Before the United States government stuck its nose into certifying organic food products, the state of New Mexico already knew it was an important issue.
The year after the state Legislature created the New Mexico Organic Commodities Commission in 1990, the NMOCC tracked $5,000 in sales from the organic farmers it certified across the state. In 2008, the NMOCC tracked $45 million in sales by New Mexico’s thriving organic industry.
“That’s a 9,000 percent increase,” NMOCC Director Jeri Poletto says.
Twenty years ago, our legislators thought enough of the long tradition of farming the Rio Grande corridor and ranching in our mountain highlands and sparse grasslands to know that codifying the purity of traditional techniques could only be a boon. Now, the reward is a ballooning industry that is poised to ride the nation’s renewed food consciousness into continued growth, even as it engages in good land stewardship and environmentally sound farming practice. It’s amazing that a small, low-cost state agency can enable such a massive economic impact on our state.
Naturally, the New Mexico Senate’s proposed budget would slash funding for NMOCC.
If you’re thinking WTF? you’re not alone. This is the same Senate that has failed to close corporate tax loopholes, the same Senate that failed to ratify the movement to put the state’s money in local banks, and the same Senate that backs an unpopular and arcane food tax that would levy a surcharge on, among other things, organic products. This august body, rather than taxing the wealthiest citizens, wants to nickel-and-dime NMOCC to the tune of $172,000—a 36 percent cut from its requested budget.
Poletto says NMOCC knew things would be tight this year and submitted a total budget of $479,000. That money pays for the commission’s salaries, general operating expenses, and education and marketing programs designed to help conventional producers become organic producers and organic producers expand and grow their businesses. The budget also subsidizes the annual inspection of New Mexico’s roughly 200 certified organic producers.
As the only federally accredited organic certifier in the state, NMOCC itself must be inspected annually and pay yearly fees of approximately $20,000 to ensure its continued ability to certify under federal standards. As if the NMOCC budget weren’t lean enough, it plans to draw the bulk of its need—$282,000—from its own fund, built up from inspection fees over the duration of its existence. The House of Representatives approved $197,000 from the general fund in order the meet NMOCC’s bare-bones budget, but the Senate only authorized $25,000.
We won’t know the final numbers until the Legislature finishes a special session to hash out a unified budget.
Poletto recognizes that legislators have a difficult and unenviable task in reigning in spending. But she fears such an extreme cut will render the NMOCC unable to complete its slate of inspections and unable to fulfill its mission of education and marketing assistance. Worse, she’s concerned that NMOCC might lose its federal accreditation.
If that were to happen, New Mexico’s organic food producers would have to seek an out-of-state certifying body, one that would cost significantly more, offer no development assistance and have no familiarity with their operations.
The success of New Mexico’s organics industry is certainly due to the hard work of the small businesses that produce vegetables, meats, nuts, fruits, fibers, cottons, etc., but the NMOCC has been a quiet supporter all along.
“Our seal ensures that consumers know what they’re buying and our regulatory efforts ensure that our producers hold to those high standards,” Poletto says. “The organic businesses we work with consider us to be tough but fair. I think you could ask any one of them what the result of an ineffective organic commission would be and they’ll tell you honestly.”
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