Better Funding For Farming Means
a Stronger Future For Organic
An Interview With Senator Tom Harkin
Foreword By Tracy Lerman, Organic Farming and Research Foundation
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has a long history of supporting organics. Due largely to Harkin’s advocacy, the 2007 Farm Bill has over $100 million in play for organic agricultural programs.
This funding from the Farm Bill is incredibly important not only to organic farmers, but organic processors as well. With the organic industry’s double-digit growth year after year, U.S. farmers and ranchers have struggled to keep up with growing demand, and U.S. processors and retailers have often needed to rely on foreign agricultural imports.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends less than 1.5 percent of agricultural research and education dollars on organic programs even though organic has grown to represent over 3 percent of the retail food market. Thus, organic advocates have been pushing for a “fair-share” of USDA research dollars.
And Senator Harkin has pushed alongside us for many years now. In fact, Harkin was instrumental in the 2002 Farm Bill as well, which contained the first competitive grants program for organic agriculture research with the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) funded at $15 million over 5 years. In the current Farm Bill, Harkin is advocating for $80 million for OREI, which would bring public funding for organic agriculture research significantly closer to the fair-share mark. This bill includes everything from increased funding for agricultural research and certification cost share to improvements on crop insurance. With the 2007 Farm Bill containing the strongest organic provisions to date, Harkin has truly made his mark as an organic champion in Congress.
Harkin took some time away from his work on Capitol Hill to chat with Organic Processing Magazine about the provisions in the 2007 Farm Bill and what those mean for the future of organic.
OP: To grow our organic production domestically, more farmers must be encouraged to transition to organic, yet the learning curve and certification fees can be too much of a challenge for many small farms. How does the 2007 Farm Bill plan to support those who wish to transition to organic?
Harkin: We all know that demand for organic agriculture is increasing dramatically, with organic sales increasing 17 to 20 percent annually. Many small farms are once again thriving and expanding due to this surge but, despite this growth, demand for organic foods is increasing so substantially that processors and retailers are having difficulties getting the products they need.
Organic farmers in my home state of Iowa and around the country have told me that transitioning to organic agriculture is not easy—it’s labor intensive and it requires funds to modify facilities as well as their cropping and livestock operations. Since pesticides are not permitted, producers have to learn how to alter their planting times and find acceptable biological pest controls. Just this summer, I heard from Jude Becker about his organic hog farm near Dyersville, Iowa, and David Ruden, who organically farms a wide variety of crops near Peosta, Iowa. These producers have said it can be challenging to find processing facilities or distribution channels for their organic products. The bottom line is that if farmers do not have the tools they need to overcome these challenges, there will be a high rate of turnover and imports will continue to be largely needed to meet the demand for organic products.
I want to do more to help farmers tap into the organic boom by providing them with the research, technical assistance and market information they need to succeed. The new Farm Bill accomplishes all of this and more. It helps producers maintain organic certification and defray some of the costs associated with this transition through the National Organic Certification Cost-Share program. This initiative, first included in the 2002 Farm Bill with $5 million total in mandatory funds, will receive $22 million over five years under the Senate Farm Bill passed in December. This funding boost will increase the maximum payment from $500 to $750. And the bill will help farmers by providing grants and loans to create distribution points where a number of farmers can bring their products or work with a distributor that will market their products with larger retail outlets.
OP: Government-funded research and data collection has been available for years to help guide conventional farmers, but the same resources have not been available to organic farmers. How does Farm Bill 2007 rectify this?
Harkin: The organic industry has grown so quickly that basic research and data hasn’t kept pace. Organic farmers have research needs that differ from those of many conventional farmers. For example, organic soybeans are key to many animal feeds, yet soybeans are also susceptible to soybean rust and other pests. Research on acceptable biological controls is needed to meet this industry challenge. The new Farm Bill will help meet these organic research needs.
The signature program for organic research is the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. It provides competitive grants for organic production and marketing research. The program has proved to be so necessary that USDA has only been able to fund less than 10 percent of approved grant applications. That’s why the Senate Farm Bill provides an historic $80 million over five years for this important initiative. In the 2002 bill, it was funded at $3 million.
Price and yield analysis is also needed in organic agriculture. That is why the Farm Bill currently moving through Congress provides $5 million over five years for organic production and market data initiatives. These funds will go to the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the Economic Research Service (ERS), and the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), to fund comprehensive reporting of prices relating to organically produced agricultural products and to expand and publish organic census analysis. This lack of basic information has also contributed to the lack of adequate crop insurance products for organic farmers. The organic industry has grown large enough that USDA needs to provide comprehensive, national data for this industry.
OP: Speaking of which, organic farmers currently have to pay an additional 5 percent surcharge for crop insurance, presenting yet another financial barrier for organic farmers. How does the Farm Bill address this issue?
Harkin: The surcharge for organic crop insurance policies was implemented by USDA regulations under their general authority to establish premium rates for the program. As I understand it, the surcharge was established based on the blanket assumption that since producers growing organic crops, by definition, do not have access to pesticides and other chemical plant protection products, they would fare worse and generate more losses under adverse weather or pest pressure than would comparable crops grown using conventional practices. USDA did not make an effort to determine whether this assumption is in fact valid on a crop by crop basis.
I believe that the 5 percent surcharge as currently assessed is completely arbitrary with no data to back up why it is needed. That’s why the Senate Farm Bill prohibits the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation from charging a surcharge on premiums paid to insure organic crops. It allows surcharges to be required only when consistent evidence of greater loss variability is validated on a crop by crop basis. As mentioned before, it’s also important to note that the increase in funds to organic price and yield information will also help improve crop insurance for organic producers.
OP: You have mentioned that you want to make the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides incentive payments and cost shares to implement conservation practices, more universally available for farmers to transition into organic agriculture. Tell us more about this program and how it can support the growth of organic and help create more sustainable farming practices.
Harkin: Organic farmers can contribute greatly to sound conservation practices, yet for too long I have felt that conservation programs have not been user friendly to organic producers. I created the Conservation Security Program (CSP) in the 2002 Farm Bill to pay farmers for incorporating conservation practices on working lands. We expanded that program substantially in the new Senate Farm Bill and we intend to improve CSP’s usefulness for organic farmers.
It’s important to note that some producers in the country are using EQIP to transition into organic agriculture, but EQIP is not available in all states for organic practices. The Senate farm bill outlines national standards that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can use to administer this conservation program for organic producers. Farmers will be allowed to use up to $20,000 per year, but no more than $80,000 over a three or four year period, to transition to organic agriculture.
OP: How do you see these added measures for organic in the Farm Bill affecting processors and ultimately the American consumer?
Harkin: The goal of the Senate Farm Bill with respect to organics is simple: give organic agricultural producers the tools they need to transition into this burgeoning market so that they may grow more organic products right here in the United States. If processors can meet demand and reduce transportation costs, they could pass cost savings onto consumers while boosting the availability, variety and quality of organics in the marketplace.
OP: The Farm Bill also supports renewable resources and helps farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses who want to improve their own energy systems through grants and loan guarantees for energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy systems. Please tell us more about this.
Harkin: Organic farms have an opportunity to increase our nation’s energy security using domestic, homegrown resources, but there are too few resources to help farmers to transition to use of renewable sources of energy.
I started to change that in the The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 by including the first-ever energy title, with a program of grants and loans for ranchers and rural small businesses to help them transition to renewable sources of energy and improve energy efficiency. The Senate Farm Bill currently moving through Congress builds on the successes of that title and includes added funds for what will be named the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).
This program provides grants and loan guarantees to farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency projects. In its short existence, the program has already proven popular and successful, with about $100 million in federal funding leveraging approximately 10 times that much in other funding for projects. Some of the most common projects have been wind power systems and more efficient grain dryers and irrigation pumps.
OP: Do you have any suggestions of how those who support organic can get involved to further support these efforts in the future?
Harkin: Much of what I’ve learned about the needs of this industry has come from producers and organizations dedicated to expanding the industry, so I encourage all who are interested in promoting organics to continue to push Congress to fully fund initiatives that help with this expanding industry. Interested readers can contact myself and other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee by filling out the web form at www.agriculture.senate.gov.
Foreword Contributed by Tracy Lerman, the policy program assistant at The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), a non-profit leader in grantmaking, policy, education and networking initiatives that support organic farmers’ immediate information needs while moving the public and policymakers toward greater investment in organic farming systems. For more information on the Farm Bill and more, visit www.ofrf.org.