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Longtime Leaders Join Team Organic at USDA

American consumers are more focused now than ever before on the healthfulness and environmental impact of their purchases. As the historic leader in health and environmental sustainability, the organic industry has a unique opportunity to fundamentally shift the food and farm landscape. To transform opportunity into reality, the industry will need support from our partners on Capitol Hill, especially the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Organic Trade Association (OTA) recently spoke to two long-time leaders in organic—who now serve in key positions at USDA—about their vision for the future of the industry: Jenny Lester Moffitt, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, and Marni Karlin, Senior Advisor, Organic and Emerging Markets.


Jenny Lester Moffitt grew up in California on her family’s walnut farm, which transitioned to organic in 1989 and became certified in 1992. At the time, the organic industry was still incredibly small—there were few other organic farmers from whom to learn and no processors for organic nuts in the area. Jenny spent her youth helping the family navigate partnerships with other local farms, Resource Conservation Districts, Cooperative Extension, and USDA agencies. She even spent some of her school breaks at the helm of the family fax machine, reaching out to USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service to find lists of potential buyers and shipping out samples across the globe. Having gained such deep experience at such a young age, it’s no wonder that Jenny went on to run the family farm, high-level positions with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), and eventually landed at USDA.

“For me, a big takeaway from that life was understanding there’s not one silver bullet,” says Moffitt. “We really have to take a whole systems approach; we need to look at how everything ties together. That connectivity, I take it into all the work that I do, including policy making.”

Jenny started with CDFA in 2015 and served as Under Secretary from 2018–2021. While there, she spearheaded the development of California’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs, which include water, land conservation, and soil initiatives. Together, these programs provide resources for California’s farmers, ranchers, and tribes to enhance the sustainability of their operations, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and store carbon in soils and trees.

“When I came in [to CDFA], we’d just announced the healthy soils initiative and grew it into something really incredible,” says Jenny. “We went from not even talking about ‘climate smart’ to investing over one billion dollars in climate smart agriculture across the state over the course of my tenure.”

In 2021, Jenny was confirmed as Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the United States Department of Agriculture, the first woman to serve in the position. Jenny describes three key items on her agenda as Under Secretary:

  • Enhancing local and regional supply chains by expanding local processing capacity and creating open and transparent markets for greater fairness.
  • Ensuring fairness and equity by ensuring that producers to have access to USDA and that consumers can make educated buying decisions.
  • Continuing to elevate and integrate organic into more areas of USDA because of all the great work being done by organic producers.

Marni Karlin is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, whose head for law and the regulatory world is balanced by a heart and soul that relish good food and cooking. Marni graduated from The George Washington University with a degree in International Economics, received her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, and holds a Culinary Arts diploma from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France. She has traveled the nation and the world gaining years of experience in law, policy, and organic food systems.

Marni’s experience in the organic sector runs deep. She previously served as OTA’s Vice President of Government Affairs and General Counsel, where she represented the interests of the organic food, fiber, and agriculture sector in Washington, D.C. She has also done significant consulting work with stakeholders across the organic supply chain, and served as the North American representative on the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard. In the emerging markets space, Marni was the founding Executive Director of the CEA Food Safety Coalition, a trade association of controlled environment grown leafy greens sector stakeholders.

In 2021, Marni joined USDA as Senior Advisor, Organic and Emerging Markets, where she supports the Secretary by directly relaying trends, needs, and opportunities in the sector.

“I work in partnership throughout the Department, making sure my colleagues have a good understanding of organic issues and industry stakeholders,” says Marni. “I really view my ability to do my job well as dependent on my ability to engage with stakeholders and talk with farmers and those along the supply chain. What we’re doing at USDA needs to reflect the realities that folks are living on the ground.”


U.S. organic sales soared to a new high in 2020, jumping by over 12% to a record-setting $61.9 billion in annual sales according to OTA’s 2021 Organic Industry Survey. Growth continued in 2021, with organic food capturing nearly 6% of total U.S. food sales and non-food organic sales jumping by roughly 9% to $5.4 billion in annual sales.

As the coronavirus pandemic continued into 2021, the organic industry witnessed a notable rise in consumers who wanted to prepare healthy meals at home—including an increased interest in trying new foods or methods of cooking, such as bread baking. Selection of organic grocery staples, both fresh and prepared products, sharply rose as personal and environmental health moved to the forefront of consumers’ minds. While pantry stocking was the main growth driver over this period, every sector saw strong gains. Sales of organic flours and baking ingredients grew by 30%, sauces and spices pushed the $2.4 billion condiments category to a growth rate of 31%, organic meat, poultry, and fish sales rose by roughly 25%, and organic spice sales increased by an impressive 51% (triple their 2019 growth rate). Organic fruit and vegetables performed especially well, representing 15% of all retail produce sales in 2021 and are expected to push past 50% by 2030.

Organic businesses have embraced the opportunities brought by this surge of growth by enhancing customer engagement, expanding product lines to accommodate current dietary trends (e.g., Keto, Paleo), and modernizing brand stories to better highlight organic ingredients and producers. Supply and value chain issues, however, remain concerns. While the pandemic created many opportunities for short-term growth, it has also highlighted—and in many cases exacerbated—the supply chain constraints that limit organic’s long-term growth potential.


Despite sales growing by more than double the rate of the overall U.S. food market last year, certified organic acres still only make up less than 1% of all U.S. crop and pastureland. To meet demand and continue transitioning the U.S. to more sustainable production methods, more producers and more acres must transition to organic. One of the best ways to expand the community of organic growers is through continued investment in USDA’s organic certification cost share and transition programs.

In November 2021, USDA announced $20 million in support funds would be made available through the new Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTECP), part of USDA’s broader Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative. The pandemic intensified the already significant cost burden undertaken by organic and transitioning producers by choking supply chains and severely hampering reducing labor availability.

Certified and transitioning producers can use OTECP funds to cover certification or annual renewal fees or to help defray the costs of working with professional consultants. Funds can also be used for educational events related to organic production, marketing, and increasing resiliency.

“As we’ve been listening to folks in the industry about what should be in our transition to organic investment, a big thing that we hear is the need for one-to-one farmer support for transitioning producers,” said Jenny. “I remember when my father transitioned to organic in the 1980s, he really relied on support from other farmers to learn where to get seeds, and for growing guidance. That mentorship is critical for helping farmers transition to organic.”

Reducing the barriers to organic certification is critical for continued growth and success. By increasing access to federal support funds facilitating mentorship and learning opportunities, the U.S. can open the doors to a more diverse array of producers from across the country interested in growing organically.

“We’re really excited to think about ways to invest that will be transformational—to not only incentivize producers to enter organic, but ensure that they have the tools and support they need from their peers and across the supply chain,” said Marni. “It’s not just about expanding acres, but also about growing the supply chain so that producers can actually get their product to market.”

In addition to pandemic assistance programs, organic and transitioning producers can also benefit from an array of existing USDA organic initiatives, including USDA’s Organic Transitions Program, Organic Certification Cost Share Program, and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative.


As the USDA Organic seal enters its twenty-second year, the industry is not content to rest on its laurels. Already the most regulated and rigorous agricultural label claim on the market, the organic industry continues to advocate for updates to organic standards, guidelines, and policies to better keep pace with the needs of a changing marketplace and a changing planet.

“We have to allow for change and innovation, and that’s where organic plays such a big role,” says Jenny. “Organic producers have for years been implementing climate smart practices and really leading the way on soil health and environmentally sustainable techniques. There’s an opportunity for all of us to be sharing those practices that work.”

In the past 10 years, industry stakeholders have advanced 20 consensus recommendations for improvements to the organic standards, yet USDA’s National Organic Program has not implemented a single one. By clearing the backlog of the industry consensus recommendations and moving forward on long-delayed rulemakings, USDA can strengthen consumers’ faith in the organic seal and spur growth and innovation within the industry.

Congress can also help by passing the Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act, which calls on USDA to develop an action plan for clearing the backlog of NOSB recommendations and creates a system of accountability and transparency for going forward. It will also improve oversight and ensure consistent certification practices and decisions.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that they want to see continuous improvement in the standards,” says Marni. “We’re looking forward to providing some next steps on that front very soon.”


With the 2023 Farm Bill just around the corner and consumer interest in healthy eating and growing at an all-time high, it’s an exciting time for the organic industry. There will be significant opportunities for organic to become a more engaged, transparent, and equitable industry and community. In closing, Jenny and Marni shared a few thoughts, goals, and aspirations for the future of organic in the years to come.

“I’d encourage USDA and the organic industry to really shine a light on what it means to be organic, the people and the practices behind that label claim,” says Jenny. “Show us rotational grazing, show us the practices that are so vital, but consumers might not yet know about. Talk about the nexus of climate smart practices within organic.”

Jenny also emphasized her focus on ensuring that organic is part of all the dialogues and work being done across USDA, from crop insurance to research programs.

“We need to really integrate organic as part of our nomenclature at USDA so that consumers can recognize it as a key part of American agriculture,” she says.

Marni emphasized the positive impact she sees OTCEP having on existing and transitioning producers, and suggested that organic has a key role to play in widespread adoption of climate smart agricultural practices.

“My hope would be that we as the organic community embrace the opportunity to do the hard work around equity and that we embrace the opportunity to be a shining star on climate work,” says Marni. “In the past, organic has sometimes been perceived as small or on the fringe. I want organic to have a meaningful seat at the table.”

Reana Kovalcik is Director of Public Affairs for the Organic Trade Association.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.