Organic inspector uses 33 years of experience across wide area of the state
By Jennie Zeitler
Even though he didn’t spend his childhood on a farm, Chris Barnier has 33 years of experience in the farm industry under his belt.
When he was considering a direction for his life in the late 1970s, the agriculture outlook was good.
“The Russian wheat deal had just gone through,” he said.
Barnier moved to Morrison County in 1980, and took a job supervising the local office of the Farmers Home Administration in the farm lending program. That program is now administered by the Farm Service Agency.
In 1981, Barnier and his wife, Claudia, bought an 80-acre farm west of Sobieski. Thirty acres are tillable and grow small grains, hay and soybeans.
“I do one crop a year, for practical reasons,” he said.
In 1995, Todd County was added to Barnier’s Morrison County area.
After retiring from his position in 2004, Barnier worked for Glen Borgerding of Albany as the “finance guy” for Organic Land Management. They managed more than 5,000 acres in six states.
When that company dissolved, Barnier took some months off, roofing his house and installing new siding as well as travelling with his wife.
In spring 2008, he started as an organic crop and livestock inspector. He has completed five seasons inspecting farms within a 250-mile radius of Little Falls.
“The organic farming world is very supportive and willing to share knowledge,” he said.
Organic farming standards are determined by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
“They determine which inputs are allowed for both growing and processing,” Barnier said. “This includes the cleaning products used on farm equipment.”
The federal government authorizes certifying bodies to inspect farms and processors. Some of these groups include Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) and others around the country.
Barnier inspects farms from late May through October. In 2012, he did 77 inspections for MOSA, and four to five for other groups.
MOSA certifies about 1,500 farms, while MCIA takes care of about 200.
“The advantages of organic farming include a generally better price for farm products, especially dairy; cost reduction by eliminating pesticides, many veterinary products and most purchased fertilizers; and risk reduction by favoring a mixed group of crops instead of a single crop and emphasizing soil fertility and water retention by building up soil organic matter,” Barnier said.
A list of inspections is sent to Barnier, who reviews files prior to farm visits. The inspections are prioritized by need, with new farmers or new crops on existing organic farms topping the list.
Federal standards require that once a farm is certified, inspections will continue annually.
“It’s a juggling act to coordinate schedules,” Barnier said. “It might be desirable to visit a farm in June one year, but in September another, so it can be seen at different stages.”
The farmers usually pay for the inspector’s services through the certifying agency. Often, two inspections a day will be scheduled if they are far enough from home.
Barnier appreciates being able to help the farmers he meets. One farmer was quite nervous and didn’t have a good understanding of the paperwork required.
“I was able to put him at ease and suggest how he could improve the dreaded documentation chore,” he said. “I believe the organic milk price helped the family stay in business.”
Barnier inspects about three locations in Morrison County, five to six in Todd County and about 25 in Stearns County.
The organic industry is maturing. More suppliers have sprung up in the last 15 years and there is more support. Research is coming on board and there are more young farmers, said Barnier.
“I like meeting people the most, and being around farmers who are creative and have an upbeat attitude because they believe in what they are doing,” he said.