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Organics, Specialty Crops, and Local Food on Display in Senate Hearing

July 14, 2017

Haile Johnston listens to a fellow panelist on the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing.


A large organic specialty crop producer, a conventional potato farmer, an organic grain company business executive, a food hub operator, and an animal agriculture advocate enter a room… No, this is not the set-up to a cheesy joke, but the incredible diversity of American agriculture that was on display this week as the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing to discuss opportunities and challenges facing the organic, specialty crop, and local and regional food markets as Congress prepares to reauthorize the farm bill.

The hearing, entitled Opportunities in Global and Local Markets, Specialty Crops and Organics: Perspectives for the 2018 Farm Bill, is part of a larger process undertaken by both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees with the goal of analyzing and understanding US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs before they begin drafting the next federal farm bill.

As the title of the hearing further reinforces, the perspectives asserted by those testifying were diverse and varied. The importance of maintaining market access and developing new marketing opportunities for all producers – whether domestic or foreign markets – was a key unifying theme.

Hearing Spotlight: Impacts of Local Food

Among the witnesses testifying at this week’s hearing was Haile Johnston, Co-Founder and Director of The Common Market – a nonprofit regional food distributor with a mission to connect communities with good food from sustainable family farms. The Common Market is a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), and NSAC helped recruit Haile to provide an important perspective on the impact of, and need for, USDA programs that support local and regional market development and promotion.

Haile and his wife, Co-Director and Co-Founder Tatiana Garcia Granados, founded The Common Market in 2008 out of a shared interest in ensuring the economic well-being of all Americans through the power of good food. The Common Market currently has locations in Pennsylvania and Georgia, and one of their core goals is to build up local infrastructure in order to create stronger regional food systems that facilitate wholesale market access for small and mid-sized farms and also increase the accessibility of local food for all people.

Since The Common Market’s first sale in the summer of 2008, they have delivered over $16 million of local fruits, vegetables, yogurt, eggs, meat, and grocery items to customers throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Atlanta-metro areas. The Common Market currently provides food from over 150 small and mid-sized sustainable farms to nearly 500 public, charter, and independent schools, hospitals, eldercare communities, colleges and universities, grocery stores, community organizations, and restaurants. This has translated into nearly $30 million in direct regional investment by The Common Market in the last nine years.

Haile and The Common Market credit some of their success to the support they’ve received through USDA programs, like the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Community Food Project grants, the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (known also as Section 2501), and the Farm to School Grant program.

“USDA investment has yielded staggering results… it’s safe to say that The Common Market would not be where we are today had it not been for those investments,” said Haile in his testimony to the Committee. “It is critically important that the next farm bill continue support for these and other local food programs to build on our efforts and support new local and regional food systems across the country.”

In addition to USDA programs that support efforts to develop and promote new markets for locally and regionally produced food and farm products, Haile discussed in his testimony the work they are doing to build a culture of food safety with the producers they work with. He stressed to the Committee that the next farm bill needs to invest more resources into outreach, training, technical assistance and capacity building as it pertains to food safety and producers. In his written testimony, Haile stated,

“Understanding the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is critical, not only to the kind of producers we work with at The Common Market, but for all American producers. However, there is a serious lack of resources being invested in providing robust and scale-appropriate outreach, education, and training to producers right now. Providing funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program through the next farm bill would go a long way in helping to address this challenge.”

NSAC has advocated for expanding funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program, which helps organizations work with producers to understand if and how FSMA affects their operation and train them on FSMA compliance rules and regulations.

Organics and Trade

Local and regional markets were only one of the topics discussed during the Senate hearing. The remainder of the hearing focused on organic production and supply and export markets for American specialty crops and livestock.

Witnesses discussed the growing domestic market for organic products and the reality that demand is vastly outstripping domestic supply, and explained that these two factors combined have created an opening for organic imports to fill void. Ken Dallmier, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Clarkson Grain Company, an Illinois-based grain, oilseed, and ingredient supplier specializing in certified organic and Non-GMO products for the food manufacturing and animal feed industries, testified about the need for the next farm bill and the USDA to better support transitional organic production.

Transitioning to organic is a risky investment that requires producers to farm in accordance with the certified organic rules and regulations for 3 years before they can become certified.  During these 3 transitioning years, they aren’t able to receive any premiums or added value that comes along with the certified organic label. The panel explained that this is part of the reason domestic supply of organic commodities has trailed behind consumer demand. Dallmier testified that American producers are missing a profitable market opportunity as a result and encouraged members of the Committee to support increased access to the organic market for domestic producers by supporting efforts to create new transitional organic markets that would serve as on-ramps to the certified organic market.

In addition to organic production issues, trade and export for American specialty crops and livestock products was a well-covered topic during hearing. Several of the witnesses discussed the importance of programs like the USDA Market Access Program that helps build export markets for U.S. agriculture products through public-private partnerships. And while, much of the testimony and discussion was on farm bill programs that have been important to expanding trade and increasing access to foreign markets, there was some noticeable but subdued concern about the future of agriculture trade with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiation on the horizon and the impacts of the freshly inked European Union and Japanese trade deals on producers’ minds.

Hearing Season to Continue

Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will continue to hold field and DC hearings throughout the summer as the 2018 Farm Bill debate heats up. Stay tuned for more coverage from NSAC in the coming weeks.

A recording of the hearing and written witness testimonies are available from the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry.

Categories: Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems, Marketing and Labeling, Nutrition & Food Access, Organic

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