MONROE, Maine — When Tim Devin and Anna Weinberg decided to buy Chase Stream Farm in Monroe, they knew they wanted to produce and sell certified organic crops.
“We bought the land in February, and we’ve been farming for about three weeks,” Devine said last week. “We really wanted to carry on with the organic vegetable production that had been going on for 10 years on this farm before we bought it.”
Anyone can practice organic growing by avoiding chemical pesticides and relying on natural soil and plant enhancers, but to claim a product “certified organic,” a grower has to pass a U.S. Department of Agriculture certification process. In Maine, that certification comes from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association‘s Certification Services, which works to ensure the state’s certified organic farmers comply with the USDA’s organic certification regulations.
“When a farmer or producer or [food] processor applies for [organic] certification, we look at the plan they supply to us on how they will manage their organic practices,” Kate Newkirk, interim director of certification at MOFGA, said. “Once we review that plan, we send an inspector to that farm or processor to see how it is being implemented. That inspector verifies the plan is in operation.”
Once the inspector reports back to Newkirk and her staff, they determine if it meets the certification requirements or if there an any issues that must first be dealt with.
“We want to work with the producers,” she said. “There can be a lot of back and forth with them to get them to the point of certification, which is what we all want.”
The process, she said, can take up to six months.
“We just had our inspection three days ago,” Devin said. “This farm was certified [organic] prior to us buying, and that certainly helped.”
Getting certified organic in Maine is as much about paperwork as it is about what goes in the ground, Devin said.
“The rules are fairly restrictive,” he said. “You need to be able to prove that the land was chemical- and pesticide-free for the immediate past three years, so that means you need really good record-keeping and documentation.”
The previous owner of Chase Stream Farm kept very good records, Devin said, and they were able to use them in their application process. Newkirk’s staff has inspected 24 farms so far this year and has another 23 waiting for inspection leading up to the June 30 application deadline. In all, she said there are 500 MOFGA-certified farms and processors in the state, and she believes that label carries a certain amount of economic and social benefits.
According to a report released earlier this month by the USDA, the organic food sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the country’s food industry. The study looked at organic food trends from 2004-2010 and showed the growth in the organic food market continued even during the recession of 2007-2009, even though people pay — on average — more than 20 percent higher prices for an organic product versus the non-organic product.
Through some market research, Devin has determined people in Maine are willing to pony up that extra cost if it means they are getting a certified organic product.
“People absolutely want organic food,” Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater said. “Organic food is the hottest thing going.”
Gerritson’s farm has been certified organic for 32 years, and he’s spent 20 years as a volunteer inspector with MOFGA.
“The number of farmers and acres that are [certified] organic are increasing in this country,” he said. “The certification system gives people the assurance that what they are getting is bona fide organic.”
Annual sales of organic food in this country hit $40 billion last year, according to Ted Quaday, executive director of MOFGA.
“At present there is more demand for organic products in the U.S. than there is supply,” Quaday said. “This supply gap suggests there is a tremendous opportunity for farmers interested in growing organic food. The MOFGA-certified organic label helps farmers secure market premiums by guaranteeing to consumers the food they are buying is grown in a way that produces healthful food while protecting the environment.”
As important as that certification may be, not every organic farmer in Maine feels the need to have it.
Bradley Theriault, who operates Theriault All Natural Farms in Fort Kent with Aurora Jerkins, said he decided not to renew their MOFGA certification this year.
“We were certified in 2013 and stayed with it two years,” Theriault said. “At the time we were able to get some help with funding for the certification process, and we were already farming organically.”
Jerkins said their customer base in northern Maine increasingly is attracted to locally sourced and grown food but are not concerned whether it is organically raised or not. The couple remains committed to growing organic vegetables but decided the cost of renewing and maintaining the MOFGA certification was not worth it.
“People up here really do not want to pay us more for vegetables just because it’s certified organic,” Jerkins said. “So we decided it was not worth the work or expense.”
Devin said he found the on-the-farm inspection and the MOFGA application process in general to be quite helpful.
“The inspector was here for about two hours, and we really spent the time talking about the farm and my plan,” he said. “There were some really good suggestions, and I learned a lot.”
Devin hopes to hear back within a few weeks.
Once he has the certification in hand, the farm will be inspected by MOFGA annually to make sure he’s sticking to his organic plans and practices.
“You know, the whole application process has been a really pleasant experience,” he said. “MOFGA is here to help us, and they really want us to succeed [and] will do whatever they can to make sure we do. There is a customer base in Maine for whom being certified is a pretty big deal. For us to be competitive, we really need to have it.”