COLUMBUS, Ohio — Driven by an opportunity to create a leadership position for Ohio growers on food safety issues, the Ohio Produce Marketing Agreement is moving closer to reality.
“I think the big issue in the produce industry is food safety,” Michael Geary, executive director of the Columbus-based Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association.
Geary said concerns about safety led to the start of an effort two years ago to create a voluntary marketing agreement for Ohio growers.
Information about the marketing agreement can be found online at http://opma.us/.
The goal of the marketing agreement is to certify the food safety and handling practices of growers in the state, he said.
Currently, the OPGMA is managing the marketing agreement using funds from grants from the USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to help organize the agreement.
“This summer, we will be testing the standards with a few farms,” he said, calling the agreement’s 2011 status as a “beta” test.
Eventually, fruit and vegetable growers in Ohio will decide by ballot from the Department of Agriculture whether to proceed with the agreement. If the vote is favorable, Geary said the Ohio Department of Agriculture will certify the agreement and codify it into law.
“It will never be required by law for a farmer to participate, but it will have the credibility and backing of the Ohio Department of Agriculture” he said. Geary said OPMA is in the processing of becoming an independent organization, in the process now of forming its own board of directors, governing body and committees.
“We building the capacity of the OPMA so I think that within the next year or so, OPMA will be fully independent,” he said. The agreement, if implemented, will provide producers with the opportunity to affirm to their customers that they conform with good agricultural and good handling practices.
“This will create the opportunity for farmers in Ohio to rise above others,” Geary said.
The Ohio Produce Marketing Agreement is organized based on a set of standards — three tiers — based on the size of the farm, or more accurately, where growers market their produce. Selling at a farmers market requires a different standard than a large commercial shipper, he said.
“It is a whole scheme based on size and scope of your operations,” he said. Geary said the agreement will take into account unique, non-mechanized farming practices employed by the Amish in Ohio. “We think a state-based program is best,” he said. The marketing agreement will generate audits on growing and handling practices of produce operations.
USDA’s consideration of a National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement doesn’t alter anything about the future of Ohio Produce Marketing Agreement, he said.
“We’re still moving forward with OPMA and it will happen regardless,” Geary said.
He noted both the national leafy greens program and the Ohio marketing agreement will be voluntary and neither will supersede the other. “Farmers can decide to do both or either one,” he said.
Loren Buurma, co-owner of Willard-based Buurma Farms Inc., serves on the board of the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association. He said Ohio is not the only state interested in the state-led approach.
A number of states have expressed interest in joining Ohio in the marketing agreement.
“It promotes the safety that is necessary,” he said. A national agreement may impose a 200 foot buffer around the field when that would not be appropriate for some states.
“Rules can’t be based on the scale of farming in one area of the country,” he said.