UNITY, Maine — The only organization in Maine authorized to certify organic farming operations in the state has failed federal inspections for the second year in a row.
The deficiencies cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture delay recertification of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Certification Services LLC.
Despite the news, Russell Libby, executive director of MOFGA, praised USDA’s actions Friday, saying the agency “is finally doing its job and making sure that organic certifiers are up to snuff.”
Libby said 2007, when MOFGA was first cited for deficiencies, was the first year that certification agencies were up for renewal.
“At that time, about 20 agencies passed with no questions, another 20 raised questions and had to come back for review, and about five failed,” Libby said.
MOFGA was among the 20 organizations that required further review. Of the seven deficiencies cited in 2007, two have been corrected and five still need to be addressed, according to the latest audit conducted by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Libby said the questioning by USDA proves the system is working, providing checks and balances for certification.
He said that MOFGA’s deficiencies are more on the “need improvement in paperwork” track, rather than MOFGA doing anything so wrong they would be reprimanded or not renewed.
Joan Shaffer of the National Organic Program, which assesses and renews certifying agencies for the USDA, said Friday, however, that any deficiency is considered serious and “all violations need to be fixed.”
MOFGA’s service currently certifies more than 350 farms in Maine based on strict USDA guidelines, according to its Web site.
It has been certifying organic farms since 1972 and is the first state program in the country. When the USDA adopted National Organic Standards in 2002, MOFGA became its agent in Maine.
MOFGA’s current status with the National Organic Program is listed as “renewal pending subsequent audit.” Libby said he expects that follow-up audit in April or May.
Of the 49 certifying agencies up for renewal in 2007, MOFGA is one of 11 whose certification renewal is pending follow-up audits for deficiencies. Among the 11 are the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture and the Massachusetts-based Baystate Organic Certifiers.
According to documents posted on the National Organic Program Web site, MOFGA was first assessed for certification renewal nearly two years ago, and the USDA noted seven areas of failure. That inspection was conducted from April to May of 2007 at MOFGA’s farm in Unity, the Highland Blueberry Farm in Stockton Springs and Littlefield’s Farm in Winterport.
The second assessment, conducted in August of 2008, was a corrective audit by the USDA to ensure that the seven failings had been set right. The report states that only two of the seven issues were addressed. Five deficiencies are still outstanding.
Several of the deficiencies are listed as MOFGA’s failure to adequately document farmers’ processes for organic certification. One deficiency is the failure by two members of MOFGA’s certification team to disclose their own farms to the USDA and to charge an out-of-state firm for their certification.
Libby said Friday that the National Organic Program wanted MOFGA to create an online certification application to make it easier for farmers. “Also, some of the paper trails on our inspections were not as clear as they wanted,” he said. “We are considered at the improvement level, not so flawed that our renewal is in jeopardy.”
Libby also said some corrective paperwork that was sent to the National Organic Program in 2007 was not discovered in time to be included in the 2008 audit.
He said the process for certification includes a review by a committee, a review by MOFGA staff and a final farm inspection.
“We have been doing all this with three to four people,” he said. “Pennsylvania, for example, has a staff of 20. We were trying to operate as leanly as possible, but over the past year we have been adding staff.”
Ned Porter, Maine’s Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture, said the state has no role in either certifying organic production or overseeing the certifier. He said only the USDA has that authority.
The full audit reports for MOFGA can be found at the USDSA National Organic Program’s Web site at: www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5073454&acct=aqss.