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Lawmakers hesitant to fund N.H. state organic certification program

Farmers asked the Legislature to rescue what they say is vital to their operations, but lawmakers aren’t sure it’s worth the money.

A small organic Amish Paste tomato grows in the fields of Valicenti Pasta Farm in Hollis, N.H.Matthew Healey/for The Boston Globe

CONCORD, N.H. – For more than 30 years, the Kearsarge Gore Farm in Warner has received organic certification through the state of New Hampshire.

It began with Sam Bower’s parents, who started the farm. Certification was a way to tell consumers the food had been grown locally, and that the farmers producing it were using practices beneficial to the environment and human health: avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, growing cover crops to keep soil from eroding, and tracking crops from seed to sale, among other things.

Bower, who runs the farm alongside his parents and partner Sarah Hansen, wants it to stay that way.

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But now, he and other organic farmers in the state are worried about the program’s possible demise. Last summer they learned the state program was on the brink of shuttering. If it closes down, farmers who want organic certification would have to get out-of-state certification — a much more costly process.

Bower and other farmers are looking to the State House for a solution, speaking out in support of two bills that would add funding and stability to the in-state certification program, securing it for the future.

But those bills likely face an uphill battle, given skepticism from lawmakers and the commissioner of the state department who runs the program.

Farmers already have enough problems to deal with, Bower said. The extreme weather last summer, for example, decimated an estimated $13 million in crops.

“This was probably one of the hardest growing seasons on New Hampshire farms that we’ve seen in the past several decades,” Bower told New Hampshire lawmakers during a public hearing on the bills on Jan. 16. “Now is not the time to be taking these services that the state provides away from the farmers.”

Other organic farmers echoed that message and say they support the state certification program, which is run by inspectors they’ve known for years. They said getting certified out of state is more expensive and takes away the New Hampshire branding their customers trust, raising questions about quality.

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“I rely on the New Hampshire organic brand to build local markets, maintain customer relationships, and support the growth of the organic economy in our state,” said Sayer Palmer, who owns Open Woods Farm in Grafton. “Losing organic certification at the state level would be the final blow in a season of deep freeze, devastating rain, and relentless wind.”

Data from the US Department of Agriculture shows that the sales of organic farm products have grown significantly in recent years. Organic farmers in New Hampshire sold $17.4 million worth of products in 2021, a 54 percent increase from 2019, when sales totaled $11.3 million, according to a 2022 report. That outpaces the growth among all neighboring states as well as national sales, which rose just 12.9 percent in the same time frame.

Another 2022 USDA report found there were about 10,800 acres of organic cropland in New Hampshire in 2021; 80 farms were producing crops; 17 had livestock and poultry; and 12 had livestock and poultry products. There are now 128 certified organic farms in New Hampshire, according to the USDA, and 66 are certified through the state’s program, according to state officials. Other certifiers include the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (23 farms), Quality Assurance International (nine farms), and Baystate Organic Certifiers (14 farms).

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As a region, New England has produced only about 21 percent of the food it consumes in recent years, according to a 2023 report by the New England State Food System Planners Partnership. But there isn’t regional data about where the food produced in New England ends up. Researchers are now working on a local food count to study that question in New Hampshire, according to Colleen Stewart, a spokesperson for the NH Food Alliance.

Bower’s farm sells most of its produce within 30 miles of the farm, according to the Kearsarge Gore website.

The first bill aimed at saving the certification program — House Bill 1184 — would send an additional $220,000 to the state Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food for the organic certification program. That would cover the creation of one full-time and one part-time inspector, positions that Commissioner Shawn Jasper has said are necessary to keep the program running.

The second — House Bill 1618 — would require the state to continue certifying organic farmers by turning what is now an optional program into a mandatory one.

Although Jasper and his department didn’t take a position on the first bill, he opposed the second, which would restore three other types of organic certifications the state used to do. He told lawmakers he has reservations about that program, and expressed anger with some organic farmers who contradicted his account of how much notice the department provided before closing an organic certification program for food processing in 2021.

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One farmer said he received six weeks’ notice; Jasper said it was six months. After that program closed, the number of organic operations dropped from 154 businesses to 66.

“I wonder if any of you could see the steam coming out of my ears in the back of the room,” Jasper told lawmakers during the public hearing. He took issue with mandating the program without providing the funding to support it, and said he doesn’t personally believe the cost of the program is justified for only 66 farms, given that there are more than 4,000 farms in the state.

Jasper told lawmakers that he didn’t think farmers would be negatively impacted if the in-state certification program closes, pointing to 47 New Hampshire farms that get organic certification elsewhere.

“This is simply about who is going to do the inspections,” he said, adding that state certifying programs are frowned on by the USDA, and only 12 other states offer them.

Those arguments resonated with several lawmakers on the House Environment and Agriculture Committee, who expressed doubts during a Jan. 22 session about whether the state should intervene and spend more money to keep the program open.

“It’s hard to take money from the general fund for a small slice of farmers,” said Representative Sherry Dutzy, a Nashua Democrat. She added that she “didn’t want to leave them high and dry” and proposed working with the state’s congressional delegation to find federal funding for the program.

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Representative Barbara Comtois, a Center Barnstead Republican, spoke against spending state money on the program “because we shouldn’t be favoring less than 2 percent of farms over everyone else.”

“I think the sticker price is high,” said Representative Molly Howard, a Hancock Democrat, who said going out of state for certification seemed “like a viable option.”

Representative Peter Bixby, the sponsor of HB 1184, spoke emphatically in support of it. “The appropriation on this, I think, is essential,” said the Dover Democrat, who advocated funding the program temporarily to give lawmakers more time to work out a more robust program in the future.

The committee has not yet scheduled a vote on either bill, which must be voted on by the full New Hampshire House.


Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.