Without knowing how much the state will save, Utah is eliminating its nationally recognized organic certification program that has provided small farmers and processors a niche market.
State officials say private inspection companies can fill the void. But farmers worry that private labels will not have the clout with consumers that the Utah state seal does, and hiring outside firms will be a costly burden to local businesses. One entrepreneur said the state refused to accept her certification application on Jan. 13, forcing her to hire a California firm that cost her more than $7,000 in additional expenses.
"They never gave us a chance to pay more to keep the state program," said Russell Taylor, who grows organic beef and is a member of the state organic advisory committee. "We were not informed, there was no cost analysis and there were no efforts to make any kind of adjustment to keep it. By any standard, that's not a good way to do business."
Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said that like the state of Utah, private companies can certify organic products, using standards developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state collects $33,000 annually in fees paid by organic farmers and processors, he said, but there was not enough time when Gov. Jon Huntsman called for spending cuts to determine how much more would be needed to make the program self-sufficient. State fees for certification ranged from $50 to $2,500, depending on sales.
Lewis said that if growers and consumers want the state program to continue, they should contact state lawmakers or the Agriculture Department.
Stephanie Greenwood said that Bubble and Bee Organic, her Utah-based company that makes bath and body products, will have to pay $8,000 to hire a California firm to provide the certification -- compared with $800 the state would have charged. When she completed all the paperwork for state certification in January she received an e-mail informing her that the Utah program had been shut down.
"We could have hired an additional employee or run advertisements in local publications for the difference in costs that we're paying now," she said. "Instead, we're sending this money to California. It's unfortunate that the Legislature thinks that somehow cutting this program is good for Utah businesses."
But Clair Allen, director of the Agriculture Department's Plant Industry division, argues that organic businesses make up only a small sector of Utah agricultural industry.
"If all farmers went back to organic farming, we'd be starving by now, and that's the reality," he said. "As far as organic certification is concerned, I'd rather cut programs than people."
In 2000, Utah was on the cutting edge of the organic movement, providing standards two years before the USDA hammered out national regulations. Today, Utah's program is the nation's only state service that provides both certification and law enforcement powers to ensure requirements are met in order to receive the Utah organic seal.
"Utah's program is a complete package," said Miles McEvoy, president of the National Association of State Organic Programs. "The difference with Utah's program and that of other states is that only Utah has the authority to enforce national organic standards, providing more oversight to protect the integrity of the organic product."
Clair Uno, executive director of Wasatch Community Gardens, which supports local farming, said the state of Utah's cost-cutting decision "shows a lack of support for local, organic agriculture. The state should be supporting this because it's good for farming, it's good for producers, its good for the public and it's good for the environment."
Since Utah implemented its organic program, there has been a change at the state Agriculture Department toward focusing on more conventional farming practices.
Last year, for instance, department officials considered making it illegal to list milk products as being free from artificial growth hormones. That proposal was backed by Monsanto Co., maker of recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST, which is injected into cows to increase milk production. A decision is pending.