Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
By Eric Sideman, Ph.D., Director of Technical Services, MOFGA

Beginning in October of 2002, the word 'organic' will have a different meaning than it does now. It will mean the same thing in every state of the United States, which is important to interstate trade and perhaps to supermarket customers' confidence. But that meaning will bring some changes in organic standards for farmers wishing to call their products organic, and some of those changes may be unwelcome. Those changes will be minor for most growers, but for some growers certain changes will mean significant modification of the farming practices or materials they use.

On October 21, 2002, the Final Rule of the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA will become fully implemented. For the most part, the USDA has done a very good job of reflecting present organic production standards in its Rule. Still, farmers and processors better become familiar with the new Rule and start adjusting to any required changes now. Certifiers will adopt the new organic standards soon. On the final implementation date, no one will be permitted to use the word 'organic' to describe an agricultural product that was not produced according to the new standards. Misusing the word 'organic' will be a federal offense that could bring a $10,000 fine per violation.

The biggest change will be for those growers who call their products organic but who have never been certified before. First of all, many such growers, since they were not certified and had no oversight, may not have had a perfectly clear picture of what organic means. Moreover, with the new Rule, any farmer or processor (handler) who has sales of organic products that total more than $5,000 must be certified. Many products you now see on Maine shelves – some made in Maine, some in other New England states – using the term organic will be affected by the Rule. Growers who gross under $5,000 in sales do not have to be certified, but they do have to grow by the standards in the USDA Rule. If they choose to sell their product to a certified processor as an ingredient, then they will have to get certified.

Changes in standards for farming practices that may affect vegetable and small fruit producers in New England include waiting periods between the application of uncomposted manure and harvesting a crop. Organic certifiers presently enforce waiting periods to manage the risk of contamination of food by E. coli. The USDA Rule includes a standard for the whole country that is 90 days for many crops and 120 days for any crop that is in direct contact with the soil, e.g., root crops and greens.

(MOFGA's rule has been 60 and 120 days, respectively, and other New England states have differed slightly.)

Related to the manure standards are standards for making compost. The USDA included restrictions on how you make compost if that compost contains manure as an ingredient.

The Department did this is to differentiate compost from manure, because well made compost has little risk of contaminating crops with E. coli. The problem is that the USDA wrote very restrictive guidelines, which, many farmers have strongly pointed out, would be impossible to implement on a farm. The Rule mandates that piles be turned five times in the first two weeks and that the initial C:N ratio be between 20:1 and 40:1. It also has restrictive guidelines on time and temperature.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB-an advisory board to the NOP/USDA) is working right now on recommendations to amend the rule. I am confident that the compost standards in the Rule will be changed to be more practical for farmers.

However, because of rule making procedure, this will take time, and farmers are going to have to live with the compost guidelines as written in the Rule now for at least a year, while an official rule change takes place.

Fungicide and other seed treatments will not be permitted, so the exceptions to this regulation that many certifiers have been permitting will no longer be allowed. Organic seeds and planting stock are required; however, if an equivalent variety is not commercially available in organic form, then conventional will be permitted-as long as it is not treated with any pesticide or any other material that is not on the National List of Permitted Synthetics. The USDA is working on enforcement guidelines for certifiers.

The new rule regulates soil fertility management much the same as current organic certifiers do, including, where appropriate, required crop rotations, use of cover crops and application of plant and animal amendments. One change for some states in our region is that Chilean nitrate (sodium nitrate) will be permitted for up to 20% of the nitrogen requirement of a crop.

The new Rule is very restrictive concerning the use of synthetic materials. Only materials on the List of permitted synthetics will be allowed. For example, a change that will affect some certified growers is that PBO, a synthetic that was allowed by some certifiers, will no longer be permitted. The certifier and the grower must determine whether a particular product contains any synthetics. The only exception is that for pesticide formulations, a group of synthetic inert materials, called EPA List 4, will be permitted without individual listing on the national List of Permitted synthetic materials that is in the Rule. This list will be updated periodically, but until it is, no synthetic material can be used unless it is on the list-except for inerts on EPA List 4. The Organic Materials Review Institute has recently published its generic materials list with the USDA National Rule listing included. I suggest that growers become familiar with this list (at or on the MOFGA site here). Use of a prohibited material may result in loss of the opportunity to produce organic crops for the three-year waiting period for land.
MOF&G Cover Winter 2001-2002