By Mitchell Clute
On May 21, the Senate overrode President Bush's veto of the 2008 Farm Bill, establishing the direction of agricultural and conservation policy for the next five years. Organic activists and conservation groups were generally pleased with the bill's provisions, which will set funding levels for a wide variety of programs related to organic agriculture.
"There are certainly some positive changes in this bill," said Steve Ela, president of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Organic Farming Research Foundation and organic orchardist in Hotchkiss, Colo. "There's a significant increase in money for organic crop research—about 600 percent over the last farm bill."
Reaction from the Organic Trade Association was also positive. "We think it's a great bill," said Caren Wilcox, executive director of OTA, based in Greenfield, Mass. "We marked out a number of areas we felt were important to organic progress, and we received $100 million in mandatory spending in this bill."
Specific program that benefit organic agriculture include cost-share funding, which will reimburse small farmers for about two-thirds of the cost of achieving organic certification. There is also funding for market analysis, so that organic farmers will have access to data analysis and review, helping them determine which crops will be most profitable in a given season. But the biggest funding boost is earmarked for organic farming research.
"The $78 million for research is a really wonderful advantage," Wilcox said. "[The U.S. Department of Agriculture] does more ag research than any organization in the world, and not being at the table was a huge disadvantage for organic [in the past]."
The new bill increases spending on renewable energy and biofuel research by more than $1 billion, increases nutrition spending by $10 billion, and provides funding for a variety of new conservation initiatives as well.
No bill is perfect, especially one as huge and wide-ranging as the Farm Bill, which allocates hundreds of billions of dollars for programs as diverse as food stamps and wetlands conservation. OTA lobbied to remove a 5 percent premium that organic farmers pay for crop insurance, which the organic industry sees as a disincentive to plant organic; that move failed. And, though organic funding increased dramatically, it still lags behind when compared with organic market share as a total of all food crops.
"While we're excited about the gains, there is still a lot of work to do, especially with conservation and sustainability issues," Ela said.