Why a Lapsed Farm Bill puts Organic at Risk

tractor-1-1386670It’s Congress’ job to pass a Farm Bill (FB) about every four years. It’s the second largest piece of spending that Congress is tasked with; the 2014 FB is projected to spend $489 billion.

The Farm Bill determines what food is grown, how it’s grown, and who gets access to healthy food and nutrition in the US.

This, in turn, affects the health of our topsoil, the quality of our water, and the prosperity of those who grow our food.

Congress failed to come to an agreement on a new Farm Bill, and the current one expired on September 30th.

While most of the big-ticket items in the Bill will continue uninterrupted, organic programs are in jeopardy of being left behind without funding. They don’t have mandatory baseline spending that guarantees the programs will continue.

How did we get here?Capitol Hill

For the past several months both the Senate and House agricultural committees have been hashing out their own private versions of a Farm Bill.

Each version has had vastly different ideas about things like SNAP (Food Stamps) and Commodity Spending (think corn, soy and cotton).

Organic programs fared pretty well in both the Senate and the House versions. While the Senate version is better, you can see those details in my blog “Will This Year’s Farm Bill Serve Organic.”

The usual process for passing a FB brings together a conference committee that works out the differences in each version. Ultimately this committee comes forward with a final Bill reflecting compromise and bi-partisan agreement.

Not so this year—the differences were too great and too contentious. Negotiations fell apart, and Congress failed to come to an agreement.

What’s at Risk?USDA Organic

Nearly all of the federal programs that organic producers and handlers depend on are funded in the Farm Bill. None of the organic programs have baseline funding so they must be reauthorized with each new Bill.

Congress’ failure to pass a new Bill puts the following programs at risk:

The Certification Cost-Share Program reimburses farmers for a portion of their certification fees up to $750. This is an important incentive to help transitioning and small farmers succeed.

Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) provides competitive grants for important research that addresses the challenges organic farmers and processors face.

Organic Production and Market Data Initiative   (ODI) collects important data on markets, production trends and exports.

The National Organic Program (NOP) is the agency within USDA that writes new regulations, oversees the certification process and performs enforcement for the organic community.

Market Access Program (MAP) helps to expand organic exports into countries where organic demand is growing. In 2016, nearly $1 million in MAP funds were invested in the organic sector, which led to over $48 million in projected overseas sales opportunities for U.S. organic operations.

Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP) and the Organic Initiative(OI) within EQIP. These conservation programs assist farmers with implementing organic practices, provide technical assistance during the transition period, and offset the financial costs of transitioning.

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Farmers Market Promotion Program are widely utilized by organic producers. Both could see much of their work put on hold for the foreseeable future.

What’s next?duck-1484819

Many organic programs have already been funded for the balance of 2018, so the impact is not immediately dire.

While Congress is away busy with the midterm elections, nothing will happen until they return in December. When they return, they could pass a new Bill, but it is very rare to pass a Farm Bill during a lame duck session—

it has only been done twice before.

In addition to the big issues like SNAP and commodity compensations, there still isn’t much agreement on most of the other titles in the House and Senate versions of the Bill.

If they don’t come to an agreement and the current Bill is extended, most organic programs will lapse in 2019.

To complicate matters more, we will have a new Congress in December who could decide to start the process all over again. This would extend the period of limbo for most organic programs.

Here’s what you can do: 

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Although there are many components of the Senate and House versions that some find distasteful, organic has fared pretty well in both. Passing a Farm Bill this year means no interruption for organic programs.

Reach out to your Congressional leaders and let them know that organic programs fall under baseline spending.

An extension will not help organic—we need a Farm Bill to keep organic programs moving.

Organic is the fastest growing segment of agriculture providing a bright future for rural America.

Organic programs are at risk if Congress fails to do their job.

Organic needs a Farm Bill now.

Grocery cart full of organic produce

 

Who Will Fund the Challenges Facing Organic Today?

Rain on plant

The political winds are against us. We are in an era of stagnating and dwindling regulatory oversight by the current administration.

Organic seems to be floundering in its own juices.

Trump’s USDA withdrew the final animal welfare rule that consumers and legitimate producers all agreed upon for over decade.

The administration meddled with the NOSB’s work plan, withdrawing work on Aquaculture, Apiculture and Pet Food. There will be no regulations to advance organic in these areas in the near future.

They killed the idea of a check-off that would have raised much-needed funds to bolster our still adolescent industry.

This is indeed an unfriendly crew cutting and slashing rules and opportunities that organic wants.

The Organic Message is in Tatters

natural-label

There is abject confusion about what organic really means. Consumers wonder how the Organic label is different than the plethora of labels and claims littering the aisles. With the emergence of Regenerative, Biodynamic and Real Organic, what’s a consumer to think?

Damning headlines say the industry is merely lying to consumers while fraudulent grain shipments barrel into our markets.

No wonder the public is confused.

Organic Agriculture and Climate Change

Climate change is arguably the most pressing issue facing our species at this moment in history. We’ve managed to ravage the skin of our topsoil with conventional agriculture, limiting the soil’s ability to behave as its done for a millennium: drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.

We already possess research that demonstrates the benefits of organic agriculture in combatting this issue. If all conventional farmers in the US switched to organic practices, we could sequester nearly half of the greenhouse gasses we emit!

We have got to learn to feed ourselves and combat climate change with healthy organic soils.

How do we tell that story and encourage more farmers to be stewards of the environment?

Too few organic farmers are doing the work that needs to be done—and done quickly!

Many barriers exist to becoming an organic farmer. One of them is a lack of expertise and assistance in the field. Organic farmers need the technical know-how to be successful.

It turns out the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) allows for organic technical specialists in every state. Right now, only two exist in the entire US because the position requires 50% matching funds from the industry.

One would think a flourishing $50B industry could have a specialist in every state!

Who’s going to pony up?

How can the private sector play a role in advancing Organic despite the lack of federal support?

I believe a voluntary “check-off” is the answer to many of the challenges facing organic today. If you are a brand that cares about the future of your bottom line and that of the planet, it’s time to get involved—give back—contribute.

The Organic Trade Association has partnered with Organic Voices to harness their compelling messaging campaign and resurrect the organic check-off initiative—they’ve already raised over $800K, and it’s growing.

The campaign funds will not only fuel a consistent message about what organic really means, but it will cover all of the areas we need help with—today.

A voluntary check-off will provide research dollars to help organic growers flourish and confirm the benefits of organic agriculture in fighting climate change.

Imagine technical specialists in every state working with transitioning and existing organic farmers. In partnership with the NRCS and regional farming organizations, it will fund organic extension agents across the country.

The program will provide technical assistance in the field, so growers have the resources to GRO. In fact, that’s the name of the Program! GRO means Grow Organic Opportunities!

Do you want to be part of the solution for organic?GROOrganic.large-logo

Organic businesses, farmers and industry leaders are already working together on innovative solutions that will have key benefits for organic.

The momentum is here, and your participation will make a difference. If you care about the future of organic, please contribute to our collective effort.

 

Check it out and check in on the organic check off. It’s all we have to fund today’s challenges.