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What the farm bill means for the organic industry

What the farm bill means for the organic industry
As the farm bill heads to President Obama's desk, the organic industry is celebrating several aspects of the bill that will boost organic producers and the market as a whole.  

Not long after the U.S. Senate voted to approve the new five-year farm bill on Tuesday, the organic industry sent out cries of victory. And while the long-awaited legislation clearly created winners and losers, the industry has many reasons to celebrate. The nearly $1 trillion Agricultural Act of 2014 “includes all the priorities the Organic Trade Association (OTA) has been seeking for more than two years,” the industry association announced. The Organic Farming Research Foundation lauded the bill for restoring long overdue support to several key organic programs.

As demand for organic products continues to outpace production, several elements in the bill will help facilitate and maintain the integrity of the organic certification while putting organic farmers on a more level playing field with conventional producers. The industry applauds that the bill:

  • Authorizes up to $15 million in annual funding for the National Organic Program, up from the $11 million the program was most recently allocated.
  • Appropriates an additional $5 million to the National Organic Program for technology upgrades.
  • Appropriates $20 million annually to the Organic Agriculture Extension and Research Initiative, which is on par with current annual funding levels.
  • Increases annual funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program by 161 percent, from $4.4 million to $11.5 million. The program reimburses farmers for part of the costs of obtaining organic certification, making it less cost prohibitive for smaller farmers to get certified.
  • Maintains the $1.5 million in annual funding for the Agricultural Management Assistance program, available to farmers in 16 states.
  • Grants the National Organic Program strong enforcement tools to enable it to more adequately enforce the organic regulations and investigate fraud.
  • Renews $5 million in funding for the Organic Data Initiative. The initiative collects and distributes market data about organic agriculture, including imports and exports, wholesale prices and consumer trends.
  • Expands exemptions for organic farmers from buying into conventional check-off programs that support research and advertising on behalf of a specific industry but many times don’t focus on the needs of the organic sector.
  • Gives the industry the ability to create its own agriculture research and promotion check-off program similar to the “Got Milk” campaign by authorizing the USDA to consider a program application from the organic sector.
  • Creates a more equitable system for crop insurance in which the USDA will set organic crop compensation prices and pay organic farmers those higher prices in the case of crop losses. Before, organic farmers were compensated for losses based on conventional crop prices, which tend to be two to three times lower, according to USDA data. Such inequitable compensation has been blamed for lower numbers of organic farms opting for federal crop insurance coverage. 

In all, the changes will ensure the industry continues to have strong oversight of the organic seal, has a strong foundation for long term growth and investment in research, data and technology and provides a greater opportuity for smaller consumer direct-type growers to enter the organic market, said Laura Batcha executive director of the Organic Trade Association

Though the total amount of money allocated to organic programs—a total of $250 million over five yearsmay seem miniscule for an industry worth $32 billion, Batcha said it was a big improvement from the 2008 farm bill. 

"If you take the view of where we were in 2008 and the environment around budgets and the lack of budgetary support for organic programs, once you put it in that context, this year is a real accomplishment," Batcha said. "These programs received bipartisan support and next time around the industry is going to have a seat at the table and be able to think much bigger about new policy reforms that will benefit the organic industry." 

Natural Products Expo West attendees can hear more from the Organic Trade Association at the association's hosted education session "From the Rooftops: The Power of Collective Research and Promotion for Organic" Friday, March 7 from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the Marriott Platinum Ballroom 1 or at OTA booth 2510.

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