Advocating for the Organic Community in the Farm Bill

Organic farmers, consumers and processors all have a direct stake in the outcome of the 2008 Farm Bill. That is why National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), along with other members of the National Organic Coalition (NOC) in Washington, D.C., has been working hard to advocate for the needs of the organic community in the Farm Bill debate and negotiations.

Farm bills are written by Congress every five years to govern a myriad of USDA farm, marketing, and nutrition programs that affect all sectors of our economy. While the last Farm Bill, enacted in 2002, included some important organic research, marketing, and farmer assistance programs, NOC has been working hard with other allies in Washington to push for changes in programs and funding to better meet the growing needs of the rapidly expanding organic sector.

Congress is now in the midst of a full-scale rewrite of the Farm Bill. Below is a brief summary of the programs and policies that NOC has proposed:

1. Expand certification cost share assistance for organic farmers and handlers.
The costs of organic certification are growing, and the Organic Certification Cost Share Program created under the 2002 Farm Bill to help organic farmers and handlers defray some of these costs needs to be expanded and updated.

2. Create an organic conversion assistance program to provide incentives and technical assistance for producers to convert to organic.
We all know that demand for organic products is growing at a very rapid rate. That’s a very hopeful sign, but domestic production is not keeping pace with that demand. If we are going to continue to find U.S. sources to meet this demand, we need more farmers to convert more acreage to organic. This program would provide modest incentives and technical assistance to help conventional farmers convert their land to organic, and to help existing organic farmers expand acreage.

3. Expand organic research. USDA research programs have not kept pace with the growth of organic agriculture in the marketplace. Although organic currently represents over three percent of the total U.S. food retail market, the share of USDA research targeted to organic agriculture and marketing represents only slightly more than one percent annually. NOC has advocated for a significant expansion in organic research funding, including consistent mandatory funding, and greater emphasis on developing new seed varieties that meet the needs of organic farmers and consumers.

4. Eliminate the unfair surcharge for organic farmers to participate in crop insurance programs.
Currently organic producers are required to pay a five percent surcharge on their crop insurance rates. Additionally, organic producers are often reimbursed for losses based on conventional prices, without recognition of the higher value of their organic products. NOC is working to rectify these inequities.

5. Modify the Conservation Security Program to better fit the needs of organic farmers.
The Conservation Security Program was established in the last Farm Bill to reward ongoing conservation stewardship practices by farmers. NOC is pushing to streamline the application and approval process to assure full and simple access to this important USDA program for organic farmers.

6. Require GMO seed companies to bear the liability of GMO contamination of organic crops.
NOC members are concerned about the plight of organic farmers who suffer GMO contamination of their crops and possible loss of markets as a result of genetic drift from other farms in their area. A liability regime should be established so that farmers suffering economic and other losses from contamination by genetically engineered material can recoup their losses from the manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds.

7. Strengthen the Agricultural Fair Practices Act to require processors to bargain in good faith with producer associations.
Organic farming has been a bright spot of opportunity for family farmers seeking a fair price for their products. However, as organic food processing firms and retail chains consolidate and dominate markets, farmers’ ability to negotiate fair prices and fair contract terms is in jeopardy. The Agricultural Fair Practices Act was enacted in 1967 to prohibit processors and handlers from retaliating against producers who join producer cooperatives or associations in an effort to gain more market power. Yet loopholes in the law have made it difficult for USDA to enforce the statute, and changes are needed to make to make it a more effective bargaining tool. NOC is working to amend the act to close the loopholes and add provisions to require processors to bargain in good faith with associations of producers—including organic producer associations—instead of leaving small producers to negotiate price and contract terms unilaterally with large corporate buyers.

Both the House and Senate completed their work on their respective versions of the Farm Bill last year. Both bills contain provisions on most of the proposals detailed above. In some cases, the Senate provisions are better; in other areas the House version is preferable. A conference committee has been appointed, comprised of the leadership of the two agriculture committees, to resolve the differences between the two bills and submit a final package to the President for signature. NOC is working actively with the conference committee.

While Congressional attitudes toward organic agriculture are better than they were in farm bills past, the policy changes being advocated by NCGA, NOC and other organic allies remain an uphill push, given the demands of conventional agriculture and the battle over scarce federal dollars. Organic farmers, food co-ops, and consumers should take every opportunity to let our senators and representatives know about the importance of these policies to the health and sustainability of our families, communities, and planet.

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Steve Etka, the National Organic Coalition Legislative Coordinator, works to educate the public on the importance of sustainable food and agriculture ([email protected]).
Liana Hoodes has grown food and ch8ildren organically in the Hudson Valley for over 20 years ([email protected]).
Robynn Shrader is CEO of the National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]) and represents NCGA in the National Organic Coalition.

See other articles from this issue: #136 may - june - 2008