Farm Bill Update: What’s at Stake for Organic Farmers

carrot field dayThe following article is cross-posted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) blog series, “What’s at Stake in the Farm Bill, ” which highlights expired farm bill programs and what this means for farmers and communities throughout the U.S. One of the expired programs, USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), is critically important to organic seed innovation, as discussed below. NSAC interviewed OSA staff about the importance of OREI research: “Most farmers don’t participate in plant breeding projects, variety trials, or other research that dictates their seed choices. This group of researchers truly wants to make a difference and do what’s best for farmers by involving them firsthand in the research. USDA’s OREI funding is providing the necessary resources for these critical collaborations.” 

Last fall, Congress allowed the Farm Bill to expire without a new bill to take its place.  Instead, Congressional leaders cobbled together a temporary extension on New Year’s Eve that shut down a number of innovative programs indefinitely. As of today, Congress, has once again allowed the farm bill to expire, and these programs are now at risk of becoming permanently “stranded” without funding. These stranded programs support half of the agricultural sector – including organic, fruit and vegetable, renewable energy, and livestock producers – and also invest in sustainable food systems, rural job creation, and the next generation of farmers. Congress now has an opportunity to restore much-needed funding for these programs as the conference negotiations for a five-year farm bill get underway.

What’s at Stake? Organic Farmers

To ensure the success of any farm operation, producers need a few essential resources.  These resources include access to scientific research that is relevant to their production systems, reliable and accurate national data to inform planting and marketing decisions, and a mechanism to market, sell, and promote their products to consumers. While conventional producers have reaped the benefit of federal investments in these areas – including through the land-grant research and extension infrastructure, annual Census of Agriculture data and regular commodity market forecasts, and USDA promotional tools – organic producers have not historically had access to these same federal resources.

Organic agriculture has experienced tremendous growth over the past few decades, as more farmers began to look at ways to grow crops without pesticides and look for more systems-based approaches to pest management and crop fertility.  In the early 2000s, USDA finalized the primary regulations for certified organic production, and the use of the USDA certified organic label went into effect. Over the past decade, Congress has created several key federal programs aimed at addressing the significant shortcomings in USDA resources and investments in organic agriculture.

How the Farm Bill Supports Organic Farmers

Three key farm bill programs have formed the foundation that has underpinned the success of organic farmers over the past decade, including the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI), and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP).  Together these programs have addressed research and data needs of organic producers, and have helped small and mid-sized organic growers offset the annual cost of certification, allowing them to access organic markets. They have been monumental in the impact they have had and benefits they have provided to farmers across the county.  Unfortunately, all three of these program have been essentially shut down since their funding expired last fall with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill.

As a result, organic farmers have fewer tools to confront emerging pest and production problems on their farms. The loss of these programs also inhibit the growth of the organic sector as a whole and deter farmers from transitioning to organic production systems or expanding existing operations for fear of not having access to reliable data and marketing tools to inform their planting and business decisions.

Over the past few years, the public has called on Congress to pass a farm bill to provide certainty for farmers. This message could not be more felt than by organic farmers who are now facing massive uncertainty – not knowing if they’ll have the research to fight a new pest, the price data to know what revenue they can expect from growing one crop over another, and the ability to offset annual certification costs. There’s certainly a lot at stake as Congressional leaders head into conference negotiations to see if they can reach an agreement on a new farm bill.

Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative — Investing in Research That Works on Organic Farms

Like any other farmer, organic farmers need research to help them make informed decisions about which plants they grow. They need to know what types of plants will do well in organic soils, which plant varieties are best suited for their climates, and which seeds will do well in a variety of seasons. These decisions are critical to being successful in agriculture and in helping farmers to expand their market. Unfortunately, organic agriculture has not received the same investment in research as conventional agriculture over the years, often leaving organic farmers with sub-par seeds or management practices that were not designed for their cropping systems.

In 2002, Congress took steps to address this need by funding the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which has become USDA’s flagship competitive grant program with a funding stream dedicated to organic research and extension projects. Over the past decade, the program has invested millions of dollars into research that has helped farmers grow and market organic agricultural products and has helped to underpin the tremendous growth the organic sector has seen over the past ten years.

For instance, thanks to OREI funding, the Northern Organic Variety Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) has launched several research projects that aim to address concerns that organic farmers are confronting, including how to expand their growing season, improve the flavor of their crops, and increase their crops’ nutritional value. By the end of the project, researchers were able to breed organic, cold-tolerant carrot and broccoli seeds; butternut squash seeds that produced plants with a longer shelf life; and cold-soil tolerant sweet corn. Because of the OREI grant and the NOVIC collaboration, the cold-soil variety of sweet corn — which will be able to germinate in cool, wet soils, without the use of any fungicides — will be released next year.

“This work is happening because [organic researchers in the NOVIC collaboration] want to address the seed needs of farmers,” says Dr. John Navazio, Senior Scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance. “Most farmers don’t participate in plant breeding projects, variety trials, or other research that dictates their seed choices. This group of researchers truly wants to make a difference and do what’s best for farmers by involving them firsthand in the research. USDA’s OREI funding is providing the necessary resources for these critical collaborations.”

OREI-funded research is farmer-driven and seeks to directly address the needs and challenges that organic farmers face in their fields every day.  For example, new seed varieties that are bred and developed for conventional production systems will not have the same success when used under organic systems that utilize an entirely different framework and set of management practices. Organic producers from all sectors face a host of unique challenges that publicly-funded research has historically not addressed, and OREI grantees regularly report that their research could not have been conducted without funding from this critical research program.

Organic Data Initiatives — Ensuring Organic Farmers Have Meaningful and Relevant Data

USDA has historically collected crop production information from farmers and published commodity market forecasts on nearly every agricultural sector from livestock to dairy to grain, to help producers make informed business and marketing decisions. It wasn’t until recently, however, that organic producers had access to the same type of data that was relevant to their types of production systems and markets.

With the growth of the organic sector over the past few decades, more and more organic farmers across the country found that they were doing their guessing related to what to plant and how much profit they could expect from producing a certain crop, much more in the dark than their conventional neighbors. Some organizations were collecting regional or state-specific data on a certain organic commodity or retail market, but there was no bucket of national data against which to compare the growth of the organic sector in one part of the country compared to another. And as more and more farmers began to transition to organic production, expand their organic farming operations, or new farmers began to start growing organically, the need for more reliable and relevant data for organic producers became clear.

It wasn’t until 2002 that Congress finally took steps to address this need by creating the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI) in the 2002 Farm Bill.  Although the program was authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill, it wasn’t officially launched until it received funding in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Since 2008, ODI has taken steps to build organic data metrics and analyses into USDA’s existing data collection and forecasting efforts in order to fill the data gap that organic farmers have faced over the years. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) participate in ODI to provide much-needed organic sector statistics, economic reports, and prices – including the first ever complete Census of Organic Agriculture conducted in 2009. This information gives policymakers, organic farmers, and organic businesses data needed to make sound policy, business, and marketing decisions.

“A lot of organic growers grow a diversity of crops,” says Brise Tencer with California Certified Organic Farmers. “Having the price ranges of different crops is really impactful on their work, especially since many organic growers use price data to do crop planning.”  Without availability of reliable data on organically produced crops and commodities, which often fetch a price premium in the market, it’s impossible for organic farmers to make an informed decision about what crops to grow, how much, and what a fair price they can expect when they turn around and are looking to sell their product.

National Organic Cost Share Program — Helping Farmers Take Advantage of Organic Marketing Opportunities

Behind the organic label are organic farmers – small and large – who follow strict standards to become certified. Certification is an annual, multi-step process with written applications, on-site farm inspections, and rigorous reviews aimed at verifying the organic claim. For many farmers – especially small farm businesses – the annual costs of certification can be prohibitive, discouraging some farmers from producing for the organic label.

Janie Dickson is an organic produce farmer in Timmonsville, South Carolina. Janie and her husband have been farming for years, but only within the last decade did they decide to switch to organic production. After doing a little testing on their land to see what worked best – organic or conventional – organic was the clear winner.  They began transitioning their farm to organic in 2006, and even purchased new land to grow additional organic produce. However, the costs of becoming certified organic (required if they want to sell and market their produce as “organic”) were significant, and an additional $1,000 annual expense can be a huge barrier for a small farmer with slim profit margins.

In 2006, the Dicksons were connected to the Southeastern African American Organic Farmers Network (SAAFON), who introduced them to the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) – a federal cost-share program that helps farmers transitioning to organic and existing certified organic growers cover some of the certification costs.

NOCCSP helps to meet the growing demand for organic food through domestic supply by offsetting a portion of the annual certification costs that organic farmers and handlers pay. Functioning like other cost-share assistance programs – such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – NOCCSP provides up to 75 percent of costs to organic farmers and handlers to pay for their annual certification costs. Unlike other cost-share programs, however, the maximum assistance is capped at a very modest $750.

However, this last fall, this program has been on hold because its funding ran out with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill. That has meant that for organic farmers in most states and for organic handlers in all states, there has been no certification cost-share assistance. (For the Northeastern states plus Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming, organic farmers can receive cost-share assistance through the Agricultural Management Assistance program, which currently has funding.)  The lack of funding in NOCCSP has meant that farmers like the Dicksons can no longer turn to the cost-share program to reduce the costs of organic certification. While financially difficult, this year, the Dicksons have decided to grin and bear it and try to hold onto their certification. But the certification process is getting more expensive, as are the rest of their operating costs. The cost-share program is what makes it possible for organic farmers — particularly small businesses — to stay in business and continue selling their product as certified organic.  This is critical to maintaining a domestic supply of organic products.

“Without the cost-share program, it makes it very, very hard for farmers to actually be able to afford to continue getting certified,” says Janie. “I think being certified organic is really important.  It’s important to our customers.  If I wasn’t certified I’d still be farming the same way, but we wouldn’t have that assurance for our customers that they’re actually getting what they’re paying for.”

What’s Next for Organic Agriculture?

All three of these important programs that support organic farmers – OREI, ODI, and NOCCSP – are authorized and funded through the farm bill. They each provide critical resources that organic farmers need to build successful farm businesses by increasing the availability of relevant research, data, and marketing assistance for organic producers.  They have each also garnered the support of the public and Congressional leaders, as increased funding for all three programs was provided in either the Senate or House bill.  However, all three of these programs have also been stranded without future funding since the farm bill expired last October and were also left out of the partial farm bill extension that was passed last year.

Over the years, these programs have invested millions of dollars in organic agriculture, and have made headway in leveling the playing field for organic farmers by providing some of the same resources that conventional producers have enjoyed for years.  OREI has supported over 125 research and extension projects, improving seed varieties and management practices for organic farmers in all regions of the country. ODI has supported the publication of the first-ever national census of organic agriculture and has created a baseline to measure future growth and changes in the industry against. And NOCCSP has provided millions of dollars to organic farmers and handlers in every state across the country to help them take advantage of the surging demand for organically produced food.

Until Congress passes a farm bill and restores funding for these programs, organic farmers will continue to struggle to afford their certification costs and university researchers will scale back their organic research portfolios even further. This means that fewer farmers may consider transitioning to organic production systems and those that do will be left without the reliable data and research they need to confront the production challenges and make the business decisions they need to build a successful and viable career in organic farming.

As House and Senate agricultural leaders return next week to begin negotiations on a final farm bill, it is critical that they hear from organic farmers and consumers who depend on the availability of domestically produced organic food and understand the impact that this hopefully temporary loss of funding and disinvestment in the organic sector has had over the past year. If Congress is unable to reach a deal on a final farm bill this year, we cannot allow these vital resources for organic farmers that underpin the health of the organic sector be stranded without funding for another year. The impact this could have on organic producers across the country, combined with the impact of loss of funding for host of other stranded programs, could be devastating for organic and sustainable farmers who have worked so hard to build their farms over the years.

NOW is the time to tell Congress what is really at stake in the current farm bill fight, and why our farmers cannot wait for another late night deal that may once again leave them in the dark.

Click here to learn how you can take action.

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