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Minnesota farmer talks process of going organic; rebates for certification available through MDA

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DETROIT LAKES, Minn.—People are beginning to ask more and more questions about their food: How was it made or grown? Where did it come from? Is it organic? The push to support local farmers by buying local is growing, and the question of whether it's worth it to certify organic is on farmer's minds.

Organic certification can be a costly process, but the owner of Lida Farms just outside of Pelican Rapids says it can be "a complicated little beast" as well, requiring neat record-keeping and other changes some farmers may just not be ready for.

"I grew here (at Lida Farm) nine years before I could certify," said Ryan Pesch.

"If you're a straight-up beginning grower, you're not at a place to jump into certification ... there's too many other moving parts at the beginning of operation."

While the Minnesota Department of Agriculture offers a rebate on organic-certification costs, the cost isn't the only thing getting in the way for farmers — it's extra time and effort.

"I spend, you know, maybe 60 hours a year — that's a good week and a half of work — keeping the records necessary to prove that we're organic," he said. "I think for some people it just seems like a massive headache."

Pesch says another obstacle is that, often times, growers who look at going organic have to change the way they're producing, using different soil inputs that they may not be familiar with, which can turn the process into "a big research project."

For veggie growers, the incentive just isn't always there. Pesch says he'd guess that there's probably only a dozen organically certified veggie growers in northern Minnesota. They don't necessarily need the certification when they're selling directly to customers at a local co-op, farmer's market, or through CSA boxes.

"I connect with my customers in a very personal way because I'm hanging out at the co-op," said Pesch, adding that he didn't necessarily need to certify organic because he was able to tell customers personally how he grows his veggies. "To me, (certification) is a mission thing. Am I doing what I say I'm doing, or am I just lying to myself?"

Certification is a third-party process. An inspector from a private certification firm visits Pesch's farm once a year to make sure he's using the right inputs, managing wildlife and water properly.

"I think some of the processes in place, they push me to be a better grower," said Pesch, further explaining the motivation he had behind certifying.

For others, like small dairy farms, certification is about survival — and it's a much more difficult process.

"Certifying is the best opportunity for smaller dairies to survive," said Pesch, adding that it's a price point issue as certified organic milk sells for nearly twice the price of brands on the conventional market.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is now accepting applications for their cost-share program, which makes organic certification more affordable, now until Oct. 31.

The program, which has been around for some time, allows farmers and processors to apply for a rebate of up to 75 percent of the cost of their organic certification, which can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars annually.

Whether certified or not, Pesch sees local growers benefiting greatly from recent pushes to buy local. He says 24 percent of all the sales at MANNA Food Co-op this year — its first year of operation—came from producers within 50 miles of Detroit Lakes.

He says a community has emerged and growers are able to gather at the co-op and learn better ways to grow, even discussing the process of going organic, which he says a few have been toying with lately.

"Organic certification is still the gold standard," Pesch said.

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