Category Archives: Organic Certification

Business of Ohio’s organic farms is growing

The Columbus Dispatch, JD Malone, 11/2/17

Ohio’s big corn and soybean farmers haven’t seen much in the way of sales growth the past few years, but that can’t be said for some of the state’s smaller players — those who produce organic produce, grains and dairy products.

Ohio’s organic farmers reported sales of $101 million in 2016, a 30 percent jump from 2015, while both the number of organic farms and acreage grew year over year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Certified Organic Study. Ohio ranks seventh nationally in number of organic farms — 575. That’s up from eighth in 2015.

“The 2016 survey illustrates the strength of organic production and sales in the state,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, in a news release.

“Organic” is a designation for food and other products produced under specific guidelines, including which fertilizers and pesticides can be used on crops and how much pasture and outdoor access animals have, enforced by the USDA’s National Organic Program.

For example, organic practices bar the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and the housing of animals completely indoors.

Ohio has more than 54,000 acres in organic production, which is tiny by agricultural standards, given that Ohio’s largest commodity crop, soybeans, covers more than 4 million acres. But given that organic farming only really put down roots fairly recently, it has been an achievement.

Byron Kauffman was one of the state’s pioneers in organic farming. He started growing organic crops 25 years ago on his Mac-O-Chee Valley Farm in West Liberty. He worked as a school teacher and farmed as a side gig because it was something he felt strongly about.

“There were not too many markets for products back then. You really had to search for a place to sell your goods,” Kauffman said. “That is not so much the way it is now.”

The number of venues has grown from just farmers markets and specialty grocers decades ago to major chain groceries.

Sales of organic products, especially of food, have grown by double digits every year for at least two decades, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic food sales are growing at about triple the rate of ordinary food. Overall organic sales jumped from $3.6 billion in 1997 to more than $43 billion in 2015.

Kauffman has grown a lot of crops over the years, from soybeans and oats to spelt and popcorn. Popcorn has become his niche. Surprisingly, spelt is something of a hit in Ohio. The state has more spelt growers than any other.

“It’s a good crop,” Kauffman said of spelt, a type of wheat prized for its nutritional value. “It’s vigorous and competes well with weeds.”

He worries now that organic food has become so popular that he is now competing with foreign sources of crops like spelt.

Ohio’s other big organic crops are milk — the state ranks ninth in the United States for its production — as well as eggs and vegetables.

Overall, the United States experienced a 23 percent rise in sales by organic farms in 2016, totaling more than $7.5 billion.

California is by far the leader in number of farms and sales. Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania and Iowa round out the top five states for organic farming.

Kauffman has enjoyed the boom in organic production, and he thinks it has moved from fad to trend as more people have embraced organic food.

“At first, I just wanted to see if I could do it, and it just became more and more as the market grew,” Kauffman said.

“In one sense, I am not surprised because the demand for healthier food is real now,” he said. “It’s a good thing for everybody.”

OH Farmers Apply “You Are What You Eat” to What They Farm

Public News Service, 11/1/17

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Harvest season is winding down in Ohio, and sustainable-farming advocates say it’s a great time for growers and producers to learn more about what it takes to go organic. In some cases it’s a matter of making the personal professional.

Renee and Alan Winner, dairy farmers in central Ohio, have been selling into the conventional milk market for years, but now are transitioning the four dairies they and their children operate. Renee Winner said switching to organic was important for them because their farming practices didn’t mesh with their personal lifestyle.

“For the last 30 years, we have eaten organic,” she said. “To be able to marry the way that we live and how we make our living is really something that we’ve talked about and planned about for years, but just didn’t think we’d be able to get it done.”

The Winners began the process with help from organic transition services available through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. They just finished their third year of transition and recently had their official organic inspection.

Ohio currently ranks seventh nationally for the number of organic farming operations. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, organic sales in Ohio rose more than 30 percent between 2015 and 2016.

In order to stay viable, Renee Winner said, they felt they needed to “get big or get out,” and made the decision to go organic.

“Being a smaller, organic dairy is still viable,” she said, “where in the conventional market, everything is trending to larger, so you lose the ability to be yourself and to farm as a family.”

She encouraged those curious about transitioning to organic to speak with other organic farmers and organic inspectors, adding that services available through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association also are very beneficial.

“They have people there that will help you though the transition,” she said. “That’s been phenomenal for us, because you don’t know what you don’t know. They’re there to tell you, ‘No, this is the way to go,’ and to lead you.”

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association has education staff who can explain the Organic System Plan, review transition applications and provide mock inspections. There are an estimated 950 organic farming operations in Ohio.

More information is online at oeffa.org.

Government survey ranks Ohio No. 7

Tribune Chronicle, Virginia Shank, 10/22/17

It’s no surprise to Jonathan Woodford that a new government survey ranks Ohio at No. 7 in the nation when it comes to its number of organic farms.

Woodford, who operates SugarWood Acres — the West Farmington farm his great-grandparents established that his family still owns — has seen evidence that interest in “growing organic” is increasing.

“Just in the past year to year-and-a-half, a lot of people seem to be transitioning to organic from conventional,” Woodford said. “I think a lot of it depends on the type of farming they’re doing, or amount of crops they’re growing and what they’re familiar with.”

Ohio is seeing double-digit growth in the number of organic farms, organic land in production and organic sales, illustrating the role of organic production in economic development, according to the 2016 Certified Organic Survey of U.S. organic farms. The report, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, shows Ohio’s organic sales increased by more than 30 percent since 2015 and the number of certified organic farms in Ohio is up by 24 percent. Since 2015, Ohio moved up from 8th to 7th in the nation in the number of organic farms.

As of Thursday, of the 18,262 farms certified organic, 952 were in Ohio and five were in Trumbull County, according to the USDA. California had the most with 4,903 and the District of Columbia had the fewest with nine.

Overall, the U.S. saw $7.6 billion in organic sales, as well as an 11 percent increase in the number of organic farms. More than 5 million acres of certified organic acreage are in production in the U.S., up 15 percent since 2015.

“The 2016 survey illustrates the strength of organic production and sales in the state of Ohio. Organic production continues to be a bright spot in U.S. agriculture,” said Amalie Lipstreu, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association policy coordinator. “As more farmers move land into organic production, it is important that we make sure we are doing all we can to support their success.”

For Woodford, 34, going organic seemed like a practical approach when he started running the farm about five years ago. Although he was raised on the land his family bought in the early 1930s, he said he “wasn’t really raised farming” and had “little to no” experience farming. There had been about a 15-year-gap from the time his grandfather retired until Woodford resumed operations.

This summer marked his fifth growing hay that is now certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.

“I didn’t have a lot invested in equipment or supplies,” he said. “So, I could start from scratch. I didn’t have much money to put into it, so I just went the least expensive way I could and for me that was organic. I don’t have to add anything, so I don’t.”

Woodford works in maintenance for the Bristol Local School District, where his wife is a teacher.

His grandfather, who grew row crops, was a conventional farmer, using techniques that rely on technology, pesticides, chemicals and other synthetic, or man-made, tools to cultivate.

Woodford’s neighbor introduced him to growing organic, a farming approach that limits or excludes synthetic elements. Woodford uses chicken manure for fertilizer that isn’t chemical based. His farm, spread across 160 acres, where his grandmother, Martha Woodford, still lives, also produces maple syrup — a product his grandfather continued harvesting even after he retired. He has grown small grains like corn, wheat and oats.

To maintain his organic certification, Woodford follows national operating standards with a set of procedures and protocol.

Basically, each year he fills out about 30 pages of paperwork, sends it into the association, which then reviews it and sends out a certified inspector to walk the property and make sure he’s doing what he says he’s doing and following the necessary steps to operate an organic farm.

“I didn’t have fertilizer or the farming equipment you’d associate with conventional farming,” he said. “I was starting out fresh. My neighbor did organic farming and when I saw what was involved with both options I went with that. “

Woodford said his farm is part of the local supply chain, providing hay other area farms need to feed their animals.

“I think growing organic is still pretty new to a lot of people,” he said. “I can tell it’s been growing. You see more and more organic products in stores. There’s a market for it. Some people are afraid of conventional for whatever reason. They like seeing labels that say organic.”

Woodford said four out of five farms he delivers to along the same stretch of road are classified organic.

Despite the growth and strong consumer demand, investments in organic research through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Institute represent an average of just two-tenths of one percent of overall funding each year and Ohio has no extension educator positions dedicated to serving organic farmers.

“Organic production has not been able to keep up with demand, so this is a good time to review our agricultural funding as well as state and federal agency services to make sure investments are made in this growth industry so more Ohio farmers are equipped with the information, resources, and support they need to take advantage of this economic opportunity,”concluded Lipstreu.

Investments in organic farming could have larger economic impacts as well. According to a Penn State research paper on organic hotspots, on average, county poverty rates drop by 1.3 percent and median household incomes rise by more than $2,000 in counties with high organic activity that neighbor other high organic counties.

“I think many people go with what they know,” Woodford said. “If I were raised in conventional farming, and I was invested in that, I might have chosen that option. I’m not saying that conventional isn’t safe. I think a lot depends on what you’re farming, growing, producing and the amount.

“I personally stay with organic because it is natural. I can see the benefit. Hey, the earth has made it this far taking care of itself naturally. Why would I want to interfere with that?”

Ohio ranks high for number of organic farms

Akron Beacon Journal, 10/18/17

COLUMBUS: Ohio ranks seventh in the nation when it comes to the number of organic farms, according to a new survey.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2016 Certified Organic Survey shows Ohio’s organic sales increased by more than 30 percent since 2015 and the number of certified organic farms in Ohio is up by 24 percent. The Buckeye State also moved from eighth to seventh in the country for the number of organic farms.

“The 2016 survey illustrates the strength of organic production and sales in the state of Ohio,” Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association policy coordinator Amalie Lipstreu said in a prepared statement. “Organic production continues to be a bright spot in U.S. agriculture.”

Overall, the U.S. saw $7.6 billion in organic sales, as well as an 11 percent increase in the number of organic farms. More than 5 million acres of certified organic acreage are in production in the U.S., up 15 percent since 2015.

With the growth, the government needs to invest more in organic farming, the association said. The USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Institute spends an average of two-tenths of 1 percent of overall funding each year on organic farming, and Ohio has no extension educator positions dedicated to serving organic farmers, according to the association.

“Organic production has not been able to keep up with demand, so this is a good time to review our agricultural funding as well as state and federal agency services to make sure investments are made in this growth industry so more Ohio farmers are equipped with the information, resources and support they need to take advantage of this economic opportunity,” Lipstreu said.

Highland County home to Old Dutch Hops

Times Gazette, Michael Williamson, 8/1/2017

On a back road in Highland County, behind the Old Dutch Cemetery — a graveyard that dates back to the American Revolution — sits the Wilson family farm. The 250-acre plot of land, which has been in the family for more than 75 years, is home to two generations of farmers.

The elder, John Michael “Mike” Wilson, oversees the traditional farming practices such as harvesting corn and hay, carrying on the tradition of his parents who purchased the farm in the years preceding World War II.

However, Wilson’s daughter, Amanda, and her husband, Brady Kirwan, occupy a 2-acre stretch of that land where they hope to both carry on the torch as third generation farmers and start something new — organic hops production.

Journey home

Kirwan and Wilson operate the state’s first Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s Certified Organic hops yard. Named after the neighboring graveyard, Old Dutch Hops is home to six varieties of hops plants including Cascade, Chinook, Magnum, Nugget, Columbus and Centennial.

“We were deciding on coming back here and started doing some research on what to start with,” Kirwan said. The two met in Kirwan’s home state of California while working as park rangers at Yosemite National Park. Kirwan had been working as a laborer for the park and Wilson was exploring an interest in park services after receiving her degree from Ohio University.

She found that she had a growing interest in farming and for being back home.

A growing trend

Kirwan began research into the subject of hops farming, particularly with regard to the work that Brad Bergefurd, a horticulture specialist with The Ohio State University, was doing into the subject. Bergefurd and his team operate a number of test hops yards at the OSU South Centers in Piketon.

According to Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences website, “The Ohio Department of Liquor Control handed out more alcohol-manufacturing permits in the first six months of 2011 than it did all of 2010.” This spike started a trend that has continued in some capacity in the subsequent seven or eight years.

Many brewery, pub, tavern and bar patrons might see the effects of these statistics on the menus of their favorite beer-serving establishments. Craft and microbreweries are competing for page space with many of the nationally-recognized beer brands.

With the growing trend of micro-breweries popping up around the state comes the demand for more hops being grown locally. That’s where people like Wilson and Kirwan come in.

They are part of the Ohio Hops Growers Guild (OHGG), an organization formed in 2014 with the goal of uniting Ohio hops growers and creating a standard of quality and practices. Since that formation, the group has grown to more than 80 members whose primary focus is bringing information about locally-sourced hops to fellow growers and the general public.

On July 22, the OHGG sponsored an open house for nine hops yards around the state. Those interested in the subject could tour their local yards and learn about the whole subject of hops farming. Among the stops was Old Dutch Hops and their Hillsboro yard.

The process

“I think we like the idea of bringing diversity back to the way farms used to be,” Wilson said. Rather than solely focusing on the large crops of the surrounding fields, the couple decided to try their hand at something different. “I think that’s what drew us to it, also. It’s such an odd crop,” Kirwan said.

The set-up of a hops yard with its trellis system is an interesting sight among the traditional fields of soybeans and corn. With the exception of the height difference, the process is not dissimilar to the makeup of a grape vineyard.

The hops are grown on vines which crawl up strands of rope made of coconut fiber, and the ropes dangle from metal wires which are attached to 20-foot, wooden poles. They are planted in long rows, divided by open patches of grass. For Wilson and Kirwan, they use two of these open rows to house chickens.

“We are interested in the idea of sustainability and as much organic farming as we can,” Wilson said. “The chickens feed off the land and help to fertilize it.”

The technique of pasteurizing the chickens in this way is attributed to Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer known for his unique approach to the world of farming. That approach and thought-process is something that appeals to Wilson and Kirwan.

“A lot of people mis-characterize hops as an easy crop to grow,” Kirwan said. “It is and it isn’t.” Once the crops are in the ground and growing, weeding and watering is about their only maintenance. However, the accessibility of the crop leaves it open to insects.

“We’ve had some problems this year with bugs, especially the Japanese beetles,” said Kirwan, referring to the torn leaves of the hanging plants. For the most part, other growers are having the same issues.

Growing a business

Wilson and Kirwan sell their Old Dutch Hops products at two farmer’s markets, the Northside Farmers Market in Cincinnati, and the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market closer to home. They also sell to the Fibonacci Brewing Company in Cincinnati, a company with which they have a good working relationship. Wilson and Kirwan sell their hops at $6 per pound for wet hops and $15 per pound for dry hops.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture has recently complicated the process by changing the rules for the pelletizing process with regard to water content in harvested crops. The state has also shut down the Ohio’s only commericial-sized hops pelletizing machine, which makes the hops grower’s ability to begin selling more problematic.

“It’s slowed down the process. But we have made more this year than we’ve put in,” Kirwan said. “But with harvesting labor and transportation, it’ll take more time to actually see a profit.” As with any type of farming, the profitablity lies in the process of learning how to grow their yield.

The Old Dutch Hops adventure is a more than two-year project for the couple and something they hope to continue.

“We haven’t figured out how to do it 100 percent,” Wilson said. “But we’d like to get to the point where it’s more sustainable.” Wilson works as a paramedic and Kirwan an EMT, both part-time.

“We mostly do it to help pay for supplies and the animals,” Wilson said. They split their time between the hops yard, work, and learning how to farm.

Eventually, they would like to learn enough about it to make farming their lives. They hope to keep the hops yard part of the process and to incorporate the ideas of true, sustainable farming intact. For them, it starts with experimentation and discovery. According to Wilson, they are still working on finding their place in the world of farming.

“That’s the part we haven’t quite figured out yet,” she said.

Ag breakfast speaker notes sustained growth of organic certification

Growing vegetables and crops organically continues to grow in demand each year.

On Thursday, Eric Pawlowski, a sustainable agriculture educator with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association was the featured speaker at the monthly Ag Business Breakfast Forum.

In addition to being an organic farmer himself, in his OEFFA role Pawlowski helps other growers enter into the organic growing circle and receive organic certification.

“We are a nonprofit organization by farmers for farmers,” he said of the organization.

Not all members of OEFFA are organically certified and of those who are, not all of them are 100 percent organic as many have some standard crops as well as their organics.

During his presentation, he often reminded those interested in achieving organic certification to pick up the phone and call with any questions.

“We want to help. It will save you time and money in the long run,” he said.

Pawlowski outlined the five steps necessary to become a certified organic operation. First, complete and submit an application. Second, undergo initial review. Third, have an inspection. Fourth, have the post-inspection review. And finally, get a decision on certification.

He said the certification is essential to assure the highest level of standards are being met. “Certified organic is the gold standard.”

During the program he ventured away from the OEFFA policy and expressed his personal frustration with growers who choose not to certify but claim their operation goes “beyond organic.”

“Personally that offends me,” he said. “How can you go beyond a standard if you are not willing to verify you meet that standard?”

He explained those who claim to be organic and are not diminish the power of the certification and the high standards they set for the organics. He suggested they develop their own name for it. This is necessary he said “to uphold the integrity of the label.”

He said those wishing to be organic not merely get in it for the premium price being paid for organics.

“I found that if you are in it for the price premium, you’re not going to make it. You have to be in it with your heart and that will show in your business,” Pawlowski said.

He offered descriptions of requirements such as buffer zones and the three-year time frame needed to transition a field to organic. He also stressed the importance of keeping detailed records of all action in the field and with the harvested crops.

By doing the right things and documenting what is being done most growers can avoid the dreaded “noncompliance.”

He also offered some of the top reasons people are deemed non-compliant. The reasons include problems with record keeping, use of prohibited substances, incomplete organic systems plan, incomplete or inaccurate organic system dates and statistics.

He stressed the need for proper communication, including being sure to read any correspondence from their office.

For more information, contact Pawlowski at 614-262-2022 or through www.oeffa.org

Clay Hill brings kale and more to farmers market

The Sentinel Tribute, 8/16/16

Today’s Downtown Farmers Market vendor profile comes to us from Kristy Buskirk of Clay Hill.

Clay Hill is located just north of Tiffin and specializes in produce and flowers. This is the third year Clay Hill has appeared at the Clay Hill Farmsmarket.

“We are a certified organic vegetable and cut flower farm. We specialize in greens, bring lots of kale to the market every week,” Buskirk said. “We are certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association.

“We are a small family farm in its third year of production. We have gone through the organic certification process to show our commitment to providing the healthiest food for you, your family and the environment. We take care to bring the highest quality products to market every week.”

Buskirk said she loves that the market is in downtown because it “makes it feel like part of the community.”

When asked if she shops from other vendors while at the market, Buskirk said, “Absolutely! I mainly pick up fruit from Haslingers, since fruit is something we don’t grow yet. I also get bread from Bella Cuisine and if there is an item I don’t grow, I generally pick it up from Rheims.”

Buskirk said there are many reasons people should visit the Downtown Farmers Market.

“Attending the farmers market is a weekly celebration of food and community. I believe that supporting local farmers is an important part of citizenship. The food and goods available at the market all stream dollars into local businesses and are the freshest and generally tastiest available. The prices are comparable to what you find in the grocery store and can be more affordable, not to mention superior in quality.”

“There is always music at the end of the market, which is an enjoyable way to spend summer afternoons,” Buskirk said.

The Downtown Farmers Market is open rain or shine every Wednesday from 4-7 p.m. through Oct. 12. A variety of vendors bring fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, flowers, home-baked goods, artisan crafts, and more. The market is in the parking lot on the corner of Main and Clough streets. Keep in mind that metered parking is enforced until 5 p.m. Visit the website at bgfarmersmarket.org.

 

Correcting organic misinformation

Rural Life Today, 5/4/16

By Carol Goland, Ph.D

OEFFA Executive Director

COLUMBUS — Don “Doc” Sanders’ question (In his April Rural Life Today column) —“So, what’s better, organic or traditional farming”— is the wrong one to ask. Instead: “What do consumers want?” and “What will benefit farmers?” are the relevant questions.

Dr. Sanders brought up rbST; however, this issue has been decided in the court of consumer opinion. Consumers don’t want milk from cows injected with this drug. Arguing the merits of its benefits is beside the point. When grocery stores such as Kroger and juggernaut dairy processor Dean Foods state they don’t want to buy milk from farmers who use this product, it’s time to acknowledge the marketplace has spoken.

And the marketplace continues to speak: consumer demand for organic products has grown by double digits every year since the 1990s, with 84 percent of Americans now reporting they purchase organic food. Fresh produce and dairy are in the highest demand.

Consumers want what organic delivers: farming practices that maintain and improve the soil and water resources on which we all depend; eliminating the reliance on synthetic fertilizers that run off fields and pollute our waterways; enhancing biodiversity; animal health care practices that emphasize prevention; allowing ruminants to forage on grass and exhibit their natural behaviors; traceability from farm to table, and a prohibition on genetically engineered seeds and feed.

It’s unfortunate that Dr. Sanders’ column shared some misinformation about organic dairy production, such as the idea that antibiotic treatment is denied to cows that need it. The National Organic Program regulations require that “all appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail.” If antibiotics are needed, they must be used; the animal must then be removed from the organic herd.

Organic is not about substituting an unacceptable input for an acceptable one. Instead, it’s about managing a system. It is that production system – in which a variety of clever and effective natural practices are used – that allows organic farmers to avoid using synthetic pesticides that, in turn, remain as residues on food.

Organic farmers have access to 25 synthetic active pest control products which have been evaluated for their environmental and human health effects and which are only allowed under a restricted set of conditions; over 900 pesticides are registered for use in conventional farming. It is these contrasts in production systems that produce the demonstrable differences in what Dr. Sanders calls “quality, purity, and nutritive value of organic versus conventional food.”

An organic livestock system relies on preventative health practices to reduce the risk of common diseases, and to ensure animal welfare and productivity.

We need veterinarians like Dr. Sanders to help organic livestock farmers understand what they can do to reduce risks in their farming operations, and help them manage those animals if they do get sick. This approach to livestock farming, and the systems used in organics, can benefit all herds— whether the farm is organic or conventional.

For more information about organic certification and livestock management, go to http://certification.oeffa.org/.

Carol Goland, Ph.D, is Executive Director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.

Celebrating 25 years of organic standards

By Catie Noyes

Farm and Dairy, 12/8/15

SALEM, Ohio — Organic producers, policy leaders and consumers agree the road to creating uniform standards for organic production was not an easy one. Even after the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the rules concerning organic production were disputed and would take several more years to sort out.

Twenty-five years later, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association acknowledged this milestone in a teleconference, Nov. 30, by talking about the challenges of creating unified standards in organic production. Participants also shared their hopes for the future of the National Organic Program.

Before the law

“There was no ‘ah-ha’ moment for us,” said Mike Laughlin, a certified organic specialty crop farmer from Johnstown, Ohio, referring to his decision to go organic. He and his wife had been growing a few small plots of vegetables in their backyard, nothing large-scale at the time.

“When our farm became a reality, it was a simple choice to grow in a manner that protected and enhanced the earth and provided good clean, safe food for us, our children and our customers,” Laughlin said during the conference call. But finding the information they needed was a challenge.

“It was a different time,” Laughlin said. “A lot of information was hard to find.” That’s when Laughlin discovered the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and found a group of like-minded individuals. Through the association, Laughlin was able to become certified organic under the criteria supplied by the OEFFA.

Having the OEFFA standards in place made Ohio one of the first states to develop rules for organic production, but it didn’t seem to be enough, said Laughlin. “It didn’t stop anyone else from saying they had an organic product. There were no rules to prevent that from happening.”

This began a push for more uniform U.S. standards.

Developing standards

“This was a very classic David and Goliath story,” said Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. deputy secretary for the USDA who helped write the laws for the national organic standard that would replace the patchwork standards developed across the country in the late 1980s.

At the time, there was a distrust between farmers and the government. “Farmers had not been treated well by USDA historically,” explained Merrigan. So it was a surprise to see farmers coming to government’s door for help.  Legislation for the Organic Foods Production Act was signed into law on Nov. 28, 1990. Concerns for the language in the legislation would prompt more changes in the next 12 years.

The use of GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge were all permitted in the original legislation, which ignited an uproar in the organic community, explained Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition adviser. There were over 325,000 comments submitted to the act’s implementation — “the biggest comment to any USDA rule at that point,” said Hoodes.

It wasn’t until 2002 that a final rule was published, establishing an intensive set of rules. “Back then, the organic standards were just two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper,” said Laughlin, whose Northridge Organic Farm was one of the first Ohio farms to become certified organic under the new federal standards. “Now they’re more like a telephone book.”

Future

Even with a very prescriptive set of rules, all panel members agreed, the future of the organic industry looks promising. Organic products have seen an “astounding” growth, said Abby Youngblood, National Organic Coalition Executive Director, with sales reaching nearly $40 billion annually, which she said is about 5% of total food sales.

“I think organic is a key opportunity for those who are getting into farming,” she said. “In terms of profitability, on a per-acre basis, in many cases organic does offer increased profitability and a way for people to get started in farming.”

Research

But more organic research funding is needed, added Youngblood. “Only one-tenth of 1 percent of all agricultural research is dedicated in the (USDA’s) flagship research program to organic research.”

Kathleen Merrigan said she has seen practices led by organic farmers be adopted by a larger number of farmers who are not organic. “Investing in organic research is not just investing in organic agriculture, it’s investing in agriculture,” she said.

Her example was the use of rotational grazing on dairy farms, a practice she said was “pioneered by organic producers” and has since been widely adapted on a variety of operations both organic and non-organic — “because it makes sense.” The kinds of research that (organic producers) are calling for is a way to broaden our American agriculture portfolio, said Merrigan.

Silver celebration: Organic enthusiasts mark food law’s 25th anniversary

Sup­port­ers cel­e­brated the 25th an­niver­sary of the Or­ganic Foods Pro­duc­tion Act last week. Lead­ers re­flected on how far the move­ment has come in the past few decades dur­ing a vir­tual press con­fer­ence hosted by the Ohio Eco­log­i­cal Food and Farm As­so­ci­a­tion, one of the na­tion’s first pro­mot­ers of or­ganic food.

Signed into law in 1990, the OFPA was a bat­tle be­fore and af­ter im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Liana Hoodes, Na­tional Or­ganic Coali­tion ad­viser, said prior to the OFPA there was no na­tional stan­dard for or­ganic farm­ing.

“It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the de­vel­op­ment of the law came from farm­ers and con­sumers, joined by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and in­dus­try in the very be­gin­ning,” she said.

Kath­leen Mer­ri­gan served as head of the Agri­cul­tural Mar­ket­ing Ser­vice from 1999 to 2001 and is known as the chief ar­chi­tect of the present-day or­ganic stan­dards. She later served as Deputy Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture from 2009 to 2013.

Prior to the OFPA, Mer­ri­gan said a deep mis­trust had grown be­tween or­ganic farm­ers and gov­ern­ment. With growth in the or­ganic sec­tor, farm­ers were con­cerned or­ganic stan­dards would be wa­tered down, so they went to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture for help.

Mer­ri­gan said the USDA orig­i­nally tried to work with la­bel rules but de­cided the is­sue needed leg­is­la­tion. Govern­ment of­fi­cials, farm­ers and or­ganic stake­hold­ers part­nered to write the bill.

“I think that part­ner­ship, that col­lab­o­ra­tion, is em­bed­ded in the law through the con­struc­tion of the Na­tional Or­ganic Stan­dards Board,” she said.

Even af­ter the draft bill was writ­ten, the group had trou­ble get­ting it passed. Sen. Pa­trick Leahy, D-Vt., the Se­nate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee chair­man, in­tro­duced the bill in a cham­ber with a Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity. While the Se­nate went along with the bill, Mer­ri­gan said, the House was a dif­fer­ent story.

“When I look back on that time, this is a very clas­sic David and Go­liath story,” she said.

Mer­ri­gan said the USDA had trou­ble find­ing a Con­gress­man to in­tro­duce the leg­is­la­tion be­fore Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed to spon­sor it. He was not on the House Ag Com­mit­tee and had an up­hill bat­tle be­fore the bill passed and Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush signed it into law.

After pas­sage, the law was slow to get off the ground, ham­pered by a lack of ap­pro­pri­a­tions for USDA staff and the Na­tional Or­ganic Stan­dards Board to de­velop the rules.

The first draft rules were fi­nally pub­lished in 1997, but con­tained what Hoodes de­scribed as a “head­line grab­bing” al­lowance of three con­tro­ver­sial things: GMOs, ir­ra­di­a­tion and sewage sludge.

Hoodes said grass­roots groups pulled to­gether and the draft rules re­ceived 325,000 com­ments in an era be­fore In­ter­net sub­mis­sions. Hoodes said the com­ments rep­re­sented the most sub­mit­ted on a USDA rule up to that point.

Dur­ing Mer­ri­gan’s ten­ure at USDA, the rules, which she de­scribed as “a phone book” thick, were re­fined and pub­lished in 2002.

Mer­ri­gan said while food safety was the mo­ti­va­tion at the time of the OFPA’s pas­sage, en­vi­ron­men­tal health, sus­tain­abil­ity and farm struc­ture have ben­e­fited.

“I think we have seen in time that we are ready to start go­ing be­yond that ini­tial food safety, con­sumers driven to or­ganic be­cause of con­cerns about pes­ti­cide residues,” she said. “Now, con­sumers in the mar­ket­place are reach­ing for the or­ganic la­bel be­cause of a whole host of at­tributes.”

Abby Young­blood, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Or­ganic Coali­tion, said or­ganic food sales have grown to $40 bil­lion, rep­re­sent­ing 5 per­cent of U.S. food sales.

“We have seen re­ally as­tound­ing growth in a short pe­riod of time,” she said.

How­ever, re­search fund­ing has not kept up. Young­blood said just one-tenth of 1 per­cent of the re­search in the USDA’s flag­ship pro­gram is ded­i­cated to or­ganic sys­tems. She said more fed­eral fund­ing is needed for or­ganic re­search to help farm­ers breed seeds bet­ter adapted to chang­ing cli­mate and or­ganic sys­tems.

Young­blood said farm­ers are ben­e­fit­ing from the OFPA by or­ganic farm­ing prac­tices and price pre­mi­ums. It also of­fers a way for be­gin­ning farm­ers to start a ca­reer.

“Or­ganic is a key op­por­tu­nity for those who are get­ting into farm­ing,” she said. “We know that if we want to con­tinue to pro­duce food do­mes­ti­cally, we need to have more farm­ers and we need to at­tract young peo­ple to the pro­fes­sion.”

Young­blood also said the OFPA laid the foun­da­tion for a much more demo­cratic and trans­par­ent food sys­tem.

“It is this op­por­tu­nity that cit­i­zens have to par­tic­i­pate in the process and to en­gage in help­ing to de­cide what that or­ganic la­bel means,” she said. “It’s re­ally so im­por­tant and so ex­cit­ing, be­cause we know that we can keep build­ing the or­ganic la­bel. It’s not static, and it can keep chang­ing and adapt­ing to re­flect new pro­duc­tion meth­ods.”