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What’s at Stake: Organic Agriculture

September 20, 2018


Cost-Share and Research Programs provide assistance to US farmers who wish to tap into the profitable and growing organic market. Photo Credit: USDA

Cost-share and federal research programs provide assistance to US farmers who wish to tap into the profitable and growing organic market. Photo Credit: USDA

Editor’s Note: The 2014 Farm Bill expires on September 30th. If the next farm bill is not finalized before that date, numerous “tiny but mighty” farm bill programs that support family farmers and food-producing communities will effectively shut down in terms of new funding and grant opportunities for fiscal year 2019. These workhorse programs, which have small price tags but big impacts, touch nearly every part of the American food and farm sectors. This is the fifth and final post of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s “What’s at Stake?” series, which highlights soon-to-expire farm bill programs and details what their absence could mean for farmers and communities nationwide. 

Organics have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry over the last two decades and continues to be one of the fastest growing sectors of American agriculture – keeping over 18,000 family farmers in business and on the land each year. After experiencing double-digit growth for a decade and positive growth through the most recent recession, the organic sector continues to experience steady growth in recent years, totaling a new record of $49.4 billion in retail sales as of 2017 that accounts for roughly 5.5 percent of total retail food sales. For farmers across the country, strong demand for organic food translates into new and growing market opportunities.

And while the domestic market for organic products continues to grow, U.S. based organic production has lagged behind. As a result, foreign imports are filling gaps to meet national demand. Organic imports into the United States in 2017 totaled around $2.1 billion, up nearly 25 percent from the previous year. These imports represent lost economic opportunities for our nation’s farmers, who are facing a sustained economic downturn and are seeking ways to increase farm profitability. Organic agriculture is perhaps the original value-added agriculture: on average, organic products secure a 30 percent premium in the retail marketplace.

Since 2002, federal farm bill programs like the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP) and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) have played a leading role in supporting the growth of domestic organic production so that American farmers can take advantage of growing market opportunities. However, if Congress fails to pass a full farm bill or farm bill extension before September 30 and fails to renew funding for these programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be forced to stop awarding research grants and stop signing cost-share contracts beginning October 1.

How the Farm Bill Supports Organic Agriculture

Behind the organic label are organic farmers – small and large – who follow strict standards to become certified, and who have needs unique to their growing practices and markets.

The process of becoming organically certified can be expensive, but it is an essential step for farmers wanting to meet the growing demand for certified organic food in the U.S. Organic certification verifies that a farm or handling facility complies with USDA organic regulations and allows the certified operation to use the USDA organic seal. Organic certification cost share assistance helps small and mid-sized organic farm businesses afford annual certification costs, which range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Another major barrier facing organic producers is the lack of sufficient, appropriate, and relevant research, education, and extension resources. The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) has been around for over a decade, and is having a real impact on the profitability and productivity of organic farms across the country – whether they specialize in organic fruit, fresh market vegetables, grains, livestock, or cotton. Since 2004, OREI has invested nearly $150 million into 200 organic focused research projects in 40 states across country. Research topics include production, processing, and marketing issues; organic seed systems; organic animal breeding; and pest management, among others.

Like many organic farmers, Laura Davis, who owns and operates Long Life Farm with her husband, has benefited from both NOCCSP and OREI to support the growth of their farm business. Laura not only raises over 100 varieties of vegetables and fruit with her family in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, she is also currently the President of the Board of Directors of Northeast Organic Farming Association – Massachusetts, which assists farmers and food handlers with their organic certification process.

In March of 2017, Laura came to Washington D.C. to testify on the importance of supporting organic and specialty crop programs in the next farm bill. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research on Agriculture, Laura explained why support for NOCCSP and OREI in the next farm bill is so crucial:

“The National Organic Certification Cost-share Assistance Program helped us connect and communicate with potential customers and access the strong and growing market for certified organic food… As the Organic Certification Assistance Coordinator for NOFA/Mass, I often hear objections from farmers to certification due to cost of the program. For small farmers, the Organic Cost Share Program brings the cost in line with affordability. The Organic Certification Cost Share program is bringing benefits to our farm communities that keep on giving on multiple fronts. [Additionally] a strong investment in research underpins growth in any sector, as all farmers – sustainable, organic, conventional, or otherwise – need cutting-edge research that is easily accessible and relevant to their farming systems. OREI helps fill the void of knowledge by supporting research projects that specifically address the most critical challenges that organic farmers face in their fields every day.”

What’s Next for Organics?

The House and Senate are currently in the process of negotiating the 2018 Farm Bill. As a reminder, the House bill eliminates all farm bill funding for NOCCSP, while the Senate bill renews existing funding of $11.5 million annually for the program.

While both the House and the Senate bills increase funding for OREI, only the Senate bill meets the request of NSAC and the organic sector to provide permanent baseline funding for the program. This means that, were the Senate bill to become law, funding for OREI would stair step up to $50 million in the final year of the bill and would remain there in perpetuity – ensuring long-term investments in the future of organic agriculture.

With just a few days left until the expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill, it appears that farm bill negotiators are veering toward letting the bill expire without having a farm bill extension in place, let alone an extension that includes new funding for any of the tiny but mighty programs – which includes both OREI and NOCCSP. If that occurs, USDA will be prohibited from offering any new awards and signing contracts under NOCCSP, OREI, and many other programs (read our previous post for a more detailed explanation of what an expiration will mean for sustainable agriculture). We continue to urge Congress to pass a farm bill extension during the one week remaining before the end of the fiscal year.

If Congress fails to do its job before September 30, it must pass a full farm bill as quickly as possible after October 1 – using the Senate’s position on organics as a benchmark. Otherwise, the big losers will continue to be the farmers, consumers, and communities that are frozen out of key farm bill programs.


Categories: Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Organic


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