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Meet Jacomijn Schravesande-Gardei – Associate Director of Crops for MOFGA Certification Services LLC

Jaco in Patagonia. Photo by Chris Schravesande-Gardei

Jaco in Patagonia. Photo by Chris Schravesande-Gardei

September 1, 2016

Jacomijn ("Jaco") is associate director of crops for MOFGA Certification Services LLC (MCS), working with certified organic crop farmers to assure compliance with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rule. She started working at MOFGA in 2006. She has also served as co-interim director of MCS during the search for a new director this summer. Jaco grew up in the Netherlands, where she obtained her bachelor's and master's degrees in forestry at Wageningen University. In 2006 she moved to Belfast, Maine, to be with her husband, Chris, and their cat, rabbits, goats and chickens. Since then two children, Jasper and Lieske, have been added.

Q. What are some of the duties of your job as associate director of crops for MCS?

I am responsible for reviewing annual updates and inspection reports of about 270 of our clients, I communicate review results and certification decisions, and I record information received from clients during the year. In addition, I am responsible for pesticide residue testing, which we do for about 5 percent of our clients each year; I review input materials on compliance with the NOP rule; and I answer a whole lot of questions during the course of a day!

Q. Did anything surprise you when you filled in as interim director this summer?

Nothing really surprised me, but what is always surprising to me are the misconceptions about organic certification. For example people often think that organic certification is cost-prohibitive. When you look at the fees, I can see why people think that (It's expensive to run a certification program!), but thanks to the Farm Bill, a certified organic producer is eligible to receive reimbursement of 75 percent or up to $750 of his or her certification fees. Another misconception is that the paperwork is too lengthy and arduous. The first year of application is the most arduous, since it is a new process and we request a lot of information. But after the first year, the process is significantly simplified; farmers just have to update the paperwork, since we already have the majority of the plans on file and in our database. Many of our certified organic producers even say that paperwork for certification has helped them improve their business.

Q. How has the NOP rule changed since you started working for MOFGA?

The biggest change is probably the implementation of the pasture rule in 2010. The two most important parts of pasture rule are that all ruminant animals must receive 30 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season and that the grazing season is a minimum of 120 days per year. Changing the rule takes years, and, with regard to the pasture rule, the USDA received more then 26,000 comments.

Something I am excited about is the Sound and Sensible Initiative from the NOP. Since 2009 NOP has promoted a "strict but sensible" philosophy of certification and is working on making certification more accessible, attainable and affordable while simultaneously maintaining high standards, ensuring compliance and protecting integrity. For example, as a certifier we are now allowed to let inspectors record changes to a farm plan. Again, change is slow, but we at MCS hope that this initiative will help reduce some of the bureaucracy of certification.

Q. You attended leadership programs organized by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in 2014 and the Sustainable Food Systems Leadership Institute in 2015. How did those courses influence your work at MOFGA?

Both courses were very inspiring. The IFOAM course really taught me a lot about the international organic food system, while the Sustainable Food Systems Leadership Institute, held in Maine, was a really nice opportunity to learn about all the projects going on outside of organics. Often when I am deep in paperwork, it is hard to remember what we are all doing this for. Talking and reflecting on issues outside my regular work, getting to know my idealistic and hardworking classmates who are all working on a common goal for a better food system, has been very motivating.

Q. During trips to visit your family in the Netherlands, have you noticed any differences in organic agriculture there versus in the United States?

Farming in the Netherlands is a lot more intense. In Maine about 1.35 million acres are estimated to be in farmland (FarmFlavor, 2015); in the Netherlands, about 55,700 acres. However, the Netherlands is the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the United States. Organic farming in the Netherlands is also characterized by much more intense, smaller operations. One organic farm I have visited in the Netherlands is BioBrass (www.biobrass.nl), which operates as a long-term but independent grower within the organic rotation of several other organic farms. BioBrass focuses on the brassicas but shares and rotates its crops with farmers who focus on grains, forage crops, etc. This way these farmers can operate on an efficient scale but can still rotate and make sure that the land is treated in an organic and sustainable way.

Q. Can you tell us a little about your vast travel experiences?

Sure! Growing up in the Netherlands, my siblings and I went with our parents on many camping trips around Europe. After high school I came to America to work with handicapped children in a summer camp in New Hampshire, and afterward my (now) husband, Chris, took me on a big road trip through the United States to impress me (and I was!). We then traveled for a year in Asia and New Zealand. For my master's I spent my internship in Ethiopia and a semester living in Finland. In 2014 MOFGA gave me unpaid leave and we spent two wonderful months bicycling from Santiago, Chile, to the most southern tip of Argentina. We just bought a little campervan and have big plans!

Q. What is your involvement with the MOFGA-El Salvador Sistering Committee – aside from the attraction of its potluck supper meetings?

I help organize our annual Empty Bowl Supper, help staff our table at the Common Ground Country Fair, went on a delegation to El Salvador, and I try to keep up with what is happening in El Salvador. At the first meeting I attended, we attempted to make potholders from wool from Happy Town Farm in Orono and indigo from El Salvador. The potholders were not a success, but the activity was a good metaphor for what the El Salvador Sistering committee stands for: "Creating solidarity among small farmers and community organizations in Maine and El Salvador." I think supporting the local economy is very important, but we do live in a world that is globalized, and what happens elsewhere impacts us in Maine and vice versa.

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