This farmer wants regulation USDA is to tighten standards defining organic products


November 29, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- If there's one thing that farmers hate more than bad weather in the growing season, it's government regulations.

So it's a surprise to hear Early Monroe, a livestock and vegetable grower in Frederick County, say that he wants forthcoming regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be "as stringent or even more stringent" than Maryland laws governing his farm.

Monroe is not your ordinary farmer. He is part of the state's small -- but rapidly growing -- organic food industry.

He raises tomatoes, squash, cabbage, pepper and other vegetables on land that has no traces of herbicides or pesticides. His Black Angus cattle and Rhode Island Red chickens are free-ranging, dine on hay and grains grown without chemicals and are given no growth stimulants or hormones.

Sales of organic foods are still a tiny part of the U.S. market -- less than 1 percent -- but the industry is thriving, posting gains of 20 percent annually since the beginning of the decade.

Sales totaled about $3.5 billion last year and could top $5 billion this year as the health food movement becomes more mainstream.

Responding to the demands of customers, Giant Food Inc. has added organic produce to its store in the Rotunda in Baltimore and at others in Columbia and Ellicott City. Other supermarket chains also have begun selling organic products.

It's because of this increased customer demand that Monroe believes it is more important than ever for new federal regulations to rid the industry of fraud and consumer confusion.

"They will help," he said of the pending laws. "They should give the consumer a comfort level in what they think they are getting and paying for is, in reality, what they are getting."

As an indication of the confusion that consumers face, Monroe noted that a soup containing 5 percent organic ingredients and another containing 95 percent organic ingredients can be labeled organic.

A lack of federal standards also has hindered the interstate and international marketing of organic foods.

States, such as Maryland, that regulate organic foods often don't accept out-of-state products with organic labels. European countries also want federal certification of organic products exported from the United States.

The USDA wants to establish national criteria governing marketing and labeling of organic products to assure consumers that they meet a consistent standard.

The government thinks this will improve the flow of organic products between states and open the door for increased sales overseas.

"We expect to present the proposed new regulations before the end of the year," said Demaris Kogut, a spokeswoman with the USDA. "We will then have a 90-day period for public comment, and we hope to introduce the new regulations a year from then."

"This should level the playing field for everyone in the industry," said James Duffy, chief of domestic marketing at the state Department of Agriculture. "Everybody will be playing by the same rules."

Duffy said Maryland was the first state to enact a certification program for organic food.

The state program pertains to fruits and vegetables, and inspectors visit farms and test crops for traces of chemicals.

"If you are going to call it organic, it has got to be organic," Duffy said of the state certification program.

He said USDA officials looked closely at Maryland's program in their preparations of national standards. The state plan has attracted industry officials from as far away as Argentina and China.

Monroe, 54, chairman of the Maryland Organic Foods and Farming Association, said the industry is small in the state, but is growing at a rate of 22 percent to 25 percent annually. Sales are expected to be in the neighborhood of $18 million to $20 million this year.

In October, Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed Monroe to the 22-member Agriculture Commission, which advises the state agriculture secretary on industry trends and policy. The appointment marked the first time the organic segment of agriculture was represented on the commission.

Monroe said about 120 Maryland farms produce organic products.

"Most of them are into vegetables and fruits," he said. "Only about a dozen farms have livestock."

Monroe is one of the newcomers.

In 1993, he bought two farms on Sundays Lane, a few miles north of Frederick, after selling the assets of TMI Engineering Corp., a telecommunication and engineering company he operated in McLean, Va. He still serves as a consultant to the company.

"I grew up on a farm," he said, "and I wanted my son Ryan, who is now 5, to share that experience."

Another reason was behind the dramatic lifestyle change. "Ryan was allergic to chemicals and dyes used in a lot of foods," Monroe said. "I thought we could grow most of the food we eat without chemicals."

It took three years to rid the soil at the former dairy farm of all traces of chemicals.

The business part started when friends from the Washington area would visit the picturesque farm to purchase baskets of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. Today, most of his sales are to commercial customers buying in bulk.

On Monday, he made a shipment of 80 fryers and 30 dozen eggs to Restaurant Nora, an organic restaurant in Washington that's a favorite of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Monroe said his farm posted sales of $17,000 last year and will take in about $60,000 this year.

He plans to add an aquaculture operation next year to raise tilapia, a food fish, and expects sales to jump to $100,000.

The engineer turned farmer laughed and said: "At that point, I can consider quitting my night job with TMI."

Pub Date: 11/29/97

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