OTA's efforts on the Farm Bill pay off
By Holly Givens
OTA's hard work over the past four years on the U.S. Farm Bill paid off handsomely as the U.S. Congress passed a bill quintupling the amount of mandatory spending on organic programs, and authorized additional spending if appropriated. In its efforts, OTA created a comprehensive framework focused on four priorities based on input from members, and had success at each:
* fostering transition to organic agriculture and trade
* eliminating hurdles to organic agriculture and trade
* initiating and funding organic agriculture and economic research, and
* maintaining and enhancing current agency programs
"OTA was fortunate to have a hard-working team in D.C. working with me to help deliver this bill, including Bob Gray, Sally Donner of Olsson Frank Weeda, and attorney Richard Siegel, who drafted much of the effective language," said Caren Wilcox, OTA's former executive director. "OTA led the coalition of the organic community fighting for organic farmers, and OTA was instrumental in convening the influential panel that testified at the first organic hearing in Congressional history." She added, "After all those years of effort, including three sets of testimony before Congress, OTA and its members have much to celebrate."
Two of the biggest winners were research and the certification cost share programs. For instance, research programs garnered $78 million over the life of the bill. This will allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help prove the benefits of organic agriculture. It will provide for new research in improving conservation and environmental outcomes of organic farming and in developing new and improved seed varieties especially for organic farming. The increased spending on research will also provide farmers with more technical support for converting to organic production.
Additional authorizations for the National Organic Program (NOP) also represent a big gain. In addition to overseeing all enforcement of organic standards in the United States, NOP handles requests concerning materials, and must keep up with a growing industry and its emerging sectors. Because all food and beverage products sold as organic in the United States must meet or exceed U.S. organic regulations and many products come from outside the country, NOP must also work internationally to accredit certification organizations around the world. By 2011, funding for this program could triple, helping the program keep pace with increasing interest in organic products. By 2012, the authorized funding for this program will be $11 million. These additional funds for this program must go through the appropriations process, but the language authorizing these sums is quite clear in suggesting to the Appropriations Committee that NOP should get more funding to fulfill its mission.
"The Organic Trade Association has advocated for proper funding for the National Organic program for at least ten years. These levels of authorizations are extremely good news. Now we have to work to make sure we get the money appropriated. Having this program well-funded will ensure that NOP staff has the resources to further reassure shoppers that the organic label stands for strict standards of organic production," said Bob Gray, president of Bob Gray, LLC, OTA's long-time advocate for funding for organic programs.
Offsetting certification costs
Certification costs can discourage farmers from shifting to organic agriculture. The 2008 Farm Bill provides $22 million over five years to help cover the costs of certification for farmers and handlers. Farms can receive 75 percent of certification costs, up to $750, to help defray certification costs.
"This extremely popular program has been one of the success stories in the previous Farm Bill. OTA asked for this program to be re-funded, and I'm pleased to say that it was," said Tom Hutcheson, OTA's Regulatory & Policy Manager.
Previously, this funding was administered by the states, so new and existing organic farms interested in applying are encouraged to contact their state departments of agriculture to ask about the program.
In addition to the $22 million available nationally to producers and handlers, the Farm Bill increases funding for the Agricultural Management Assistance Program to $15 million for each of fiscal years 2008 through 2012. Ten percent of these funds ($1.5 million) is designated for certification cost share assistance for organic producers only in the following states: Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Equitable crop insurance
Organic farmers have been at a disadvantage in crop insurance programs in two ways. First, organic farmers have paid higher premiums to participate. Second, organic farmers' insurance claims have been paid out based on the value of non-organic crops, not for the higher-value organic crops.
The 2008 Farm Bill provides hope in this area. Congress mandated a review of the underwriting risk and loss history of organic farms to see if there is a variation between organic farms and non-organic farms. This is the first step toward equitable farm insurance policies for all farmers. Then, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation will review the data and work to eliminate any unfair premium surcharges that organic farmers currently pay. Furthermore, organic farmers will be given an option in their insurance policies to choose if they want to be reimbursed based on the actual wholesale or retail prices they receive.
"This is a monumental step in acknowledging organic farming," said Erin Rosas, Chief Financial Officer of Rosas Farms, an award -inning certified organic all grass-fed cattle farm in Sparr, FL. Her husband Al agreed, pointing out how crucial the Farm Bill is for new farmers. "It will be the foundation for future farming," he added.
Assistance to those switching to organic
The 2008 Farm Bill expands the purpose of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to include conservation practices related to organic production. This changes a patchwork of state level conservation policies about how organic production fits in with this program. Now, just changing to organic production is recognized nationally as being part of the effort to conserve natural resources.
"Making this important change was a real challenge, and fortunately, OTA had help from Representative Kirsten Gillibrand of New York who worked hard to ensure organic farmers had access to EQIP," said Wilcox. "Without her help, this wouldn't have happened."
"In fact, OTA had a lot of support from members of Congress. Organic farmers would not have as many provisions as they do now without Chairman Collin Peterson of the Agriculture Committee in the House, Chairman Dennis Cardoza of the Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture in the House, and Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte of the full committee. On the Senate side, Chairman Tom Harkin of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Saxby Chambliss, Ranking Member of Senate Agriculture Committee, all worked to make these organic provisions a reality," Wilcox added.
Organic data collection
So far, data collection of organic farm products has been very limited in scope. The 2008 Farm Bill provides $5 million in mandatory funding, plus up to $5 million per year in appropriations for USDA to collect and distribute price reports for organic agricultural products, to conduct surveys and publish reports relating to organic production, including consumer purchasing patterns, and to provide statistical analysis on organic agriculture products.
Having this type of data available to organic farm businesses, as it has been available to non-organic farm businesses, will enable organic farmers to make better decisions about what they grow, how much the market might need, and what price to expect to get for it.
Taken all together, the 2008 Farm Bill provisions for organic agriculture that OTA has encouraged strengthen NOP, encourage farmers to choose organic methods, and provide organic farm businesses better access to programs that will help them run their businesses more effectively.