As a college student Brenda Book took a summer job at an organic herb farm in Iowa and that’s the root cause for why she manages the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s organic program.
She grew up on what she describes as a “typical Midwest farm” — corns, soybeans, hogs, cattle. “I did all the stereotypical Iowa farm girl activities,” she said.
She was studying botany at the University of Iowa and the summer job at the Frontier Co-op in Norway, Iowa, was her introduction to organic farming, and she’s never left the field. She began as an intern in WSDA’s organic program in 2002 and became the manager in 2011.
And, yes, she eats organic food.
“I do support our farmers,” she said.
Book, 41, works with a sector of agriculture that has been growing in sales, and rules. Washington was a pioneer in certifying organic farms and in the beginning, in 1985, the regulations fit on a notebook-sized piece of paper.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 authorized federal standards. “It’s way more than an 8 1/2-by-11 piece of paper now,” Book said.
WSDA enforces the federal standards and constantly updates a list of approved organic inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. The current list has more than 1,000 products and takes 75 pages.
At stake is the virtue of what the USDA reports is a fast-growing industry. U.S. farms and ranches sold $7.6 billion in organic products in 2016, a 23 percent increase over 2015, according to a USDA survey released in September.
Growth in Washington sales was a modest 1.5 percent, but the state still ranks third in sales, $636 million. It was far behind No. 1 California, close to No. 2 Pennsylvania and comfortably ahead of No.4 Oregon.
The lull in sales growth may be temporary. The number of certified organic farms grew by 11 percent to 677 and the number of organic acres increased by 8.8 percent to 78,739.
“We’re seeing that growth because (organic farmers) are having success,” Book said. “It’s a sign of the strength of the industry.”
In addition to certifying organic operations, WSDA has a program to help farmers convert to organic production. It’s voluntary and costs a few hundred dollars, but it’s meant to help growers stay within the rules during the mandatory three-year transition period.
“We do it as a customer service, so you’re not out there on your own,” Book said. “We can’t get involved in telling you how to do things, just if what you’re doing is meeting the requirements, and we can help lead you to resources.
“It gives you the opportunity to work with us throughout the process,” she said. “So when you get to the year you want to establish yourself as organic, you’re not caught off-guard by something you did two years ago.”
The big danger is applying a chemical not approved for organic production. That resets the clock.
“The application of prohibited material, there’s not really a way to mitigate that,” she said.
On other aspects of organic production, such as buffers from conventionally farmed fields, the rules are more flexible, she said.
Some fields may be ready for organic certification, even if other fields aren’t, she said.
“A lot of farmers worry, ‘Am I going to pass?’” Book said. “We rarely deny certification on the first go-round because it’s a process. There’s back and forth. There’s dialogue.”
In November, Book gave back-to-back presentations at a conference in Vancouver organized by the Tilth Alliance, a group focused on organic agriculture.
About a dozen people attended the first workshop, which was on the transitional program. “A service that is often under utilized throughout the state,” Book said.
The next workshop was on organically certifying marijuana. Attendance quadrupled, and the room got crowded.
Washington was a pioneer in legal recreational marijuana. In that pioneering spirit, the Legislature approved a proposal by WSDA to certify organic marijuana farms.
WSDA has just started to develop the rules. Interest appears keen. WSDA plans to start certifying organic marijuana in 2019. If so, Washington likely will be the first state to have certified organic marijuana.
The first rule with organic marijuana will be to not call it “organic marijuana.” The USDA has a lock on “organic” to describe food produced in a certain way. Since marijuana is illegal under federal law, Washington will need to come up with another word or term to signal to users that their marijuana is organic.
“The industry needs to come up with a term that they want that means the same thing,” Book said. “The term has to be something the industry is behind,”
Organic retailers already make advertising claims about having “organic” marijuana.
“There are a lot of claims that are happening out there now,” Book said. “We are protecting the organic claim.”
Position: Washington State Department of Agriculture organic program manager
Education: The Evergreen State College, degree in sustainable agriculture; studied botany at the University of Iowa.