Chris Schreiner leads organic certification nonprofit

When Chris Schreiner was first hired at Oregon Tilth in 1998, the organic food sector had only just begun its meteoric rise, with sales pegged around $3.4 billion nationwide.

Twenty years later, organic sales have grown nearly 15 times over, to $45 billion in 2017.

Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit organization that certifies organic farms and businesses in 49 states, continues to grow along with the market, with Schreiner as executive director.

“Today, you can find organic produce and organic products on the shelves of pretty much all the major supermarkets and big box stores,” Schreiner said. “It’s shifted from kind of a niche market more to the mainstream.”

A pioneer

Founded in 1974, Oregon Tilth was a pioneer in creating the standards and regulatory framework now used by the USDA National Organic Program to certify organic farms. The organization worked closely with Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who introduced the Organic Foods Production Act as an amendment to the 1990 Farm Bill. It led to implementing the National Organic Program in 2002.

The USDA accredits organizations like Oregon Tilth to certify organic operations under a single set of criteria. Prior to the federal law, Schreiner said the definition of “organic” was based on a patchwork of state rules without any real regulatory enforcement.

“Part of the impetus for creating the national organic standard was to facilitate trade across states and have a common definition,” Schreiner said. “That was kind of a limiting factor.”

Schreiner joined Oregon Tilth as the farm program coordinator, managing the certification process for farms, ranches, wholesalers and food processors. He also spent time as quality control director before being promoted to executive director in 2009.

Oregon Tilth is headquartered in Corvallis, Ore., though the organization serves more than 2,000 clients in every state except Rhode Island. Schreiner said that when he started, they had seven full-time staff and an annual budget of $700,000. Now they have 70 full-time employees working around the country, and a budget of $7.8 million.

“There’s been tremendous growth,” Schreiner said, pointing to the increasing consumer interest in knowing where their food comes from.

‘Ag in my blood’

Schreiner grew up working summers at his family’s 200-acre nursery, Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, north of Salem. Even after earning his bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Oregon, Schreiner gravitated back to agriculture, working at Sweetwater Nursery, an organic vegetable farm south of Eugene.

“I just think agriculture is in my blood,” he said.

Schreiner spent one year overseas in Belgium before returning to Oregon, beginning his career at Oregon Tilth. Organic agriculture is appealing, Schreiner said, because it focuses on protecting natural resources.

Changing discussion

At the same time, however, Schreiner said he is wary of talking down to conventional farmers. So much of the discussion about organic farming, Schreiner said, seems to dwell on what is not allowed — no chemicals, no hormones, no antibiotics — instead of highlighting benefits such as improving health, biodiversity and nutrient cycling.

“I really wanted to change the conversation and have it be more inclusive,” Schreiner said.

One way Oregon Tilth is reaching out to non-organic farmers is by establishing partnerships with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Oregon State University Extension Service, which Schreiner said can provide additional on-the-ground support.

Transitioning to organic is no easy feat. Growers must demonstrate organic practices on the land or in their animals for at least three years. The financial strain is only getting tougher for small and mid-size growers, as more larger farms certify organic acres, which in turn has started to push down the value of some price premiums.

“For the longest time, organic agriculture was kind of this refuge for the small and midscale operations to remain economically viable,” Schreiner said. “As the marketplace has grown and these bigger players are coming in, that’s creating price pressure.”

Despite the challenges, Schreiner said organic agriculture continues to see steady growth in sales, including a rate of 6.4 percent in 2017.

“I still think there’s a lot of opportunity for organic agriculture, and farmers who are interested in organic agriculture,” he said.