Standards change for what's officially organic

Sally Nelson, Freeland, examines her new crop of winter spinach. She and business partner, Frank Parente, are certified organic farmers and will be adhering to the federal government
Sally Nelson, Freeland, examines her new crop of winter spinach. She and business partner, Frank Parente, are certified organic farmers and will be adhering to the federal government's new guidelines for growing organic food.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Those who grow, sell and buy organic food on South Whidbey are welcoming recent action by the federal government to set new standards for organic food.

In a move to help consumers get chemical-free natural food, the United States Department of Agriculture enacted the new standards effective Oct. 21. As of that date, organic agricultural products must meet USDA standards in order to be sold as "organic." Along with the national organic standards, USDA developed strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy. Consumers can discern organically produced food from conventionally produced food by looking at package labels.

The new "USDA Organic Seal" tells consumers that a product is at least 95 percent organic. Products with 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients can say so on the label (made with organic fruit, for example), but they can't display the organic seal.

This is good news for Langley resident Laurie Keith, who believes the move will not only inspire more consumer confidence in products labeled organic, it will be a boost to the industry.

"This is a big step forward to recognizing the need for pure food. It is critical for our health. I am careful about what I buy and about 60 to 70 percent of our diet is organic," Keith said. "I would like it to be more."

The new rules forbid genetically engineered crops, irradiation, or the use of industrial sludge as fertilizer in organic farming.

For South Whidbey organic farmers, the new standards are for the most part business as usual, with the added challenge of deciphering the bureaucratic language. Washington's certified organic farmers have been adhering to regulations set up by the state's Department of Agriculture since 1988. But the federal standard has some new language. For Frank Parente and business partner Sally Nelson, who operate an organic farm in Freeland, one of the big changes applies to how they use fertilizer.

Nelson said composted manure can't be applied within 90 of harvest to crops that don't touch the ground and within 120 days for crops that do.

"That's a change in procedure for us," she said.

The two farmers, who raise a variety of garlic plants, lettuce and other crops, will be applying their fertilizer this fall in anticipation of the early spring harvest.

And it's not just any manure or compost. The fertilizer/compost mixture has to be turned six times, and reach a temperature of 140 degrees. Also, the manure pile cannot sit for a length of time, or it loses its organic rating.

"One of the problems with the high temperature required is it not only kills toxins and weeds, but also the good microbes," Parente said.

Parente and Nelson are buying their fertilizer from Penn Cove Organics because they don't have the equipment to adequately turn and measure the temperature. They are also buying organic food for their laying hens.

"We, the organic farmers on the Southend, believe in what we are doing, so have been following the organic standards set by the state and will make any changes to meet the federal guidelines," Parente said.

Organic farmers are also urged to use certified organic seeds whenever possible. Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock, but a farmer may use non-organic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions.

"We save many seeds from year to year, and will trade our seeds with other farmers for different types," Parente said.

This fall, Parente and Nelson sowed 2,700 garlic seeds, all from their own plants.

Some other federal standards require that land used for organic farming has no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop.

Soil fertility and crop nutrients must be managed through tilling and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.

Crop pests, weeds, and diseases must be controlled primarily through management practices, including physical, mechanical, and biological methods. When these practices are not sufficient, some biological, botanical, and synthetic substances approved for use may be applied.

For personnel at the Washington State Department of Agriculture the standards seem to be more a matter of paperwork.

Miles McEnvoy, the state's organic food program coordinator, said this week that most of the changes are minor for the individual farmer and "more paperwork for the state."

"I think the most significant change is treated seeds are prohibited," Miles McEnvoy said.

There are three classes of seeds; those treated with fungicide, untreated and organic."

McEnvoy said his office will provide annual organic certification inspections for farmers. Inspectors will be looking for the same standards they did under state rules.

In 1988, the first year of the WSDA Organic Food Program, there were 63 certified organic farms producing $2.5 million worth of organic foods. In 2001 WSDA certified 540 farms, 123 processors and 117 handlers of organic foods.

According to information from USDA, the organic industry is growing between 20 and 25 percent annually, and has been for the last several years. U.S. retail sales of organic foods reached approximately $7.8 billion in 2000, with global sales topping $17.5 billion.

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