Organic farms scramble to replace certifier

The discontinuation of Stellar organic certification due to compliance problems with USDA has some farmers scrambling to find a replacement certifier to maintain their organic status.

Stellar Certification Services began certifying organic farms about 16 years ago and most recently served as the certifier for about 200 farms in 29 states, according to USDA records.

The company shared a certification staff with Demeter USA of Philomath, Ore., which certifies farms as “biodynamic” — an ecologically-oriented system of alternative agriculture.

Stellar shut down certification services at the end of July, which means that its clients have until Sept. 30 to find a new certifier, who will then review their organic system plans and conduct inspections.

A year ago, Stellar brought in two auditors to review its operations, identifying problems the company had since sought to correct, said Elizabeth Candelario, president of Demeter USA.

One of the company’s clients filed a complaint with “false and misleading” allegations to USDA’s National Organic Program, which Stellar denied, she said.

Nonetheless, the company did disclose that “quality systems” related to policies, procedures and recordkeeping were out of compliance with USDA standards, Candelario said. For example, the company hadn’t maintained proper confidentiality of certain records.

The USDA sent notice that it planned to suspend or revoke Stellar’s status as an organic certifier, which convinced the company to surrender its accreditation and stop operating, she said.

Stellar is sorry for the inconvenience to its clients and has sought to make the transition easier by connecting them with other certifiers, she said.

Farmers who used Stellar were able to obtain two certifications — organic and biodynamic — for the price of one, but the downside was that Demeter USA was effectively in competition with organic certifiers, Candelario said.

With Stellar no longer operating, Demeter USA plans to work with four to five organic certifiers who can provide a “dual inspection,” she said. “Now that we’re not competing with them, it’s going to be a lot easier to have those collaborative partnerships.”

Re-applying for new organic certification took “a lot of work” shortly before harvest is to begin at Cooper Mountain Vineyards, a winery in Beaverton, Ore., said Gilles de Domingo, its winemaker.

“It was a mess,” he said.

Dropping organic certification wasn’t an option because the company wants to support the organic cause and because it already has labels printed identifying the wine as organic, de Domingo said.

Oakhill Organics, a farm near McMinnville, Ore., was certified by Stellar but is now leaning toward allowing its organic certification to expire until next year.

Submitting a new organic system plan and getting a new inspection doesn’t seem worthwhile just to maintain organic status for the final two months of the growing season, said Casey Kulla, the farm’s owner.

The farm will likely apply for certification in the 2019 season with another certifier, which will likely require different forms than Stellar, he said. “There’s no guarantee it will match.”

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