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‘Not acceptable’: N.H. organic certification program at risk of shuttering

Local farmers say the loss could harm their businesses, forcing them to pay more on out-of-state certification or lose their organic certification all together.

Shawn Jasper, commissioner of New Hampshire's Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said the state's organic certification program is in jeopardy.NYT

CONCORD, N.H. — For decades, the state of New Hampshire has been certifying organic farmers. Now the program is on the brink of shuttering, which could force farmers to spend more on out-of-state certification or lose their organic certification.

With two inspectors and one in training, state officials said the program is in an untenable situation: If just one inspector quits, the certification program would no longer be able to operate. And without a certification, farmers can’t advertise or sell their products as organic.

“We’re looking at what our capabilities are with the current staffing level. Quite honestly, we’ve been concerned and we are concerned,” said Shawn Jasper, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food during a listening session last week with organic farmers.


“There’s no wiggle room,” he said. “That shouldn’t be acceptable to you. It’s not acceptable to me.”

It takes 18 months to train a new inspector, and the state can’t pay enough to attract a candidate who is already trained, according to Jasper.

Beyond staffing constraints, Jasper said the program is under financial strain: Fees haven’t increased at all in at least two decades. It costs about $2,400 to certify an operation, according to Jasper, but the department only charges between $50 and $500 annually. With 66 farms, that means the program costs about $200,000, but only brings in about $15,000, Jasper said. And federal standards for organic certification have only grown stricter, which means inspecting is more work.

Jasper and his department alerted the New Hampshire Northeast Organic Farming Association, or NOFA, that they were concerned about their ability to keep serving farmers. Now, they’re working together to figure out a solution. Organic farmers were not happy to learn the certification program was in jeopardy.

Sarah Hansen said the Kearsarge Gore Farm in Warner where she works has been accredited through the state’s program for 35 years, since the program started. The farm has certified organic vegetables and maple syrup.


“If we make it harder for organic farms to do what they’re doing, you’ll see less certified farms able to sell produce in places like the Concord Coop,” she said.

She said if the state program closes, it would make it harder and more expensive to get certified out-of-state. She’s contacted about a dozen farmers who are willing to pay more in fees to keep the state program running, she said. Currently, 66 farms are certified through the state, according to the department. Another 47 farms have an organic certification through an entity other than the state.

Hansen believes having a state program shows that agriculture and organic farming are a priority for New Hampshire. She’s not alone. A petition she started on Aug. 31 has gathered 648 signatures so far in support of preserving the state’s organic accreditation program.

It’s not the first time the department has cut back its organic accreditation program. About two years ago, the state accreditation program for animals and processors shuttered abruptly, and the number of organic producers dropped by 57 percent, from 154 to 66, according to Allen Wyman, the director of the department’s regulatory services division who runs the organic certification program.

“We desperately want to prevent a repeat of that,” Jasper told farmers during the listening session.

He told the Globe in an interview that the department had to end the program because the state didn’t have the capacity to comply with increasingly stringent federal requirements.


“As ugly as that turned out to be for everyone, (it was) sort of what we had to do,” he told the farmers.

Dan Wolf was one farmer who lost his organic certification for his chickens and eggs in that process two years ago. He was able to get certified through Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, but he said it was four to five times more expensive.

And it raised eyebrows from some consumers, who wondered why New Hampshire’s seal of approval was missing from Wolf’s products, he said.

“It’s a great marketing tool and losing the New Hampshire certification, I’m not sure it cost me any business but it cost a lot of questions,” he said. Now he has generic stickers that say “certified organic.”

In addition to farming chickens, Wolf is a state representative who is supporting efforts to introduce legislation that would fix the issues raised with the organic certification process.

With NOFA, the department has proposed three possible solutions: the first is for the legislature to provide additional funding and staff to keep the state program open. Otherwise, they suggest assisting farmers as they transition to another accredited certifying agent. Or, NOFA could work with a regional certifier to help open a satellite office in New Hampshire.

Wolf, a Newbury Republican, believes there’s a strong case for keeping the state organic program where farmers can easily call their inspectors and interact with them at local events.


State Representative Peter Bixby, a Democrat from Dover, said he plans to introduce a bill that would fund 1.5 more positions to support the organic program, as well as a car and a few computers Jasper said are needed. It will cost less than $200,000, according to Jasper. The filing period for House members to introduce new bills runs from Sept. 11 through Sept. 15.

Wolf said the program deserves the support. For him, it’s New Hampshire’s identity that’s on the line.

“Agriculture to me is very important,” he said. “It’s a part of what New Hampshire is to go out and look at the fields, the farmer’s markets, these roadside stands. If they get wiped, we’re just like the big city. We’ll be like suburbia.”

Amanda Gokee can be reached at Follow her @amanda_gokee.