GAYS MILLS - A local woman took another giant step forward in her journey through organic agriculture–Harriet Behar, who lives on a farm near Rolling Ground, was recently elected by her peers to become the Chairperson of the National Organic Standards Board.
Behar has served on the 15-member NOSB for the past two years, including the last year as the board’s vice chair. The organic grower, inspector, knowledgeable expert, founding member and employee of Organic Valley was appointed to the National Organic Standard Board in 2016. However, she had actually been attending the semi-annual meetings for 20 years as an interested audience member.
The local organic grower and inspector noted that it wasn’t until she was on the board that she realized all of the writing and research board members must do. The proposals that come before one of the NOSB’s meetings may be 200 pages. However, the research and review of transcripts and public comments done by the board might range to 5,000 pages per meeting.
“It surprised me a little, but I like to be thorough,” Behar said of the NOSB workload.
To those who know Behar and her longstanding passion for organic agriculture this latest accomplishment comes as no surprise.
Organic Valley CEO George Siemon called Behar a “tireless worker” and a “dedicated public servant.”
“Harriet is a real pioneer in organics,” Siemon said. “I can’t think of anyone better to serve the public in that role.”
Cynthia Olmstead from the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative has known and worked with Harriet Behar for many years. Olmstead believes Behar’s election to chair the National Organic Standards Board is a logical outgrowth of her years of commitment to organic agriculture.
“Harriet is a real role model for people interested in organic and sustainable farming,” Olmstead said. “Not only is she doing all of this, she’s doing this outside of the work she and Aaron have on the farm. She and Aaron continue producing as an organic farm.”
Beyond her many other commitments to the NOSB, as well as various organic research and education initiatives, Behar serves on the Crawford County Land Conservation Committee and is helping the Kickapoo Exchange Food Co-op with its relocation from the floodplain.
Retired Crawford County Ag Agent Vance Haugen has worked with Behar on the land conservation committee and other projects.
“It’s definitely a positive thing for organic standards to have Harriet as their chairperson,” Haugen said. “She has a keen and sharp mind, so she should be an excellent chairperson.”
Harriet Behar has been at it for a longtime. Early on in her organic growing odyssey, she sold produce at the very first Dane County Farmers Market held on the Capitol Square in 1973.
Although Behar grew organically in 1973, there were no firm organic standards then. It was still a long way from the organic inspections that would come to add credibility to those standards after they were developed. Yes, Behar’s 45-plus year career in organic agriculture has encompassed a lot.
Behar’s enthusiasm for organic produce led her to become involved with the creation of the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool in LaFarge. When CROPP became branded as Organic Valley, Behar was in charge of marketing for the co-op.
Through it all, Behar has continued to sell at least some of her locally grown produce through Organic Valley. Behar’s produce became certified organic in 1989–the first year she sold through Organic Valley. This year will mark 30 years that she has sold produce through the LaFarge-based co-operative
Behar left her position at Organic Valley and became an organic inspector. In addition to working on her farm, she has worked as an organic inspector since 1996, when she left Organic Valley. It’s work she still does–both nationally and internationally.
In her time already spent on the National Organic Standards Board, Behar has worked with two administrations–Obama and Trump. She noted the Obama administration was more interested in bringing consistency to the organic standards and was not afraid of adopting regulations to do it. The Trump administration is much less likely to favor regulations and has been focused on enforcement to combat fraud in organic production–both domestic and foreign.
Two recent issues that have attracted attention are the imposition of standards for organic poultry to have access to the outdoors and allegedly fraudulent organic corn shipments from Turkey and soybeans from Ukraine.
Current USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue ended the Obama regulation defining the outdoor access requirement for organic poultry. The requirement was supported by many organic producers, but opposed by a few of the larger producers, according to Behar. The termination of the outdoor access regulation is now a matter of lawsuits brought by the Organic Trade Association, the Humane Society and others.
A focus on verifying the authenticity of foreign organic grain production seems to have had an effect on those willing to fraudulently claim organic status for uncertified products. Under increased scrutiny, organic corn shipments from Turkey have dropped by 90 percent, Behar noted.
On the horizon for the NOSB are reviews of several subjects, including:
• reviewing effective sanitizers that can be organically acceptable
• reviewing the acceptability of certain animal vaccines that are based on GMOs
• reviewing the acceptability of paper planting pots in commercial organic production