Small organic farmers will bear brunt of Washington fee hikes

Washington organic farmers and ranchers with modest sales likely will pay higher fees to have their products certified by the state Department of Agriculture beginning early next year.

The department says it spends more money evaluating organic producers than the current fees raise. The department proposes to close the gap with a rate structure that moves away from basing fees on gross sales.

Instead farms would pay the same first-time application and inspection fees, regardless of size. Large producers would still pay more because an annual fee to renew certification would be based on revenue.

But while most larger producers would see modest increases in fees, many small producers would pay nearly double,

The department said it evaluated 176 farms in 2017 with less than $15,000 in income from organic sales. In most cases, the farms paid the minimum fee of $220 for certification. Such farms will now pay a $375 inspection fee, plus a $137 renewal fee. The fee for first-time applicants for all farms would be $375. The application fee is now $250.

The department’s organic program supervisor, Brenda Book, said the new schedule will better reflect the time the agency spends certifying farms and processors.

“A small operation can be quite complicated and take a long time,” she said. “The reality is we don’t have a shorter or more abbreviated inspection we can do.”

The agriculture department certifies more than 1,100 organic producers in Washington. The voluntary program allows producers to market their products as certified organic.

The department hasn’t made a major restructuring of fees in more than 30 years. Along with new fees, the department proposes to adopt a new logo to affix to organic products. The department plans to replace the current logo that depicts George Washington with a design that features leaves.

Designing a schedule that bills each producer for the department’s exact costs would have been too complicated, Book said. “We want to focus on organic certification, not an administrative evaluation of fees,” she said.

The department checked 1,123 organic producers in 2017, according to an agency filing. Producers paid an average of $2,295 in fees, bringing into the department nearly $2.6 million. If the proposed fees had been in place, producers would have paid an average of $2,853, which totals $3.2 million.

The department will have two public hearings on the rates: 10 a.m. Nov. 28 in Olympia at the Natural Resources Building, conference room 259; 1111 Washington St. SE; and 1 p.m. Nov. 30 in Yakima at the department’s office, 21 North First Avenue.

Written Comments on the proposal are due by Nov. 30. To comment by mail, write to Henri Gonzales, Agency Rules Coordinator, P.O. Box 42560, Olympia, WA 98504-2560. Send email comments to wsdarulescomments@agr.wa.gov.

The department tentatively plans to have the new fees in place by Jan. 14.