Amidst all the cuts to the food stamp program
and the reshuffling of crop subsidies to insurance payments, the organic
movement somehow managed to quietly score some serious cash.
After four years of congressional deadlock, at long last we
have a Farm Bill. Standing in front of a tractor and other
farm equipment at Michigan State University on Friday,
Feb. 7, 2014, President Obama signed the sprawling,
nearly 1,000-page legislation into law. The Farm Bill,
which must be renewed every five years and represents
almost $1 trillion in spending over the next decade, drives
USDA policy on issues ranging from commodity crops
and agricultural research to rural development, nutrition
assistance, food safety and environmental conservation.
In simplest terms, it determines whether or not our food is
healthful, affordable, nutritious and abundant. Historically,
the Farm Bill has predominantly supported big agribusinesses,
which grows enormous amounts of crops like the corn and
soy that end up in animal feed and processed foods. Which is
why it may surprise you to learn that the organic movement
actually emerged as one of the biggest winners of the Farm
Bill’s most recent incarnation. Have the tides in Washington
finally turned for the little guy with his hands in the dirt?
At least in terms of dollar signs, the answer appears to be a tentative yes. The new Farm Bill fully funds the majority of
programs deemed necessary to further develop organic food systems including:
The National Organic Certification Cost-Share
Program, which offsets the costs of annual certification
for organic farmers, producers and handlers. Through the
program, they can receive a reimbursement of up to 75
percent of their annual certification costs, up to $750.
While this won’t make much difference for large organic
operations, who pay thousands in certification costs each
year, for small farmers, these reimbursements open the
doors to organics as a financially viable option. In 2013,
only $1.4 million in funds were available to farmers in 16
states (because of not receiving baseline funding in the
2013 Farm Bill extension that left 37 programs stranded).
The new Farm Bill will restore funding to all states for a
total of $11.5 million per year.
Organic research gets a big boost, with $20 million
per year going to the Organic Agriculture Research and
Extension Initiative, a competitive grant-making program
that funds organic research projects like sustainable organic
tribal bison production and nonthermal pasteurization
technologies, to name just a couple. An additional $5
million went to the Organic Data Initiative, which gathers
statistical data on organic production and market trends.
These both represent the most significant changes in new federal policy; investing in organic farming innovations has
long failed to keep up with the growth of the sector, and these
funds demonstrate a move toward closing this research gap.
Inclusion in the Federal Crop Insurance Agency,
at prices in line with their retail value, must happen no later
than 2015 for organic producers. Currently, organic crops
are insured at premiums set for conventional counterparts,
meaning that farmers take a loss in the case of a crop failure
or other problem. It will increase the ability of organic
producers to have their crops protected and will allow for
“split operations,” in which farmers grow for both organic and
Increased enforcement powers were granted to the
National Organic Program (NOP), the organization charged
with administering the national organic standards, accrediting
certifiers and handling complaints. In essence, they ensure
the integrity of USDA’s organic seal. They received funding
for technological improvements to help them more effectively
investigate fraud and pursue wrongdoing in the organic
industry. While NOP is still nowhere near being able to keep
up with the exploding organic market, this move indicates at
least a nudge in the right direction for policymakers.
For all these reasons, the Organic Trade Association has applauded the passing of the Farm Bill. “It is a new day for organic,” said
Organic Tarde Association(OTA) Executive Director Laura Batcha, with new champions joining traditional supporters of organic.”
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), while critical of the lengthy political process that it required to
get the bill to passage, did express support of the final product. “We are pleased that the bill renews support for innovative
programs that invest in the next generation of farmers, the growth of local and organic agriculture, and economic opportunity
in rural communities,” said Ariane Lotti, the assistant policy director with NSAC.
And while there were lots of other changes in the bill that made headlines—food stamps being slashed, the end of direct
cash payment subsidies and the increase of crop insurance payments, conservation measures now tied to subsidy eligibility,
significant cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program, the preservation of country-of-origin labeling laws, and catfish farmers
(yes, catfish)—the organic movement is there always in the background, soldiering on. Little by little, support continues to
grow, from the hallowed halls of Congress to the dirt in the snow-covered fields of our own farm, that will become 100-percent
certified-organic later this year.
It’s not a flashy sea-change that is upon us; organics still only represent a sliver of the Farm Bill’s $956.4 billion budget, even
if it’s a bigger sliver than it’s been ever before. While the Farm Bill’s improved support for organic farmers and handlers is a
hopeful sign that organic agriculture has earned acceptance among federal legislators, we are still a long way from recognition
of organic as a sustainable alternative to the environmentally destructive, chemical-intensive, industrial food-production
system that dominates the American agricultural landscape. Only time will tell if this recent headway will evolve into long-
term progress. But for now it’s just nice to see a little green go the way of organic.