Last week, I attended the Organic Trade Association (OTA) Policy Conference and Hill Visit Days in Washington, D.C. It was a one-day conference featuring speakers such as FDA Deputy Commission of Foods Michael Taylor, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and Congressman Sam Farr. Following the conference, we broke into groups to visit Capitol Hill and advocate on behalf of organic.
Laura Batcha, OTA executive director, gave a brief overview of data against a large backdrop of the impressive infographic you may have seen last week. The organic sector celebrates a 4.2 percent growth in 2011, with expected 9 percent growth into next year. In fact, the organic sector growth has remained positive even through the recession.
As Laura Batcha puts it, organic is a “self-help” industry, entrepreneurial at heart, and has not received its fair share of government help. As we saw during our hill visits, the organic sector requests mere shavings off the top of the farm bill appropriations. Still, legislators demanded to know where that money should come out of other budget lines, because nearly everything in the farm bill is getting slashed.
The argument we made last week is that the organic food industry creates over half a billion jobs and at a 21 percent higher rate than the food industry as a whole. According to OTA’s stats, there is an expected 100k additional jobs on the horizon. The reasoning behind this thrust in job creation is mainly due to more labor-intensive demand on farms, as well as higher numbers in production facilities and retail outlets necessary for staffing and educating customers. Chemical farming is much more capital-intensive, and much less labor-intensive, than organic counterparts.
In light of the industry’s tendency to raise capital through creative means, and with the growth we’re seeing, organic producers are held back by insufficient government assistance. Many individuals face difficulty when forecasting the amount needed to transition their farm to organic. They must invest in raw materials and end up under- or over-protecting their supply during the three year transition period.
Here is a quick overview of the fiscal year (FY) 2013 requests we brought to the Hill:
USDA-AMS: National Organic Program (NOP)
FY 12 Actual: $7M
2008 Farm Bill Authorized: $11M
OTA FY 13 request: $10M
As we learned from NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy there are only about 32 staff members within the NOP. Those staff members oversee the status of more than 17,600 certified organic operations in the country. This number is sure to spike due to the U.S.-EU Organic Equivalence which goes into effect June 1, 2012. The request for increase in funding would help bolster their staff and provide the necessary tools for this very important program.
USDA: Organic Data Initiative (ODI)
FY 12 Actual: $0.3 M
2008 Farm Bill Authorized: $5M
OTA FY 13 Request: $0.3M
There is no request to increase the funding for ODI’s current $300,000 spend. Rather than an increase, the OTA requests this amount stays level in 2013. ODI is necessary for data collection that is deemed critical “for risk management tool creation, market stability, and increasing exports.” Another quick glimpse at the OTA’s infographic can better illustrate the importance of continued data collection.
USDA-NIFA: Organic Transitions Integrated Research Program (ORG)
FY 12 Actual: $4M
OTA FY 13 Request: $5M
The increase in funding for ORG would help with extension projects and research to provide farmers with the information they need to expand or stabilize their businesses. No savvy business executive would dare make risky decisions without market insight and deep understanding of incurred costs. ORG could help deliver many farmers from financial distress through sheer information.
Lawmakers were careful not to promise us that the farm bill would make it out of the House this year. How would you change appropriations to better suit the natural and organic products industry?