July 14, 2016
As demand for organic production continues to grow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has enormous potential to provide support to transitioning-to-organic farmers through conservation planning and technical and financial assistance.
Through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative (OI), NRCS offers important conservation supports to organic farmers, but unfortunately the program has been severely underutilized in recent years. With enrollment in this important program declining as demand for organic products continues to skyrocket the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), National Organic Coalition (NOC), and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) have recently sent a letter to NRCS recommending key areas for improvement in EQIP-OI in fiscal year (FY) 2017. NSAC and our partners call upon NRCS to refocus EQIP-OI on organic conversion and transitioning farmers, while enhancing opportunities for already certified organic producers within general EQIP.
Since its establishment in the 2008 Farm Bill, EQIP-OI has provided over $115 million in funding assistance to organic and transitioning farmers across the country. Participants receive financial and technical assistance to introduce or enhance conservation practices that are tailored to organic production – such as conservation plans, buffer zones, pollinator habitat, irrigation efficiency, nutrient management, and planting cover crops.
Organic and transitioning producers, as well as those exempt from certification, can currently apply for funds through general EQIP or through EQIP-OI. Although EQIP-OI applicants have the benefit of competing in a smaller pool than they would otherwise within general EQIP, participants in the Organic Initiative are also subject to a significantly lower payment limit.
Organic Initiative Enrollment Continues to Decline
Total enrollment in EQIP-OI declined significantly between FY 2009 and 2015. Financial assistance in 2015 fell to under 13 percent of the amount distributed in 2009, and the 339 contracts enrolled in 2015 are less than a quarter of the nearly 1,500 awarded in 2009.
The chart below illustrates the decline in funding obligated between 2009 and 2015.
There are a number of recent changes to the program that we expect have been contributing to this decline, including changes to the state allocation process, inconsistent application deadlines, and the program’s limited organic outreach capacity. The recommendations provided in the group letter provide a clear path forward for FY 2017, and set the stage for additional improvements as the next farm bill approaches.
Opportunities for 2017
NSAC applauds NRCS’s commitment to improving organic conservation support and resources in recent years, including their publication of a new handbook – developed and written with NSAC and NSAC members – to help NRCS field staff work more effectively with organic and transitioning producers.
There are only a few months remaining before FY 2017 program sign-up begins, meaning there is a limited window of time during which NRCS can make the recommended administrative changes to improve conservation assistance for organic and transitioning to organic producers. The recommendations provided by NSAC and our partners require no new legislative or regulatory action, so they can and should be made before the next sign-up period.
Focus on Support for Transitioning Farmers
Farmers who transition to organic production reap environmental as well as economic benefits. However, these producers take on significant costs during their transition period, when the organic price premium is not yet reflected in their sales. Transitioning contracts now account for over half of funding obligated through EQIP-OI, and unlike enrollment of certified organic producers, enrollment for transitioning farmers has not been in decline.
NSAC and our partners urge NRCS to refocus the EQIP-OI on this important and growing group of farmers. By refocusing the initiative and making program improvements to better support transitioning farmers, including offering flexible bundles of conservation practices and enhanced incentives, NRCS can advance their address their environmental goals while simultaneously helping to minimize market shortages of organic crops and livestock.
Expand Access to EQIP Funds for Certified Organic
As NRCS refocuses EQIP-OI, they should also ensure that opportunities for certified organic producers are expanded within general EQIP, which can be achieved through the establishment of organic performance targets.
The letter urges NRCS to establish these performance targets to reserve funding for certified organic participants within the general EQIP pool. Targets should be based on organic data for each state, as well as growing market demand for organic production.
NRCS now tracks organic participants within general EQIP, which presents an opportunity to ensure that this pool of EQIP funds is accessible and effective for organic applicants. By creating performance targets and reserving funding for certified organic participants within general EQIP, NRCS can simplify the process through which organic applicants can equitably access EQIP funds.
Provide Clarity on Organic System Plan Requirements
NRCS should clarify that EQIP participants who are transitioning to organic production (including participants who are exempt from certification) are not required to complete an Organic System Plan (OSP) during the life of their contract.
A misinterpretation of the OSP requirement is likely to discourage transitioning and exempt farmers from participating in EQIP-OI. The National Organic Program (NOP) does not require an OSP for transitioning or exempt producers. Therefore, any interpretation that exempt and transitioning participants are required to have an OSP – as has been the case in previous years in many states – would not be in line with NOP requirements.
We do recognize, however that participants seek conservation assistance at different stages of the transition process, which may result in producers taking longer than three years to achieve certification. In this case, a producer would be required to complete an OSP.
We hope NRCS will act quickly to adopt and implement these critical improvements to EQIP and EQIP-OI.
NRCS can and should play a key role in increasing conservation benefits for transitioning, exempt, and certified organic producers, and by extension in helping to increase the production of organic goods so highly demanded by the current market.