The state's organic farmers are pushing a bill that would create a state certification program for organic produce, allowing them to stay in business without obtaining costly certification from the Lower 48.
Before this year, farmers could obtain organic certification from the Alaska Organic Association, which has provided inspection and certification since 1999. But a federal law enacted last fall, after the end of Alaska's growing season, requires all produce labeled "organic" to be certified under new national standards.
The organic association, a nonprofit organization, can't afford the federal accreditation necessary to continue certifying organic produce, said its president, River Bean. Alaska farmers who want to sell organic produce this year must apply for certification from Washington state, which is four times as expensive as the certification offered by Bean's group.
"Alaska-grown produce would have to be labeled 'certified in Washington state,' and that's not fair to Alaska growers," Bean said.
The House Finance Committee approved House Bill 226 on Wednesday, with a provision that the program fund itself at least partially through certification fees. The program would cost about $37,000 per year, said Barbara Bitney of Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze's staff.
Because there was no national standard for organic produce until last year, there was wide variation in what kind of fruits and vegetables were called organic. In general, organic means grown without pesticides. The Alaska Organic Association's standards were much stricter than the new federal standards, Bean said.
"We required soil testing for all crops ... and then we would do random tissue sampling, testing for chemical pick-up," he said.
The federal standards do not require soil testing for all crops.
Matanuska Valley farmer Mark Remple is seeking certification from Washington state for his 60-some varieties of vegetables and herbs.
"(The stores) can't handle my product as certified organic if I don't have certification. They've got to have paperwork," he said. "It's kind of an accountability ... there are people who are sensitive to chemicals and residues of them, and it's a life-threatening issue for some people."
Though Remple's selling season begins in mid-June, he doesn't expect to receive his certification until at least July. He said he will have to "wing it" until the Washington certification comes through.
"I may say 'certification pending' or something like that at my stand," he said.
Remple is one of three Alaska farmers paying the $1,500 to $2,000 to get certified in Washington this year. Bean said the other farmers, of which there are at least two dozen, can't afford it. Most of the state's organic farmers are in the Matanuska Valley, Bean said.