Organic growth

Farmers seeking organic certification must now go through private agencies
Wednesday, July 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:48 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Local growers at the Columbia Farmers’ Market know there is an increasing demand for all-natural products and try to meet the needs of consumers by selling “organic” foods. But farmers like Dan Kuebler know the rigorous process involved in becoming a certified organic grower.

“When I decided to seek certification from the state department, I didn’t realize all of the paperwork it entailed,” said Kuebler, owner of The Salad Garden, three miles east of Ashland. “I spent nearly 80 hours compiling a farm history, business plan and outlining specific planting methods used to grow my produce. It was a very long process.”

Kuebler said he wanted to become certified so he could market his produce as certified organic. He also wanted to sell his produce to more restaurants and businesses besides his current local buyers.

He said once he submitted his paperwork and paid his $100 fee, he was put on the waiting list for a visit from a state certifier. But Kuebler never got his farm certified. The Missouri Department of Agriculture’s certification program was cut just a few weeks before his scheduled appointment. Now Kuebler is unsure whether he will become certified at all.

“One of the reasons I decided to get certified was because it only cost $100 through the state,” Kuebler said. “Although the paperwork was quite extensive, I received help from state officials within the program, and they made it much easier.”

That help is no longer available. Earlier this spring, the department eliminated the $129,000 organic certification program because of budget cuts. Now, organic farmers like Kuebler must turn to private firms to meet guidelines for certification under the National Organic Program guidelines enacted in October 2002.

“When the state department eliminated its program in April, people were left with no place to go with no warning,” said Sue Baird, director of OneCert Missouri, the only private certifier in the state.

Baird, former director of the Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program, said that although OneCert Missouri is a private entity, it offers farmers information and certification services at competitive rates.

“First-time farmers who want to get certified will pay a minimum of $295,” Baird said. “This is higher than previous fees at the state department but lower than any other private certifying agent.”

Baird said most farmers who were previously certified with the Missouri Department of Agriculture have transferred to OneCert.

“It’s important for people to know who they’re dealing with,” Baird said. “Only a handful of farmers who were previously certified by the state department have yet to pick a new certifier.”

Matt Boatright, deputy director of the department, said his division was forced to make cuts to every program.

“We decided that our certification program was not the best use of our financial resources,” he said. “By eliminating the program, we feel we are better able to serve farmers through marketing and business planning sessions and funding initiatives.”

Boatright said 137 Missouri growers were certified by the state last year, and he expects that the demand will be even higher this year.

“I believe with the growing interest in organic foods, we will see an increase in organic farms throughout the state,” Boatright said. “As a result, more certifiers will come into the area to meet the needs of those farmers.”

According to the department, any producer or handler who grosses at least $5,000 each year from organic sales must be certified if he or she wants to market products using the word “organic.” Similarly, the law requires that any product labeled “100 percent organic,” “organic” or “made with organic ingredients” must be certified.

But some producers still claim their produce as organic even though they don’t have the proper certification and labeling.

“Without the USDA certification seal, a consumer has no assurances that a producer is truly producing an organic product,” Baird said. “For their own protections, the consumer should verify if the product is certified organic.”

Farmers in Missouri and elsewhere across the country have resources available, such as The New Farm Web site.

Greg Bowman, online editor of the site sponsored by the Rodale Institute, said its new database for organic growers will help farmers in several ways.

The database lists USDA-accredited certifiers throughout the country. Farmers can browse the list or compare certifiers side-by-side. They can also share their certification experiences with different farmers through the certification forum.

Bowman said it’s been tough up to this point for farmers to find reliable information and services for their organic certification needs. The New Farm database is just one more step to help improve communication and cater specifically to organic farmers.

Debi Kelly, project manager of the Missouri Alternatives Center, said local growers can find information about certifiers from The New Farm Web site, as well as from her department in Whitten Hall on the MU campus.

“I can answer general questions about organic production as well as certification, and any specific questions can be forwarded to other experts across the state and nation,” Kelly said.

For the time being, Kuebler said he won’t seek out a private certifier.

“I have cut back my operation substantially this year, and I don’t anticipate I’ll gross more than $5,000,” Kuebler said. “If I decide to expand my operation again in the future, I’ll consider the certification idea again. It just depends on who else is out there and how much they charge.”

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