I’d noted in a prior post — Is This the End of Organic Coffee? — that USDA’s plan to change enforcement of its National Organic Program (NOP) standards and guidelines is a big and complex issue, and one that I’m trying to wrap my arms around. There’s lots ofCoffee Stages perspectives to consider: the farmers’, supporters of all things organic, the many certifying agencies, USDA itself, and — of course — people who love specialty coffee. It’s going to take a bit of parsing to get to the core issues, and so I believe the best course is to start with the basics: just what is organic coffee, anyway?

Organic coffee is grown and processed in a manner that has a minimal environmental impact, and that works in harmony with rather than competing against local ecosystems. Organic growing practices replenish and sustain fertile soils, are supportive to local flora and fauna, and strictly forbid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

It’s not enough, however, to mulch a stand of coffee trees on a farm, stop spraying them for bugs and Washing Stationdeclare the beans that result organic. To be certified and sold as organic coffee, that patch of ground must be free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides for three years, be buffered from any conventionally grown crops, and be managed and sustained with a documented land-use plan that factors in natural pest management, soil fertilization, erosion control and conservation, waste reduction, water use, biodiversity and nursery management. But wait, there’s more! The organic plan must also account for how coffee is harvested, and how it’s handled post-harvest — during transport, washing, pulping, fermenting, drying, dry milling, and storage. At no point in any of these processes can this coffee be co-mingled with conventionally-grown coffee (or any other conventionally-grown crop, for that matter.)

All of this, of course, requires extensive documentation and administration. And money. It’s quite the investment, actually. Between years of land management, labor, inspections and documentation, it’s not unusual for a grower to have invested many thousands of dollars before they’ve ever seen a penny of income from organic coffee sales. Organic sales that they may never see, because they still have to be certified. And that — organic certification and certifiers — is what we’ll talk about next time.

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