Organic certification not meant to be complicated

Organic certifier Michelle Menke, left, visits Bob Masselink’s farm near Edgerton during an organic inspection.
Organic certifier Michelle Menke, left, visits Bob Masselink’s farm near Edgerton during an organic inspection.

By Jennie Zeitler
Staff Writer
[email protected]

It seems to be a common perception that the organic farm certification process is complicated, but it’s not meant to be, said Michelle Menken, Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) organic certifier.

“People tend to be intimidated by the paperwork, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Menken. “We encourage whatever’s easy.”

She noted that there were 20-30 new organic producers certified by MCIA in Minnesota and neighboring states in 2013, a slightly larger increase than in recent years.

Menken encourages farmers who are investigating the possibility of becoming organic producers to talk with organic farmers.

“They should start there, talking to somebody who’s already found a vet they like and a feed supplier,” said Menken. “They might be the only organic farmer in their county; it’s easy to feel that they’re alone.”

To transition to organic production, a farm must be managed for 36 months without prohibited inputs.

“This starts the healing process of the soil,” Menken said. “Organic regulations say farms must have a crop rotation that will maintain or improve soil organic matter. That is a foundational point — building soil to hold more moisture, hold more nutrients, be more biologically active so that more nutrients are available.”

During the three-year transition process, Menken encourages farmers to talk to more organic farmers and to educate themselves by going to conferences.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture sponsors the annual
Minnesota Organic Conference in St. Cloud every January. The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) annual conference is in LaCrosse, Wis. each February.

“There are sessions on weed control, fertility, marketing and dairy health care,” Menken said.

She encourages farmers to call a certifier any time with questions; “It’s good to call and ask about
using specific products.”

It’s important during the transition to seek out markets for products.

“Farmers should focus on marketing during those three years. If they take the time to convert, they should find someone who will give them a premium for the organic product,” said Menken. “If they’re a dairy producer, they have to ‘get on the milk wagon.’ It’s important to establish those relationships.”

When land is eligible, it’s time to look for a certifier. The farmer then completes an application for their land, anywhere from just one field to the entire farm all at once. The use of photos and calendars in providing details is encouraged.

“The farmer can go to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program’s website to find a list of certifiers who work in Minnesota,” Menken said.

There are about 40 companies in the United States that certify organic farms. Sixteen of them work in Minnesota.

“They can be private and independent, non-profit or for-profit,” Menken said. “All are accredited by the USDA and are audited every two and a half years.”

The certifier finds an inspector, who will visit the farm and write a report.

Menken has observed a huge growth in the number of organic vegetable producers in the last three years. She sees a large number of farmers markets.

The Minnesota Grocers Association reports that Minnesota is home to 718 organic food farmers. The state ranks fifth in the nation for total organic acres. Minnesota has eight exclusively organic food production companies.

“Considering that Minnesota’s population is 2 percent of the total population of the United States, a fifth-place ranking in organic acreage makes the state a major producer,” Menken said.

Minnesota exports organic soybeans to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China and Europe.

“The USDA’s National Organic Program has signed equivalency agreements with Europe, Canada and Japan so that any product certified by U.S. organic standards can go to those countries without extra certification,” said Menken. “It’s a major opening for these huge markets.”

Menken points out that organic dairy is still driving the crop marketplace.

“It’s still growing in the consumer market,” she said. “That keeps prices high for organic alfalfa, corn and feed.”

“It seems like the people who transition to organic are content with their lifestyle,” Menken said. “It’s a financially viable option for a smaller farm.”