Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
By Russell Libby, MOFGA Executive Director

For many years we in MOFGA liked to think of ourselves as separate from the big farm policy discussions that take place every five years in Washington. The Farm Bill was about the big farmers in the Midwest, and didn’t have much impact on what a small vegetable farmer in Maine might be doing. We were busy building our own world of local markets and connections with consumers.

The 1990 Farm Bill changed all that. For the first time, organic became a part of U.S. agricultural policy. Now, at the end of 2000, we’re about to see the results. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is scheduled to release a final rule for the National Organic Program before the end of the year. That rule will have a big impact on the way MOFGA does business, on the decisions that our 240 certified farmers will be making, and on the buying options of many thousands of consumers. The production standards that they are proposing are substantially in agreement with those MOFGA has been using for a number of years. The major difference will come in the way that USDA tries to make certification an arms-length program.

Our first certification program, in 1972, relied on farmers to go inspect other farmers. Through the years MOFGA has maintained that basic connection between farmers and the program. Farmers have been a key part of the certification program; farmers have served as inspectors; the MOFGA Board includes farmers, who help make the decisions about standards. We’re concerned that the USDA regulation, when released, will require a substantial change in those connections.

Industrial manufacturers have adopted uniform standards to allow products to move around the world and be compatible. One of these standards, ISO 65, deals with third-party certification, and is the basis for current USDA accreditation practices. Essentially ISO 65 requires walls between the inspector and the inspected party. These go well beyond the conflicts of interest we already watch, like not sending buyer to inspect seller, or allowing the farmer being reviewed to be part of the review of her application in the committee. They essentially prohibit most financial or policy relationships between parties, meaning farmers would need to be held at arms’ length from MOFGA, their certifier.

This seems to me to be another example of the industrial mindset creeping into every aspect of American society. During the election campaigns this year, there was general agreement within the two major parties that America is part of a global economy, with trade and technology closely related. Anything that increases trade is good; anything that slows trade is bad. Yet I fear we will be losing a lot when USDA requires certification to operate with enough walls to ensure lack of personal contact.

One of the common elements in this year’s forestry referendum was the notion that certification according to good standards was a preferred alternative to more regulation. By the end of the year we’ll see whether certification via regulation is going to be a workable option for MOFGA and for Maine’s organic farmers.
MOF&G Cover Winter 2000-2001