Organic Policy and Regulations, What is Organic

An Interview Betsy Rakola: A focus on transitioning farmers and organic acreage! Part1

Elizabeth Rakola, Organic Policy Advisor for the USDA.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?

200px-National_Organic_ProgramWe 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!

12 thoughts on “An Interview Betsy Rakola: A focus on transitioning farmers and organic acreage! Part1”


    I am promoting organic as I do know that it is superior in many ways. I did both organic and chemicals together for three years for comparison. It was not done in a Laboratory but on a working dairy farm. I admit it was not scientific as most farmers are taught to believe chemicals are the only way.

    I have found over the years that how the soil is prepared for planting is the best way to get the maximum plant growth and to control insects and disease. Promotions that come from the USDA and chemicals companies benefit them more than the farmers and humanity. Shallow till and heavy equipment with water soluble chemical fertilizer is ruining our fertile soil. Plant roots are the foundation of healthy plants. The roots have to be able to grow. Shallow till limits them to grow through the hard pans to reach minor and trace minerals for the plants health. The soil has to be porous and able to breathe for nitrogen and oxygen to be captured and held in the soil. I get all my nitrogen for plants from the 78% in the atmosphere. The nitrogen is available from the atmosphere combined with oxygen provides the life needed in the soil. When there is no organic matter in the soil this process is stopped. Chemical fertilizer burns up the organic matter and is simply a plant stimulant. The plants are prone to insects and disease and the vast amount of different chemicals developed end up in the food supply. Chemicals also kill our earthworms and bees that are of the most importance for healthy food production and for healthy humanity.

    I have a reason to believe that organic farming and gardening versus chemicals is the only way to save our fertile soil. Fertile soil without chemicals grows healthy plants that pass healthy food up the food chain for healthy humans and animals. I was farming the conventional way (chemical). I experimented in 1950 doing organic and chemicals together. For three years I did both together and two experiments that convinced me that organic was superior and changed completely too organic in 1953. In 1958 I won many awards in contests in Vermont and New England over thousands of chemical farmers.

    I wrote a book “Learned by the Fencepost”– Lessons in Organic Farming and Gardening — published in 2011. I wrote it so any lay person can understand it. My education was on the dairy farm in Vermont. The book can be reviewed on Amazon and Kindle by typing “Learned by the Fencepost” on Google. The Book is easy to read with several pictures explaining techniques learned from observation, logic and a good memory. I have been told it is easy to understand and I explain why I did things for my soil, like the Master taught us. My two experiments I did in 1952 are in the book, and cost nothing for myself as well as the taxpayers. I would like to hear from you. I enjoyed writing it, as I was encouraged to do so, before my procedures were lost.

    I have been very pleased with response where other farmers and gardeners have read my book or used the similar procedures I have. All have said their soil continues to get better every year and produces more and better produce. Chemicals make for an impressive stimulated plant, but do nothing to build up the fertile soil. Instead the acid chemicals burn up the carbon (organic matter) in the soil and release it as CO2. Soil without organic matter is dirt without life. What I am hoping to do is make everyone aware that if just a fraction of the effort and money was put into saving our fertile soil as other programs, (climate change) it could happen. The EPA is not doing its job for farmers or gardeners the way they were originally designed to do. The big chemical companies have great influence with the power of money. Give million dollar grants to the agriculture colleges and to the future farmers of America. The EPA will condemn farmers from using their land because of the endangered kangaroo mouse but let Monsanto promote spreading poisons all over the planet. Logic and common sense is over ridden my greed.

    Our water ways would be free of pollution and the environment would be cleaner. Monsanto is a master at influencing by observation and untruthful results that are visible. There is hardly any discussion about roots that are the foundation of healthy plants that can ward of insects and disease. How the soil is prepared for planting and keeping it porous so it can breathe is the answer. The biggest harm acid chemicals do is to the invisible below the surface of the soil where all the root growth should not be restricted. My facts I have observed are the hair roots are the scouts that search and supply the trace minerals to make the plants healthy and ward of insects and disease. Roots are not needed with water soluble chemical fertilizer, but it does make the chemical companies rich.


      1. The Chemical Companies are producing 100 million tons of synthetic nitrogen that is spread on the plant every year. It is burning the life in the soil carbon (organic matter) and releasing it as CO2 the greenhouse gas. Not mentioned by the scientists as the chemical companies are causing it and they are in control.

        I get my nitrogen from the 78% in the atmosphere which is closest to earth as it is lightest. I trap it with my organic matter when it rains and hold it for the plants as they need it. Synthetic nitrogen is 100% available and water soluble and does not stay put but pollutes the atmosphere and the water ways.

        I am called unprofessional because with no high education. Mine is farming and gardening with logic observation and common sense. I find if you do what your doing year after year you get what you got.
        I challenged them with this question: The nitrogen I capture from the atmosphere and added to the soil, we are breathing has not harmed us yet. You ingest some synthetic nitrogen today and call me in the morning.
        They expect the earthworms and microorganisms to live. No calls and no more promotion. I hope it is not to late to recover.

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