cows in field

Interview with Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program

By Lisa McCrory

Added November 11, 2009. On September 17, 2009, a press release went out stating that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had hired Miles McEvoy to serve as Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP). McEvoy assumed his position on October 1st. Vilsack also announced that the NOP will become an independent program area within AMS because of the increased visibility and emphasis on organic agriculture throughout the farming community.

“Miles McEvoy has worked in the field of organic agriculture for more than two decades and has a solid understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the organic community”,
Vilsack said.

Miles has a lot of experience under his belt from leading Washington State’s Department of Agriculture’s Organic Food Program, to establishing the WSDA Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program. McEvoy was also founding Director of the Food Alliance, a program located in Oregon that blends sustainable farming practices and social welfare into an eco-label program.

McEvoy was instrumental in establishing the National Association of State Organic Programs (NASOP) and served (until recently) as its President.

In the midst of what is assuredly a very busy work schedule, Miles was kind enough to spend some time with NODPA Staff to answer some questions for NODPA and its readers. We welcome Miles in his new position and look forward to some productive years ahead.

(NN): You officially started your new position on October 1, 2009 (less than 4 weeks ago). What have you been doing during your first month as Deputy Administrator for the National Organic Program?

(MM): I have been attending lots of meetings with various AMS and USDA programs to understand the agency and the resources available to the National Organic Program. I have also been working with NOP staff so that I can understand the challenges and capacity of the program. I want to understand the current staff; their knowledge base, skills, interests, current job description, challenges, what they are doing well and what they want to continue doing. I am using that information to develop priorities, a budget and a staffing plan for the NOP. A part of understanding and developing priorities is getting together with various groups such as the Accredited Certifiers Association (ACA), the Organic Trade Association (OTA), National Organic Coalition (NOC), and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA).

I am supporting the work to finalize the pasture final rule, which we hope to have published by the end of the year, but more likely the end of January 2010. The rule is very close to going to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) right now. OMB has 45-90 days to complete their review. I have also been reviewing complaints and enforcement actions to protect organic integrity, and answering questions from the public, media, USDA offices, congress and certifiers.A report including budget, priorities, staffing plan and current issues and challenges will be presented at the NOSB meeting (November 3-5, 2009).

(NN): Can you briefly tell us about your background?

(MM): I have 20 years of experience in organic certification through my work with the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Job responsibilities included standards development, inspection, investigation, enforcement actions including civil penalties, market access to foreign countries, accreditation – NOP, ISO, IFOAM and small farm and direct marketing support and training.
I did a lot of work with the direct marketing program to support farmers markets and getting protein products (meat/dairy) into direct marketing channels. I worked with Washington State University (WSU) to train extension and other professionals about organic agriculture so that they can be of service to agricultural producers. A large part of my time was spent with tree fruit and vegetable crops, as organic dairy is relatively new in Washington State.

I earned my undergraduate degree in environmental studies at Evergreen State College, and a Masters in Entomology, (focused on insect/plant relationships) at Cornell University.

(NN): When was the WSDA Organic Food Program started? What is the spectrum of producers that WSDA

(MM): The WSDA organic program was started in 1988. Today there are about 800 certified producers. Tree fruit, vegetable crops, forages and dairy dominate the organic production and there are over 400 handlers. About 8% of the dairy farms in Washington and 15% in western Washington are certified organic now.

Washington State has a very vibrant organic food industry; local direct marketing is very strong, farmers markets are dominated by organic producers, and there are a lot of organic exports that go to Europe, Canada and Japan. The estimated value of organic food products for 2009 for Washington State alone is about 1 Billion dollars.

Note: Farm gate value of organic products is estimated at $400 million for 2009.

(NN): You were founding member for the National Association of State Organic Programs in 1998; how many state programs are members today and what is the major purpose of NASOP?

(MM): All states are members but there are about a dozen states that are very active. NASOP’s purpose is to support organic agriculture through regulation, certification, marketing assistance, research, and education. NASOP allows states to share information and resources and to formulate common policy on organic issues for national and international policy consideration.

(NN): Are you is still involved with The Food Alliance? What was the inspiration for starting this organization in 1995?

(MM): The inspiration was that there are many excellent farmers out there that care for the land and people but are not organic. The idea was to have an alternative to organic to promote good stewardship practices and also include issues of social welfare or social justice.

(NN): What are your goals for your first year as Deputy Administrator for the National Organic Program?

(MM): My Priorities are:

  • Publish Access to Pasture Final Rule
  • Develop strategic plan
  • Revise and improve NOP web pages
  • Establish a peer review process by having the NOP reviewed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • Hire qualified staff to implement work plan
  • Implement corrective actions based on the OIG audit.
  • Develop an NOP Guidance Manual and Quality Manual
  • Develop additional NOP training modules and conduct additional training in 2010 for NOP staff, ACAs and certified operations.

We will increase from 15 to 30 staff, by March 2010. Positions to create within the NOP include:

  1. Associate deputy administrator to handle volume of work/coordination of program as a whole.
  2. Quality manager to implement quality system, manual, internal audits, meet conditions for peer review, work towards ISO accreditation.
  3. Training manager to pull together training material directed towards certifiers. Training information to roll out the access to pasture final rule with background explanatory information on what this means, record keeping requirements within the final rule, and facilitating the implementation of the final rule.
  4. Writers for implementing NOSB recommendations, and writing the program manual: policies and procedures.
  5. Technical staff; people with expertise in various areas including livestock production, food technologist, cropping systems. Those people would be responsible for the technical pieces within those areas.
  6. Communication/customer service specialist who can handle the volume of phone and email traffic answering questions from simple media questions to those from producers and handlers.
  7. International manager to work with Recognition Agreements and make sure that the countries that have these agreements are implementing and staying current with equivalency requirements. Currently there are six countries that have recognition agreements with USDA NOP.
  8. Additional compliance staff.

(NN): What is the organizational structure of the NOP?

(MM): The NOP is divided into 4 parts –

  • Office of the Deputy Administrator – This office is responsible for NOP policy, budget, NOSB, quality system management, cost share program, database development, web page, relations with the organic community, media contacts and the National List petition process.
  • Accreditation and International Relations Branch – This branch is responsible for accrediting domestic and foreign organic certifying agents, equivalency agreements, coordinating with the ARC Branch on auditing certifying agents, assessing recognition agreements, State Organic Programs.
  • Compliance and Enforcement Branch – This branch is responsible for processing and investigating complaints, conducting proactive compliance activities, and enforcing the NOP.
  • Standards and Training Branch – The primary activity of this branch is rule writing. The branch is also responsible for guidance documents and training certifying agents.

(NN): What are the significant challenges you see as you enter the NOP?

(MM): 1) Limited resources – there are currently only 15 staff members, 2) Backlog of work – there are many NOSB recommendations to implement, 3) Volume of work, 4) Challenge of finding consensus within the diversity of the organic community.The increased budget will allow the NOP to hire an additional 15 staff members, and it is hoped to have all those positions filled by March 2010.

(NN): How do you plan to develop the NOP as an independent program within AMS?

(MM): Interesting question; the NOP is independent now. It reports directly to the Administrator. We need to develop a strategic plan in conjunction with the NOSB, which will happen outside of the regularly scheduled NOSB meetings. We plan to bring NOSB members together for a retreat with NOP staff to develop a strategic plan.

(NN): How many experienced rule writers will you be hiring, how soon and what plans do you have for the backlog of actions recommended by the NOSB?

(MM): We are working out the details right now. Each rule involves many steps from the proposed rule to final rule making. I will be presenting a plan to the NOSB on Tuesday (November 3rd), which splits the rule writing into various categories. Some rules have a longer rule writing process and we can only work on a couple at a time, so the NOSB will have to prioritize. For example, Practice Standards require an Advanced Notice of the Proposed Rule (ANPR), followed by a Proposed Rule and then a Final Rule. Materials take about one year from the time the NOSB makes a recommendation and Practice Standards take longer.

(NN): Are you happy with the new NOSB appointees? Do you feel that the NOSB has a balanced representation of the various industries as we move forward into 2010?

(MM): Yes, I think the new appointees will be great.

(NN): What do you see as the future practical role/work and core mission of the NOSB?

(MM): The core work is on materials. I would like to utilize the board for more decisions during interim periods between meetings. The NOSB should continue to provide recommendations on the program.

(NN): Will the NOSB meetings be rotated around the country to allow more regional representation from growers and producers?
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(MM): Yes, the next meeting will be in California and from there we will move it around the country so that people have better access to provide comments.

(NN): The basis of a farmer’s organic certification is integrity: the integrity of the farmer, inspector, and certifier. How do you respond to some producers who see that there are some certifiers who allow confinement dairy operations?

(MM): The NOP requires access to pasture and the final rule will provide consistency as to the application of that requirement.

(NN): When will the pasture rule be published? Sources say the pasture rule is in the process of review within USDA but hasn’t reached the OMB. Does the Pasture Rule contain the FOOD Farmers recommendations, which was supported by many in the organic community? And how soon after publishing the Pasture Rule will it be enforced?

(MM): The only thing that I can say is that the Pasture Rule is getting finalized. I am not allowed to discuss it beyond that. What I can tell you is that it is our number one priority and will be published within the next few months.

(NN): Will you be publishing a Proposed Rule on the Origin of Livestock by the end of the year? Is it a priority as it is critical to the future of organic dairy?

(MM): We will start to work with Origin of Livestock soon. It is the next standard that we will be working on. The process will probably be similar to the Pasture Rule; it might not take as long as the pasture rule as there has already been a lot of feedback and NOSB has worked on this on a number of different occasions but the rule making process takes a significant amount of time

(NN): Do you think it is possible to successfully enforce the organic standards without burdening the industry with more paperwork?

(MM): Paperwork is important. A well managed operation should have good records. Additional requirements to document compliance with organic standards may be needed but I hope to work with certifiers to ensure that paperwork is reasonable. What we tried to do in Washington State was to create separate forms for different types of operations (e.g we had a separate Organic System Plan for Pasture and Forage producers). Many certifiers have a similar process to provide paperwork that is relevant to the operation being certified. Records are a central component of organic certification and need to be sufficient to verify that the standards are being met. If an operation has good records, it is hoped that it would be relatively painless to comply with record keeping requirements.

(NN): We all have a stake in the success of the National Organic Program. Can you suggest how individual producers might help to keep the program running at its highest potential?

(MM): If people see things that are not in compliance with the standards, file a complaint. There is a backlog of complaints, but the NOP does respond to all complaints. Investigating complaints takes time and we have limited resources. The complaint process also takes time to ensure that it is done properly and fairly to everyone involved. Part of the lengthy process is due to the lack of clarity in the standards sometimes. In time the gray areas will be clarified and the process may not be as arduous. Keep involved; Keep informed. Provide info to the program so that we are not operating in the dark. You can contact me by email: or by phone: 202-720-3252. Finally, thanks for what you do. Organic producers are the heart and soul of the organic community and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the hard work that you do.