Previewing his path forward for organic and pledging to elevate the significance and importance of organic agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Tom Vilsack kicked off the Annual Membership Meeting of the Organic Trade Association on Wednesday.
Speaking live at the virtual meeting to over 250 members of the trade association, Vilsack laid out a forward-looking agenda for the organic sector, including a vow to resolve the ongoing issue over USDA’s failure to implement a critical and fully vetted organic animal welfare regulation.
The day after his comments to members of the trade association, Vilsack announced the department would draft a new rule that will address the Trump administration’s outlier interpretation of the authority of USDA regarding organic animal welfare regulations, and also disallow the use of porches for outdoor access in organic poultry operations.
The Organic Trade Association welcomed Secretary Vilsack’s acknowledgment that animal welfare belongs in organic, and birds belong outside. This has been in the Courts since 2017 when the Organic Trade Association took legal action to defend organic standards. The association said in a statement that it hopes that USDA’s acknowledgment facilitates a full and timely resolution of this litigation. The next court filing deadline is today.
Vilsack told members of the Organic Trade Association at the annual meeting that he appreciates the importance of the organic animal welfare issue. “We understand, appreciate the concern of getting this done, getting it done right, getting it done in a way that preserves the brand … I am committed and I committed our team to an accelerated approval process.”
Addressing positively the majority of the Organic Trade Association’s priorities for the Biden administration, Vilsack vowed to “build a solid trust foundation” between USDA and the nation’s organic farmers and stakeholders.
“I understand and appreciate, that we've got some work to do in rebuilding the trust between the Department and the [organic] industry. And I am committed to that. And those who work at USDA are committed to that,” said Vilsack.
Other actions Vilsack announced included:
- Working to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule in 2021;
- Re-establishing the position of USDA Organic Policy Advisor;
- Increasing by “tens of millions of dollars” the funds available through USDA’s Organic Certification Cost Share program to help farmers transitioning to organic;
- Expanding the procurement for USDA’s emergency feeding programs to “small- and medium-sized distribution systems,” and giving “socially disadvantaged producers” access to more federal procurement dollars;
- Significantly expanding processing capacity in the U.S. through a soon-to-be-announced USDA initiative to “provide resources that could be leveraged with state economic development, resources, private sector investment, and others” to build out processing capacity, boost competition and provide value-added products with more processing outlets;
- Beefing up organic enforcement and “expanding the number and the diversity of those who will be involved in inspections and certifications;”
- Prioritizing climate-smart agriculture and regenerative practices, and creating "new revenue streams for producers who are embracing climate-smart agricultural practices in a way that is beneficial to farmers.”
“We are working hard to protect the [organic] brand and to expand a number of issues and opportunities for the organic industry…all designed to provide a strong message of the significance and importance that I place personally, and that the department places on this industry,” said Vilsack. “We recognize the importance of it, we recognize the value-added opportunities that it presents, and we think it is an important-- a very important part of the industry that will help us to a much better, climate-friendly agriculture.”
OTA Board announced following a turnout election
Passion for organic, dedication to collaboration, excitement about new possibilities and work of the Organic Trade Association were all reflected as its Board of Directors welcomed two new members and three returning members as part of the organization’s membership meeting.
Contributing to the dynamic meeting highlighting the important work of the association were newly elected Board members Matthew Dillon, VP Government Affairs & Advocacy at Clif Bar & Company, and Javier Zamora, Grower/Owner at JSM Organics; re-elected members Tracy Favre, Owner of Fig Hill Farm Consulting, and Paul Schiefer, Sr. Director of Sustainability, Amy’s Kitchen; and David Lively, Pioneer Emeritus, Organically Grown Company, re-appointed to continue to serve on the Board.
This year’s election set a new record, with 42% of eligible trade member companies voting, the highest participation rate ever.
“I am very passionate about organic,” said Dillon, new Board member attending from his home in Nebraska. Citing such challenges as addressing sustainability, global injustice, farmer needs, and consumer education, he pointed out, “We still have much work ahead.” Collaboration, he said, is important in moving forward. “I am always interested in dialog.”
Zooming in from his office in Monterrey Bay, California, Zamora said that serving on the Board “is an excellent opportunity for me to bring the small diversified family farm point of view” to help bridge a gap in the sector. He added, “We need more small farms. Organic is a way to get into farming for the new generation.”
Others serving on the Board are Domenic Borrelli of Danone North America, Doug Crabtree of Vilicus Farms, Ben Diesl of Cal-Organic/Grimmway Farms, Kim Dietz of Firmenich, Avi Garbow of Patagonia Inc., Kellee James, Founder and CEO of Mercaris Corporation, Bob Kaake of Slice of Kaake Consulting, Britt Lundgren of Stonyfield, Mike Menes of True Organic Products, and Adam Warthesen at CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley.
The Farmer seat on the Board is filled by Doug Crabtree, who chairs the Farmers Advisory Council (FAC). Established in 2013, FAC provides the Organic Trade Association with input from small- and medium-sized organic farmers, ranchers, and growers. It is one of the largest coalitions of organic farmers and organic farming organizations in the United States, representing nearly 8,000 organic livestock, poultry, grain, and specialty crop producers.
Adam Warthesen is continuing to serve as the designated Board member for Organic PAC. The Organic Trade Association’s Political Action Committee provides financial assistance to candidates for Congress who are influential in protecting and promoting organic food and farming, and is the only Political Action Committee dedicated to that end.
Officers now serving for 2021-2022 are led by Kim Dietz as President, with Paul Schiefer as Vice President, Domenic Borrelli as Treasurer and Britt Lundgren as Secretary. Dietz is continuing as president for the fifth year in a row.
“I’m pleased and honored to be elected by my peers to lead the Board. We have an incredible and diverse group of organic visionaries on the Board, and I look forward to working with them to keep moving organic forward,” said Dietz.
“We have over 700 members volunteering in the work of the trade association, and the Board represents 15 members volunteering at the highest level,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “We have a highly engaged membership that works every day to move organic forward, and our Board exemplifies that commitment.”
White House Listening Session
Following the annual meeting, members had the opportunity to participate virtually in an off-the-record listening session with the White House. During the robust 30-minute session, members expressed their most pressing messages about organic. This included requests that organic have a seat at the table in any climate change discussions and solutions, that organic be included in farm-to-school programs, and that critical technical assistance be provided for organic farmers, particularly for those seeking to transition to organic.
Source: Organic Trade Association