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Rooftop Farm Report: Organic Certification, A Lot Of (Good) Paperwork

The idea behind certifying is to standardize exactly what we mean by "organic" so consumers know what they're getting and how it was grown.
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And so the story goes: when Helen and Mike Cameron were inspecting the building that would soon be Uncommon Ground on Devon, Helen climbed up on a ladder to inspect the roof and shouted down to her husband and business partner below: "And we can grow food up here too!"

Not only would they, they would become the first organically certified rooftop farm in the country (possibly the world -- if you know of another certified organic one, please bring it up in the comments below). And now, three years later, peas and beans are popping up on that farm and the tomatoes in the EarthBoxes are looking great, showing-off a couple blossoms.

The idea behind certifying is to standardize exactly what we mean by "organic" so consumers know what they're getting and how it was grown. On our farm, all the produce we grow goes to the restaurant but, even though Uncommon Ground emphasize organic ingredients, we don't advertise it as organic. So why get certified? When I started working here, I asked that very question of Helen who answered "It seemed like the right thing to do." That right thing is what I was up to this week.

Even though I have seven years experience growing organically with Ginkgo Organic Gardens (an organic food bank garden in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood) this is my first time involved in the certification process. Ginkgo has been growing organically for 16 years but wouldn't benefit from spending the money on certification.

Oddly, this mimics the same kind logic of many farmers in America. Certification can be an expensive investment if a farmer has to change equipment, techniques, or supplies and, I found out this week, it can also be a good bit of paperwork. We have to keep complete records for every input on the farm: seeds, fertilizers, even the inoculant we use on our legume seeds. Some farmers decide that certification isn't worth it for their farm and for their products, even if their growing techniques are the same as certified farmers.

In the USA, organic certification is conducted by local agencies overseen by the USDA. Our local agency is called the Midwestern Organic Services Association and when I had a question in filling out my form, I gave them a call up there in Viroqua, Wisconsin.

If the forms I had to fill out seemed cooly meticulous, the MOSA folks on the phone were warm and generous. I spoke with Mary who knew exactly who I was (it turned out we'd met at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service conference earlier this year) and immediately answered my question but, not satisfied with being a solitary opinion, gave me the number of another certification organization with whom I could verify her answer. We chatted for a while and before hanging up, I made Mary promise to come visit us here in the city.

And you should too! Stuff is growing up here on the farm, the beans and peas are working their way up their trellises. The bees, oh the bees, tried to swarm again but beekeeper Liam -- who apparently has the magical power of interpreting bee communication -- had anticipated they would and had put a queen excluder (a wire mesh small enough for the worker bees to squeeze through but not the queen) at the entrance of the hive. When the queen couldn't follow the swarm, they moseyed back to the hive, so we added an extra honey super to give them some more room.

Remember you can always check out the rooftop farm on during our Farmer's Market on Friday afternoons, 4-8pm. The first one was last week and it was a blast. At one point, sitting up on the roof with my interns, listening to the honky tonk drift up from downstairs, I surveyed our tiny plot of land atop a restaurant and thought, "Indeed, this is the right thing to do."

Uncommon Ground presents Green Room Sessions, a FREE monthly eco-awareness series featuring local environmental organizations along with FREE appetizers featuring the product of a local farmer or producer: June 10, 2010 'Alternative Transportation' 6-8pm

Come view the amazing Tesla Roadster, Zero electric motorcycle, hybrids, bio-diesel vehicles, veggie oil vehicles, transportation & cargo bicycles, electric bicycles, scooters & many more.

This Green Room Session will take place in the parking lot of uncommon ground at 1401 West Devon Avenue. Don't miss this event. Outside the auto show, you will never see a more eclectic group of vehicles!

Also, come visit Uncommon Ground's 3rd Annual Farmer Friday Farmer's Market Every Friday 4-8pm from June 4th through September 24th. Located in the Devon parking lot. Featuring Kids Music at 5pm followed by the Honky Tonk Happy Hour from 6-8pm.