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Organic Farmers Find Financial Niche

Vt. organic farmers find thriving niche

BARRE — It may be winter but Vermont's organic farmers are growing like crazy.

Approximately 40 members of the Vermont Organic Farmers Association came to the Vermont Farm Show Tuesday to hold their annual meeting at Alumni Hall at the Barre Auditorium and learn more about what it means to grow the organic way.

They also talked about the complications organic farmers face when it comes to the certification process, which is now in federal hands.

Peter Young, the president of the Association, says that when he and his ex-wife started their organic dairy operation in Marshfield in 1993, they were the first certified milk producer in the country.

"We had to get our product to the consumer. We had to bottle it and transport it. Now there are three buyers in Vermont who will pick it up right from your bulk tank," he said.

The statistics released by the association Tuesday offer a story of remarkable growth to meet consumer demand for food grown and raised without pesticides, antibiotics and industrial farm practices.

In 1993, there were 3 certified organic dairies, and 78 certified organic producers in Vermont in 1993. By 2005, those numbers have grown to 93 certified organic dairies and 366 producers in the state. There are 49,749 certified organic acres in Vermont, and 442,159 square feet of certified organic greenhouse.

Enid Wonnacott, who has been executive director of the Vermont chapter of the National Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) since 1987, said Vermont now has the highest number of certified organic farms and certified acreage per capita in the nation.

Joey Klein, a Plainfield organic farmer, says that "organic farming is definitely an economic engine for our area." He points to the development and growth of businesses such as the Hunger Mountain Coop, which markets local organic products, and the Vermont Compost Company, which supplies compost and potting soil that is suitable for organic farmers.

He also points to the farmers' markets which make local downtowns more appealing and help local merchants, as well as serving as a market for local organic products. Klein says that the organic certification process opens up markets for him, as far away as Boston.

"Buyers want the label," he says.

While the demand for organic products has soared, the federal takeover of organic certification in 2002 has created some problems. In 1986, through their membership in NOFA, organic farmers in Vermont set their own standards and established a process of certification for Vermont organic food production. But as the demand for organic products grew, larger companies became interested in entering the organic foods market. In 2002 the United States Congress made the Department of Agriculture or the USDA the certifying agency for organic products nationwide.

Once the USDA became the certifying body, it established guidelines with input from NOFA, and licensed various organizations and individuals to do the actual farm inspections and the work of certification. NOFA, which had organic farmers on its board of directors, could no longer be the organization doing certifications, because this would have created a situation where organic farmers were certifying themselves. As a result, NOFA created the Vermont Organic Farmers Association, whose main work is to certify organic farms.

Klein, who has been a NOFA member since 1986, said that "before the USDA became the certifier, farmers had more say… there was more debate at these meetings." Wonnacott agrees, but points out that there have been "pros and cons" to the USDA involvement in the organic certification process.

"The farmers have lost some say, they can no longer change the standards, and there is more bureaucracy, more paperwork… we've become a more hierarchical organization," she said. At the same time, Wonnacott said, "The standards the USDA have adopted are progressive and strict, and organic certification has wider credibility. We have nationwide consistency."

I.J. Paquin, whose family has been farming in Cabot since 1734, says that his farm now supports five generations of his family, largely because they have gone organic.

"My dad who was dead against it (going organic) now says it was the best thing I ever did for the farm," he said. Paquin, whose farm went organic six years ago, said that "I have vast experience in farming…I've worked on farms where they are doing embryo transplants and using bovine growth hormone."

Paquin said that since he has come back to his family farm and gone organic his cows live and produce longer, his breeding success rates are much higher, and his family operation is more profitable.

"The association has helped me over the years. I give them all the credit in the world" he said He added that when salesmen come to him with new products he can call up the association, and they tell him whether using the product will jeopardize his certification. "That's a big deal for me," said Paquin "I don't have time to check out every product."

Still, earning the label "organic" is a little more complicated than it used to be. Vernon Grubinger of the University of Vermont Extension Service, noted things were much more informal: "We started on an honor system…we were just trying to assure that the products that came onto and left the farm were healthy." Whether a product meets the standard is now determined more by a Washington D.C. lawyer than by a cadre of local farmers, he said

There are now standards and interpretations of standards that can make compliance tricky. For example, most synthetic materials cannot be used as soil amendments, but bedding from a field in transition from standard to organic farming methods can be used. Wash water used on vegetables must not contain chlorine, as municipal water supplies often do. Water used for irrigation must not contain contaminants.

There are no guidelines as to when or how water must be tested. Said John Cleary, who is certification coordinator, "We try to regulate at the least level necessary to assure compliance, but the final decision may be made by a USDA lawyer."