One of New Hampshire’s iconic rural features is its local agriculture. Though its farms may not yet enjoy the strong branding their Vermont counterparts do, anyone asked to picture agriculture in the Granite State will likely conjure up images of wooden-rail fences, red barns, feed silos and livestock herds nestled in stunningly picturesque rural settings. In addition to adding significant character, sense of community and tourism appeal, the farms and other agricultural producers, as we’ve seen in the Monadnock Region, have helped fuel an increasingly vibrant locavore movement that’s a benefit to local economies throughout the state.

Sustaining local agriculture here is a challenge, though, because farms and producers tend to lack scale and are often at a competitive disadvantage against the Big Ag players which so dominate the nation’s food production. One important leg up for New Hampshire’s farmers has come from the growing demand for organically raised, grown or produced food. It has led to a premium market that benefits the state’s farms and food producers as consumers have shown willingness to pay more for organic products.

The state government has played a role in helping meet that demand by conducting a program for the state’s producers to achieve certification meeting U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for their organic products, enabling them to label their products as USDA-certified. For many, obtaining certification is critically important not only in marketing directly to consumers, but also as food makes its way through the processing and supply chain. For example, unless certified organic, a dairy farm will be unable to sell its milk to yogurt producers selling to the organic market. The certification also aids consumers, who want to know the product they’re paying a premium for meets the stiffer standards to be considered organically grown, processed or produced on its way to market.

It’s concerning, then, that the state’s Department of Agriculture recently notified the 17 organic livestock farms, and 27 processors and handlers of such products as coffee and bread, that it was ending its organic certification program for them. Commissioner Shawn Jasper blamed the move on both a funding and a staffing shortage. The department will, however, continue its certification program for the remaining farms it’s been servicing, including fruit and vegetable operations.

The livestock farms and other producers being dropped from the state’s organic certification program now must find another certifier elsewhere if they want to continue marketing their products as certified organic. Though those private agents are out-of-state, the principal concern is the fees they’ll pay to obtain certification elsewhere will increase sharply. For instance, Jasper told the Valley News that a farm that paid $800 for its organic certification from New Hampshire would pay a private certifier more than $3,000. While he said a larger operation might be able to absorb the increase, for smaller operations “that could be a real issue.”

Japer made it clear the department is cutting back the certification program reluctantly. USDA requirements for organic certification, already complex, have been getting stricter and, with a nationwide shortage of trained organic certifiers, the state has been undercharging for the service and lacks staff to keep up. A greater investment from the state is required, and Jasper is hoping for more funding from the Legislature.

That won’t help the organic livestock farmers, processors and handlers who must now, at an increased cost, find an alternative certifier by Dec. 30 or surrender their organic certification. In one sense, having to pay a more realistic certification fee is nothing more than a cost of doing business. But many New Hampshire’s farms already operate at a competitive disadvantage with thin — if not disappearing — margins, and it’s important for the state to help them keep whatever edge they might have.

Selling certified organic products is one of them. While, as Jasper says, for some larger operations the increased fee of a private certifier is “not the end of the world,” the state should find a way to provide transitional assistance to the those who might struggle to bear the abrupt increase and whose loss would be a blow to the New Hampshire agricultural landscape.

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