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Harold Austin

Harold Austin

In April, the National Organic Standards Board will decide whether organic apple and pear growers in the United States will be allowed to use the antibiotic oxytetracycline beyond the next two seasons. Tetracycline antibiotics are produced synthetically, but have an organic exemption that will expire in October 2014, unless the NOSB decides otherwise.

The Washington State Horticultural Association, ­California Pear ­Advisory Board, and U.S. Apple Association have petitioned the NOSB to reinstate it to the approved organic list.

The board is a federal advisory committee that is responsible for recommending to the National Organic Program whether a substance should be allowed or ­prohibited in organic production.

Harold Austin, director of orchard administration with Zirkle Fruit Company in Selah, Washington, holds a handler position on the board and has just completed the first year of his five-year term. He is the first member from central Washington since the board was founded in 1992.

Austin worked as an integrated pest management consultant in Washington orchards  for many years before joining Zirkle Fruit Company 17 years ago. He oversees production and compliance programs for the company’s 2,000 acres of certified organic apples, cherries, blueberries, and pears. He serves on the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Organic Advisory Board, as well as the Northwest Horticultural Council’s Science Advisory Committee.


Each spring, or when a position becomes vacant, the National Organic Program invites nominations to the NOSB. Applicants can nominate themselves or be recommended by other people or organizations. Successful candidates are recommended by the National Organic Program for appointment by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Austin said that a number of people in the industry, who knew of his involvement in the organic sector, urged him to apply for a position on the NOSB, so that the Washington tree fruit industry could be ­represented.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of growth in the past few years, and we, as an industry, have felt that the Northwest has not been very well represented—not just on the tetracycline issue, but in general,” he said. “We felt that, industrywide, we needed to have better involvement in the process.”

That involvement, Austin has found, means spending 20 to 25 hours per week on board business—much of that time devoted to research and reading huge volumes of material in preparation for meetings and discussions.

The work requires a good understanding of the Organic Food Production Act and the National Organic Program regulations, he said.

In his first few months on the board, Austin read through thousands of pages.

“It’s nothing to get a petition submitted that might have 800 pages,” he said. “And we really do read it.”

The board has six committees: Crops; Livestock; ­Handling; Materials; Compliance, Accreditation, and Certification; and Policy Development. Each board member serves on from two and four of the committees, which develop proposals and discussion documents for the full board to consider at its twice-yearly meeting. The full meetings are held at different locations around the country. He hopes that tree fruit growers in the Pacific Northwest will attend the NOSB’s next meeting, which will be held in Portland, Oregon, April 8 to 11, so they can explain the importance of being able to use oxytetracycline to control fireblight.


Austin urges producers to monitor the National Organic Program’s Web site to make sure they are aware of the NOSB’s proposals and upcoming reviews so they have a chance to be involved.

The National Organic Program publishes committee proposals before the NOSB’s full meetings in order to allow public comment. Proposals that will be considered at the April meeting were due to be submitted to the National Organic Program by February 12. The NOP will post them around February 19 for a 30-day comment period. Comments can be viewed online, and growers can sign up to testify during the meeting.

The comment period is the most challenging time for board members, Austin said, as they read all the comments, of which there can be thousands. He begins as soon as the comment period opens so he can do a thorough job of reading and understanding them and be ­better prepared for the board’s meetings.

“While I’m on this board, I see a lot of advocacy groups, consumer groups, and farming groups that are really engaged,” he said. “There’s a lot of public comment and a lot of oral testimony that takes place.”

Although Austin was appointed to represent organic handlers and works hard to do that, he tries to be unbiased as he considers the materials that come before the board. There are many factors to analyze and different sides of the issue to sort through, he said.

“I have to be open-minded as I look at each issue that comes before us. You can’t come at it from a grower/packer/shipper perspective. You’ve got to come at it from the perspective that you’re ­someone who’s there to represent the entire organic industry.

“It’s an awesome group of individuals,” he added. “We represent a wide array of stakeholders in the organic industry, from the consumers to everyone else.”

Some represent their stakeholders a little more aggressively than others, he said. “And I have to respect that at times that’s what they have to do. I think everybody has a certain degree of openness, but I think there are going to be times when they’re going to take positions that they feel very passionate about because of the stakeholder group they represent.”

Austin believes that part of his role is to help educate those on the board who might not understand the practices that farmers and packers use, recognizing that practices and growing conditions are not the same in the various growing regions of the country.

Given the composition and configuration of the NOSB board, the chances of oxytetracycline being relisted are probably slim, Austin told growers at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting last December.

“I don’t want to say it won’t happen,” he said, “But I want to make it realistic. It will be open for public discussion. There’s a possibility that we could seek an extension of the expiration date, and that’s probably going to be the more realistic avenue to pursue, but it’s yet to be determined.”

It’s important that growers provide comments or, ­better yet, oral testimony before the decision is made, he said.

“I think if it’s important enough for you to come and make a presentation to us, it adds credence. It shows that the material is important to you as an individual and to the industry.”

Mating disruption

Austin said other issues with the potential to impact orchardists will be on the NOSB’s agenda in the future. For example, it is working on a process to consider whether the inert ingredients in mating disruption dispensers should continue to be approved for use in organic production.

“That will impact how you do business today, tomorrow, and in the future,” he said. “You need to be engaged. If the board doesn’t hear from the growers and know how important or not important the issue is to the stakeholders, we have to listen to the other voices that are making the comments and are testifying to us.

“Whether it’s tetracycline, or streptomycin, or inert ingredients, whether it’s handlers or growers, they really need as organic stakeholders to become involved in the process if they want the process and the rules to work on their behalf.”