Monday, August 8, 2016

New Mexico organic-certification program at crossroads

osted: Wednesday, August 3, 2016 11:55 pm | Updated: 12:42 pm, Thu Aug 4, 2016. By Staci Matlock The New Mexican In 1989, a handful of New Mexico farmers founded the state’s organic growers association, one of the first in the nation. Dedicated to producing food that was healthy for both people and the environment, they promoted farming free of chemicals and genetic engineering. They were at the forefront of a food revolution. The organization grew, with more farmers signing up for the arduous process of becoming Certified Organic. The organic label caught fire with customers and began generating millions of dollars in sales at restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets in the state. Fast-forward to 2011, when Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill into law that disbanded the original farmer-driven New Mexico Organic Commodities Commission. The law shifted the organic farming program to the state Department of Agriculture and ended its annual funding, requiring it to survive instead on fees charged to organic farmers and food processors. Now the program, facing a $125,000 shortfall and staffed with just two people who oversee certifications and inspections for about 150 producers statewide, is in trouble, and the Department of Agriculture is begging for advice on how to proceed from the farmers and food processors the program serves. “The current fee structure doesn’t provide sufficient funding to cover operating costs,” Deputy Secretary Anthony Parra told the growers, processors and farmers market staff gathered for a meeting Wednesday at the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service Office. “We’re here begging for your help. We want this program to succeed as much as you do.” The organic program certifies and inspects about 150 farms, livestock operations and processors a year, which collectively generate $40 million a year in sales — an amount that’s growing. Private companies also certify and inspect farms seeking organic certification under the standards set by the federal government, but producers said they must pay three to four times more for that service. Wednesday’s meeting was the third such gathering in three days, during the height of the growing and harvesting season. Farmers were angry that state officials had let the program run into so much trouble. “It’s a kick in the teeth to think we might lose this program,” said Matt Rembe of Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm in Albuquerque. “That’s the message we want going back to the governor and lawmakers. … We don’t make the profits of big conventional ag. We are composting. We are weeding by labor. We should be rewarded for the extra labor. Instead, we are being asked to do more than big ag.” Some farmers said they were concerned that lawmakers and the governor had set up the program to fail by ending appropriations while limiting the fees staff can collect from farmers. “It was inevitable that the program would run into trouble the day the governor canceled the commission and took away all the funding,” said Minor Morgan, owner of North Valley Organics in Albuquerque. “This day was preordained.” Under the state law, farmers, livestock owners and food processors pay $200 a year to apply for organic certification. A certifier makes sure an operation meets the federal government’s organic standards, and later, an inspector tours the farm or processing plant to make sure national standards are still being met. The producer also pays a three-quarters-of-a-percent fee on gross sales. New Mexico has certified organic producers for cotton, dairy products, alfalfa, peanuts, pecans, herbs, vegetables and fruits, said Brett Bakker, one of the certifiers who started working with the organic program in 1991. When the Department of Agriculture took over the program, it had a $200,000 surplus. But knowing the program had to survive only on fees, the department began scaling it back immediately. An office in Albuquerque was closed down and moved to Las Cruces. Positions were left unfilled. But that wasn’t enough, said Parra and the department’s marketing director, David Lucero. If the state can’t keep the program going, “it leaves 153 organic growers hanging,” Parra said. New Mexico isn’t the only state to have problems maintaining its organic certification program. Only 16 states have such programs, Lucero said. “Most have dropped the program for the same reasons — not enough cash flowing.” Until recently, New Mexico’s organic program had three certifiers who also served as inspectors, and Joanie Quinn, one of the founders of the original organic commission, served as an adviser to farmers. The department plans to fill one of the organic certifier positions. But it isn’t sure it can replace Quinn, who recently retired. Farmers said Quinn was an invaluable resource, a farmer herself who could help them navigate the red tape and find solutions to problems that cropped up within their operations. Kristine Keheley, owner of Vapour Organic Beauty of Taos and Plenish Skin Care, which manufactures skin care products sold largely out of state, said the state should be supporting the organic program and farmers as an economic development boon. “This program is working,” said Keheley, who employs 25 people and is looking to hire more. “Organic is a growing industry in the state.” Karen Converse, operations manager for the commercial lavender fields at Los Poblanos, said New Mexico officials are not paying attention to the high-value, homegrown organic foods industry. “They’re too busy chasing the Teslas,” Converse said. Organic growers like Tom Dixon, who farms the land where he grew up in La Cienega, will have to hire private certifiers and inspectors if the state’s organic program fails. “I’ve talked to other farmers whose states don’t have organic programs like ours,” Dixon said from his Green Tractor Farm. “It costs them thousands to bring inspectors in from out of state.” Jeff M. Witte, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, said he’s “not keen” on making organic farmers hire private inspectors. “We have a lot of small farmers who would be hurt by the higher fees.” Dixon said, “The Legislature, as much as it needs to stretch state dollars, should be willing to help put healthy food on people’s tables.” Dixon, who was unable to attend Wednesday's meeting, and the farmers who did attend said they don’t have a lot of time around running their businesses to push lawmakers for funding to help the organic program survive. But Dixon’s wife, Mary, said farmers, organic food advocates and organic markets will have to lobby lawmakers and the governor to save the program. Parra and Lucero said they hope to host more meetings with farmers in the northern part of the state, but with the next legislative session not too far away and the clock ticking on the organic program, there isn’t much time to come up with solutions. Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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