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Organic growers build on success

Published on March 11, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on April 8, 2011 7:38AM


It was Oct. 21, 2002, when the National Organic Program came into being. After decades of debate over what was -- and wasn't -- organic, the NOP gave credence and uniformity to those claims through certification.

The result has been an astounding success. Farmers, ranchers and processors found immediate acceptance of their organic crops and products. The organic industry had grown to 14,540 farms by the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, and organic production had grown to $3.2 billion.

In that respect, the NOP has been everything its proponents had hoped it would be.

However, within the organic movement is a segment that can't seem to decide what is organic enough. That the NOP clearly lays out those criteria does not seem to be adequate. Some proponents seem to want a constantly evolving definition of organic that takes away one of the primary qualities of the NOP -- clarity on what constitutes organic.

Some of the resulting changes in the program have created as many problems as they solved. Organic dairies found that pasture requirements placed a hardship not only on large producers but on smaller operators in northern climates, where access to pasture is limited during the winter.

Lately, a milk producer has been questioned about including omega-3 in its organic milk. That the milk is organic is not challenged. Only the fact it includes omega-3, which is in itself healthful, is questioned.

Dairy is not the only area in which the "organic-ness" of products is questioned. Chickens that are raised organically are challenged because they spend the day on concrete patios instead of in the dirt and grass. Are they any less organic?

These questions create a debate that has both a positive and negative side.

On the positive side, it is healthy to debate the meaning of "organic" as it applies to crops, livestock, poultry and foods. Such debate clarifies the definition of organic so that both producers and consumers fully understand it.

However, the negative side of the debate is that producers might find themselves chasing a moving target as they try to meet changing organic standards. If a practice is all right one year but banned the next, farmers can find themselves making sometimes expensive changes to their operations to maintain their certification.

Instead of making major changes to the national organic standards, it would seem more reasonable for producers to add their own descriptions to how they raise their crops, livestock and poultry.

Many already do. Organic poultry is labeled pasture raised, woodland raised or given other descriptions. Other livestock is labeled grass fed, salmon safe, sustainable or any number of other descriptions. Indeed, a variety of organizations certify crops as such.

These are just a few examples of how the variety of practices allowed under the organic umbrella can be used to set producers apart and create a niche within a niche.

This in itself would seem to be good for producers and for the organic movement as a whole.


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