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Brandon Lamb

Certifying Idaho's organics

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Brandon Lamb didn't grow up with organic produce in his hometown on the coast of North Carolina.

"Really, fishing is what everybody does there," said Lamb.

But in July 2009, he and his wife and their five children left the ocean for Idaho, where he took a role in the agri-business industry at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. As the new program manager for the state's Organic Certification Program, Lamb now calls Boise home.

"It's a fact of the quality of living and health you can have just by living here--just by moving my family here, I could be a better father," he said. "And my kids could have a better life."

His office within the Department of Ag is the only accredited organic certifying agent in Idaho and is responsible for making sure organic farms and producers stay in compliance with rules issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We're accredited by the USDA and that's really my whole job, to maintain our accreditation," he said. "Everything we do, we do on behalf of the USDA national organic program."

You worked on air quality compliance at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources before moving to Idaho. How does that translate to working in the national organics industry?

It's a little bit different. It's the same in that you have a set of rules and you have to read and know those rules, and implement them and educate the public on what those rules are.

There, we were a state agency implementing Environmental Protection Agency [rules] like the Clean Air Act of 1990. Here, we're a state agency implementing USDA rules and regulations.

I really hadn't had that much experience with agriculture. That's part of what makes this job so interesting and fun I've got plenty to learn and it never gets boring.

Why organics?

Organics is something that's picking up and very current right now. My attitude was: Anything that's related to stewardship and protecting the environment, that was something I wanted to be a part of.

How large is your staff?

We've have five to six state employees that do inspections for us, and then we contract one or two private contractors to inspect for us. They're there to educate [producers] on the rules. They have an organic system plan that the producers fill out. They say what their practices and procedures are to prevent contamination and protect the integrity of the organic product.

What's the growth of Idaho's organic industry?

I think across the nation it's growing at about 8 percent, and that's consistent here in the state.

I understand Idaho exports quite a bit of organic hay and other commodities. How about consumer goods? [Idaho is the No. 1 exporter of organic barley for grain and seed, as well as organic hay in the nation. Idaho also ranks No. 5 for organic potatoes and No. 10 for organic onions.]

I would say that they're both very strong; I think they both always have been. Definitely more people are expressing interest in getting certification for producing consumer goods.

You said the European Union and the National Organic Program established an equivalency arrangement for organic products. How has that changed trade with the EU?

Before, if you were a producer, you had to get certified through the National Organic Program and get certified in whatever country you are sending it to. So you may be holding two to three certifications to export, which could be a pretty big barrier for producers.

Whereas now, as a certifier, I can fill out an import certificate to send to the EU. It's a lot easier. It's a huge thing, it's great. It makes it easier for the certifiers and makes it easier to trade for the producers. Europe has always wanted a lot of our organic grain, so that's something that's really promising.

When an organic producer or farmer is found non-compliant by your department, the USDA can level penalties [which can include fees and license revocations]. How do farmers and producers regain their organic status?

We're just the hand of them, writing letters for them, issuing the certificates for them. So if those operations are suspended, they would have to go to the USDA to request reinstatement, not to us. We wouldn't have the authority. Since they're certified by the USDA, and suspended by the USDA, only the USDA can let them in. The person that's going to make that final decision would be the director of that national organic program and not us.

How did the organic program come together?

1990 was the Organic Food Production Act, which was finally written at the federal government level. That's when the ISDA was able to take the bones of the skeleton of that and create a program. Then it took the USDA 12 years to actually write specific rules and regulations.

They finally wrote the rules and regulations, got them published and outlined accreditation. That's when states which had programs prior to 2002 were able to get accredited. USDA really took over everything, as far as this is exactly how you implement and this is exactly what organic will mean.

What do people expect organic to mean? Do they have misconceptions?

People expect us to say that it's pesticide free. That's really the one that I think people expect me to say.

What are some pesticides allowed by the USDA?

Natural pyrethrins from chrysanthemums. Vinegar that's naturally fermented, that's not fermented with genetically modified microbes or anything like that. Those do have EPA registration numbers, so technically they are pesticides.

So to say it's pesticide free, that's not necessarily true; to say it's fertilizer free, that's not necessarily true. They do allow synthetic micronutrients.

You said there are four levels of organic certification. Is it difficult to obtain the USDA Organic seal? ["Less than 70 percent organic" and "made with organic" products cannot carry a USDA seal, while "organic" and "100 percent organic" can.]

If the product contains only 94.99 certified organic ingredients, that puts them at a "made with" product and takes away the USDA seal. That's what everybody really wants.

It can be difficult for organic producers making a finished products to achieve 100 percent organic status.

If you're making beef jerky, the lubricant that you use has to be 100 percent certified organic animal fat. Even ingredients that are no longer in that product, or just had contact with the product, they also have to be 100 percent certified organic as well. That's a tough one to meet, especially for processed products.

It's your job to make sure the green organic seal means something.

Absolutely. That's exactly why we're here, is for the consumers to have confidence that when they see the seal, they know it's organic.

In your kitchen at home, would somebody find a lot of organic products or produce?

We do. I think this is the consumer trend. People source organics for the kids: the grapes, the oranges, the apples, the strawberries. And for us, we sacrifice and eat what we have to, because we think it's important for our kids to have that. For our kids, we try to buy as much organic as we can.