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Small organic farmers find certification too pricey
11 Aug 2010

With the organically grown, downy reddish peach close to her nose, Shelby Township resident Nancy Rich draws in the intoxicatingly fresh scent during her shopping trip to Whole Foods in Rochester Hills.

“I have Crohn’s disease and I’ve found when I don’t have all those chemicals in my body (from conventionally grown foods) I feel much better. The food tastes much better, too,” Rich said. “It’s a little more expensive to shop organic, but your life is important.”

The organic food market continues holding a strong presence with consumers, as 75 percent claim to use organic foods, according to a national survey published in 2010 by The Hartman Group, a predominant consumer-culture consultancy and market research firm.

Meanwhile, some local micro-farmers attempting to gain organic certification through the U.S. Department of Agriculture find growing their product is the easy part — becoming certified brings a whole different challenge.

Wally Niezguski of Wally’s Organically Grown Produce in Independence Township has grown organically for more than 30 years and looked into USDA certification for the past two. Although not a “big farmer,” Niezguski said he was quoted between $1,000 to $4,000 to obtain certification for his quarter-acre vegetable garden and farm stand, which is a yearly fee.

“I found it was totally cost prohibitive,” he said. “I bring in maybe $2,500 and that’s hardly worth the cost to get certified. I mainly do this so I can eat those vegetables.”

According to the USDA, until a grower sells more than $5,000 in product, they are not required to obtain organic certification to sell their product.

However, they aren’t permitted to use the USDA certified organic label, either, which consumers recognize and affiliate with organic food.

“I want to be certified so I can put the stamp on my produce, signs and all advertising that says ‘USDA organic certified,’” said Virginia Knowlden of Knowlden Log Cabin Farm in Independence Township.

Tending 5.5 acres, the small local grower in her first full year also found certification costly. Unable to locate a Michigan-based inspector to certify her organic facility, Knowlden said to cover travel expenses for an out-of-state inspector, in addition to the inspection and certification fees, was simply too expensive at the quote of $4,000. Despite her multimonth struggle to pursue organic certification, she isn’t throwing down the shovel just yet.

“I will continue to pursue certification because I think it’s important and would open up more markets for me,” she said.

Of the nine National Organic Program Accredited Organic Certifying Agencies registered in Michigan and recognized by the USDA, none are actually housed in Michigan. In order to obtain the best price for certification, a local grower must call the various agencies to determine if there are any Michigan-based inspectors, how much it would cost for an in or out-of-state inspector and ask how price is based for inspection and certification.

“It’s been really tough to find local organic inspectors in Michigan,” said Aaron Brin, inspection manager at Midwest Organic Services Association. “For some reason, Michigan seems to be behind a lot of the other states as far as organic certification goes.”

Despite low numbers of Michigan-based inspectors, there are nearby certifying agencies in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, in addition to the farther locations of California, Nebraska, North Dakota and Oregon.

Vicki Morrone, the Michigan State University Organic Vegetable and Field Crop Outreach Specialist and a member of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance, said she was shocked at the prices Niezguski and Knowlden claim they were quoted.

Although fees vary based on farm size and number of products being certified, upon conducting her own research, Morrone found the cost for inspecting and certifying a small operation is between $600 to $1,200.

Farmers of all sized operations could receive a break in inspection costs through the 2008 Farm Bill, with implementation conducted by MOFFA and the Michigan Department of Agriculture acting as overseer.

The cost share for inspection allows for a partial reimbursement up to 75 percent, with a cap of $750, and is relevant for costs incurred Oct. 1, 2009, to Sept. 1, 2010, said Morrone. MOFFA will accept applications for reimbursement Aug. 4 to Sept. 7.

While local farmers continue to aim for organic certification, the market for organic foods reaches a growth rate of 20 percent or more, according to the USDA.

“I’ve been growing organically since before it’s been cool,” Knowlden said. “So it’s interesting now that it’s come full circle, that people are starting to recognize that their food is being shipped 1,500 miles to the grocery store before

 

See original article in the Morning Sun Here.

ERICA L. KINCANNON