Q&A with Jim Riddle, OEFFA Conference Keynote Speaker

For more than 30 years, Jim Riddle has been an organic farmer, inspector, educator, policy analyst, and activist.  

From 2001 to 2006, Riddle served on the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board, chairing the board from 2004 to 2005. In the years since, he has remained engaged on organic issues, calling for attention to process, transparency, and integrity.

He is founding chair of the thriving Winona Farmers’ Market and the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA), and has served on the leadership team for eOrganic and on the boards of the International Organic Accreditation Service, Beyond Pesticides, and the Organic Processing Institute.

He served on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Organic Advisory Task Force from 1991 to 2009, and was instrumental in passing Minnesota’s landmark organic certification cost-share program in 1998 and a national organic certification cost-share program in 2002. From 2006 to 2013, he worked for the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center as Organic Outreach Coordinator.

Today, Riddle and his wife own and operate Blue Fruit Farm, a five acre fruit farm in southeastern Minnesota growing certified organic blueberries, elderberries, aronia berries, black currants, blue plums, honey berries, and juneberries. He also coordinates the organic research grant program for graduate students at the Ceres Trust.


In his February 10, 2017 keynote address at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) Conference, “Transform Organic Today, Grow with Integrity Tomorrow,” Riddle will explore the environmental and health problems associated with our current food system, the need for farmers and citizens to engage in organic policy issues, and solutions for change.

Below, we ask Jim some questions about his background, the upcoming conference and some of the most pressing issues in sustainable agriculture today. Enjoy!

Q: Jim, what is it that started this journey for you toward organic farming and standards? Do you have a background in farming?

JR: I was raised on a small farm in central Iowa, where we milked cows and sold sweet corn. My mother always had a big garden, and I learned early about the value of compost, earthworms and mulch. We also subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine. Way before I was born, my mom worked as personal secretary for Mrs. Henry A. Wallace, and lived with the family in DC when Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President. So I was raised with organic farming and gardening, as well as an awareness of the importance of conservation and public policy.

After graduating from Grinnell College with degrees in biology and political science, I taught high school biology, worked in the Iowa Legislature, and at a sawmill. I got back into farming when I moved to southeast Minnesota and began raising and selling organic produce. My wife and I helped start the Winona Farmers Market in the mid-1980’s. We growers set our own rules, requiring that all products must be grown or processed by the seller and come from within a 50-mile radius of Winona, long before the “local food” movement. Our own operation was certified organic, and I was invited to attend an organic inspector training class, which changed my life trajectory.

I started doing organic inspections in the late ‘80s, and was soon asked to help train other inspectors. This lead to formation of the International Organic Inspectors Association, where I was founding president. I helped train inspectors all over the world, and became quite involved in organic policy work, including US and international organic regulations. The national organic certification cost share program began with an idea I took to the Minnesota Legislature in 1998, and then to the US Senate as part of the 2002 Farm Bill.

Q: What do you hope to share or discuss at this year's OEFFA Conference? 

JR: I love this year’s theme – “Growing Today, Transforming Tomorrow.” I hope to share my love of growing things, with folks who share my passion. I also intend to discuss the need for transforming our food and farming systems to build and protect healthy ecosystems using organic methods. We need a bold agenda to reverse climate change; protect biodiversity and soil and water quality; and provide humans with healthy diets that sustain mental and physical health. I will challenge attendees to find solutions in our daily lives, such as planting pollinator habitat, using renewable energy, eating locally grown organic foods, or taking more walks, that transform today, so that we can grow tomorrow. Be the change we want to see.

I will also give a workshop on growing perennial fruits, including black currants, aronia berries, elderberries and honeyberries. I will introduce people to these highly nutritious and flavorful crops that can be successfully grown in the Midwest, and the need to incorporate more perennials on our farms and in our gardens.

Q: What do you think are some of our most pressing issues in organic farming, and how can we become more aware or involved in them?

JR: There are multiple environmental and human health benefits directly related to the adoption of organic practices. We have a huge problem, in that so much land is still being managed with toxic pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically engineered crops. Land, water and food continue to be poisoned, while the soil erodes and we experience frequent extreme weather events. We need more organic production and consumption, and we need it now! Denmark has committed to go 100% organic – we need the same level of commitment from leaders and policy-makers in the US, along with strategies to support new and transitioning farmers, while building markets and protecting the existing organic producers who have built this movement.

We can’t take “organic” for granted. We need young people to get involved in organic policy work. We need strong voices to represent organic farmers at the local, state, regional, and national levels. We need to continue to work hard to protect organic integrity from the numerous pressures that seek to weaken regulations and enforcement. Oversight must be strengthened to make sure that imported organic products must meet US organic standards. Buyers at all levels, from everyday consumers to companies and institutions, must invest in relationship marketing to make sure that organic farmers sustain their farms. Without organic farms, there is no organic food!

We all need to step up and engage. Organic is the future, but only if we make it a reality. Some concrete steps we can take to attain that vision include organizing and supporting farmers markets; forming farm and food coops; establishing and participating in local and state food policy councils; conducting organic research; forming alliances between non-profits and state and federal agencies to expand organic production and consumption; building a national organic farmers’ organization. And eating more organic food!

Q: What are your recommendations for farmers seeking organic certification? What is the value in that certification? 

JR: Go for it! If you are a conventional producer who is entering the organic sector for the first time, I recommend going slow, starting with the fields with good fertility and minimal weeds. Attend field days and conferences, and talk with successful organic farmers who raise similar crops or livestock. Find out what works, and what doesn’t work. Spend time investigating and/or developing markets for your products. Get the best equipment you can afford, and be timely in your planting, cultivating, and other management activities. Use cover crops and soil-building crop rotations, from the get-go. Utilize NRCS programs to help establish crop rotations, cover crop systems, and pollinator plantings. Establish good relations with your neighbors and enlist them to help protect your organic acres from chemical and/or genetic trespass. Check out online resources available from ATTRA, eOrganic, and OEFFA.

I encourage new applicants to get familiar with the concept of organic system plans (OSP) early on. Download, study and complete an OSP while still in transition. Establish records of input purchases and applications; crop rotations and field activities; seeds planted; and harvest, storage and sales. Build a relationship with your chosen certification agency long before you submit your plan and want to get certified.

If you plan to sell all of your crops directly to customers who know your practices, then you may not need certification, especially if you sell less than $5000/year of organic products. If you plan to sell more than $5000/year, or if you want to sell organic products to processors, distributors, or retailers, than certification is needed in order to use the word “organic” on your products.

Being certified organic opens market doors. Certified organic products have “legs” in the marketplace. You don’t have to explain your practices, since you are following internationally recognized organic requirements. You can generally sell your products at a higher price, depending on quality, demand, and competition.

Getting certified has deeper benefits, beyond the marketplace. Completing an OSP and keeping the required records causes the farm family to assess their operation, and understand both their crop history and how today’s choices impact future crops. Good records help producers understand (and remember) what worked and what didn’t. Good records also help improve an operation’s efficiency and profitability by establishing a certain discipline, which helps with planning and internal, on-farm communication, keeping everyone on the same page. Good records don’t just make sense – they pay! Plus, once certified, your operation will qualify for a 75% rebate on certification costs, up to $750/certified operation/year.

Q: What do you see on the horizon for organic farming trends, policy or implementation?

JR: The markets for organic products of all kinds continue to grow, outpacing other food and farming sectors. I see that trend continuing, as people learn more about the hazards of industrial food and farming systems, and the environmental and health benefits of organic production.

Rapid expansion of the organic market has led to some ongoing challenges, however. One result of the US not having a clear policy goal of dramatically increasing and supporting domestic organic production is that buyers have turned to cheaper foreign suppliers, and it will be hard to reverse that trend. Domestic organic production is not keeping pace, and we are importing more and more organic products. This includes organic feed grains such as corn and soybeans, which clearly can be grown in the United States. From both policy and business perspectives, we must invest more to build the domestic organic sector.

During the last 10 years, we have seen a significant increase in organic research and organic seed breeding and production. These advances will only continue if we demand that federal and state governments and universities devote research dollars to improve organic farming methods. Research is needed to better understand linkages between organic foods and human health; establish relationships between organic practices and water quality, soil health, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity enhancement; and examine how organic farms can use more renewable energy and become more energy efficient.

Q: Finally, what are you looking forward to at this year's OEFFA Conference? Is there anything you hope to take away?

JR: I have always wanted to attend the OEFFA Conference! I look forward to helping move organic forward in Ohio and beyond, and to meeting new people and making new friends. I hope I can share some inspiration and affirmation, and people can walk away with at least one new idea for how they can help transform tomorrow, starting today. I also hope to learn some new tricks to better manage raccoons and plum curculios on my own farm!

To learn more about the OEFFA Conference and purchase tickets, visit www.oeffa.org/conference2017

Here's what we love most about the OEFFA Conference, as printed in the winter issue.