Just before the MOSES conference I was lucky enough to catch Betsy Rakola, USDA Organic Policy Advisor, for a chat. It was exciting because Betsy took the role just last August. She also serves as the chair of USDA’s Organic Working Group. This position was created by Secretary Tom Vilsack two years ago, and it’s the first of its kind at USDA. Now it is a permanent position so the focus on organic is here to stay. Betsy is no stranger to the National Organic Program and her commitment to growing organic agriculture was evident in every answer.
Tell me about your position and what do you hope to achieve in it?
I advise the office of the Secretary of Agriculture at the USDA so the department is up to date on the issues and opportunities for organic agriculture. I also coordinate the USDA Organic Working Group to make sure that organic farmers are represented in all of our programs and services across the department! It’s a big job to work with all the interagency teams.
I bring the organic perspective to broader discussions, such as how it relates to small and beginning farmers and ranchers or our local and regional sectors. I am working to implement many of the organic provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill that support this $35 billion industry!
I worked to develop the website where we now have a one-stop-shop with a dedicated organic portal that we hope has information useful to everybody. For instance you will find information on research, programs for universities and an Organic Literacy Initiative. The latter is an educational program that over 30,000 USDA employees have already completed! This Organic 101 and 201 course explains the basics on what organic is and what it means. Even the consumer or general public can access the course, and learn more about what the organic label means. We especially want farmers and ranchers to have the resources they need so we can fulfill the USDA’s strategic goal to increase the number of certified operations!
Tell me more about the Organic Working Group.
The Organic Working Group is an interagency group that has five teams based on five themes; data, research, regulatory reciprocity (which means getting in sync and reducing paperwork), training and increasing the organic sector. Secretary Vilsack outlined these themes in his 2013 guidance to the USDA on organic agriculture, and I bring these areas of focus together at the USDA. This assures that every agency is working to support organic farmers, ranchers, and handlers.
What are some exciting new initiatives and opportunities you want to share?
We have been holding webinars on conservation activity plans that can reduce barriers to transitioning to organic production. We want to help offset the costs through the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs as well as alleviate the paperwork burden for farmers. We are aiming for regulatory reciprocity so there is a crosswalk between organic and other agricultural systems. We will be looking at other areas such as crop insurance in the future.
I want to draw attention to our organic producer survey that is underway. We really need to get as many producers and handlers to respond to this because this information will be used for programs such as improved crop insurance for organic producers. Without this data USDA doesn’t have the information to understand what is being produced and make better programs. Organic farmers have been mailed a form to complete the survey. If you are a producer please fill it online out by April 3rd. If you know a producer, ask them to be sure to complete it!
Also, the Organic Literacy Initiative is expanding to increase tools for transitioning into organic production. We want to identify the barriers to organic practices and to attaining organic certification.
Stay tuned for the final portion of this interview in my next post!