The papers to prove it's natural

Organic: New federal regulations for certified growers create more work and mixed feelings.

October 21, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Organic farmer Ghassan Neshawat has withstood the bugs, the birds, the weeds and the drought - he is not going to let the federal government get him down.

Starting today, Neshawat and thousands of other natural farmers throughout the nation won't be allowed to call the food they sell "organic" unless they meet a complex set of federal standards on how it is grown and packaged.

Organic growers - many of whom left mainstream farming for what they see as healthy, environmentally friendly, community-based alternatives - are facing this bureaucratic challenge with decidedly mixed feelings.

They recognize that their business - with sales that have grown 15 percent to 20 percent each year since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture - can benefit from regulation.

But the new paperwork is another burden on a job that is hands-on and labor-intensive. And national standards could help corporate producers muscle into an area that has belonged to smaller operations.

Significant numbers of small farmers elsewhere in the country are opting out of organic certification, fed up with the extra work for what they see as little likely reward.

But in Maryland, Neshawat and most of the state's approximately 80 natural farmers have decided to face the bureaucracy, hoping to stake out their share of the growing organic market.

This was Neshawat's second year of farming with his wife, Taghrid, on a few of their 17 acres in the Howard County area of Glenwood. After years in a stressful job administering ultrasound tests, he decided to pass up an offer from a developer and instead use his land to earn a living.

The new USDA rules have been "a challenge for me," Neshawat said. He recalled how - after a year of trial, error and learning - he had to study all over again to get a handle on the new program. "Even now, I don't think I know all the rules and regulations," he said.

Baltimore County farmer Jack Gurley said he recognizes the hurdles but believes they are worth clearing.

Gurley and his wife, Rebecca, own Calvert's Gift Farm in Sparks and grow organic produce on 5 acres. Their niche vegetables are sold to restaurants, at markets and through a subscription service.

With a national certification program backing up the organic label, consumers can be more confident about what they are getting and farmers can benefit from increased awareness and demand, Gurley said.

"I think there will be a lot more recognition of what organic is," said Gurley, who is chairman of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association. His wife serves on the Maryland Organic Certification Advisory Committee.

More people are recognizing organic foods. The USDA says organic farming is one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture in the nation, with sales that climbed to $6 billion in 1999. That number was $2.8 billion in 1995, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser, a trade publication. Organic farming has attracted 12 percent more growers each year, federal farm economists estimate.

The move toward more formal regulation began in 1990 with the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act. That started a decade-long process of detailing the methods, practices and substances acceptable for growing and handling organic crops and livestock. After much public debate, such techniques as genetic engineering, radiation and using sewage sludge for fertilization were ruled out.

Farms that make less than $5,000 from organic products are exempt from the certification process, but they are expected to follow the rules.

In Maryland, the federal system replaces a state program that offered use of the word "certified" to farmers who met certain standards. Maryland has certified produce for the past 10 years and livestock for two. Maryland, along with several other states, has been accepted as an official federal certifying body, while private and nonprofit groups take up the chore elsewhere.

Having had state regulation gives some Maryland organic farmers a head start with the new system. But keeping the federal records will clearly be more of a challenge.

The application for federal certification is 20 pages, not counting addenda, maps or supporting documents, said Jim Hanson, an economist with the University of Maryland's cooperative extension program. An inspector then goes to the farm, fills out another 13 pages, and takes soil and crop samples.

Throughout the year, there will be more paper: The goal is to keep track of what substances are being used, how compost is handled, where seed is bought and how food is stored every step of the way.

Some of the pesticides that were once considered acceptable for use on organic farms are no longer on approved lists, Neshawat said. He used to be allowed to buy untreated seeds; now they have to be fully organic - unless fully organic seeds are unavailable, which must be documented with records of telephone calls to seed companies.

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