Officials tout benefits of organic farming

By Kevin Wilson: PNT Managing Editor

In a small conference room at the Sunland Peanut plant in Portales on Friday, several area farmers viewed a variety of organic food items. They weren’t there to purchase them, but instead to learn how to make them and reap the rewards.

Representatives from the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission were guests at the plant, which was the scene of a six-hour seminar on how farmers could break their way into organic farming.

“I think the biggest obstacle is not having familiarity with the system,” said Joan Quinn, an educator with the commodity commission. “You have to know what to do instead of just getting out the spray.”

Organic farming refers to growing foods and fibers without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Instead of using chemicals, farmers usually have to spend more on manual labor to cultivate their land and make the microbial inhabitants in the ground work to the benefit of the crops.
The advantages for the farmer, Quinn said, are that organic foods carry a premium price and the market for organic food is growing. Quinn said the market is growing because of advantages for customers — there’s less concern about using synthetic chemicals on the environment and new research indicates organically grown foods are higher in some nutrients and antioxidants.

“It’s something you can afford to look at for sure,” said David Foote, a Tucumcari farmer who attended the seminar. Foote primarily grows alfalfa, but said he was thinking about growing corn and a few other items organically.

“I had heard there was a large paperwork requirement,” Foote said. “There is, but it’s not insurmountable. Like all paperwork, it looks a little bigger than it really is.”

Foote estimated he’d receive about a 30-percent markup for the products he’d grow organically, which he felt would more than cover for his extra expenses to make a conversion.

Foote said the money he’d save on chemicals would nearly equal what he’d spend on labor to farm organically. Also, Foote said he has a piece of land he hasn’t used due to a lack of rain for the past few years — meaning he wouldn’t have to clear out any crops he’s currently growing conventionally.

Farmers like Foote got an introduction to the process at the seminar. A 500-page manual given to each attendee highlighted

• How to access organic standards,

• How to apply for certification through nearly 100 agencies accredited through the United States Department of Agriculture,

• Steps to take during the inspection and certification processes, along with required upkeep, and

• Directories of organic producers.

Several topics were covered outside of the manuals as well, including concerns on foreign competitors. Jimmie Shearer, the president of Sunland, said other countries were importing peanuts similar to the Valencia peanut, which is grown almost exclusively in the Portales area. He was in favor of distinct labeling practices for imported foods, believing that consumers are willing to pay a little more if the product is local.

“We’re stressing a gourmet peanut,” Shearer said. “That’s the only way I can pay a premium to a grower and compete (with other plants).”

According to Sunland’s Web site ( 90 percent of the country’s Valencia peanuts are grown within 120 miles of the Portales plant.