Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Organic Roots: Washington’s extensive history of organic agriculture and certification

Heidi Peroni
Organic Outreach and Education Coordinator 

Today, WSDA’s Organic Program certifies more than 1,100 organic operations in Washington state where organic fruit and produce have become staples in farmers markets and most grocery stores. But it wasn’t always this way.

Organic certified kale at a
Washington farmers market.
In the 1970s, organic farming was still in its infancy in Washington and across much of the country. While farmers and gardeners were interested in alternative methods for crop production, information on organic cultivation was scarce and supporting organizations didn’t exist.

That began to change in 1974. Wendell Berry, farmer and poet, came to Spokane to speak at the ‘Agriculture for a Small Planet’ Symposium. With Wendell’s encouragement, a Washington-based group organized to promote organic agriculture. They called themselves Tilth, after the Old English tilian, meaning ‘till’ or 'strive for, obtain by effort.'

The Tilth Producers Cooperative worked on production, marketing, and distribution of organically produced crops. They also began a peer-based organic certification program, developing a framework for organic certification regulations by deciding which practices and materials were acceptable.

Certification lands at WSDA

In the mid-80s, Tilth worked with Ken Jacobsen, a state representative from Seattle, on legislation to house organic certification within WSDA. As a result, the Washington Organic Food Products Act, Chapter 15.86 RCW, was enacted in 1985.

Organic certification formally shifted to WSDA in 1987. Organic growers fund the program directly through a fee-for-service model similar to other services WSDA provides.

Tilth organizers meet at Seattle's historic PRAG house, circa 1980.
WSDA formed an Organic Advisory Board so stakeholders could provide input on developing organic standards. Several Tilth members joined members of California Certified Organic Farmers and Oregon Tilth to form the Western Alliance of Organic Certifiers to establish consistent standards between states. This work helped pave the way for the National Organic Program (NOP).

By 1988, the WSDA Organic Program had certified 68 organic farms. Soon the program expanded, offering processor and handler certification as well as registering brand-name material used in organic production.

Organic goes federal 

The 1990 U.S. Farm Bill included the Organic Foods Production Act which established the USDA NOP and National Organic Standards Board, bringing organic certification to the federal level.

The USDA’s first draft of the NOP standards in 1997 allowed irradiation, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and sewage sludge in organic production. But protests from nearly 300,000 people nationwide prompted changes, and the Final Rule in 2002 prohibited these practices that became known as the “big three.”

In 2002, the WSDA Organic Program was accredited by USDA to provide certification services under the new federal standard, which continues today.

Of the first 100 farms certified by WSDA, 21 are still certified organic under their original name. Many others still farm, but have changed organizations or roles. Each of their stories, struggles, and successes helped create the path for the organic farmers and handlers of today.

Special thanks to Mark Musick, Anne Schwartz, and Diane Dempster, who have worked with Tilth Producers for many years, and Organic Program manager Brenda Book, for their input on this article.  Without their tireless efforts, Washington organic production would not be what it is today.