Certified organic no longer in Miss.?

Nov. 25, 2011

Certified organic ‘thing of the past’ in Mississippi?

Is having certified organic farms a thing of the past in Mississippi?
Maybe, maybe not. But the idea of it certainly caught a lot of organic growers by surprise at last week’s Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association conference in Vicksburg.
Dr. Bill Evans, Mississippi State University Truck Crops Experiment Station expert, told the group that as of Dec. 31, the state Department of Agriculture would no longer be a certifying agent for Mississippi growers.
The reason, he said, was budget cuts; it costs more than $3,000 per grower for the state to certify them as organic under the National Organic Program.
What this means for growers is that if one is already certified, he or she must turn to an outside agency to maintain certification, and pay for it out of pocket.
Flying in a certifier from another state and providing food and lodging can cost hundreds, perhaps, thousands of dollars. That’s a cost few farms can afford, especially mom-and-pop operations.
If one is wanting certification, but hasn’t obtained it, this means that one would have to apply for out-of-state certification – with no guarantees of availability.
There are only about 25 certified organic farms in the state. That number is likely to decline – dramatically.
For consumers, what this means is that if one is wanting certified organic produce, more of it will be from out of state, and possibly, foreign countries.
The upshot of all this, in my opinion, is that a simmering national issue in organics is locally coming to a head: small producers versus big producers.
One of the founders of the modern organic movement is Eliot Coleman of Four Seasons Farm in Maine. He was an adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in formulating the organic program. But he has come to believe that giant food conglomerates have taken over the “organic” label to the detriment of sincere small farmers.
“In my opinion, ‘organic’ is now dead as a meaningful synonym for the highest quality food,” Coleman says. (See his full remarks, at:http://www.fourseasonfarm.com/pdfs/beyondorganic.pdf). He rejects organic
certification in favor of the term and procedures he defines as Authentic Food: Beyond Organic.
I think he’s on the right track; but with a caveat. I also believe that Maria Rodale, author of Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe, has to say about certified organic.
The granddaughter of one of the founders of the organic movement, J.I. Rodale, and CEO of Rodale Inc., she applauds the rise of organics under USDA supervision. She says, without it, safe, pesticide-free organic food would not be so widespread in supermarkets and available to consumers at an affordable price.
She’s got a point. But, honestly, I think there should be a middle way.
The paperwork (not to mention increasing expense) to be certified is ridiculous for a small farmer (5 to 10 acres; or under $50,000 gross).
Small farmers already cannot compete in price with giant 3,000-acre certified organic factory farms. That’s certainly not what the founders had in mind with the term “organic.” It’s not what the public expects, either.
There ought to be two tiers of USDA certification:
•One voluntary and inexpensive for small farmers, as is now done under the private Certified Naturally Grown process, with cooperative, volunteer third-party inspections;
•The other would be mandatory third-party government inspection, as with certified organic now, but for larger farms (above $50,000 gross), or those using government grants, loans or subsidies.
In any event, without some certifying agency, some Mississippians might have to do as Coleman suggests: Buy local and know your farmer. That’s more important than any government stamp, anyway.
•Recipe: From my beautiful wife Annette: Have blueberry bushes?If you do, chances are the leaves have turned a beautiful bright red. Now is the time to pick some, dry them at room temp and crumble for a delicious and high anti-oxidant tea.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.
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