December 21, 2016
The annual process of organic certification can be expensive, but it is an essential step for farmers who hope to capitalize on the growing demand for certified organic foods. Organic certification cost share assistance, available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is one good option for small and mid-sized organic farmers and producers looking to defray certification costs. Despite the fact that USDA cost share assistance can reduce the cost of certification by as much as 75 percent, only 50 percent of organic farmers and handlers are currently taking advantage of the program. In an effort to increase the accessibility of the Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP), today USDA announced expanded opportunities for producers and handlers seeking to apply to the program and reduce the cost of receiving and maintaining organic or transitional certification.
The most significant change to the program for fiscal year (FY) 2017 is the transfer of administration from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which will enable interested producers and handlers to apply, get information, and ask questions about the program at over 2,100 FSA offices across the country. State departments of agriculture will retain the option to apply to jointly administer the program with FSA (as had been the case under AMS), which will further increase the options and avenues through which participants can be reimbursed for their certification costs. As is currently the case, the state agencies can also contract with NGOs to deliver the program in a particular state. Interested state agencies will have the opportunity to apply for joint administration between January 3 and February 17, 2017.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauds USDA for its efforts to increase program participation in the certification cost share program and to expand other services and opportunities for organic producers and handlers. “Starting March 20,” said FSA Administrator Val Dolcini, “USDA will provide a uniform, streamlined process for organic producers and handlers to apply for organic cost share assistance either by mail or in person at USDA offices located in almost every rural county in the country.”
NSAC developed and championed the cost-share program, which was incorporated into the 2002 Farm Bill and the two farm bills since then. NSAC and NSAC member organizations have been engaged with AMS and FSA for the past year in the development of the new options.
The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) and Agricultural Management Assistance Organic Certification Cost Share Program (AMA) are noncompetitive financial assistance programs that help defray the costs of organic certification for organic operators.
These organic cost share programs provide reimbursements of up to 75 percent of annual certification costs, up to a maximum payment of $750 per year per farm. NOCCSP is available nationally, while AMA is available only in the northeast and certain states in the west.
Collectively this funding is now available under the unified banner of “Organic Certification Cost Share Program” (OCCSP), with $12.5 million available for FY 2017.
Increased Opportunities to Access Cost Share Funds
The Notice of Available Funding (NOFA) for OCCSP is now available online through Public Inspection, and is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, December 22. The NOFA also provides details on the process through which state agencies can apply for agreements to administer the program.
FSA’s administration of the program will enable certified producers and handlers to be reimbursed for their certification costs, either by mail or in person at FSA offices, in nearly all rural counties across the country. State agencies can also opt in to the program, and, in those states that do so, organic producers and handlers will have the opportunity to choose between the two options for enrollment.
AMS Administrator Elanor Starmer noted the program’s opportunity to significantly expand its reach through FSA:
“The Agricultural Marketing Service and the National Organic Program look forward to this exciting opportunity to leverage the Farm Service Agency’s rural footprint to reach more producers and handlers. At the same time it is important to recognize and continue the valuable partnerships with states that remain at the core of the program.”
NSAC strongly encourages state departments of agriculture to continue to offer the program in order to ensure that producers and handlers have as many options to access the program as possible.
Eligibility Extended to Included Reimbursements for Transitional Certification
Also new in FY 2017, transitional certification fees (through certifiers that offer a transitional certification option) are now eligible for reimbursement through OCCSP. This important new addition to the program will provide modest but meaningful assistance to farmers transitioning to organic production systems. As demand for organic production continues to grow, transitional certification will likely play an important role in increasing organic production capacity.
Timeline for State Agencies, FSA, and Program Participants
Beginning on January 3, 2017, FSA will accept applications from states interested in overseeing reimbursements to their producers, handlers, and processors. In order for a State Agency to receive fund allocations for FY 2017, they must establish a new agreement to administer OCCSP, even if they previously administered the cost share program. For State agencies that choose to participate, agreements will continue to allow sub-grants to other entities, such as certifying agents, as has been the case in the past.
The application period for farmers to apply for certification reimbursements in FY 2017 will begin on March 20. It will end on October 31 of each year, or when there is no more funding available, whichever comes first.
Certified operations will be subject to the same eligibility criteria and calculation of cost share payments regardless of whether they apply through an FSA local office or a participating State agency. FSA will coordinate with participating State agencies to ensure there are no duplicate payments made within states that provide both opportunities for enrollment.
The process for farmers, ranchers, and handlers to receive cost share assistance is simple. Following certification, they need to contact their local FSA office (or State agency if dual option is available), and then submit a short application and tax form, proof of certification, and itemized expenses.
NSAC looks forward to partnering with FSA as they work to increase the number of eligible organic operations that can participate in the certification cost share program and other valuable USDA assistance opportunities.