Each year the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes a multimillion-dollar fund available to help farmers and producers obtain organic certification. This year’s kitty for the federal organic cost-share program totals over $12 million and could defray as much as 75 percent of a farmer’s total certification costs.

But some Maine farmers who grow food using traditionally organic methods, or close to it, aren’t interested. In interviews, the reasons they cited include not being fans of government regulation, not wanting to spend the money – even with what amounts to a deep discount in the form of a rebate – or not wanting to deal with the annual paperwork. Like Bill Hinck of Meadowood Farm in Yarmouth, who gave up his organic certification a few years ago.

“It used to be like that,” he said, pinching his fingers together to pantomime a stack of paperwork about an inch high. Standing in front of his produce and flower truck at Portland Farmers’ Market, he said his partner Don Beckwith would spend a whole day filling it out every year when they were certified. Then when USDA established standards for organic growing and processing in 2002, that pile began to get bigger. “Now it is partway up to here,” he said, extending his fingers to indicate an imaginary pile 4 or 5 inches thick.

When they gave up their certification, Meadowood lost customers. “Some natural food stores and restaurants,” Hinck said. “Even though I wasn’t doing anything different.”

Hinck estimates they lost about $10,000 a year in annual sales, as a result, and not just in wholesale. “Are you organic?” customers ask him every single Wednesday and Saturday when he hits the Portland markets, where he has been a vendor since 1985. For 28 years, he was an organic farmer, but now he tells them no, he’s “all natural.”

Maybe they walk away, maybe not. The wholesale customers he lost offered to pay for his certification, which would be administered as usual by MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

He’s also aware that the government would happily pay for most of the costs associated with organic certification. But Meadowood Farm is done with that.

“We were tired of jumping through hoops,” Hinck said.

Yet Hinck and Beckwith remain members of MOFGA, which began certifying Maine farmers as organic back in 1972, using the Rodale Organic Garden certification guidelines. For many of these farmers, those certifications were the real deal. They remain loyal to MOFGA as an institution. “We believe in it,” Hinck said.

UNITY, ME - MAY 17: Joan Cheetham, a certification specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, reviews an organic farmer's renewal application at the MOFGA offices in Unity on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Farmers have to renew their organic certification annually. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer)

Joan Cheetham, a certification specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, reviews an organic farmer’s renewal application at the MOFGA offices in Unity. Farmers have to renew their organic certification annually. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

YOU CAN LEAD A HORSE

If a farmer made between $60,000 and $100,000 annually, the fee paid to MOFGA, which does the vast majority of organic certification in Maine, would be $1,050. After the federal rebate, which takes about three months to come through, his or her annual cost would be only $300.

Why is the government so generous?

First and foremost, America needs more organic growers. It’s the biggest sector of growth in the food world, generating $39 billion in sales annually in the United States, according to USDA spokesman Samuel Jones-Ellard. Sales have tripled since 2005. But the acreage of organic farms hasn’t tripled. Less than one percent of U.S. cropland is certified organic. The same is true of U.S. pasture land.

“There are supply and demand issues,” Jones-Ellard said. “Consumer demand is certainly soaring.” One supply issue? Grains. You can’t raise organic beef or produce organic milk without organic feed for livestock during the winter, and not enough American farmers are growing that. “We are having to import a lot of that from other countries,” Jones-Ellard said.

Estimates of how much exactly vary, but the USDA reported total organic imports of $1.4 billion in 2013, including coffee, bananas and olive oil, from more than 100 other countries. The carbon footprint involved doesn’t exactly fit with the sustainability model that is so philosophically essential to organic production.

The USDA has been running the cost-sharing program for organics since 2002, but the 2014 Farm Bill authorized a doubling of the funds available nationally (Maine is one of 15 states to have access to an additional USDA funding source because the state has traditionally had such low crop subsidies). And USDA understands that it has a reputation for creating paperwork.

“We have, of course, heard a lot that the paperwork was burdensome,” Jones-Ellard said. In the past two years the agency has worked to streamline the process, creating videos and tip sheets to walk producers through it. “It has gotten a lot better in recent years, and hopefully that will bring more producers into the fold.”

It may well be working – between 2014 and 2015, he said, the USDA tracked a 5 percent bump in domestic organic operations.

A sign for produce at a Portland Farmers' Market booth is labeled certified organic. Farmers who choose not to be certified say they lose customers, even though they are farming the same way they did when they were certified.

A sign for produce at a Portland Farmers’ Market booth is labeled certified organic. Farmers who choose not to be certified say they lose customers, even though they are farming the same way they did when they were certified.

ROOM TO GROW

There doesn’t appear to be any major crisis of faith in organic certification going on; MOFGA’s interim director of certification services, Kate Newkirk, said the numbers of Maine farms going organic has been steadily increasing, about “7 to 8 percent” annually. Certification of organic processors is growing more rapidly. “We’ve seen a big boost in processors in the last year,” she said. MOFGA, which does the vast majority of organic certifying in Maine, hired another part-time staff member last year to handle the extra work.

But room exists for even greater growth of organic agriculture. In the most recent full Farm Census of 2012, Maine had 8,174 farms. In a 2014 survey specifically tailored to organics, 517 of Maine farms were either certified organic or exempt from certification (if your sales are under $5,000 annually, certification is not required), up from 379 in the 2008 survey. (Nationally there are 21,781 organic farms in the U.S.; in 2006 there were 11,904.)

No one knows exactly how many farmers follow organic processes but don’t bother with certification, or rather, at least not with the USDA designation for organic. Newkirk is well aware they’re out there.

“Usually it is a personal thing, and they are not interested in certifying,” she said. “They just don’t believe in it.”

Does that tend to be older farmers, who took part in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and ’70s?

No, she says.

“I think it is across the board,” Newkirk said. “Nobody likes to do paperwork.”

In 2004, when she started at MOFGA, she admits, it was a lot of paperwork. Now s-he said, the majority of the 480 producers and growers MOFGA certifies are in a database that allows them to simply update last year’s numbers. Eventually, if they can fund the conversion, everybody could be online (except the Amish farmers who don’t use computers). But patience is required and always will be. To get certified is a three-year process and there will be plenty of paperwork.

“The first time is going to take you a while,” she said. “It is really a management plan.”

NEW BEAT, OLD DRUM

That’s how farmer Adrienne Lee of New Beat Farm views it. She and her husband, Ken, started their Knox farm in 2008 and always planned to be organic. And official about it.

“I feel like certification makes you be an accountable farmer,” she said. “Yeah, it is a little bit of paperwork in the springtime. But it helps keep you honest as a small-business owner.”

By way of example, she said, “you can always say you are going to rotate your crops or only buy organic seed, but when it comes to making those hard choices as a farmer, that’s an area where if you’re not held accountable, you might not.” As she points out, organic seed is twice as expensive. If it’s been a hard year, maybe you’d cut corners.

But the initial outlay for the certification has definite financial benefits. Studies indicate that organic farmers make better profits, even though they typically produce lower yields. Two Washington State University professors who crunched the numbers found in a study released last year that organic farmers are able to get a premium between 29 to 32 percent above non-organic farmers. Not that they’re making tons of money, but customers are, at this point, willing to pay more for organic.

For Lee, there’s another reason. She considers herself part of a movement, and she wants to stand up and be counted. “You want to have a mass of people if we are going to make a change,” Lee said.

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MOFGA began certifying Maine farmers as organic back in 1972.

NATURAL ALTERNATIVES

Organic certification is not the only seal of approval in the natural growing world. Others include Certified Humane, Biodynamic and Non-GMO Project Verified. There are five Maine farms or producers who have opted for the Certified Naturally Grown (or CNG certification). It was started in 2002 as an alternative to the USDA’s national program, a form of rebellion for organic farmers who didn’t want to pay the government for a seal they felt they already deserved.

For Plymouth farmer Carol Hayes, being CNG has been a far cheaper alternative. She and her husband, Bill, have 40 acres and five greenhouses, where they grow year round. “It’s like $110 now,” she said. “And that would be the suggested donation. They work with you if you can’t make the payment all at once.”

Her Dilly Dally Organic Farm was certified by MOFGA until about 10 years ago when they were audited by MOFGA’s certification team.

“We were selling some stuff we shouldn’t have been selling,” Hayes admits. She had a different partner then, and he was buying produce elsewhere and selling it at Dilly Dally. “They busted us on it,” she said.

They set things straight and switched to CNG and she stuck with it, even after she eventually sent the partner packing.

“We do the same things they do for the organic, we just don’t have the USDA organic certification,” she said. Customers don’t mind, she said. Recently she said, Dilly Dally got a letter from MOFGA asking if it wanted to be certified organic again.

“We talked and we just decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. Our customers know us and trust us.”

But what about the farm’s full name, Dilly Dally Organic Farm?

“No one has said anything about it,” Hayes said. “Back in 2000, we knew it (USDA regulation) was coming down the pike so we made sure we put it in the name.”

THE FOOD POLICE

Newkirk said it’s not uncommon for farms to leave the organic fold. “A lot of people use certification to start their markets,” she said. When they have a strong customer base, then they cease the certification process. MOFGA doesn’t serve as the organic police; that job falls to USDA’s National Organic Program.

“They can stop by and check on those guys,” Newkirk said. “They don’t normally, but they have looked at some operations in the state.”

That worries Hinck enough so that he avoids even using the word organic, fearful of penalties. Which are steep. Jones-Ellard said they start at $11,000. But a warning is issued before any enforcement.

“We would reach out to the company and educate them, and typically what would happen is they either get certified or they would stop making that claim,” Jones-Ellard said.

All it takes is a walk through a farmers market listening to the word “organic” flying through the air to see that some consumers do their own form of policing. Even when farmers have stands that bear the MOFGA emblem, they’re likely to be subjected to quizzing. And for the farms that merely say “natural” or nothing at all, there are more questions.

Mark Heidmann of Maple Springs Farm, who generally parks his truck a few over from Hinck’s at Portland Farmers’ Market, started farming organically decades ago. But he’s no longer certified.

“I believe in the ideals of the original organic movement, but as it got taken over and regulated by the government, some of what I thought were the most valuable parts of it got overlooked,” Heidmann said.

He’s happy to talk to inquisitive customers about his methods, which he calls “environmentally sensitive farming.”

But some of them give him lectures. Misinformed lectures that indicate how desirable but complex the word “organic” is in today’s marketplace.

“They tell me organic farmers don’t spray anything,” he said.

He shook his head. Because actually, organic farmers can and sometimes do treat their crops. From a list of natural and yes, even synthetic substances approved by the government.