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Organic production the subject of informational meetings

By Jennifer Kemp and Ashley Krest

The pending implementation of nation-wide organic standards, as established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was the focus of two recent meetings sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU).

On Aug. 28, the Delta County Farmers Union hosted a forum in Hotchkiss, Colo., which featured Dave Carter, chairman of the USDA National Organic Standards Board(NOSB); Thomas Cameron, president of Colorado Organic Producers Association (COPA); Jonathon Allen, vice president of COPA and president of Firstfruits International, Ltd.; and David Gordon, from the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA). Nearly 30 producers attended, many of whom already submit to some form of organic certification.

On Sept. 5, the RMFU Cooperative Development Center sponsored an all-day conference in Cheyenne, Wyo., geared more towards those producers who are interested in entering the fast-growing organic market. Carter was featured at this meeting also, along with Jim Schwartz from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA); Cindy Garretson-Weibel, from the Wyoming Business Council; Don Gallegos, from the CDA; and, a number of Colorado producers who have had success in organic markets.

At both meetings, Carter provided a history of the inception and growth of the organic market in the United States, as well as a summary of the process undertaken to get uniform standards.

As Carter explained, the organic agriculture movement initially arose in the 1970s as a response to chemical and fossil-based agriculture. Over the past 30 years, this movement has gone from one centered around environmental and land stewardship issues, to one about better quality and healthier produce.

“People have read the stories and are concerned about the effects of antibiotic and pesticide use in the food system,” stated Carter. This explains the shift from mainstream products to organic specialties.

As organic products became more available, many states and private entities set up standards and began offering certification to organic producers. The number and variety of certification programs available caused concerns that perhaps an organic seal didn’t really mean that the product was wholly organic.

At the same time, corporate agriculture started marketing certain of their products as organic to try to capture the expanding market.

In the early 1990s, the USDA appointed the NOSB in response to a need for uniform labeling. After a long, often contentious process, the new standards will be implemented on October 21, 2002. While the NOSB crafted the new standards, the USDA will not be the certifying entity. Instead, private and state entities have to seek accreditation of their programs from the USDA. Once a program is accredited it can certify producers anywhere in the country.

Colorado first began certifying organic producers in 1989, and to date the CDA certifies over 250 organic products and nearly 300,000 acres of land. The high concentration of organic producers in Colorado pushed the CDA to seek accreditation of their program from the USDA, with the Department turning in its application on Aug. 1, 2002. At the Hotchkiss meeting, producers had numerous questions for the panel as to how the implementation process would affect them, assuming that the accreditation is approved.

As David Gordon, the Western Slope representative of the CDA explained, all crops grown that were previously certified will be grandfathered in.

In response to questions concerning handling and processing, items that were not previously covered by the CDA, Gordon told producers that they would need to pay special attention to the new regulations and possibly hire a private certifier if the Colorado program isn’t approved in time for the October 21 deadline.

Unlike Colorado, Wyoming has not had such a vibrant history of organic agriculture, although that does not mean that the interest or capability is not there. Jim Schwartz, from the WDA, stated that he, like may others, always thought organic agriculture was something only “hippies” were interested in. However, recent tours throughout Wyoming have convinced Schwartz that there is a great potential for organic agriculture in that state.

“The [Wyoming] Department of Agriculture needs to do what it can to promote this product,” Schwartz stated, “but I am worried about creating a suspicion of conventional foods.”

While WDA is not planning on creating an accredited certification program just yet, the Department does want to provide resources for organic producers. These would include doing some marketing and research on organic production suitable for Wyoming; administering USDA funds available today for the cost of organic certification; as well as providing consultation and educational services for producers.

Wyoming producers who attended the conference also received helpful advice from successful organic producers in Colorado. Jennifer Felzien, an organic dryland grain producer who sells her products internationally, advised those seeking to enter the market to be ready for a lot of paperwork and minutely structured record keeping. “You have to be the one to search out the markets,” Felzien said. “You have to know where your product is going and what the standards for that market are.”

David Lynch, who runs Guidestone Farm, a Community Sustained Agriculture operation, highlighted the importance of patience and planning. “Creating a successful business takes a lot of time,” explained Lynch. “It took us three years to get into the black.”

Meanwhile, Jay Wisdom of Wisdom Natural Poultry, encouraged producers to help one another out. “When we started, we couldn’t get any help from other processors. We weren’t competition because we are so far out [in Eastern Colorado]. Help each other,” said Wisdom. “There is plenty of business out there to go around.”

For more information, go to www.ams.usda.gov/nop.