A leader of Michigan’s largest egg producer thinks possible changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program could stymie the progress of the blossoming industry.

In April, Greg Herbruck, an executive vice president of Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch Inc., spoke to Brownfield Ag News about how the proposal would affect his business and other organic-certified poultry farmers in the country. On April 7, the USDA proposed sweeping changes to its housing and treatment requirements for all livestock included in its National Organic Program.

Herbruck said the proposal, which is open for public comment through June 13, will immediately make the nation’s 13th largest egg producer’s organic operations obsolete and could bog down the rising organic poultry industry in Michigan and beyond.

“The changes proposed are drastic,” Herbruck told Brownfield Ag News. “The proposed rule would drastically reduce our flock capacities and basically render our tens of millions of dollars of investment obsolete.”

Herbruck’s has produced organic eggs since 1998 and gained organic certification in 2007, Herbruck said, and grew its organic operation from 1,800 hens in the 1990s to about 2 million today. The operation’s organic farm was built to the previous specifications and wouldn’t be compliant with the new rules for spacing, he said.

Proposed rule would have widespread impact

The proposed rule would require organic poultry farmers to provide year-round access to an outdoor area that is at least 50 percent soil cover. Roofed areas attached to houses – known as porches or verandas – will not be considered outdoor space. Farmers would be required to provide access to “enrichment” in the outdoor areas to encourage birds to use the space.

Both inside and outside, each bird would be required to have at least 2 square feet per bird.

On an industry wide scale, Herbruck said estimates provided by the Michigan Agri-Business Association indicate the changes could affect at least 70 percent of organic poultry farmers and lead to a 50 to 85 percent reduction in national flock capacity.

“That’s our fear that this rapidly growing and successful USDA program could have the breaks slammed on it and (become) no longer viable for many of us,” Herbruck said.

Biosecurity concerns

The proposal also raises concerns about the biosecurity of organic poultry operations. Herbruck said he fears the new spacing standards will compromise bird health as well as food safety, and will not provide for adequate biosecurity measures to hold off future outbreaks of avian influenza and other diseases that could rapidly depopulate farms.

Herbruck said if his operation were forced to scale back due to the changes, it could affect Michigan’s organic farmers, too. Herbruck’s purchases 125 percent of the Great Lake State’s organic corn and soy capacity and its demand is expected to grow to 140 percent next year.

When the rule was announced, Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator for the NOP, said the proposed rule would give farmers as many as five years to comply with the updated standards. He said the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has determined the updated standard would not negatively affect biosecurity efforts. Herbruck said he’s already reached out to the USDA and voiced his concerns.

“The proposed rule is very concerning to us that it will really stymie our growth, not alone to what the current investment but also any growth potential,” Herbruck said. “When you consider we’ve had 25 percent growth the past four years … we are very concerned how we move forward.”