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Certifier on a mission

By Chris Schreiner

For over 25 years, Oregon Tilth has strived to create a food system that is biologically sound, socially equitable and economically viable. 

Our strategic plan outlines four primary areas of work that represent vehicles of change: education, research, advocacy and certification.

Our growth as an organization has historically relied on certification fees to provide consistent and reliable funding for the entire organization. The Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) Program now certifies over 1,400 operations of diverse sizes and production systems across the United States and in Latin America and Canada. Since 1982, we’ve been offering certification of organic food and fiber throughout the supply chain, providing economic opportunity, ensuring integrity and transparency, and defending consumer trust in the organic label.

The net profits of the OTCO Program have helped offset net losses from education, advocacy and research initiatives. With the growth of the Certification Program, Oregon Tilth has continued to invest in other activities that grow the organic movement. And that’s where Oregon Tilth’s non-profit mission and work matters most. Through our programs and activities, we are working hard every day to make a positive difference. 

In Good Tilth, our bimonthly magazine, covers timely topics related to sustainable food systems. Now entering its 22nd year of publication, it has become a respected source of informative and insightful articles for thousands of readers.

Now in its 10th year, the Organic Education Center program offers classes, volunteer opportunities and a model for organic growing at the backyard scale and urban context. Our demonstration garden provides a living classroom for hand-on, place-based education and has donated over 10,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to the hungry over the years.

Now in its second year, our Organic Land Care program reaches out to a new audience (landscape designers and contractors) and applies the same principles of ecological design and management to landscapes used for purposes other than food production. By offering education and building a network of accredited organic land care practitioners, we hope to increase the demand for organically managed public parks, campuses and private residences.

Once every two years, we co-sponsor the Organicology conference, a catalyzing gathering of the organic food community that is working to create a truly sustainable food future. This three-day event offers all-day intensives, workshops, a trade show, great food and plenty of opportunity for networking and celebration across all links in the food supply chain.

Oregon Tilth participates in advocacy and policy efforts. We advocate for and help craft policies that support our mission as well as identify changes needed to policies that represent barriers to achieving our goals.

Oregon Tilth has also established strategic partnerships with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Oregon State University Extension’s Small Farms Program. These partnerships with traditional agricultural service providers will leverage their resources and influence to support the organic movement.

Investments in all these efforts benefit the organic movement by helping to increase demand for and availability of organic products in the marketplace. Oregon Tilth’s evolution as an organization has demonstrated that the Certification Program serves as the economic engine that drives our non-profit mission. 

the Certification Program serves as the economic engine that drives our non-profit mission. 

However, trends emerging in the past two years are beginning to test this operational funding model. The costs of operating a premiere certification program are rising due to increased regulatory oversight (“the age of enforcement”) and accreditation requirements (offering assessment to multiple standards to facilitate global and niche market access). Concurrently, the certification marketplace is becoming more competitive, with new competitors as well as mergers and acquisitions using economies of scale to offer services at lower prices. 

Many of these competitors are for-profit companies that do not work to grow the entire organic movement through complementary programs. That’s what makes Oregon Tilth different from most organic certifiers – an investment in organic certification with Oregon Tilth offers additional benefits through our non-profit work.

By tapping the knowledge represented in our staff and our network of certified operations, a strategic direction for research and education is established. Similarly, advocacy efforts are informed by our collective knowledge base and presented to policy makers in a manner that balances integrity with practicality. The organization’s Education, Research and Advocacy activities and its Certification Program are complementary parts that combine to form a greater whole. Indeed, it is this combination that has been the key to the organization’s success that has matched the impressive growth of the organic movement.

As we move forward, we will develop alternative strategies to increase income support for our diverse programs and initiatives. This may occur through a variety of tactics, such as fundraising events and campaigns, sponsorships, and grants. And we must also clearly communicate to our certified clients the added-value that organic certification with Oregon Tilth offers.

With the ongoing support from our certified clients, members and partners, Oregon Tilth will enjoy continued growth and success as we work together to cultivate the change we need for a sustainable future.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Oregon Tilth in support of our mission and programs. Together we can change our food system.

-Chris Schreiner, Executive Director of Oregon Tilth

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