By Jeff Tribe
To her husband Art Shannon, Dr. Kymberley Snarr is the “Organic Cop”, a term of endearment paying homage to her father William’s tenure as Superintendent, Peel Region Police.
“I’m not,” laughs Kymberley, an independent International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) contractor from the Flesherton area. “We are not the police. We are the eyes and ears for the organic certification body we are contracted by.”
The role does relate to regulatory adherence. However, that adherence is crucial to creating and confirming consumer confidence that certified organic products and production do indeed follow a defined, differentiated path, versus merely representing an ambiguous marketing strategy. Rather than nuisance, Snarr and her compatriots’ efforts help create a credible link contributing to the growth industry that is the organic marketplace.
“If you are buying certified organic, I feel I am making sure that integrity is there,” says Snarr, whose own food choices lean heavily in that direction.
The position represents geographically-related career evolution for Snarr, the classic “little girl who grew up loving animals” and began working life as a Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT), becoming organizationally and educationally active in the profession’s professional association. After 20 productive and enjoyable years working within the veterinary world, Snarr shifted gears into academia, earning a collaborative PhD from The University of Toronto (U of T) in Environmental Anthropology, with specific interest in the interface between monkeys, forests and humans, seeking conservation management solutions. Insitu research took her to Asia and Central America, with Snarr present at the inception of the Canadian Organization For Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation (COTERC) and its Cano Palma research station near San Francisco de Tortuguero, Costa Rica.
Snarr sits as chair at the 30th anniversary of a registered charity and internationally-renowned organization dedicated to multi-flora and fauna monitoring through long-term baseline data set creating identifying spatial and temporal change.
Forays southward dovetailed with her career within the U of T’s Centre for the Environment (currently School of Environment), developing, managing and teaching online programs for professionals in search of degrees or material, while educating other professors to teach online. However that career did not geographically match a growing relationship with Shannon, a horse logger (featured in the award-winning documentary Workhorse available on Apple TV) Snarr met at an international forestry conference.
“His horses didn’t fit in the backyard in Leaside,” she laughed.
They moved forward together on a 117-acre Dundalk Highlands property, renting other farms they collectively began farming organically.
“And while we each had some farm background, we didn’t really know what that entailed,” Snarr admitted, saying they “figured it out” through consultations with other organic producers, and a gifted set of regulations. They grew rotations of hay, spelt, winter wheat and tried “corn and soybeans a bit,” doing okay, but always challenged by off-farm employment and family commitments. Timing and detail are critical in any form of farming, says Snarr, but particularly so for organic producers.
“You’ve got to be there on the right day with the right climate, or the weeds take over.”
Her academic base of operations shifted to Laurentian University in Barrie and then again to Sudbury, but despite the institution cooperatively grouping her classes as tightly as possible, the commute and resultant time demands became onerous.
Snarr’s openness to a career change lined up with the IOIA’s annual January conference in Guelph, championed by her father who had morphed into a fence inspector during retirement. Kymberley’s skill set included organic farming and regulation compliance, interacting with, interviewing and managing people, and familiarity with precise data compilation. Taking the IOIA’s internationally-recognized training course, Snarr quickly found herself actively engaged in inspections.
Inspectors are mainly independent contractors whose services are contracted by third party private companies or not-for-profits, who were downloaded oversight on regulation. These certifying bodies operate under evolving government standards, formalized in 2006, authenticated through on-the-ground annual inspections, unannounced follow-ups and sampling for potential contaminants.
In very basic terms, certified organic certification identifies consumable products which have been planted or hosted on ground free of designated inputs for a prescribed period, and have been grown, raised or fed and processed similarly within clearly-defined government standards. Inspectors prepare detailed reports on individual operations, traceability seed through sales via the combination of pre-visit interview, record auditing, on-site inspection, checking boxes in prepared questionnaires, an exit interview and impor-tantly, intangibles honed with time and experience, what could be summed up as a combination of common sense and instinct.
“I just go in and ask a lot of questions in guided conversations: “show me, show me, show me,” explained Snarr, pointing to potential red flags such as fields that appear too weed free, whether acreage fits the available tractor horsepower rather than requiring custom operators and potentially “tainted” equipment, or is the sum of the records she sees, the producer narrative she’s hearing and the physical evidence she’s seeing within the parameters of a realistic organic equation.
“Does it tell the story? Snarr asked rhetorically. “Is this all adding up? And generally it is, most people are on the up and up - but there are bad apples out there.
“My eyes and ears are trying to see that.”
Inspectors do not make the final call on certification, they simply submit their report to the certifying body, which then will issue a decision based on findings. There are potential issues Snarr sees on occasion, others when a certifying body will identify things she hadn’t initially. If there is an outstanding issue, a producer will receive communication outlining remedial action required, within a 30-day period.
“It has to be transparent,” said Snarr. While producers and processors complain at times about the paperwork and increased oversight, especially those who have been the pioneers in the organic industry, I often turn it back to them, stating ‘It’s your decision, you’re in this program - you have to jump through hoops.’”
Snarr prides herself on being fair, striving to build positive relationships through trust and rapport. The approach comes from a combination of personality and personal experience, understanding what it’s like to be on the other side, that people’s livelihoods are at stake.
“I know what this is like.”
Her approach is consistent, but that’s one of few similarities in an industry defined by being different. Organic producers trend toward the character end of the spectrum Snarr smiles, “especially the earlier ones. Nothing is cookie cutter.”
You can make a good living in the organic space she says. If producers can survive the first four or five years, they often are in it for the long haul, despite the fact it can undeniably be frustrating at times. “But most of these people enjoy what they’re doing.”
Snarr has inspected a wide range of production and processing operations, the variety of which keeps her job interesting. They include field/row crops including grains, oilseeds, pulse crops, fresh vegetables, greenhouse, herbs, cannabis, tobacco, honey, maple syrup, wild gathering, mushroom, micro-green production, vineyards, tree fruits, and forage crops for livestock feed or processing markets. Her roster also includes livestock operations producing organic beef cattle, hogs, sheep, eggs, meat poultry, cattle dairy, goat dairy, and bees. And finally, she has inspected food processing establishments of various types including multi-ingredient and multi-site operations, specifically baking, bottling, cereals, chocolate, coffee, cooking, distributors, flavourings, flours, fresh packing of fruit, vegetables, and herbs, grain cleaning, herbs, honey extraction, hulling, juicing, meat (broilers, turkeys, lamb), milling, and wine.
Farms can range in size from a few acres to thousands, her on-farm transportation from high-end SUVs to horses and buggies.
There is so much variation, each farm and each processor has its own personality.”
Snarr enjoys the variety, working outside and an industry based on environmental principles closer to her own, evolving beyond reduced chemical use to include enhanced ecosystem management and riparian and pollinator zone creation.
“Agriculture is just another natural resource. It’s managing it wisely.”
Snarr’s career shift has been enjoyable but also productive. She began part-time on smaller operations, getting her feet on solid ground. Her scale, opportunities and earning power has increased as she worked her way up the ranks in terms of experience, relationship and reputation with certifying bodies, and additional course qualification levels or categories.
“It’s always building on your education.”
COVID-19’s unwelcome arrival dictated a more remote hybrid approach, with higher risk or new clients still afforded on-site inspections.
“We helped keep the industry moving forward, which was key,” said Snarr.
With the easing of restrictions, inspectors are back onsite, however following strict guidelines including social distancing and masking. “We go over COVID protocol on the phone.”
In conclusion, Snarr has found life as the “organic cop” rewarding on many levels, an enjoyable and financially rewarding avenue she would recommend to others. Those who are interested are invited to visit the IOIA website: https://www. ioia.net/ for more information.
In demand initially, her career has progressed from part-time to the point she can work as much as she desires, handing off some job offers to younger inspectors seeking a fuller schedule.
“You can easily move to full-time if you are available and skilled,” Snarr summed up. “There was and still is demand, because there is growth in the organic industry, both in farming and processing.” ◊