Lightening the load for organic certification

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Organic dried herbs from EarthStar Farms,
Arai Siedl

Organic certification comes at a hefty cost — anywhere from $800 to $2,500. But Colorado companies can get some of that money back, at least for the next few years.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is offering financial assistance for organic certification. The cost-share program allows companies to apply for reimbursement of 75 percent of the costs of certification, up to $750.

“It’s available to any certified organic operations, farms, livestock operations, processers that are certified by a USDA accredited organic certification agent and can provide the documentation that verifies their certification,” says Amy Stafford, organic program manager with CDA.

Organic companies who’ve already been certified or continued certification in the last year have until Nov. 15 to apply.

Certification is a three-step process. First, applicants must submit an organic plan for review. If they comply with the organic program requirements, including not using prohibited substances for three years, they undergo an inspection, which can take hours up to an entire day. Finally the administering company reviews the inspection report before issuing the certificate. The whole process takes 12 to 16 weeks.

“You have to answer lots of questions and demonstrate that you really kept good records and you have to keep labels for everything you bring onto the farm,” says David Tresemer, owner of Earthstar Farms, an herb growing and wildcrafting operation. “Nothing there is unreasonable, but it’s become much more thorough than in the past.”

Coloradans can seek organic certification from the CDA, or a number of private organizations accredited by the USDA.

Each organization is allowed to set their rates and fee schedule for certification. The CDA has a base rate of $400 and goes up from there, depending on where the income is derived. For a dairy farm, the fee might be based on heads of cattle, while a crop operation would be charged on acreage.

“Some certifiers might base their fee schedule on a percent of sales,” Stafford says. “We don’t do that, we base it on what you’re actually producing.”

The USDA disburses reimbursement funds to all 50 states through the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program as part of the Agricultural Act of 2014, more commonly known as the Farm Bill. This year, the government allocated $11.5 million, with $198,672 going to Colorado.

The federal funding goes to the states who actually take advantage of it, with each state receiving funds based on their previous use and the top 10 states in organic farms or organic sales getting 70 percent of the funds. The past two years Colorado, number nine in organic sales, received increased funding because the state used up its previous allotment.

“This year I can’t say that the funds will be available if somebody applies on the last day because in the past it’s been kind of a close thing,” Stafford says. “So the earlier the better for people that want to apply.”

Congress passes the Farm Bill every five years or so — the last bill expired in 2012 and wasn’t reupped until 2014 — but there’s no telling whether financial assistance for organic certification will be included next time.

Passion flowers from EarthStar Farms.
Passion flowers from EarthStar Farms. Arai Siedl

Boulder companies say the rebate is nice, but they don’t rely on it and they’ll stay organic regardless.

“[Being organic] is just, something I believe in,” says Chris Asher, owner of Asher Brewing. “I think it’s better for the environment, better for consumers.”

Six years ago Asher became the first all organic brewery in Colorado. The rebate has been available four of those six years. Certification costs Asher around $2,000 and he gets $750 back.

“It’s just kind of an added bonus I guess to get that back,” Asher says. “We’ve done it in years where they didn’t offer the rebate. We would do it anyway. We’re kind of committed to it at this point.”

Earthstar Farms, located in Boulder’s Sunshine Canyon, is also dedicated to growing organic, rebate or no. The farm has been in operation since 1987 and has been USDA certified organic since 1990. Back then, Earthstar’s recertification was a six-page form, now it’s closer to 70. Tresemer says that although the process of certification has become onerous, it’s necessary.

“Being certified is the right thing,” Tresemer says. “The inspections are challenging and that’s appropriate. They are hours in length, but you know it’s really somebody trying to determine that you’re acting in good faith and obeying the regulations and that’s fine.”

Although the cost of certification is higher than it’s been in the past, it’s not the bulk of costs for organic companies. Growing organic means eschewing inexpensive chemicals in favor of increased labor, buying expensive fertilizer instead of cheap products like sewage sludge, and waiting longer from crops and livestock to grow without the aid of growth hormones. 

Whether the Farm Bill has a kickback for organic certifiers in the future is uncertain, but Boulder’s position on organics is not. It’s here to stay