fruit gardens in harcourt - organic audit day

All certified organic producers are audited every 12 to 14  months to ensure we comply with the Organic Standards, a comprehensive document that regulates every aspect of our business to ensure we maintain the high standards required to qualify as an organic producer in Australia.

We started the audit with a farm walk, showing Plamen (the inspector) the whole farm, including all the orchards and our boundaries; we have the Mt Alexander Regional Park on the east border (as you can see in the photo above), open farm land to the south, a disused quarry to the north and a mix of open pasture and a small patch of conventional orchard to the west. (NOTE 2014: this orchard has now gone).

Groundcover plants in the new orchard, including clover

A young tree with groundcover plants around it

Some of the things Plamen asked about while we were walking around included how we control our weeds, the weed mat we’ve used in the new orchard and the types of ground cover plants we have in the orchards. Before we planted the new orchard (including this happy baby plum tree in the photo above), we sowed a green manure crop, and we’ve been happy to see the amount of clover and herbs that have come up. These plants help to provide the trees with free nitrogen from the air, and other minerals that the plants mine from the ground.

our organic audit checked for property signs like this

Plamen had a good look at the trees that form a buffer zone between us and our neighbours, and the signs erected at our borders to alert visitors to our organic status.

bare fruit trees in winter

We explained that we prune the trees in the buffer zone differently to trees elsewhere on the property, to make them bushy and leafy as you can see in the photo below, to create an effective spray buffer. We don’t have a fence, just several rows of this variety of plums (President), which are NOT certified organic because of the spray drift. They’re kept completely separate from all our other fruit, and sold separately through the conventional wholesale market.

our organic audit checked packing and sorting equipment

The packing shed (NOTE 2014: it’s good to be reminded of the bad old days of the old packing shed – eeek! Hard to believe we managed in such cramped quarters for so many years!). We showed Plamen our packaging materials, and explained how we transport fruit to our various markets.

Next we had a look at the spray shed, with lots of questions about the contents of each shed, cleaning schedules, cleaning materials and our harvest, storage and packing systems.

organic audit checked for allowable inputs such as lime sulphur

organic inputs for growing fruit

An explanation of the contents of the spray shed took a while, as each input that we use on the orchard (such as lime sulphur, calcium, fish hydrolysate, kelp and humic acid) must be individually checked to make sure it’s an organically allowable input. We have to supply details of each farm input so NASAA can be sure we’re not introducing any contamination into the farm.

The coolroom came under scrutiny next…

fruit in the coolroom

Once the outdoor infrastructure had been inspected, we retired to the warm kitchen for a cuppa and to do the paperwork.

First, we went through our updated Organic Management Plan, which is sent to us before to the audit, and is our chance to let NASAA know of any changes we’ve made to the farm since our last audit. This year we told them about having planted the new orchard containing 1,000 apricot, peach, nectarine and plum trees, as well as a minor change to the way we input harvest records into our accounting program.

organic audit checks our paperwork trail

We supplied information about the size of our harvest (broken down by type of fruit), and the value of the crop this season, and provided examples of our harvest record book (see above) and our marketing records. Whenever we pick (most days during the fruit season), we record the date, variety, number of kilograms and which orchard it came from. Once the fruit has been packed we also record the number of first grade, second grade and third grade fruit.

Once packed, the fruit then goes off to a variety of markets – the wholesale market in Melbourne, our various weekend markets or sent off by courier for the online sales, all of which get recorded on our different sales records and then recorded into our financial software.

NASAA needs to test that the producer can track their produce from the point of sale, right back through the system to harvest. It’s important to be able to prove that we are not selling more of any one type of fruit than we are growing, as that would raise the question of where the extra fruit had come from. This is one of the ways the certifying bodies prevent misuse of the certification system; otherwise it would be possible to use the cover of organic certification to sell conventional produce as organic.

our nasaa certification number

All certified organic products in Australia must carry the logo of the certifier (here’s our label), and the use of these logos is also strictly controlled. As a shopper buying anything organic, check for the logo and the word “certified”–anyone can label something as “organic”, but only producers and manufacturers that have been through the rigourious certification process can use a “certfiied organic” label.

Clearly organic certification in Australia is a comprehensive exercise, and is one which can give us all confidence in the organic produce that we buy!

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