Natural Foods Merchandiser

What the Farm Bill means for organic

By Samuel Fromartz

Organic agriculture gained ground in current negotiations over the Farm Bill — a sign that the sector is winning recognition after years of being the bastard alternative stepchild of farming.

But it's unclear whether the $300 billion, five-year Farm Bill will ever make it into law because a boost in farm subsidies is strongly opposed by the White House.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Shafer said last week: "At a time of record farm income, Congress decided to further increase farm subsidy rates, qualify more people for taxpayer support, and move programs toward more government control." President Bush has promised to threaten the bill.

But farmers have never been subsidized for growing organically. In fact, organics, like fruits and vegetables, might be the closest to a free market in agriculture, since consumers bear the real costs for the food.

This year's Farm Bill appeared different, perhaps a belated sign of recognition that the $17 billion industry did indeed qualify as a sector deserving support.

So what did organic farmers get? Here are a few items summarized by the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

  • Certification Cost Share Assistance — $22 million over 5 years in mandatory funding, a nearly five-fold increase to help cover the costs of organic certification.
  • Organic Conversion Assistance — A new financial assistance option for producers transitioning to organic production.
  • Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative — $78 million over 4 years in mandatory funding, a seven-fold increase, to fund organic farming research and extension.
  • Organic Data Collection Initiative — $5 million over 5 years, first-time mandatory funding to fund a USDA organic data collection effort.
  • Organic Crop Insurance — Sets in motion processes at U.S. Department of Agriculture that should end the current discriminatory treatment of organic producers under the Federal crop insurance program.

That means a farmer will get assistance in converting land to organic production, and then will be to apply for funds to cover yearly certification expenses.

In addition, with more research funds available, a farmer will be able to find more robust information on everything from combating pests to determining crop yields. The data collection initiative will also mean more information on market prices and demand, allowing organic farmers to make better planting decisions.

And the discrimination against organic farmers in the federal crop insurance program will hopefully cease with future reforms. (Currently, organic farmers must pay a 5 percent premium for insurance but get compensated for losses at lower conventional crop prices).

There were wins, too, for local farmers and smaller-scale food processors.

  • Farmers' Market Promotion Program - $33 million over 4 years, a near seven-fold increase, for farmers' markets, CSAs, and on-farm consumer sales.
  • Value-Added Producer Grants - $15 million in mandatory funding over 4 years (a very significant cut, but additional annual funding through appropriations process is likely) for competitive grants to help farmers develop value-added businesses
  • Local Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loan Program — Provides that 5% (about $50 million a year) of the Business and Industry Loan Program be used to provide federal guarantees on loans for local food enterprises in rural communities.

But the fact is, all these measures are a fraction of the overall Farm Bill. And until the battle over subsidies is resolved, in either more negotiations, a veto, or a veto override on Capitol Hill, these measures will remain in limbo.

Hopefully, they won't stay in limbo for another five years, until the next Farm Bill, and organic farmers at least will be able to benefit from their legitimate market gains.

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