Leslie McKinnon obtained her education and research experience in soil microbiology, entomology, and biological control from Texas A & M University. Her experience led to a career with the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) as Coordinator of the Organic Certification Program.
After leaving that position, Leslie has been self-employed as a consultant, helping others understand the organic certification requirements and certification process. She has been an active member and volunteer in the Texas Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association (TOFGA) for over 15 years.
Leslie has seen many changes in the organic certification world. We had a chance to talk with her recently about her experiences. Our first question for her was about her involvement in TDA as the Coordinator for the Organics Program.
How long were you there? How did the program grow over the course of those years?
Leslie: I was Coordinator of the TDA Organic Certification program for 12 years, from late 1996 to August 2009. When I started in the program, we had Texas Organic Standards and the National Organic Standards were still being drafted.
So you are saying that Texas was ahead of National Standards in the beginning of the organic certification world?
Leslie: The TDA Organic Program was widely respected nationally and internationally. The Texas standards were one of the models used by the USDA to develop the national standards. When I began, the program had only the Coordinator and one Program Specialist, although we had the support of regulatory inspectors in the five TDA Regional Offices around the state to conduct inspections. I was responsible for training the inspectors as well as the program staff who reviewed applications for certification. By the time I retired from TDA, there were four Program Specialists working in the Organic Program office in addition to the Coordinator. Under the Texas Organic Standards, retailers selling organic products were required to be certified. At the peak, over 1,200 total businesses (farms, processors, distributors and retailers) were certified.
Wow – 1,200 total businesses. According to my research, there are only a little over 200 businesses certified through TDA now. Can you explain the drop in numbers?
Leslie: When the National Organic Standards were adopted, most retailers became exempt or excluded from the certification requirement. As a result, the number of certified businesses decreased significantly over the next two years. At the time I retired from TDA, there were around 300 businesses certified. Although the loss of certified retailers caused a huge decrease in total businesses certified, there was still very strong interest among farmers and processors to become certified. Interest in organic products continued to grow and demand was expected to support further growth of the organic market.
As you interacted with producers, what were the most common errors you saw them make as they submitted their applications to TDA?
Leslie: The most common error was missing, incomplete or illegible information on applications. Some producers did not understand that successful organic production requires a completely different approach to farming – proactively building healthy, biologically-active soil in order to minimize the impact of pests, weeds and diseases while maintaining acceptable yields. Those who thought they could just stop using synthetic inputs and be considered organic usually found the yield to be disappointing or the pest and weed pressures to be overwhelming. Others would attempt to use allowed organic inputs to replace the synthetic inputs they had used for conventional production. The “input substitution” method usually also fell short, either due to excessive cost or to lower efficacy of allowed inputs. The importance of cover cropping to build soil organic matter, improve long-term fertility, and break the life cycles of insects, plant diseases and weeds was not always fully appreciated. Producers were accustomed to reacting to problems as they occurred rather than proactively preventing problems from becoming economically damaging.
What are some problems that could have been prevented?
Leslie: The most devastating error was the use of an input product with the mistaken belief that it was allowable under the organic standards, without first consulting the certifying agent. The direct application of any product that contained even trace amounts of a prohibited substance could result in the denial of an application, or the suspension of a farm or field’s certification for three years. Making these decisions was one of the hardest parts of being the coordinator of the program.
Making decisions that affect a farmer’s livelihood is a heavy burden. What was happening in the industry that created these mistakes?
Leslie: This was especially frustrating because some fertilizer and pest control manufacturers are eager to jump on the “organic bandwagon” and market products to farmers and gardeners using the words “organic” and “natural” in their product names and descriptions, even when the products may not be allowed in organic production.
Even the general public hears “organic” and “natural” and gets misled by labels. What is the situation with organic labeling for inputs like fertilizers?
Leslie: Since the National Organic Standards only address the use of the organic label on food and fiber products, the USDA National Organic Program lacks the authority to regulate the labeling of fertilizer and pest control input products. Some progress has been made, with the EPA now offering a voluntary review program for pesticide manufacturers to request an additional logo on their packaging indicating that a pesticide is “allowed for use in organic production.” In Texas, the Feed and Fertilizer Control Board in the State Chemist’s Office regulates fertilizer labels. They have also made efforts to prevent the use of misleading labels on fertilizer products. Still, organic producers must always be very careful to be absolutely sure that an input product contains only substances allowed in organic production. It is best to get approval from your certifying agent before using any new input products.
What sort of relationship did TDA have with the staff of the National Organics Program of USDA?
Leslie: In the beginning, when the National Organic Standards were first adopted, there were a number of instances of conflict with the National Organic Program.
Do you remember some specific incidences of conflict?
Leslie: One example was over Texas’ certification requirement for retailers who sold organic produce and bulk bin products. TDA believed that certification of these entities was important to maintain the integrity of the organic product, and to prevent co-mingling and contamination. The National Organic Program staff did not agree, and did not allow Texas to maintain a “higher standard” than the national rule. At that time, the lines of communication between the NOP staff and certifying agents were very strained. Most decisions were made by the NOP staff without prior discussion or consultation with experienced certifying agents, and an adversarial relationship developed.
This sounds like it was damaging to the efforts in getting more farms and other producers to become certified organic. What happened to change the relationships since they seem better now?
Leslie: A turning point came when Kathleen Merrigan was appointed as a Deputy Secretary at USDA, working at the highest levels of the agency directly under the Secretary of Agriculture. Dr. Merrigan had been instrumental in drafting the original Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, and was strongly committed to the development of organic agriculture. Under her leadership, and with an infusion of dedicated organic leaders like Miles McEvoy in the National Organic Program staff, much of the friction between the NOP and certifying agents began to dissipate. Communication improved significantly, including frequent public updates via the NOP’s Organic Insider newsletter. Dr. Merrigan’s influence reached all branches of the USDA, as she expected all USDA programs to expand their efforts to serve organic and sustainable producers.
Having been the TDA staff person in charge of the program and now an industry member of the TDA Organics Advisory Board, how do you think this board should serve both TDA and the producer community?
Leslie: TDA’s Organic Agricultural Industry Advisory Board was created by the Legislature to advise the Commissioner of Agriculture about the needs and concerns of the organic industry in Texas. Each board member represents a different sector of organic agriculture. Several of the members represent large scale organic producers (rice producers, corn/soybean/peanut producers, dairy farmers), processors, distributors and retailers. There is one representative who is a small scale organic producer, and I serve on the board representing a state-wide organic association (TOFGA). I think it is essential for the board to provide information to the Commissioner about issues that impact organic producers in Texas. One important issue is for the department to provide adequate resources to the TDA Organic Program to continue to provide organic certification services for organic farmers and other businesses in Texas. For the past 5 years, state budget cuts have had a big impact on the TDA Organic Program. Staff vacancies have not been filled due to the lack of funding. The program is now back down to just one Program Specialist and the Coordinator, resulting in longer and longer processing times for new applicants and annual updates. This backlog has led some producers to switch to other accredited certifying agents who come in from out of state. The next Commissioner of Agriculture will be key in determining the future of TDA’s organic program.
Besides TDA Organic Program being one of the first certifiers in the nation, why do you feel it is important for TDA to continue offering certification?
Leslie: First, they are impartial in the situation – a third party that can evaluate the farms’ qualifications without being influenced by personal relationships. Second, in Texas, there are growers who believe that having a government entity rather than a for-profit business as their certifying agent provides more credibility. Growers like knowing that their inspector comes from their local area. Lastly, they have a strong reputation historically. For example, there are buyers in Japan for whom the Texas label is more valued than the USDA label.
As a private consultant on organic certification, what do you think needs to happen for the organics industry to prosper here in Texas?
Leslie: Bottom line is that we need more certified organic farmers. There is more demand for organic products than Texas farmers can currently fill, which is why most of the organic products you see in the grocery store come from out of state. Sometimes farmers are overwhelmed by the process of organic certification. I try to explain the requirements and show them that it can be broken down into smaller pieces and is doable. It also opens the door to many other funding sources available for beginning organic farmers.
You are also a board member of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA). How can TOFGA help the organics industry prosper?
Leslie: TOFGA helps new and prospective organic farmers connect with experienced farmers. The annual TOFGA conference provides networking opportunities, along with a wealth of information about organic farming basics, marketing options and more advanced farming topics. TOFGA also conducts workshops and farm tours around the state to provide learning opportunities that encourage people to adopt organic practices. We help the organic industry grow by educating people – farmers, gardeners and consumers – about the importance of organic methods to build healthy soils, grow healthy food and create healthy communities.
And what can consumers do to help?
Leslie: Consumers have a very important role in supporting the organic industry in Texas. Find a local farm stand or farmers market. Ask the farmer questions! Unfortunately, there are many farmers who represent their produce as organic but are not certified. While some may be truly organic, others may have their own ideas about what “organic” means. A certified organic grower has had their farming practices verified by a certifying agent, so consumers can have confidence that their produce has been grown organically. Consumers are the engine that moves the organic industry forward – as long as consumers are asking for organic options, there will be good reasons for more farms to become certified organic.
To contact Leslie McKinnon, email her at Organic247@centurytel.net.
Organic Certification Consulting
415 N. Guadalupe St. #219
San Marcos, TX 78666
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Buratti is currently a board member of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. She was previously a grant project manager for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality and Education and Outreach Coordinator for Texas State University.