Two decades on, farmers weigh organic standards

ADDISON COUNTY — Since the passage 20 years ago this week of the 1990 Farm Bill, which established a National Organic Program (NOP), the demand for healthy, sustainably produced food has skyrocketed — and with it, the demand for organically certified products.
Consumers nowadays — especially those in cities — don’t always know how or where their food was produced, so organic certifications give them more information to use when making purchasing decisions, said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy while marking the anniversary this week.
“It’s not like a time when America was an agrarian society, when just about everybody lived on or near a farm,” said Leahy, who as chairman of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in 1990 shepherded the national organic standards into law.
Two decades later, local farmers are still weighing the costs and benefits of going organic, with some saying it helps market their products and others saying national standards are too onerous.
Some farmers, like Hank Bissell, argue that certification is not as necessary in a small agricultural state like Vermont. Bissell, who owns Lewis Creek Farms in Starksboro, said he certified his farm as organic for several years in the 1980s. After a few years, however, he chose to drop the certification.
“I found that there were some people who demanded organic, but most people were interested in local,” said Bissell.
He said he takes care to sustainably manage his plants, and he uses organic practices where he can. Bissell, who sells only within Vermont, said most of his customers just want to know where the food comes from, and to be able to talk to the farmers about their growing practices.
“(In Vermont), there’s a lot of respect given to those who use any organic practices. When you’re driving by the farms every day, and plainly there’s a healthy ecosystem, (you know it’s fine),” he explained. “When you get into a city and you never drive by a farm, you need (the certification). It comes down to whether the farmer is well-meaning.”
Federal organic certification puts stringent regulations on farmers to grow crops, produce dairy products and raise livestock without the use of most synthetic additives and genetically modified organisms. In return, farmers are able to label their products as “organic,” which in turn allows them to charge a higher price when selling to consumers.
Leahy was instrumental in the formation of NOP and the institution of the standards, which went into place over the course of several years following 1990. On Wednesday, Leahy held a hearing in Washington, D.C., to mark the 20th anniversary of the program, at which the participants discussed changes over the past 20 years and the future of the organic label.
Vermont’s organic label has been around for longer than the national program — the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Vermont (NOFA-VT) was founded in 1971, though the certification standards for the state did not go into effect until 1985. In fact, NOP and the organic standards that were established as a result of the federal program, borrowed from Vermont, which at the time had some of the most rigorous state standards in the country.
On Tuesday, Leahy emphasized the importance of the federal standards as a guarantee of quality across state and country lines. Under the state-by-state system, several Northeast states had reciprocal programs allowing farmers to sell their organic-labeled food across state lines, but the actual organic standards varied widely. He said it was more labor-intensive and costly to produce organic products that adhered to the higher standards in states like Vermont.
“If you had a state that didn’t have tough standards, that put other states at a competitive disadvantage,” said Leahy.
Enid Wonacott, executive director of NOFA-VT since 1987, said there came a point where a state-certified label simply did not have enough clout.
“The writing was on the wall,” she said. “Before there was a national program, anyone could call anything organic.”
Since the formation of NOP and the release of organic standards, production of organic foods and fibers has boomed nationwide. Vermont alone is the eighth largest producer of organics in the country, with 537 certified organic operations and 91,639 acres of organic farmland as of 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s now a $25 billion industry,” Leahy said. “It’s the fastest growing agricultural industry.”
Wonacott pointed out that with substantially more certified organic acreage now than in 1990, benefits go beyond the quality of the food and include improved worker health and safety.
“And there are more funds for organic research systems — that information has been shared much more widely,” said Wonacott.
As might be expected, with the implementation of federal organic standards came an accompanying loss of farmer control in Vermont. Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), an arm of NOFA-VT, was formed in 1985 to help define, for farmers and consumers, what it meant to grow organically.
Will Stevens, who with his wife, Judy, runs Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, was president of VOF for four years in the early ’90s, before the national standards were in place. His farm has been certified organic since 1987, but he has seen significant changes in the process and enforcement of that certification.
“In some ways, it’s more about branding and marketing, not about production practices,” said Stevens.
He said the role of VOF has changed, as well — now the organization serves as the federal certification arm of NOFA-VT. When VOF first formed, inspectors who went around to farms had a role that served as much of an educational purpose as an inspection purpose — an inspector would bring resources to help with crop management to the farm. Technical assistance is a separate department now, said Stevens.
“It was felt at the national level that (education was) too much of the fox guarding the henhouse,” Stevens said.
Wonacott said many Vermont farmers had similar objections about the standardization and enforcement of the organics label, and some chose to drop out of the standards program when it went federal.
“People didn’t like the idea of the federal government getting control over something they’d had control over,” she explained.
Diane St. Clair, who makes high-end butter at Animal Farm in Orwell, agreed with Bissell that for consumers a personal knowledge of a farmer and his or her practices can stand in for the organic certification. After the organic dairy program went federal (dairy standards were released in 2006, later than vegetable standards), St. Clair decided to drop her certification.
“Becoming a federal program made the rules more rigid,” she said.
St. Clair said that it didn’t make sense to remove a cow from her very small herd simply because she had treated it with antibiotics, as she would have had to under national organic standards. Under the state system, organic farmers could treat a sick animal with antibiotics and stop using the animal’s milk for a period, until the medication had left its body.
Even more significant, she said, was the fact that she only sells to three restaurants, one in California, one in New York and one in Boston, and she has working relationships with all of those chefs.
“I wasn’t getting any benefit from going organic, because I wasn’t selling to people who don’t know me,” she said. “The people who benefit most are people who sell milk.”
At a community dairy forum in Middlebury last week, dairy farmers Marie Audet and Cheryl DeVos, who both sell their milk to cooperatives, expressed differing views of what the organic designation means for dairy farmers.
Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, which is not organic, called organic certification “just a label.
“All people want to know is that you take care of your animals,” Audet said.
DeVos, who with her husband, J.D., runs Kimball Brook Farm in Ferrisburgh, disagreed.
“I don’t think it’s just a label,” she said.
DeVos cited the rigorous standards with which her organic farm is expected to comply — standards that guarantee to the consumers that her milk has a certain quality before it is mixed in with other milk at a central processing plant.
In turn, the rigorous requirements — and the feed, which costs about twice the price of its conventional counterpart — guarantee the DeVoses and other organic dairy farmers a steady, high price for their products.
Wonacott said that these stable prices, as well as increased levels of farmer control in organic dairy co-ops, have led many farmers to convert their herds to organic.
“Conventional prices go up and down and up and down,” she said. “(Organic) has been a big draw for dairy farmers.”
Some argue that the organic label has less clout these days since, increasingly, larger farms are getting certified. But Stevens said that even the larger companies have a role to play. The fact that a mammoth the size of like Wal-Mart is moving into the business proves that more consumers are thinking about how their food was made.
“Maybe in the bigger picture they’re bringing awareness to a greater number of consumers,” Stevens said.
Leahy said it is important to make sure these larger businesses are held to the same standards as smaller farmers.
“Neither Wal-Mart nor anybody else is going to be able to sell organics if there’s no confidence in the label,” he said.
That, he said, is the real challenge that lawmakers face — taking the idea of organic food and making sure that it comes through in the federal regulations.
“How do we keep the standards real and enforceable?” he asked. “If they’re not enforceable, organics are going to fall apart.”
Stevens said that he will continue to focus selling his organic produce on local markets. But he said there will some day come a point where the Vermont vegetable market will hit saturation, and at that point farmers will have to reach further afield for markets.
“(The federal label) will help export markets,” he said.
Leahy agreed.
“In a small state like ours, if we want to survive economically, we want to have value added products. Organic is one way to do that.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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