Facing the inevitable demise of the Nevada Department of Agriculture Organic Certification program, industry leaders in northern Nevada are preparing to move on.
On June 16, a gathering of growers, producers and sellers discussed the feasibility of a private certification program and whether it could be up and running before the program officially closes June 30, 2016. State organic certifications, however, will expire in March 2016, and growers and producers will have a three-month grace period before getting certified with a new organization.
A number of private organic certification companies exist but none are based in Nevada. Travel expenses tacked on to certification fees drive costs up significantly for small organic farmers and product producers.
“For our producers, it’s an economic hit,” said Nicole Sallaberry, co-founder of Great Basin Food Co-op in Reno and a member of the NDA organic advisory committee. “I suspect some people will not get certified.”
Currently, there are 80 certified organic businesses in Nevada. Most already use private certifiers with only 45 going through the NDA certification program. The number of organic businesses have grown steadily in the state, but the number receiving certification through the NDA has stayed flat.
The state began its organic certification program in 1997 as an optional program with the intent that it would be self-sustained through the fees collected.
“It never got to that point,” said Rebecca Allured, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
“We got to the point in March when we realized there was a significant deficit,” she said.
This year’s deficit was the second time the program faced being cut. A few years ago, the legislature transferred money from the general fund to save it. Many hoped history would repeat itself. It didn’t.
Following a long and contentious meeting of the NDA board of directors on June 3, the board voted 9-2 to kill the program.
From the state’s viewpoint, it was an optional program draining funds from mandated programs, Allured explained.
Sallaberry said a state organic certification program could not survive without general fund support. Even growing the industry could not support it on fees alone.
Rob Holley, of Holley Family Farms in Dayton, feels the demise of the state certification program was inevitable.
“As long as the program was optional, and could be dissolved in a few years, you have to ask, is this secure?” Holley said.
“If it’s optional, if it’s not reliable, it’s better going elsewhere” for certification.
Holley, whose farm first received organic certification in 2011, served on the NDA organic certification advisory board. He is prepared to switch to an existing out of state certifier, but first wants to see if a new Nevada-based private certification program is viable.
It poses some challenges, he said. The first is trying to maintain similar costs as the NDA program. Farming, especially organic farming because of the extra labor involved, is a low-net business.
Additionally, there’s a question as to whether a new certification program can be organized before the state certifications run out.
“By next spring or summer, people currently certified in Nevada (through the state program) will have to be at least in the process with some other certifier.
“There’s a lot of ground to cover,” Holley said.
Though disappointed with the NDA decision, Sallaberry is also ready to move on and is participating in the exploration of a new private certification program.
“We can be pretty resilient and rise above it,” she said of the organics industry.
The Great Basin Co-op is not itself organically certified, but most of those providing products for its shelves are.
“Organics is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in food production,” she said.
According to the Organic Trade Association, consumer demand in the United States for organic goods has grown by double-digits every year since the 1990s. Organic sales have increases from $3.6 billion in 1997 to more than $39 billion in 2014.
Organic food sales now represent almost 5 percent of total food sales in the U.S.
Organic production is not going away in Nevada, but the question is what are the options and costs for certification.
The June 16 meeting among organic industry insiders was mainly an exploratory gathering to see who was interested in creating a new certification provider in Nevada and who was available — and willing — to do the jobs needed to get it done.
There will be another meeting at the end of the month.
“We want to push it along,” Sallaberry said.
The amount of time needed to create a certification program depends on how it’s structured, she said. A nonprofit would take more time.
And non-profit or for-profit, certifiers would need to be trained to meet USDA standards, and their training paid for.
Holley and Sallaberry have more than business reasons to want to be sure organic farms stay certified.
The 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is aimed at ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply by making produce on the store shelves traceable to the ground where it grew. But it also creates a new layer of expensive and cumbersome inspections.
Some predict it will result in the demise of small-farming businesses leaving food production in the hands of the agri-business giants.
Maintaining organic certification could be a way around it because organic growers are already held to a higher standard of reporting.
“So we really want to help as many as can be certified organic to be certified so they’re exempted (from producer certification for the Act),” Sallaberry said.
In the meantime, the NDA is ready to help its 45 organic growers and producers make the change to private certifiers.
“We’re going to assist in the transition any way we can,” Allured said.
The department has a $44,100 grant from the National Organic Certification Cost Share program that can be used for the next three years, or until the funds run out.
“We want to be sure the certified organic produce in Nevada is not going away just because the state is no longer certifying,” she said.