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WisBiz In-Depth: Midwest Organic Services Association

By Gregg Hoffmann

VIROQUA – Standards and certification have become increasingly important as the organic agriculture industry has grown.

The Midwest Organic Services Association is Wisconsin's largest organic certifying agency. Its location in the Vernon County town of Viroqua is not by coincidence.

"Vernon County has more certified organic farms than any county in the country," said Dave Engel, the executive director of MOSA. "Our organization has been around since 1999 and has seen a real growth in organic farming."

MOSA has a staff of 12, with four inspectors and eight who work out of the office in Viroqua. It primarily handles certification in the Midwest.

Certification has become key since the USDA set organic standards in 2002. Those standards have defined a specific legal definition of organic:

"Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

"Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation."

A farmer has to have not used specific chemicals on his land for three years in order to become certified. Cattle cannot have received certain chemicals for at least 12 months to qualify.

Engel said organic farming also includes certain alternative methods, such as crop rotation, soil ventilation and others to assure healthier environmental standards.

MOSA certifies organic processors as well as producers. There are almost 50 certifying agencies in the country and around 370 worldwide, according to Engel.

One of the original founders of CROPP (See previous WisBiz In Depth: CROPP's Organic Valley of La Farge), Engel said he remembers when the organic industry had no real standards.

"We were coming up with them as we developed CROPP," Engel said. "Processors often would set their own for the producers they worked with. That's not the case anymore.

"The key to the law as it is written is third party certification. Certifying agencies have to be accreditable."

There are costs involved in the certification process. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection runs a statewide organic cost share program. Any certified organic farmer or handler in the state can recover up to 75 percent of the cost of becoming certified under the federal organic guidelines, to a maximum of $500 per applicant.

Engel sees continued growth for the organic industry. "As long as everybody does their jobs well, it will continue to grow," he said. "Integrity is the key. Accreditation has to be done well. The producers and processors have to do their jobs well. Nobody can get greedy and cheat. If everybody does their jobs, it will grow."

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