USDA to reduce organic farmers' paperwork
By STEVE BROWN
In response to producers' concerns about the amount of recordkeeping required for organic certification, the USDA's National Organic Program has begun to lighten the load.
Its "Sound and Sensible" initiative is intended to reduce the paperwork while maintaining high standards and ensuring compliance.
Miles McEvoy, NOP's deputy administrator, said farmers have reported spending more time completing forms and maintaining records. Records are essential to ensure organic farmers are meeting the organic standards, he said, such as planting non-genetically modified seeds or raising dairy cattle on organic pasture, but too much focus on paperwork can detract from farming activities.
"The overall goal of this new initiative is to make organic certification accessible, attainable and affordable for all operations," McEvoy said.
One producer said the reduced burden might make her reconsider her decision to get out of the business. Robin Caudill, owner of Lazy Dog Gardens in Caldwell, Idaho, tried to make a go starting six years ago, but last year decided she "didn't want to play anymore."
"It's just so darn time-consuming," she said. "I spent hours on the computer when I should have been out planting."
She called it a "cruel irony" that it costs more to do organic in a small operation because of the need to diversify. She was working a 1-acre garden and a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse, and inspections took at least five hours. "Organic alfalfa would take a lot less time."
The costs didn't justify the result, she said. Inspections consumed more of her time, and licenses, applications and fees consumed 10 percent of her profits. All this while she held down a job at a dentist's office.
"It did drive me crazy that as Robin Homeowner, I can go to the farm supply store and buy all kinds of crap and use it indiscriminately," she said. "But if I don't do that, I have to keep exact records that I don't do that."
McEvoy described five goals of the initiative:
* Efficient processes, eliminating bureaucratic processes that do not contribute to organic integrity.
* Streamlining recordkeeping to ensure that required records support organic integrity and are not a barrier for farms and businesses to maintain organic compliance.
* Asking for straightforward Organic System Plans that clearly capture organic practices.
* Focusing enforcement on willful violators, handling minor violations in a way that leads to compliance and publicizing how enforcement protects the organic market.
* Focusing on factors that impact organic integrity the most, building consumer confidence that organic products meet defined standards from farm to market.
One specific project McEvoy described addresses the requirement that certified organic farmers support biodiversity and conserve natural resources. Some farmers also participate in conservation programs through NRCS. Due to their compatible objectives, the NOP is collaborating with NRCS to streamline participation in both programs.