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Organic Trade Association Recommendations for New Organic Transition Initiative

Following a series of working groups and listening sessions with Organic Trade Association (OTA) members throughout the last year, on June 1, 2022, USDA announced its intention to invest $300 million into a new Organic Transition Initiative program as part of the USDA Food System Transformation Framework. 

“USDA's new Organic Transition Initiative will jumpstart that growth by making the organic transition process more accessible and impactful; particularly for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, who experience unique challenges to accessing resources and support programs,” said OTA CEO and Executive Director Tom Chapman in a press statement celebrating the announcement. “This historic investment in food production, which increases options for American farmers to ‘adopt practices that are both good for their businesses and the climate,’ is a significant win for our industry.” 

According to USDA, the new Organic Transition Initiative (“the Initiative”) will deliver wrap-around technical assistance, including farmer-to-farmer mentoring; provide direct support through conservation financial assistance and additional crop insurance assistance and support market development projects in targeted markets. Few additional details have been released to date. OTA's recommendations to ensure that the Initiative is effective and accessible for America’s next generation of organic producers are summarized here. 

Technical Assistance 

The lack of organic-specific technical assistance is one of the primary barriers to organic transition. Significant investment in technical assistance is required to meet the needs of organic and transitioning farmers spanning diverse production systems, scales, and geographic regions. USDA’s programs should address gaps in support by ensuring there are targeted resources available for producers transitioning to, currently in, and expanding organic production.  

OTA encourages USDA’s program to support the expansion of organic-trained farmer mentors as well as experts that can provide one-on-one technical assistance to organic and transitioning farmers. Where experienced organic mentors cannot be found or cannot be found in enough numbers, USDA should offer additional alternative technical assistance tools that are relevant to farms across a wide diversity of crop and livestock products, production system types, and scales of production. Tools should also be designed to adequately support all farmers interested in transitioning, including socially disadvantaged farmers/businesses, traditionally underserved populations, and those in geographically isolated regions. 

Currently there is a severe lack of USDA field staff, crop advisors, extension agents, and other agricultural service providers with organic management literacy to support farmers. USDA should dedicate resources toward improving organic training of field staff and partner with non-profits, cooperatives, and other organizations that can help address the shortage of organic technical assistance. USDA should develop a competitive grant program for organizations that provide regionally adapted technical assistance programs and services that support farmers transitioning to organic. Establishing public-private partnerships across organizations, sectors, and supply chain participants can amplify organic technical assistance efforts and should be a significant component of the USDA initiative. 

Market Development 

Increasing processing capacity and supporting market development opportunities is critical to ensure a healthy organic marketplace, however, market development programs should not be one-size-fits-all. Specific sectors, commodity types, and geographic regions have different needs and must be supported through targeted programs and resources. USDA should develop a competitive grant program for market and infrastructure development to expand organic processing capacity including retooling, refurbishing and rebuilding processing facilities to meet organic market demand across all regions, commodities and scales. 

Focus areas identified as priorities for USDA by OTA include but are not limited to: 

  • Domestic production and handling of livestock feed proteins (e.g., soybean meal, canola, alfalfa, sun cake). 
  • Market development for rotational crops (e.g., oats, barley, field peas, lentils). 
  • Sourcing staple ingredients for manufacturing (e.g., sugar, peanuts, red fruit, sun oil/edible oil). 
  • Domestic production and handling of fiber crops (e.g., cotton and hemp). 

Other Programs 

USDA has stated that the Initiative will also provide additional, direct support to transitioning producers through existing conservation and crop insurance programs. OTA has provided detailed recommendations on a variety of financial, policy, and improvements to make these programs more accessible and effective for certified and transitioning-to-organic producers. Many of these recommendations are detailed in the trade association’s June 2021 comments to USDA. 

Program Administration 

OTA will be watching for where within USDA’s Market and Regulatory Program architecture this initiative will be administered. If any of the components are to be administered through the National Organic Program, OTA seeks assurance that the program administration will not compromise existing NOP priorities (ex., standards development and enforcement).   

OTA appreciates USDA’s efforts to support organic agriculture through multi-faceted investments in reducing financial risks, improving market and infrastructure development, increasing access to land and credit, providing technical assistance, and removing disincentives to transition. Every dollar invested in organic agriculture drives significant economic, environmental, and health co-benefits for our people, our planet, and our organic producers and businesses.