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Organic Farming: Growing naturally

Susi Weiss, owner of Olympic Rainforest Organics, waters just some of the many organically grown products that she farms in the pair of greenhouses off of SR303 in Bremerton. - Photo by Julia Corbett
Susi Weiss, owner of Olympic Rainforest Organics, waters just some of the many organically grown products that she farms in the pair of greenhouses off of SR303 in Bremerton.
— image credit: Photo by Julia Corbett

Just ask Susi Weiss, owner of Olympic Rainforest Organics in Bremerton, what it takes to become an organic farmer and the work that accompanies it and she’ll gladly tell you.

Compared to conventional farming, the guidelines and rules that must be followed differ greatly. Not only do organic farmers have to be certain that everything they use is classified as organic and chemical-free — from the soil to the containers that the products are placed in — but there’s also an extensive Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) certification process that must be stringently followed to be officially classified as being organic.

“(Organic farming) is labor intensive because you don’t have technology at your fingertips,” Weiss said. “You really have to work the plants.”

But she adds that in finding plants that work organically, they naturally require less maintenance. Weiss grows all of her products organically ranging from flowers and vegetables to herbs and wheat grass in a pair of large greenhouses on Northeast Gluds Pond Street off of State Route 303, but she like all organic farmers must first be certified by the state.

“It’s quite a lengthy process,” she said.

There are actually seven steps that lead to organic certification through the WSDA Organic Food Program. The first three steps are contacting the program to request application materials, reading the certification guide and completing all of the application materials. An organic food inspection can’t be completed until all of the required materials are in. The application will then be reviewed and if no additional information is needed an organic field inspector will be assigned.

“The inspector will physically look at everything,” said Pam Coleman, organic certification specialist, with the WSDA Organic Food Program.

Inspections may take from one to eight hours depending on the size of the business, according to WSDA guidelines. After the inspection, the report is reviewed. The final step in the process is becoming certified with an updated or new Organic and/or Transitional Food Certificate. If organic violations are found the farmer must make the proper corrections before becoming certified. The certification process can take anywhere from 90 to 120 days, but in practice many get certified more quickly, according to Coleman.

“Our WSDA standards or organic production specify allowed and prohibited production practices related to buffer zones, soil and plant nutrition, seeds, pest management, post-harvest handling and detailed record keeping,” Mike Louisell, WSDA spokesman, said. “We have exacting standards because we want to protect the public.”

Since Weiss took on the role as organic farmer last year, she has learned a few tricks of her own to ensure the vitality of the product without violating organic standards. But she also faces a challenge that other organic farmers may not neccessarily face. She is a vegetarian and refuses to use such plant-enhancing products like bone meal, blood meal or fish emulsion. Because she follows both vegetarian and organic guidelines she relies heavily on seaweed and kelp extract. And to ensure that she doesn’t violate those guidelines she uses all certified-organic compost, mainly vegetable compost.

“The central idea of organic agriculture is to feed the soil,” Coleman said.

For Weiss, it’s mainly trial and error to see what she can successfully grow and what will just not work.

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