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Montana farmers adjusting to new organic guidelines

Swanky Roots 9.JPG
Posted at 4:39 PM, Feb 02, 2023

BILLINGS - At Swanky Roots west of Billings, the face of farming looks a little different — most produce farms, after all, don’t include 1,200-gallon tanks of carp.

"When we were starting and looking into organic certifications, it really came down to what is the meaning behind the label. The more we looked into it, it seemed like a lot of paperwork for something that didn’t necessarily mean best practices," said Swanky Roots owner Veronnaka Evenson.

Swanky Roots, on the surface, seems organic. It looks and feels the part but it’s technically not, because of one small detail. And as federal regulations continue to change, it might make that even harder to become organic certified in the future.

The farm isn’t growing organic food, at least not by definition, but the farmers know firsthand how new changes being rolled out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will affect organic farmers all across Montana. Starting this March, the agency will require labels to list every ingredient that qualifies as organic along with more rigorous on-site inspections of certified operations.

"It’s not an easy process. It takes time. Every time you change rules, it’s a whole other trying to relearn, or what do I have to do different?" said Evenson.

Evenson and her staff can’t label their food as organic because of the food they feed their fish. The fish food isn’t organic, and the farm uses the waste from the fish to feed their plants, making their produce ineligible for organic certification.

Evenson sells her produce to stores all across Billings but misses out on potentially organic-only customer bases because of the technicality.

"How do we define organic? Because we're still using good practices in here. We’re still using beneficial microbes, which is what you want in healthy soil. We just have different surfaces for them to live on, which is water instead of the soil," Evenson said.

But despite strict rules, organic farming is on the rise here in the Treasure State.

According to data from a 2019 study, there were 208 organic farms in Montana covering nearly 356,000 acres. It's a growing segment of the ag industry that’s closely watching these new changes from the USDA.

"We have a good product that can make our system work. So, do we need to chase that label? But if I’m going to do that, then I’m going to have to increase my prices to make up the difference," Evenson said.