WASHINGTON – The official in charge of Maryland’s organic farming program says she is “really concerned” about the effect new federal regulations will have on the state’s certification program.
State organic farmers, meanwhile, are complaining that the federal rules set to take effect Tuesday do not address what they see as a missing link in the organic food chain, the issue of retail sales.
Maryland currently has a voluntary program by which a retail store can ask to be certified. But only a handful of stores have participated, and the new federal rules are silent on the issue of voluntary certification of retailers.
“The federal regulations do not require your grocery store, your health food store, etc., to be inspected and certified,” said Nick Maravell, a Maryland organic farmer since 1979.
“The federal standards are a minimum and a maximum, so I don’t know if because they don’t have a certification program for retailers (it) means Maryland has to give up its certification for retailers,” he said.
Valerie Frances, program manager for the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Organic Certification Program, has a different worry about the federal regulations.
“I’m confused how it is going to impact us,” said Frances, who fears that the rules will rob the Maryland Organic Certification Advisory Committee of the expertise it needs to advise state officials on organic farm policy.
She worries that the rules might not let “parties who are currently certified either as farmers or handlers to serve as advisers on any advisory board, approving or disapproving standards.”
“These are the people who know what it is all about,” Frances said. “I’m really concerned. . . .Otherwise, they (the regulations) are OK and we’ll figure it out.”
Implementation of the federal rules will mark the end of a three-year effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set national standards for organic foods. The final version was hailed by then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman as “the strongest and most comprehensive organic standard in the world” when it was issued in December.
The incoming Bush administration could have blocked the rules during a 60- day review period that ends Tuesday, but it has apparently decided to let them take effect.
“I’m 99.9 percent sure the new rules will take effect,” said Demaris Kogut, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
When the new rules take effect, states will have 18 months to come into full compliance.
Yet some organic farmers and food sellers are unhappy that the new regulations do not address retail sales. The standards were drawn up under the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, which specifically exempts retailers from having to be certified in order to sell organic products.
Maravell, who farms 170 acres in Frederick and Montgomery counties, said the failure to certify retailers compromises the integrity of organic foods. For example, he said, a grocery could wash organic lettuce in the same water as conventional lettuce and still sell it as organic.
“Most consumers are not aware of the fact that the organic food chain breaks down at the point of sale,” said Maravell.
Federal officials concede that the regulations do not address commingling — “physical contact between unpackaged organically produced and non-organically produced agricultural products during production, processing, transportation, storage or handling other than during the manufacture.”
“It doesn’t address that issue,” Kogut said. “But as our former agency administrator said, these regulations are a work in progress, evolving with time.”
Only four retailers in Maryland had state organic certification last year. Two of those — SunSplash! in Pikesville and Railway Market in Easton — are owned by the Natural Retail Group, a Connecticut-based natural food chain with 12 stores in four states.
Pam Stegall-Roberts said that the possibility of commingling, while it exists, is small. She said it is more important for small producers to get access to large retail outlets, which are not as likely to apply for organic certification as niche retailers.
“I want to see all small farmers get their product to market,” said Stegall-Roberts, an organic farmer in Cecil County with her husband Paul.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture said there were 70 farms certified as organic in the state in 2000, growing everything from corn and wheat to vegetables, perennials, flowers, herbs, fruits and berries on 3,449 acres. Those farms are inspected and certified annually.
In addition, almost 17,000 animals, including cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, rabbits and even buffalo, are raised on 44 of the 70 farms, according to state statistics, a significant increase since 1997.
Stegall-Roberts is not as concerned as Frances that the federal rules might hurt the 14-member Maryland Organic Certification Advisory Committee, which includes three farmers representing the different segments of the organic food industry.
Stegall-Roberts, who grows vegetables, herbs and fruits on her 17-acre Calvert Farm in Rising Sun, said that she and her fellow organic farmers need to give the new regulations time, and be prepared to work with the USDA when problems arise. She said she is confident the small and close-knit world of organic farmers in Maryland will be able to work through any problems. Overall, she believes the new federal regulations are a good thing.
“We need to have reciprocity with other states and security knowing our product is on par with those of farmers in other states,” she said.