Idaho’s organic certification program has become so popular in the last few years that the state Department of Agriculture capped applications to make sure it wasn’t growing beyond the agency’s ability to service the growing constituency.
ISDA in August 2017 stopped taking new applications for organic certifications to ensure it was providing high-quality service to existing certified operations. The number of certified organic food operations was up 40 percent from four years earlier. Department budgets for 2016, ’17 and this year included approved funding for additional inspectors.
“We have made significant progress towards being able to lift the cap,” said Chanel Tewalt, Idaho State Department of Agriculture communications officer. “We have added additional personnel, and we hope to lift the cap as soon as possible.”
She would not estimate when the cap on new applications would be lifted.
ISDA certifies 260 operations as organic. Of those, 141 are for crops only and 18 are for crops and food handling. Seventy-four are certified for handling only, 23 for crops and livestock, and two for crops, handling and livestock. One is certified for handling and livestock, and one for livestock only.
The department said it certifies 16 Idaho dairies, but 12 others are certified by Oregon.
Training timetables pose a challenge initially. ISDA Organic Program Manager Gwen Ayres said organic-certification inspectors handle different scopes of work, such as analyzing crop and livestock production, and food handling. A new hire could be ready to inspect a single scope in around two months, but it could be a year before that inspector takes on the full range of organic operations.
Tewalt said the department hasn’t finalized its proposed budget for the Idaho Legislature to consider in its session that begins in January. But no organic-related proposal is slated above and beyond maintaining the existing program, she said.
The program has 7 1/2 full-time equivalent positions, compared to three plus a few contract inspectors in 2015. Ayres said she expects certifications to grow again after ISDA resumes its acceptance of new applications.
Demand for organic food has been increasing substantially in recent years, and high demand from consumers is a big factor, she said.
According to ISDA, organic market has grown nationally by about 10 percent a year since 2010 and is projected to continue. U.S. sales of organic food increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $31.5 billion in 2013, the agency said.
A 2016 report by the Organic Trade Association said 82 percent of U.S. households were buying organic products. State totals included 88 percent in Idaho, 92 percent in Washington, 91 percent in Oregon and 90 percent in California.
Organic certification is a process certification for agricultural products defined by USDA’s National Organic Program. Any product sold as organic in the U.S. must be certified as meeting the requirements specified by federal regulation. For example, operations must be free of genetically engineered materials and many synthetic materials for a period and be buffered from non-organic lands.
ISDA became a certifying agent at the request of industry in the early 2000s. The agency certifies about 78 percent of organic operations in Idaho, and additional producers in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Certificates don’t expire, but ISDA renews them every year based on updated details about the operations and an inspection, Ayres said.
USDA recently has focused on traceability — making sure foods maintain organic integrity throughout their journey from farm to table — and supply-chain integrity, she said. The latter generally refers to “making sure all hands the product passes through are meeting standards,” she said.