Stunted growth?

Nevada’s organic certification program could be on the chopping block

Farmer Rick Lattin sells his produce at the Sparks farmers market on Victorian Square last summer.

Farmer Rick Lattin sells his produce at the Sparks farmers market on Victorian Square last summer.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

Since 1997, when Nevada’s organic certification program was put into law by the legislature, the state’s organic farmers have grown from about eight to 38. Organics has been one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in the nation, a trend reflected in Reno’s farmers markets and grocery stores.

However, the state’s organic certification program is now at risk of being eliminated due to budget cuts. Steve Marty, the state’s only organic certifier at the Nevada Department of Agriculture, was given a letter recently explaining he could be out of a job by July 1. His was one of three within the department’s plant division proposed for elimination.

“Several positions have been slated to be cut, and mine was one of those,” Marty verified. “But it hasn’t been decided yet.”

Marty’s position also certifies seeds, which would largely affect Nevada’s onion, garlic and alfalfa growers. Eliminating the program and Marty’s position would save the state an estimated $100,000.

“Loss of the local certifier will devastate small organic farmers and put the whole growth of organic farming in Nevada in jeopardy because they’ll have to pay for inspectors to come in from other states, and the small farmers just won’t be able to afford it,” says organic farmer Rick Lattin of Lattin Farms in Fallon.

“We’d probably have to pay their expense for coming, meals and mileage if they’re driving and ticket if by airplane,” says Virginia Johnson of Custom Farms in Silver Springs, who was also a key player in establishing the Nevada Organic Certification Law. “It’s a lot more involved than having our blessed local agriculture department do it for us.”

NDOA spokesperson Ed Foster said that if Marty’s position is eliminated, the responsibilities of organic certification likely will shift to someone else within the department. He added that it was a personnel decision based on seniority and not a programmatic decision.

“If we lose that person, we would try to piece it together so the organic producers in Nevada would not have to suffer fiscally,” says Foster. “The program is too strong to totally go away for the Department of Agriculture.”

It’s against the law to call crops organic without the certification. The label creates a marketing incentive to grow organic. “If you can’t get certified organic, it may not be cost-effective to grow organic,” says Lattin.

The cost of certification is based on a sliding scale of gross income, as low as $15 for very small farms and up to $2,500 for big farms. Most local organic farmers pay around $100-$200 per year. Farmers are currently reimbursed by the federal government roughly 75-80 percent of their certification fee. Some farmers were concerned that reimbursement money would go away if they went through a private certifier. However, Foster says they will continue to be reimbursed whether the certifier is private or through the state.

The fate of Marty’s job and the state’s organic certification program won’t fully be known until the budget is finalized in May.

“It would be detrimental to organic farming and to small farms, and we’re seeing more of them,” says Ann Louhela, executive director of the Nevada Certified Farmers Market Association. “They’re just starting to blossom. Every year, new farmers are coming in—and we couldn’t say that for a long time.”