Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place. In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without mandatory funding. This is the fifth post in our 10-week “What’s at Stake?” series that highlights expired farm bill programs and what that means for farmers and communities throughout the country.
Demand for organic food in the U.S. continues to grow. After experiencing double-digit growth for a decade and positive growth through the recession, the organic sector grew 9.5 percent to $31.5 billion in sales in 2011 (Organic Trade Association). For farmers across the country, strong demand for organic food translates into new and growing market opportunities.
Behind the organic label are organic farmers – small and large – who follow strict standards to become certified. Certification is an annual, multi-step process with written applications, on-site farm inspections, and rigorous reviews aimed at verifying the organic claim. For many farmers – especially small farm businesses – the annual costs of certification can be prohibitive, discouraging some farmers from producing for the organic label.
For farmers like Jordan Brown in rural Gilchrist County, Florida, organic certification would be too costly if it weren’t for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP). Jordan runs The Family Garden Organic Farm, a diversified certified organic vegetable and fruit farm. The farm has 25 acres (10 owned, 15 rented) of land located in the middle of “Old Florida,” Gilchrist County, with the Suwannee River to the West and Gainesville to the East. The Family Garden is one of only two certified organic farms in the county, and many large farms and dairies, along with woods and a few houses, surround it.
The Gilchrist County area is known for watermelons, which is one of the farm’s strongest crops. The farm markets its products to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, farmers markets, and wholesale markets. Certified organic product is important for his markets, and Jordan describes the organic certification cost share program as “beneficial” and “critical,” especially when he was first launching his farming business.
NSAC member, Florida Organic Growers (FOG), a non-profit organization that supports organic and sustainable agriculture, has first-hand experience with the impact of organic certification cost share. FOG tested the program at the State level before the national program started and saw its success.
FOG’s Executive Director, Marty Mesh, a former farmer himself, is convinced of the value of this program. “I knew that small and new organic farmers would need cost share assistance to cover certification costs and meet growing demand for organic food,” says Mesh. “Through a consumer research survey conducted in late 2010, we discovered that the great majority of Florida consumers agree that government should invest in environmentally friendly agriculture, like organic. Programs like organic certification cost share are part of that investment.”
NOCCSP helps Jordan and thousands of farmers and small-scale handlers become certified, sell organic products, and access new markets. If we want to meet the demand for organic food with domestic supply, Jordan and other farmers like him are a key part of meeting that goal. Making annual certification costs manageable for farmers like Jordan is critical piece of maintaining and growing domestic supply.
“This program exemplifies how a small investment can have multiple benefits,” says Mesh. “NOCCSP demands that a farmer is already meeting the highest environmental practices, and that a third-party certifier has verified that to be the case. Furthermore, the program is designed to help those who may be left out as the organic market grows and the cost of regulatory compliance increases.”
How Organic Certification Cost Share Grows Domestic Organic Production
The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) helps to meet the growing demand for organic food through domestic supply by offsetting a portion of the annual certification costs that organic farmers and handlers pay. Functioning like other cost share assistance programs – such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – NOCCSP provides up to 75 percent of costs to organic farmers and handlers to pay for their annual certification costs. Unlike other cost share programs, however, the maximum assistance is capped at a very modest $750.
NOCCSP works with an almost-identical sister program, the Agricultural Management Assistance Program (AMA), to provide cost share assistance in every state. Handlers in all states, and producers in every state except the 12 Northeast states plus HI, NV, UT, and WY, are eligible to receive cost share assistance through NOCCSP. AMA provides cost share assistance to producers in the 12 Northeast states plus HI, NV, UT, and WY.
To receive certification cost share funds, a USDA-accredited certifying agent must certify the farmer or handler. The annual certification process is a key part of being able to use the USDA organic label and access growing organic markets. Farmers and handlers can apply (through their State departments of agriculture) every year for certification cost share funds because certification is an annual process regardless of whether the person is new to organic or has been farming organically for decades.
Without organic certification cost share, many small and mid-sized organic farm businesses would opt not to certify due to annual certification costs. These farm businesses are a core part of the domestic organic supply chain, and without them, companies that use their product would be forced to source from abroad to meet demand for organic in the U.S.
Status of Funding for Organic Certification Cost Share
Congress created NOCCSP in the 2002 Farm Bill and provided $5 million in mandatory funding for the program over the five-year life of the bill. Due to the success of the program and the growth of the organic sector, Congress reauthorized the program in the 2008 Farm Bill and provided $22 million through 2012, or approximately $4.4 million annually, for it. The 2008 Farm Bill also increased the maximum annual payment from $500 to $750 per operation and increased funding for certification cost share through AMA to $1.5 million per year. All of the funds available through the 2008 Farm Bill have been used.
Recognizing the importance of organic certification cost share to the growing organic industry, the Senate-passed version of the 2012 Farm Bill continued organic certification cost share but streamlined NOCCSP and AMA into one program. This consolidation should improve program administration and delivery and decrease confusion about how the program works. The bill also provided $11.5 million per year for certification cost share, in response to the demand for the program and to increasing certification costs.
A small number of congressional opponents of organic make a pass-time out of attacking and attempting to repeal NOCCSP. The program has withstood multiple efforts to eliminate it, including during the Senate floor farm bill process, when an amendment to repeal it – offered by Senator Toomey (R-PA) – failed.
Unfortunately, the House Agriculture Committee-passed version of the bill repeals NOCCSP, despite the bi-partisan support for organic and for the program in Congress. The House Committee-passed bill retains certification cost share for producers in the 16 AMA states through the AMA program, creating an inequitable patchwork of assistance and an administrative headache. If and when the bill reaches the House floor, we expect an amendment to revive the program to prevail.
What’s Next for Organic Certification Cost Share?
Until Congress takes action on the farm bill, NOCCSP is on hold. Like the other programs in our “What’s at Stake” blog series, the fate of organic certification cost share is uncertain with the expiration of the current farm bill on October 1. The program has no more funding until Congress provides funds through a farm bill reauthorization or an extension of the current bill. Funding for organic certification cost share for farmers in the 16 AMA states continues until 2014, but only $1 million is available annually.
If Congress fails to fund organic certification for organic farmers and handlers nationwide, it is missing an opportunity to make a very modest investment in a growing sector of agriculture that impacts thousands of farmers throughout the U.S. If Congress fails, then farmers will start to opt out of becoming certified due to the additional costs associated with certification, and we will have to meet organic demand with supply from abroad.
To help us fight for a better farm bill that includes funding for organic certification cost share, sign our petition and be prepared to take action when Congress returns to Washington after the elections!