The abrupt decision by New Hampshire to stop certifying organic livestock farms will not have a big effect on the state’s agriculture, but it shows that maintaining food production is a complicated process.
“It is both a funding problem and a labor problem,” said Daniel Wolf, a state representative in Newbury who uses state certification for organic egg and hay production at his farm. His is one of 17 farms and 27 processors doing everything from packaging meat to baking bread who were told earlier this month that the state will no longer certify them as organic.
Farms will need to hire private certification agents within the next six months if they want to keep selling their products as organic. There are no private agents based in New Hampshire, but a number are available in other states that can, and do, certify farms here.
The state’s organic certification will continue for farms that grow fruits, vegetables and hay, some 81 of them.
Department of Agriculture Commission Shawn Jasper says that decision was made because the department doesn’t have the trained staff to oversee the certification program.
Wolf said he hoped to have legislation filed in the state Senate this coming week to address the problem. “I know that department has been understaffed for many, many years,” he said.
If state certification is kept, fees are likely to increase sharply. Wolfe said he pays $300 a year, a figure that hasn’t gone up in decades. By contrast, the Vermont program run by a private organization has a base fee of $515 and runs into thousands for mid-sized farms.
Organic certification can be vital to a farm. Glen Putnam of Piermont, who sells his dairy farm’s milk to Stonyfield for yogurt, told the Valley News that “If your certification runs out, you’re dumping your milk on the ground,” because Stonyfield does not accept conventional milk.
But even if an organic label is not required for sales, it can help keep a small farm going, because consumers will pay more for certified organic food.
“Part of the reason people go to the trouble to be certified organic is they can get a premium for their product. If they can’t use the USDA-certified organic label … it can make a big difference,” said Karl Johnson, president of the board of directors of the Northeast Organic Farm Association of New Hampshire. This premium is particularly important for the small and niche farms which make up a large portion of state agriculture.
Organic farm groups in Vermont and Maine have their own certification agents to ensure that there are no gaps. Agriculture is a larger proportion of the economy in both those states than in New Hampshire. Johnson said NOFA-NH is looking at whether they could take the same route in New Hampshire.
Organic certification has to follow rules set by the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture, which have been tightening in recent years. Certification for livestock farms is particularly complex with details extending beyond the farm itself, since any livestock feed purchased from elsewhere has to be certified organic. It involves inspections as well as lots of paperwork.
As an example, Wolf noted that he has to produce detailed records about egg production and sales. “You can’t have receipts for more eggs than the chickens are laying – that would imply that eggs are coming in from outside the farm.”
Commissioner Jasper said the issue of state certification came to a head when the director of the program left over the summer, leaving almost nobody to do the work.
“The USDA has very strict standards on those inspections, so it’s not something you can just hire somebody off the street to do. They have to be trained in that area,” Jasper said. “USDA wants us to have a dedicated staff doing this. That’s what we’re looking at, how to do this by the book – which quite frankly we haven’t been doing.”
The problem of certification is bigger than the state’s limited resources. There is a nationwide workforce shortage of certifiers, said Nikki Kolb, who works for NOFA-NH.