OLYMPIA — Organic strawberry farmer Jim Johnson says he feels duped by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
The state employee who inspected his farm last spring has gone back into farming and planted organic strawberries not far away.
“Farming is tough enough,” Johnson said. “To compete with your inspector is mind-boggling.”
The ex-inspector, Mike Peroni, said he finds the complaint shocking. He said he was a farmer long before he was an inspector and that he’s not exploiting anything he learned from Johnson’s operation.
“You don’t have to go very far to get excellent information on cultivating any number of crops,” he said.
Because the state Department of Agriculture is an organic certifier, state-employed inspectors have access to farmers’ private records, and state employees are prohibited from using the information for personal gain. Inspectors, however, are not required to promise to not start or resume farming.
Agriculture Department Assistant Director Steve Fuller said it’s unclear how the information gained by inspectors can be used later and that he’s seeking guidance from the attorney general’s office.
“The concern that Jim expressed to me was about the knowledge that Mike has in his head that he acquired by being an inspector,” Fuller said. “Now that the issue has been raised, it’s an important one for us to figure out.”
Johnson grows strawberries, raspberries and blackberries on 18 acres in Olympia. Most of his berries are sold at farmers’ markets or go into jam. He said he had the same state organic inspector for about a decade. For the first and only time, Peroni, a former organic farmer and longtime acquaintance, inspected his operation last year.
Johnson said he tries something new every year to cultivate the tastiest organic strawberries on sale at farmers’ markets. He said he would not voluntarily divulge what he applies, how much he applies or when he applies it. But he must show everything to the inspector so he can tell customers his berries are certified organic.
“He saw everything,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he learned Peroni was planting organic strawberries in adjoining Lewis County in a Facebook post May 5. He hasn’t talked to Peroni, but he complained to Fuller and the agriculture department’s organic program supervisor, Brenda Book.
Johnson said organic inspectors should pledge to not become competitors. “My fight isn’t with Mike Peroni. It’s with WSDA,” Johnson said.
Fuller said the department tries to avoid potential conflicts of interest in assigning inspectors, but inspectors are not required to sign non-compete agreements.
“That would be a pretty big shift in public policy. That’s probably something for the Legislature and bigger than just the Department of Agriculture,” he said.
Fuller said banning organic farmers from becoming organic inspectors would shrink the pool of good candidates.
Peroni said he continued to grow hay while he was an inspector. He said he couldn’t recall when he decided to go back into farming. “I have a long history in production agriculture,” he said. “There’s been no wrongdoing.”
Another organic certifier, Oregon Tilth, requires inspectors to sign agreements pledging to not make commercial use of the information they see. The prohibition would include using the information to farm, spokesman Chris Roddy said.
“As an inspector, you get access to everything,” he said. “You have growers doing really cool and innovative stuff, and that’s their edge in the marketplace.”
The International Organic Inspectors Association’s code of conduct prohibits inspectors from having a financial relationship a year before and a year after inspecting a farm. Inspectors are also admonished not to receive pay for information gained during an inspection.
However, the association’s executive director, Margaret Scoles, said she couldn’t think of any code or regulation that spoke to an ex-inspector becoming a potential competitor.
“As an inspector of 30 years, I’m surprised to be stumped,” she said in an email.
Johnson must go through another inspection this year. He said he’s not sure whether he’ll stick with the state or go with another certifier.
Johnson said if the agriculture department doesn’t tighten its policies, farmers will be right to be leery and secretive.
“I’m trying to get protection for the farmer. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.