Organic industry grows up alongside McEvoy
Deputy administrator of national program got in at ground level
By STEVE BROWN
In 1988, Miles McEvoy was a staff of one regulating 63 organic farms in Washington state. Today he is deputy administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program, which oversees the certification of thousands of organic operations across the country.
It was a straight line across the map from Washington state to Washington, D.C., when he was appointed just a little over a year ago, but McEvoy's journey started with several turns. And his history with agriculture didn't start as an administrator.
"I grew up in South Jersey, and in high school I worked on a tomato farm, then baled hay," he said.
Heading west to the University of Idaho, he worked in forestry, helped harvest orchard crops and served as a deckhand on a boat in Alaska. Then, at Cornell University, he earned a master's degree in entomology.
In the meantime, the Washington State Department of Agriculture was looking for someone to help guide the fledgling organic industry.
"I had a friend who was an organic farmer. The job seemed like a perfect fit," he said. "I had the objective perspective they were looking for."
Taking the lead
Based in Olympia, McEvoy crisscrossed the state.
"I was the lone inspector, so I got to see what everyone was doing," he said. "They were innovative, always finding new techniques. I got excited about the possibilities."
It was a part-time job, enforcing organic standards that were one page long and managing a $17,000 budget.
Ironically, a 1989 controversy over a plant growth regulator gave Washington's organics industry one of its biggest boosts, he said.
"That winter was when the Alar controversy hit," McEvoy said, "and everyone wanted to be organic.
"My job became a full-time position, and the WSDA added a couple of inspectors," he said.
One of those early associates was Les Eklund, who is now assistant program manager for organic food under the WSDA's Food Safety and Consumer Services.
"Miles was my boss for 10 years," Eklund said.
Eklund said he learned a lot alongside McEvoy. "Miles had a passion for the organic industry. He was real energized, and he loved to service folks that wanted to be certified. ..."
McEvoy's fingerprints can still be seen on the state's program.
"We're still doing a lot of the things Miles started. We've been sampling products many, many years, looking for residues," Eklund said. "We were one of the first state agencies. Most certifiers were private entities when we started."
To widen the base of organic knowledge, McEvoy put together an Organic Advisory Board to hear from various segments of the industry: farmers, orchardists, processors and brokers.
"We don't answer to them, but we hear from them," Eklund said.
Drawing on the knowledge of experts in the labs and in the fields, McEvoy fashioned standards for organic crops, and he assembled reference material to assist applicants with certification.
From 1993 until 1995, McEvoy took another turn, helping to launch The Food Alliance, a program that blends sustainable farming practices and socially responsible components into a single eco-label program. The organization now certifies 320 farms and ranches in Canada, Mexico and 23 U.S. states.
McEvoy also helped establish the National Association of State Organic Programs in 1998 and assisted the Montana and Oregon departments of agriculture in developing their organic certification programs.
By 2009, McEvoy's Organic Food Program at the WSDA had grown to 789 certified farms and 365 processors and handlers with a staff of 23.
Uncle Sam calls
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed McEvoy as deputy administrator for USDA's National Organic Program in September 2009, which this year has a budget of more than $3 million.
"Miles played a formative role in developing the organic food industry in Washington and across the nation," WSDA Director Dan Newhouse said at the time. "Every organic certification agency and the entire industry will continue to benefit from his expertise."
Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group, agreed.
"Miles has a reputation of high integrity, and the program he ran in Washington state has one of the best reputations in the country," Kastel said at the time.
In his first year at NOP, McEvoy said, the high point was publishing an access-to-pasture rule for ruminant operations, which spelled out how much time organically raised cattle must be on pasture.
"We're now implementing specific metrics for forage," he said.
That effort parallels the focus of his boss, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, whose goal is making sure organic certification is meaningful.
"This is the age of enforcement for the organic program," he said. "We're becoming more aggressive, more assertive."
Kastel said those enforcement efforts set Barack Obama's administration apart from the George W. Bush administration. "This is a real change in posture. When Kathleen Merrigan picked McEvoy to head up the National Organic Program, it was a signal they would treat organic agriculture and small farms in a respectful manner. ... These folks are for real.
"I'm impressed with Miles," Kastel said. "He has a deep knowledge of organic certification. He's a true believer, not a PR figurehead."
McEvoy, 53, also said he's working long term on the organizational structure within NOP, including a program handbook for certification, which was published in September.
His strategic plan echoes his vision for "organic integrity from farm to table. ... Our job is to be an objective verifier."
On the world stage, the NOP is recognized as one of the strictest programs, with the greatest oversight, he said.
Recent crackdowns on certifiers are part of that oversight, and the program he founded in Washington state is not exempt.
"We're all under scrutiny," the WSDA's Eklund said. "We get audited at least every other year by NOP."
Alongside McEvoy's career, the organic industry has seen steady progress. U.S. sales of organic foods have grown from $1 billion in 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act established the NOP, to about $23.6 billion in 2009.
"About 4 percent of sales in the U.S. is organic now," McEvoy said. "It grew even during the recession. There was 5 percent growth in 2009."
As the economy recovers, he said, "there's a bright future."
"Continuing improvement in production techniques will reduce costs, eventually narrowing the price gap between organic and conventional foods," he said.