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The crippling of Colorado’s organic industry

DENVER—Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) is highly critical of the leadership in the Colorado House, which referred H.B. 1186—a bill that would institute the state as an organic certifying entity—to the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. RMFU suspects the action was taken with hopes the bill would die in committee. The committee will consider this bill at 1:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24.

Certification of organic produce has for more than a decade been conducted by the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), with more than 200 farms being certified “organic” in 2001. Last year’s adoption of federal organic standards requires that all products adhere to these standards by Oct. 22, 2002, in order to be labeled “organic.” Producers of organic food want the CDA to continue its role as an organic certifier by becoming certified under the federal standards but need to have H.B. 1186 passed to authorize it. “The CDA program, which has been very effective in building Colorado’s organic industry, will be obsolete after October 22,” said RMFU President John Stencel. “If the state does not become certified under federal standards it would have a very negative impact on the 200 plus organic producers, as well as other producers preparing to apply for organic certification.”

According to RMFU, elimination of the CDA as an organic certifying organization would result in higher costs to producers and difficulties to producers in certifying with a new, unfamiliar private organization.

“There are no private certifying organizations based in Colorado, which means that organic certification would be more expensive because inspectors would have to travel from out of state,” said Thomas Cameron, an organic peach and sweet cherry producer from Palisade. “In addition, these organizations are less attuned to the uniqueness of Colorado’s organic agriculture industry than the Colorado Department of Agriculture.”

The organic food industry in Colorado is one of the strongest in the nation. Colorado ranks second only to California in the country in certified organic vegetable acreage. Conservative estimates place the growth of the U.S. organic industry at 15-20 percent annually, reaching $9.3 billion in 2001. Retail sales of organic products in the state of Colorado are estimated at roughly $80 million per year.

In addition, Colorado is home to various organic processing and retail companies. Major national processors such as Horizon Dairy (the largest organic dairy in the nation), and Whitewave (processor of organic soy products), as well as one of the largest organic retailers in the nation, Wild Oats, are all based in Colorado.

“There is no reason not to pass H.B. 1186,” said Stencel. “We suspect its referral to this committee was to satisfy personal political infighting. The bill has broad bi-partisan support in the House Agriculture Committee and throughout the Legislature.”

The bill adopts the federal regulations and raises the fee cap charged to producers to allow this program to be self-sustaining. Because of an involved application process, CDA needs roughly $150,000 to get the program up and running. Roughly $50,000 of that is likely to come from producers.