The Franklin family has been farming in southern Vermont for nine generations. A family operation with one son helping full-time and two others pitching in on weekends, the certified organic dairy farm stays busy raising and milking some 52 dairy cows, along with producing fresh organic eggs and farm-raised organic beef, and some of the best-tasting organic maple syrup in Vermont.
Beginning this year, Franklin Farm has the Organic Trade Association (OTA) watching its back and helping to make sure the family can continue its proud traditions. The farm recently joined OTA under the association's new Farmstead Membership category. This new category makes full OTA membership available to smaller organic farmers for just $50 per year, a doable amount for budget-conscious producers.
Mary Ellen Franklin, whose husband David bought the farm from an aunt and uncle 30 years ago, says a desire to get more involved and to help organic farms like theirs stay in business caused them to join OTA.
"We know that OTA deals in Washington with people in suits, and those folks need to hear from the farmers, from the folks on the ground. If we can increase the farmer voice in Washington, that would be a good thing," said Mary Ellen. "It's important that small farms like ours stay around."
The Farmstead Membership is open to organic farmers whose annual income from organic sales is less than $250,000 and who have current membership in one of the farmer-driven organizations with which OTA's Farmers Advisory Council (FAC) has formed a strategic alliance. Farmstead Membership farmers get the full benefits of an OTA membership, including the right to vote in OTA's annual Board of Directors election.
"In keeping with OTA's value that farmers are the foundation of the organic industry, it was imperative for OTA to design a process to hear the voices of all farmers," said Perry Clutts, FAC co-chair and an organic farmer from Ohio.
"OTA is tackling farmers' issues with stakeholders across the supply chain. We've heard some concern that smaller organic farmers didn't have access to OTA, and we needed to address this concern. We are offering this very reasonable membership so that we can expand the already big and diverse OTA tent in order to represent all of the organic community even more effectively," said Laura Batcha, OTA's CEO and Executive Director.
The Farmers Advisory Council was formed by OTA in 2013. The group was established to elevate the voices of organic farmers and to provide guidance on how to constructively engage with national policy leaders. FAC helps bring farmer ideas to the attention of the OTA Board for consideration so that, in words of co-chair Clutts, "OTA can better serve the entire organic sector, from farm to plate.
The first year of FAC kicked off with a two-day summit in the spring as part of OTA's 2014 Annual Policy Conference. The FAC summit focused on ways to expand the domestic supply of organic ingredients and acreage necessary to support long-term growth in the industry. It brought together food companies and organic grain growers, organic livestock producers and distributors.
Providing a vehicle for ongoing conversation between the members, FAC, in its annual report, has identified a number of common themes that the group and OTA are addressing: the supply shortage of organic ingredients, especially grain, and ways to encourage transition to organic production; analysis and feedback on critical regulatory issues like the Food Safety Modernization Act and animal welfare; organic crop contamination from prohibited residues; information on the proposed organic check-off program; access to land for beginning organic and transitioning-to-organic farmers; concerns regarding shortages of labor; and international trade barriers.
"As FAC continues to build in size and momentum, this council will become stronger and better help OTA represent the organic farming community," says Clutts.
Farming—particularly organic farming—has never been easy. The Franklins have not used chemicals on their land since 1992, and received their organic certification in 2004. "Economic challenges are always real and always present," says Mary Ellen, "but our grandchildren and our sons will benefit from our struggles."
For the Franklin family in Vermont and for every organic producer, it's all about contributing to, not taking away from, the environment.
"Farming is a way of life our family loves and is very proud of. Our goals are to enjoy what we do, to produce food of the highest quality, and to leave this farm better than when we first started here," says Mary Ellen.
OTA's Farmers Advisory Council was established to elevate the voices of organic farmers, and to provide analysis and guidance on how to constructively engage with national policymakers. It fosters two-way communication between OTA and organic farmers, allowing organic farmers to offer their perspectives to help OTA shape its policy work, while providing a network to share relevant and timely information to organic farmers. Participating organizations include CCOF Inc., Organic Egg Farmers of America, Oregon Tilth Certified Organic, Western Organic Dairy Producers Association, and CROPP Cooperative.