May 5, 2016
As demand for organic products has continued to rise across the country, the industry has struggled to keep pace. Farmers interested in organic production often face significant barriers to entry, such as difficulty accessing or transitioning land, and daunting financial costs. As part of efforts to reduce these barriers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) recently announced this week the availability of $11.6 million in funding for its organic certification assistance program. The assistance program helps to offset costs for organic and would-be organic producers, making certification more affordable for organic producers and “handlers” (i.e., packagers, processors, wholesalers) across the country.
“The organic market is booming, with more and more producers taking advantage of the economic opportunities it presents,” said AMS Administrator Elanor Starmer. “The cost-share program makes it easier for organic businesses throughout the supply chain to get certified, helping them meet growing consumer demand.”
The bulk of the funding for the cost-share program comes from the farm bill’s National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), which was originally developed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). NSAC has continued to champion this program since its passage, and has helped to secure its approval by Congress in each of the last three farm bills.
Reimbursements for Organic Certification
Funding from the cost-share program covers up to 75 percent of an individual applicant’s certification costs, up to a maximum of $750 annually. In addition to NOCCSP, in certain states a related program – the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Organic Certification Cost Share Program – also provides a portion of the provided funding. The National Organic Program (NOP) within AMS administers both programs.
Through NOCCSP, $10.7 million in funding is available for fiscal year (FY) 2016 for organic farms and businesses. An additional $932,000 is available through AMA for organic crop and livestock operators in 16 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming).
Whereas unused funds from NOCCSP may be held over and used in the next fiscal year, all AMA funds must be used within the fiscal year in which they are allocated. Because producers in the 16 AMA states are eligible for reimbursement under both programs, State Agencies should exhaust AMA funds before using NOCCSP funds.
How to Apply
The process to receive cost share assistance is simple. To help applicants, USDA has identified the four easy steps necessary for a producer or handler to be reimbursed for their certification costs:
Organic certification allows a farm or processing facility to sell, label, and represent their products as organic in the marketplace. Certification by USDA-accredited agents often adds significant value to products, helping to increase farmer revenues, and also helps to ensure that all organic products meet or exceed national organic standards.
The process of transitioning to organic requires significant time and resources for inspection, licensing, certification, and proper bookkeeping. By certifying and applying to the cost-share program, farmers can significantly reduce some of their financial resource burden.
Cost Share Funding – Authorization and Appropriations
Support for the cost-share program pulls from funds authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, which increased funding for NOCCSP and kept AMA funding unchanged from the 2008 Farm Bill.
While full mandatory funding was available for both programs in FY 2016, Congressional appropriators are still in the process of determining funding levels for FY 2017. The House Agriculture Appropriations bill, which passed out of committee in April, proposed a significant cut (referred to as changes to mandatory program spending or “CHIMPS”) to AMA funding. If approved in the final FY 2017 budget, this cut would have major impacts for future cost share funding in the 16 AMA-eligible states.
NSAC has urged Congress to leave these reckless changes to farm bill spending (to cost share as well as critical conservation programs) out of the annual appropriations process, and will continue to fight for their exclusion through the appropriations process.
Additional Opportunities for Organic Producers
In addition to continued cost-share support for certified organic producers and handlers, USDA is also actively working to connect organic and transitioning-to-organic operations with the resources they need to succeed. Under this Administration, USDA has helped organic stakeholders to access programs that support conservation, provided access to loans and grants, funded organic research and education, and supported farmers through pest mitigation crises.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative, which provides financial assistance to organic and transitioning to organic producers to address resource concerns by implementing and installing conservation practices tailored to organic producers. EQIP helps to fund conservation plans, buffer zones, pollinator habitat, irrigation efficiency, nutrient management, cover crops, and other conservation practices tailored to organic production.
Last year, NRCS published a new handbook aimed at helping NRCS work with organic and transitioning to organic producers. NSAC, along with several of its member organizations, helped to co-author the new guide and identified ways by which NRCS staff could help farmers simultaneously meet conservation goals and regulatory objectives set by NOP.
An upcoming webinar on May 26th will provide additional information on the NRCS organic handbook.
Additionally, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) recently announced a new initiative through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), created to assist organic farmers with the cost of establishing 20,000 new acres of conservation buffers and other practices. These field border buffers provide multiple conservation and environmental benefits, and also help farmers meet organic certification requirements (e.g.. protecting soil and water quality and enhancing biodiversity and habitat). In some circumstances, the buffers can also protect organic farms against pesticide or genetic drift from neighboring operations.
NSAC applauds USDA for developing and expanding assistance for organic producers, and we look forward to working with this Administration to promote and expand organic agriculture throughout its final year.