Interest in organic farming balloons in Idaho

Interest in organic farming is swelling in Idaho, to the point that the state Department of Agriculture is seeking to boost the number of inspectors to five from three, including one new inspector right away.

The arrival of two large manufacturers in Idaho, Amy’s Kitchen and Clif Bar, significantly increased the demand for organic products from Idaho certified organic producers, the department told legislators this week. At the same time, some of Idaho’s largest existing ag businesses, including major milk processors, asked to start the organic certification process, which takes three years.

Clif Bar hopes to open a bakery it is building in Twin Falls this spring. Amy’s Kitchen bought a former Heinz plant in Pocatello in October 2014 and reopened it that December.

National figures now show 81 percent of families report buying organic products, said state Agriculture Director Celia Gould. And dairies that are going organic need organic feed.

In the past year, Gould said 149 operations requested application information to go organic, and 47 new applications were received. More than 200 inspections were conducted.

Gould made her budget pitch Monday to lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Several lawmakers questioned her about why she is requesting state general funds for the second of the new positions, rather than relying on fees from the producers.

Gould said the state needs to get inspectors into the field before the funds to pay for them arrive from the inspected businesses.

“We don’t have much choice – we had to get going on it,” said state Ag Director Celia Gould. “It’s a big deal.”

“The training is very costly for our inspectors,” Gould said. With funds for the coming year, she said, “We’re hopeful … that we can ramp up to the point that the fees will then take over for us.”

The Department of Agriculture employs the equivalent of 201 state employees. Seasonal workers can bump that up to more than 600 during the peak of the agricultural production season.

Just 26 percent of the department’s overall budget of $30 million comes from state tax funds. Nine percent is from federal funds and 65 percent from dedicated funds largely consisting of fees on producers.

For next year, Gov. Butch Otter is recommending a 5.4 percent increase in state general funds for the department and 8.9 percent in total funds.

The Idaho Statesman contributed.