In California, ending double trouble for organic producers

California legislators are trying to simplify things for organic farmers

Michael Heinrich

California legislators are trying to simplify things for organic farmers

Michael Heinrich

Finally, a new bill aims to make organic certification cheaper and easier in the state that pioneered it

Behold, a west coast paradox: California is the source of more than 40 percent of the nation’s organic products. It is also one of the most difficult states in which to be a certified organic producer. Why? Call it an unintended consequence of trailblazing. California’s unique (and uniquely cumbersome) organic regulatory system exists in part because of the leading role the state has taken in organic food production.

What that looks like for organic producers is, well, double. Double fees, double paperwork, and double the time spent meeting regulatory requirements.

But a new bill currently before the California legislature aims to simplify all that. The California Organic Food and Farming Act—Assembly Bill 1826—is designed to relieve California organic farmers of having to file redundant paperwork and to cap fees farms pay to the state’s organic program. The bill will also get the State Organic Program (SOP) out of the enforcement business and change its role to educator.

Introduced by California State Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay) in January 2016, the bill was passed unanimously in the California Assembly Agriculture Committee on April 20. Next, the Committee on Appropriations will discuss its fiscal impact on the state. AB 1826 then hits the Assembly floor where it will be voted on. If it passes, it’ll go through the same process in the Senate before landing on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.

Here’s how regulation goes from regulatory to redundant. In 1979, California was the first to create an Organic Food Act. It then established the SOP in 1990 to regulate the burgeoning industry. In 2002, the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP) came along and slapped on a set of federal regulations.

The LaRocca family at the vineyardLaRocca Vineyards

The LaRocca family at the vineyard

Once the NOP program kicked in, some organic farmers began to question the SOP’s role. Philip LaRocca of LaRocca Vineyards was the chair of the board of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) at the time. “I said ‘Well, we don’t really need this SOP anymore…. We have the federal government.” Nothing was done to change the SOP’s role, and the sentiment among farmers persists.

Last year, CCOF compiled a report on the regulatory burden facing California organic farmers. The report, Review of the California State Organic Program, describes issues unique to California organic producers. The biggest complaint: duplicative paperwork. Where in most states, organic farmers simply have to work with an accrediting agency to become certified with the NOP, in California, there are numerous other steps:

  • Organic producers and handlers must register with their county agricultural commissioner;
  • Organic processors must register with California Department of Public Health (CDPH);
  • Organic producers, processors, and handlers must provide verification of SOP registration to their accredited certifying agent prior to granting or continuing organic certification; and
  • Accredited certifying agents must register with California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and pay registration fees.

“I feel that personally the holdback from more people doing [organic production] is the paperwork that’s associated with it,” says Darrell Wood of Panorama, an organic ranch. “If we can streamline that process with the certifier and the CDFA, that would be a big plus.”

Smaller farms will benefit, too. Those that gross less than $250,000 will see a reduction in fees to the SOP. Although the bill won’t abolish the double fees completely–a move producers hope for in the future–it’ll give organic farmers what they feel is more support for the time being.

AB 1826 could also level the national playing field for California organic producers. “We don’t only have to go through the national program, which every certified organic producer has to go through. We have to go through our state as well,” says Colin Archipley, co-owner of Archi’s Acres, an organic farm in San Diego County. “It makes us less competitive in the marketplace where nobody else has to go through that double compliance.”

You’d think that having gotten the organic certification would be akin to receiving the final “okay!” on other burdensome regulatory hassles. No so. This is all on top of what producers are already doing to meet the requirements of sweeping new changes in the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which became final this year. None of what AB 1826 proposes relieves producers of those myriad responsibilities.

Organic produce at the Archi's Acres farmstandFacebook / Archi's Acres

Organic produce at the Archi’s Acres farmstand

But beyond regulation relief, say organic farmers, what’s needed is a different kind of support: help to become better practitioners. So, an evolution from SOP-as-enforcer to SOP-as-educator appeals to Allen Harthorn of Harpos Organics, a farm in Fillmore, California. He says he could benefit from more technical assistance “to develop organic practices and implement them and build a knowledge base for organic farming.”

The bill has attracted 34 supporters, including California organic farms and agriculture organizations. And no opposition. Assuming the bill doesn’t run into snags along the way, AB 1826 should reach the governor around August.

Then California can free itself from this bureaucratic remnant and resume its rightful place as reliably one step ahead.

Lara McCaffrey is California based writer and broadcaster who covers sustainable food trends, local politics, music, arts and culture.