State organic certification program withering from funding drought

Mary and Tom Dixon

Clyde Mueller / The New Mexican

Mary Dixon, right, and Tom Dixon work in August in a greenhouse on their 3-acre organic Green Tractor Farm in La Cienega.

Satisfying consumer demand for organic products in New Mexico is an expanding industry, but the state program responsible for inspecting and certifying organic farms is withering financially.

The New Mexico Organic Certification Program has grappled with a $100,000-a-year deficit since the state cut the small agency’s funding in 2010 and capped the fees it could collect from more than 150 organic farmers and processors.

Now the state Department of Agriculture is looking at options to save the program, including raising farmers’ fees to cover costs, a move likely to meet with mixed reactions. But many growers and processors say they want the state program to continue rather than turning to private companies for organic certification.

“We desperately want them to stay and think they are an integral part of organic agriculture in the state. Organics are a growing industry and need that support,” said John McMullin, the farm manager at Embudo Valley Organics, which raises turkeys.

“My feeling is if we had a better governor and a better Legislature, they would have been fully funding the program,” McMullin said.

Facing a state budget deficit, lawmakers this year and next are unlikely to restore funding, much less increase it.

The state Department of Agriculture, which took over the decades-old organic certification program in 2011, has proposed five alternative funding options after meeting with producers in the fall. An analysis of those and some additional options were released last week by the New Mexico Farmers Marketing Association and funded by the Thornburg Foundation. All of the options are based on raising fees to farmers or cutting the program, instead of requesting funding from the Legislature.

The state’s preferred option is to pay for 25 percent of the program out of the state Department of Agriculture budget and increase the organic certification application fee by about $100 a year to cover the balance.

Agriculture Department officials haven’t set a deadline for resolving the organic program’s cash crunch but say it is critical to find an answer soon in order to maintain the program.

“The organic community is currently working with Legislators on a couple of alternatives for the organic program; including either seeking an appropriation or possible amendments to the organic act,” said a statement from Jeff Witte, director of the department. “At this time we have no detail on either approach.”

Rep. Nick Salazar, D-Ohkay Owingeh, has introduced House Bill 207, which would appropriate $125,000 from the general fund for the organic program to cover the deficit in fiscal year 2018.

New Mexico’s organic certification program launched in 1990 with a group of farmers and funding from state lawmakers as the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission. The commission ran independently for 20 years until the Legislature cut funding in 2010 from $280,000 a year to $25,000, part of Gov. Susana Martinez’s action to do away with most state-funded commissions.

The program had $200,000 in reserves when the New Mexico Department of Agriculture took it over in 2011. The department used the fund to help the program limp along for two years. Since then the department has used discretionary funds to help cover the program’s operating costs.

Anthony Parra, deputy director of the department, told growers, processors and farmers market staff gathered 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.”

Parra has also said that, if the state can’t keep the program going, “it leaves 153 organic growers hanging.”

But the Agriculture Department is constrained from contributing more because of its own limited, and dwindling, funds to the program, Parra said.

Collectively, New Mexico’s certified organic farms and processors generate $40 million in direct sales a year and employ hundreds of people, according to the state. About half the organic produce and meat are sold within 100 miles of the farms. The organic label is important, helping farmers and ranchers market their produce at a higher price than non-organic certified products.

The organic market has been growing faster than the overall food market in the last several years, according to a state report.

In addition, ongoing interest in organics can be measured by attendance at the annual New Mexico Organic Farming Conference, which has added about 50 participants a year since it began in 1995. This year, an estimated 850 participants will attend the conference, making it the state’s largest agriculture event.

If the state organic certification program dies, the conference is likely to die with it, said Sarah Grant of the New Mexico Farmers Marketing Association.

Private companies also certify and inspect farms seeking organic certification under the standards set by the federal government. But producers said they must pay more for that service and would lose the personal relationship and help the state inspectors have provided.

“When the state inspector is here, I know his name, shake his hand, work with him every year. They are helping me be a better organic farmer,” McMullin said.

Nancy Coonridge of Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese, a farm between Acoma Pueblo and Pie Town, said New Mexico’s organic certification program is a model of effectiveness.

“They have worked with me on anything I needed to improve, like my paperwork,” said Coonridge, whose small dairy has been certified organic since 1998. “I have really appreciated that we had an agency in the state of New Mexico to help us. This was not a bunch of bureaucrats. They took people who were true believers, farmers themselves, and who fought to have organics recognized in the law. These are people who really care about organic.”

She thinks the program did the best it could with three inspectors and an organic certification adviser. Now, to cut costs, the program is down to two inspectors and no adviser.

That’s negatively affecting organic farmers and producers, said Glenna Warwick, director of production at the organic certified Herbs Etc. in Santa Fe. “With 150 farms in the state, how do two people do that?” she asked. “That’s what is scary.”

In addition, the state will be audited sometime this year by the National Organic Program, a requirement under federal law. Every state certification program is audited every three years. Grant is worried the program won’t pass inspection this year and will lose its federal accreditation.

Each organic farm and processor has to reapply and be inspected annually. It takes from 19 hours to 79 hours to inspect a farm or processing plant depending on size, according to the state.

New Mexico is one of only 16 states that still has a state-funded organic certification program. The rest use third-party certification programs.

Currently, New Mexico farmers, livestock owners and food processors pay $250 the first year and $200 a year after to apply for state organic certification.

According to the organic program’s fee schedule, producers pay a 0.75 percent fee on gross sales of less than $1 million. The fee rate for larger producers is far lower, with a flat fee of $7,500, plus a fee of 0.0075 percent on any sales greater than $1 million.

State law prohibits the program from charging more than $300 per new application and 1 percent of gross sales without legislative approval.

Contact Staci Matlock at (505) 986-3055 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

This BBSNews article was syndicated from NMPolitics.net, and written by Heath Haussamen, NMPolitics.net. Read the original article here.