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NMSU professor shares experience on USDA organic certification process

In October, the Student Research and Education Gardens at New Mexico State University were awarded an Organic Transitions grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. The process took researchers including, Mark Uchanski, NMSU professor of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, three years. Uchanski shares the lessons learned as well as the future benefits.

In October 2014, the Student Research and Education Gardens at New Mexico State University were awarded an Organic Transitions grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. (NMSU Photo)

Q: The 2-acre, Student Research and Education Gardens at NMSU have been certified organic, what does that mean for New Mexico State University?
A: This is significant because it is the first land to be certified since NMSU was established as New Mexico?s Land Grant institution in 1888. I feel it is important for NMSU to have representation all forms of agriculture found in the state, and this is an exciting new addition.

Q: How will students benefit?
Using the Student Gardens, our paid student interns learn hands-on skills and practices relevant to irrigated agriculture in the Southwest. In addition, students in our classes benefit directly because they now have exposure to the ?real thing.? Organic production is the fastest growing sector of New Mexico?s agricultural production and our students now have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of what organic is, including how it compares to other systems, and this makes our students more knowledgeable and marketable. The Student Gardens not only give our students exposure to the theory, but also the practice of organic agriculture.

Q: In brief, what was the process to become organic certified?
A: First, we familiarized ourselves with the general guidelines and principles of organic agriculture. Second, we set about producing our first crops, following and understanding the nuances of the rules and asking a lot of questions to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture Organic Program. Lastly, near the end of the three-year transition period, we filled out our application and submitted it to the NMDA. They sent out an inspector who then reported back to the certifiers. After some follow up questions, we were granted certification status in the fall of 2014.

Q: What have been the three most important lessons you learned from the process?
A: I learned three very important lessons. One, organic certification, unlike most other labeling you see in the market place such as sustainably raised, natural or green, is a multi-tiered externally audited process that really has ?teeth.? In other words, when you buy a product from a company or individual that has gone through the process, you know that they are following the national rules. That is something you can feel good about. Two: it is not as much paperwork (17 page application), expense ($250 first time application fee), or time as I thought. Three: You will learn far more about your operation, garden or farm than you every thought by going through the process. You might ask yourself, ?Why is that substance restricted in organic agriculture?? And find out that a product you thought was ?natural? or benign is far from it. Without exaggeration, I learn something new about the process every day, and that gives me a deeper appreciation for that label you see at the grocery store.

Q: What do you have to do to maintain USDA organic status?
A: We will have to submit another application next year with any updates or changes to our cropping system plan. We will have to continue to keep records, ask questions and make sure we stay in compliance. We will also work on improving our records even further.

Q: What were the biggest challenges?
A: Teaching ourselves to keep careful records. Our records are far more complete now than they ever would have been without going through the process. So, in the end, we are better off as an operation since we are now in the habit of keeping complete records.

Q: What will be the future benefits for research?
A: Since we are now certified, we qualify for more funding programs which can in turn benefit our local growers.

Q: What advice would you give growers who are trying to become certified organic?
A: It is a process that is not meant to be intimidating. In fact, we have found it to be empowering and beneficial to the work we do. With that said, my advice would be: Don?t let the rumors of excessive paperwork or expense deter you from learning more.

Professors are looking for farmers and ranchers in Southern New Mexico who would like to learn more about the organic transition and certification process. For more information about the organic certification process contact me Mark Uchanski at uchanski@nmsu.edu.