NSAC's Blog

What’s at Stake: Data on Organic Farming

December 11, 2012

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 last 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.

The biweekly organic market prices and the periodic census of organic agriculture help Jared with his cropping and marketing plans.
Penny Piurkowski, organic inspector and Jared Fleming, organic crop producer, Westby WI. Credit: MOSES

Since its founding over 150 years ago, USDA has been charged with collecting, retaining, and publishing a wealth of information on the state and health of our nation’s agricultural sector.  For example, the Census of Agriculture, which is a complete count of every farm and ranch in the country conducted every five years, provides the only source of uniform, comprehensive, and consistently collected agricultural data for every county in the entire nation, dating back to 1840.

USDA has historically collected information and published market forecasts on nearly every agricultural sector from livestock to dairy to grain, but up until recently, did not collect any similar data on the organic sector.  The growing number of organic farmers who have started successful farm enterprises over the past several decades have had no reliable source of national data to use in making key business and marketing decisions.

The near-absence of data on organic has also limited and slowed the growth in organic.  Until recently, there were so few data and statistics on organic farming available that certified and transitioning farmers faced barriers when applying for a loan, accessing credit, or having land appraised.  Consistent data on organic yields, prices, and markets were almost nonexistent. 

Thanks to the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI) – which Congress first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill and then funded in the 2008 Farm Bill – USDA has taken some important first steps to integrate the organic sector into its data collection efforts and market forecasts.

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), based in Spring Valley, WI, is one organization that constantly uses the data collected and published through ODI.

“At a state-level, the data on organic production are very useful in helping us identify what sectors are strong, and where there is room for growth,” says Harriet Behar, an Organic Specialist with MOSES.  “In Wisconsin, for example, we have a lot of organic dairy farmers.  The USDA’s 2008 Organic Production Survey showed us how this sector has grown in our region, what those farms look like, and where they’re located.”

Behar stresses how critical these data are to not only to identify potential opportunities for organic and transitioning farmers, but also to help identify infrastructure needs to support growing organic sectors.  “For organic dairy farmers, it’s crucial to have infrastructure in place, like organic feed mills and organic processors,” explains Behar.  Behar says the growth of the organic sector presents huge opportunities for businesses and other elements of supply chains.  These opportunities would not be as apparent without consistent, uniform data on these sectors, and projections for their future growth and overall economic health.

How ODI Collects Data on Organic Farming

ODI starts to fill the gap in organic data by funding basic data collection activities on organic agriculture.  USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) participate in ODI to provide much-needed organic sector statistics, economic reports, and prices.  This information gives policymakers, organic farmers, and organic businesses data needed to make sound policy, business, and marketing decisions.

Through the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress provided $5 million in mandatory funding for ODI.  NASS used $1 million to conduct the first-ever Organic Production Survey (OPS) as a follow-on to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.  It was a follow-on survey because NASS used responses to questions about organic production in the 2007 Census to conduct the survey and collect more in-depth information about the sector.  The results contained invaluable information about the extent, diversity, and size of organic production in the U.S. – including that there are organic farms in every state, that organic farms on average are more profitable than the average for all U.S. farms, and that well over the majority of organic farms planned to maintain or increase production over the next five-year period.

ERS received $500,000 from the 2008 Farm Bill funding for ODI to conduct economic reports on the organic sector.  Prior to the 2008 Farm Bill, ERS had started publishing widely read reports on economic trends in the organic sector.  ERS used the ODI funding in 2010 to work with NASS to conduct in-depth surveys of organic corn and organic dairy production as part of the annual Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS).  The results provided detailed information about production practices, costs, revenues, yields, energy intensiveness, structure, marketing, and other economic and environmental aspects of organic corn and dairy production.  ERS has received additional appropriations to continue conducting commodity-specific surveys, and continues to publish reports on economic trends in organic.

AMS received $3.5 million through ODI to collect and publish price data on organic products through its Market News program.  AMS used the funding to hire staff to conduct specialized reporting of organic markets, and to improve the Market News database and Portal to be able to retrieve segregated organic prices.  With additional funding from agriculture appropriations, Market News has continued to expand its organic price reporting to cover more commodities and livestock.

Status of Funding for Data on Organic Farming

In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress authorized the collection of organic data, but it wasn’t until the 2008 Farm Bill that Congress provided $5 million in mandatory funding for ODI.  Additionally, Congress has provided small amounts of funding for the different agencies participating in ODI through the annual appropriation process, including through a floor amendment offered by Representative Farr (D-CA) that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.  USDA has spent the $5 million allocated and the additional appropriated amounts on the activities described above.

Both the Senate-passed and the House Committee-passed versions of the 2012 Farm Bill provide renewed funding for ODI at $5 million in mandatory funding over the life of the farm bill.  These funds would be used to conduct another follow-on survey but this time to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, continue to publish economic reports and in-depth organic surveys as part of ARMS, and maintain and expand AMS’ organic price reporting.

The Senate-passed 2012 Farm Bill also includes language to improve coordination between the agencies such as NASS, ERS, and AMS that collect data and the agencies such as the Risk Management Agency who need organic data to publish organic price elections in order to improve crop insurance for organic farmers.

What’s Next for Organic Data Collection?

Until Congress takes action on the farm bill, ODI has no funding or an authorization to receive funding through appropriations.  While the agencies involved in ODI will likely continue some level of organic data collection, it will be at a decreased level.  Surveys such as the Organic Production Survey, which take advantage of other surveys such as the Census to conduct a more in-depth follow-on assessment, will not be conducted without renewed funding for ODI.

ODI has enabled USDA to start providing for organic agriculture the type of data available through USDA for conventional agriculture.  While there are still many data gaps to fill, a failure to reauthorize and fund ODI would undermine the work that has been done to build an organic data collection infrastructure, and farmers, businesses, and policymakers would be left without critical data and information to use in policy, business, and marketing decisions.

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Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill, Organic

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