OFA Director on Food Sleuth Radio

Listen to OFA Director Kate Mendenhall's interview with Melinda Hemmelgarn on her radio show, Food Sleuth Radio. The show touches on organic certification, cost share, and the pandemic.


ORGANIC FARMS ADAPTING DURING COVID-19

Resilience, Soil Health, and Community = Winning Strategies

By, Noah Cohen, Organic Farmers Association

Despite much uncertainty and upheaval of our economy during the 2020 outbreak, many organic farms have been bright spots of the COVID-19 economy. With consumers now having 100% control over their food dollars, we have seen nationwide increase in organic sales.  An increase of home cooking has mirrored an increase in purchase of organic whole foods.  Organic farmers have pivoted to shift their businesses in new directions to better serve the local direct markets as well as rethink our food systems for the future.

Here’s how a handful of organic farmers from around the country have fared:

JENNIFER TAYLOR, LOLA's ORGANIC FARM, GLENWOOD, GA

  • FARM FACTS: Taylor runs Lola’s Organic Farm, which sells organic fruits and vegetables through farmers markets, a co-op, and a CSA program.  She also works at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) as the coordinator of Florida’s Statewide Small Farm Program, which helps farmers obtain education and training to implement organic methods.
  • EXPERIENCE: Lola’s Organic primarily grows fresh fruits and vegetables—food categories that saw especially astronomical sales increases nationwide during the pandemic’s early phases, with consumers suddenly gravitating to products perceived to boost immune system health. “That [sales boost] was true for us,” Taylor says, “and that’s still going on.” “One outcome of this whole thing,” she explains, was that “it caused everyone to slow down and reflect on what’s important to us and to our communities, and as we did that, to think about our health. Because health was an issue.” Many of Taylor’s local community members began to focus on “how to build our own immune systems, and how to eat healthy foods,” she says. “And that was why the customers were being, and still are, very appreciative and supportive of the farmers gearing up to share and sell their local organic produce to the customers [through channels like farmers markets].”
  • TAKEAWAYS: Taylor, who works with small farmers to implement organic practices and enter “different alternative types of marketing systems” at FAMU, says the COVID crisis has “verified” the resilience of local organic farming and underscored its importance to community food systems. “Communities found that [local organics] did not stop being available [during COVID], and food from your local organic farmers was and is the reliant food resource for the community,” she explains. “It also verified [that] for us, because we knew we were essential food providers long before we were deemed that role.” While the organic farmers of Taylor’s community broadly adapted well to the pandemic restrictions, she says farms that “use direct connections from the farmer to the consumer and to the communities” have been especially successful.Taylor also observes that the pandemic’s disproportionate public health impact on communities of color drives home the need to bring the essential health benefits of organic agriculture to urban areas, which she says calls for helping urban and underrepresented farmers implement organic methods through technical assistance, education on certification, and cost-sharing. “Healthy environments, healthy food resources, pollinator habitats, the lack of toxic chemicals being used-- all these are benefits that urban communities see through growing organic agriculture in the soil,” she explains. “And so expanding and enhancing resilient agriculture systems and growing [organics] in urban areas-- that supports minority communities.”

LORETTA ADDERSON, ADDERSON'S FRESH PRODUCE, AUGUSTA, GA 

  • FARM FACTS: Adderson has run Adderson’s Fresh Produce since 2007, where she grows organic fruits and vegetables on her 56-acre multi-generational family farm.
  • EXPERIENCE: “Our biggest challenge was finding a market for our produce,” says Adderson, who had ordered seedlings before the pandemic started with the expectation of selling to 12 different distribution channels, including multiple restaurants, school districts, and retail markets. “We immediately realized we had overproduced… due to the pandemic, we only had one online market and one juice bar [to sell produce to].”Faced with lagging sales and over 15,000 seedlings, Adderson pivoted by introducing a Grab Bag Program—which, to better meet public health standards during the pandemic, soon became a Grab Box Program—targeting two different communities. One market where this transition was particularly challenging was the Veggie Park Farmers Market, an organic produce market that serves the Harrisburg neighborhood of Augusta. Harrisburg is a food desert—an urban area where accessibility to affordable fresh food is limited. Many Veggie Park customers, Adderson explains, could not access traditional CSAs because they had no credit or debit card, making it impossible to pay online. The farmers were not set up to receive EBT card payments either, so innovation was necessary. “The boxes were delivered to a central location, and the customers would pick up their boxes and place a check or cash in a container beside the boxes,” Adderson says. While Veggie Park did get some customers for the Box program—especially when their annual Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program opened—sales remained down significantly compared to their traditional farmers market sales from previous years. Nonetheless, Adderson’s Fresh Produce has weathered the storm, albeit with lower sales than usual and the loss of many of their crops due to extreme summer heat. “Our plan for the fall is to step up our game with an increase in brassicas,” Adderson says, “and to add a Box CSA for a stronger 2021.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: “We still have a lot of work to do,” Adderson says of the implementation of her Box Program. “The CSA is a new concept for our communities, families and farmers… [so we need to] educate, and, importantly, allow EBT for online purchases.”
    As a retired nutritionist, Adderson has been preaching the importance of building immune health since long before the pandemic. Now this commitment has begun to pay off, with consumers finally gravitating toward the vitamin-rich, immune boosting organic vegetables she has long been committed to growing to improve the health of her community. “Providing organic dark leafy greens and other high-nutrient vegetables to help reduce nutrition-related diseases is our mission,” she says. “Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustards, and spinach are full of vitamins and minerals. Excellent sources of Vitamin A and C, too.” Adderson plans to keep using her platform as a staple food resource for her community to drive home the connection between health and diet and encourage her customers to consume more fresh, nutritious, and vitamin-rich foods to protect their health, both during the pandemic and beyond.

MARYROSE LIVINGSTON - NORTHLAND SHEEP DAIRY, MARATHON, NY

    • FARM FACTS: Livingston runs Northland Sheep Dairy, a 177-acre farm that produces “completely handmade” aged sheep cheese and lamb using 100% grass-fed sheep, and primarily sells wholesale to restaurants and retail outlets.
  • EXPERIENCE: Livingston considers herself incredibly lucky that due to the production timeline for both aged cheese and lamb, her sales dropping off precipitously during the pandemic has not hugely affected her livelihood. “I make aged cheeses, so I’m usually selling the previous year’s cheese,” she explains. “I’m mostly wholesale—we make whole wheels that go to a couple distributors, mostly to restaurants. But of course [this year] the restaurant sales went kaputt, as did my distributors… so I have a couple really small retail outlets I sell to, but other than that I’m really not selling much cheese. So therefore, I haven’t weaned my lambs… I’m not milking, I’m not making cheese, yet.” As for lamb, Livingston does direct sales to customers, which were, as usual, concentrated around November last year. “So we sold all our lambs at once and had a nice nest egg from that, so we’re doing fine,” she says. “We’re using this year to do lots of projects we’ve never had time to do, we’re making the most of it, and it’s going pretty well.” And for this year’s slaughter season, she says, “I’m fortunate that I have a wonderful relationship with a great USDA butcher that’s certified organic, and I have my appointment, and I’m good to go.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: “Being small has made us resilient,” Livingston says, “and so has making aged cheese [which can be stored rather than sold for a long time]. If I were producing a ton of fresh cheese, I’d be really under the gun to keep them moving.”

NATE POWELL-PALM - COLD SPRINGS ORGANICS, BELGRADE, MT

  • FARM FACTS: Powell-Palm is a millennial farmer who has been running his own organic cattle-growing operation since the age of 12, and the owner of Cold Springs Organics, an 875-acre ranch where he produces grains and grass-fed beef.
  • EXPERIENCE: “In Montana, we sort of socially distance natively, so it wasn’t all that much of a change for us. And in the summertime, me and my crew don’t really leave the farm, it’s just too busy for that,” quips Powell-Palm, who I finally reached after several weeks during a 30-minute break between marathon sessions of combining wheat. The biggest impact of COVID on his day-to-day operation, he says, is that it “disrupted some of the supply chain, so ordering parts [for machinery like combines] has been kind of tricky.”
    With meat processing plants shutting down en masse during COVID, many meat growers have been left unable to sell this summer. Powell-Palm, however, was able to “inch by,” thanks to Montana’s robust system of local, family-run slaughter plants, which have fared much better than the industrial-scale processors elsewhere. “The plants here don’t have very many employees, so they’re pretty resilient as far as surviving [the pandemic],” he explains. But by next year, Cold Springs will be better prepared: this year’s shutdowns have inspired them to open their own processing plant. “We had mostly been selling our cattle to Whole Foods, which goes through a larger processor that’s experienced disruptions throughout the pandemic,” Powell-Palm explains, “so it’s kind of inspired us to take the jump.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: Powell-Palm says the pandemic has made it clearer than ever that organic grass-fed beef is not only the only ecologically sustainable beef production system, but also a critical solution for consumer health and a bulwark against devastation for farmers during economic crises. Unlike other beef, which is loaded with the blood pressure-spiking Omega-6 fatty acids that spur nutritionists to warn against too much red meat, grass-fed beef largely replaces these fats with the much more heart-healthy Omega-3s. “Grass-fed beef actually has nearly the same Omega-3 [fatty acid] profile as salmon… so when you talk about salmon’s ability to bolster brain function and heart health, grass fed beef does that as well,” Powell-Palm says. With consumers becoming unusually health-conscious during the pandemic, he says, many have started to take stock of these benefits. “There’s also been a lot of studies about farm economic liability and grazing,” Powell-Palm says, “and the farms that graze [their livestock] as opposed to using feedlots, they’re really the ones that survive the bad times, like this pandemic. They’re the really resilient model.”Reflecting on his decision to open his own meat processing plant as well as his own feed mill—which he says is “kind of as a service” for members of his community who want to raise their own food—Powell-Palm says local processing infrastructure and self-sufficient local food systems are key to keeping food available to communities during crises like COVID. “Thinking about the wake-up call of [COVID],” he says, “we’ve got a lot of food going un-used at the local level right now, so we’re trying to figure out how you make [our local commodities] more accessible, more able to utilize at the local level, and more available to consumers and to communities.”

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Most organic farmers seem to agree on one thing: that COVID-19 has exposed fundamental flaws in the food system status quo. Mark McAfee calls the pandemic “a national stress test on our food system [where] consolidated, huge industrial systems have failed” while local, organic, consumer-connected systems have thrived. While COVID-19 has been tragic, Bishop says, it has unexpectedly provided “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reevaluate our current food system and imagine how it might improve for the future, using the resilience and success of the many thriving local, organic farms as a blueprint.

Several farmers also recommended specific policy priorities, including:

  • Establishing federal quotas for dairy to stabilize dairy prices, protecting dairy farmers from market shocks like the pandemic
  • Establishing robust certification processes for the grass-fed label on meat to ensure uniform standards and increase consumer transparency
  • Allowing EBT cards to be used for online CSA purchases, to enable consumers without access to credit or debit cards to access fresh produce delivery
  • Bringing the crucial soil health benefits of organic farming to cities by supporting urban organic farmers
  • Improving nutritious food access for Black, indigenous, and people of color communities by supporting underrepresented organic farmers via technical assistance, organic certification education, and increased funding for the organic certification cost-share program
  • Enforcement of antitrust laws to combat meat/dairy industry concentration, which many have called “the root cause” of COVID-related processing supply chain disruptions
  • Fixing the organic livestock enforcement loophole, which has tanked organic dairy prices
  • Mitigating the farm workforce’s vulnerability to border closures by introducing a new longer-term farm worker visa for immigrants and an agriculture-centric path to citizenship
  • Prioritizing local farms + disproportionately impacted communities when distributing stimulus money
  • Making federal investments into organic sector development
  • Revising eligibility restrictions for SNAP, creating incentives to buy fresh, local foods

 


September Policy Update

By, Patty Lovera, Policy Director

COVID-19 RESPONSE

It’s getting a little repetitive, but once again there is still no clear sign what Congress will do next to address the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and related economic disruption. The House passed its version of a stimulus/pandemic response bill in May, but the Senate has not yet passed its own bill. On September 10th, the Senate voted on a Republican version of a limited or “skinny” version of a pandemic response bill, which failed, 52-47 (most bills need 60 votes to advance in the Senate.) 

This means that the negotiations between Democrats and Republicans will continue, with major issues to be resolved, including aid to state and local governments, unemployment assistance, and a proposal to provide 

businesses with immunity from lawsuits by workers or customers. The two sides seem to be as far apart as they were earlier this summer, but as we get closer to the election, there may be more pressure on both sides to come up with something that can pass both the House and Senate.

So far, the negotiations remain focused on those big picture economic issues, with not much discussion of specific sectors like agriculture. All the bills that have been introduced would provide more funding for USDA to make direct payments to farms and processors that were impacted by the pandemic, with the same vague instructions that give a lot of discretion to USDA on how to set up these payments.

USDA continues to run the two main programs established by the CARES Act that Congress passed earlier this year. You can read more about these programs here. The deadline for applying for the direct payment program, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, just passed but USDA has said they will soon be making an announcement about a new round of funding for that program. We will post an update on the OFA website when details are released.

USDA Regulations on Origin of Organic Livestock

Earlier this summer, we made sure to remind the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) that Congress had set a deadline for them to finalize a long-delayed rule about how livestock are transitioned into organic production. Congress set a deadline of mid-June for NOP to finish this rule in the 2020 appropriations (spending) bill for USDA.

Unfortunately, the NOP not only failed to meet that deadline, but has now explained that they believe there are significant problems with the proposed rule they have been working on since 2015 that need to be addressed before they can finish it.

OFA is going to continue to push NOP to finish this rule, which is critical for creating a level playing field for all organic dairy producers and closing the loopholes in existing regulations that are being exploited by large operations.

Organic Certification Cost-Share

On August 10, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that funds were being released for the annual organic certification cost share program. OFA has been working with allies like the National Organic Coalition for several months to pressure FSA to make this year’s funds available so that organic farmers and handling operations could begin to apply for reimbursement for part of their annual certification costs.

Unfortunately, the FSA announced that due to an unexpected shortfall in funding, they were lowering the reimbursement rate to 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope. This is reduced from a rate of 75 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope in previous years (and the level that was specified for this program in the last Farm Bill.) OFA has been working with NOC and other allies to understand what happened to cause this funding shortfall and to alert members of Congress who support the cost share program. In late August, 39 members of the House sent a letter to FSA objecting to this cut in the reimbursement rate and in September, Senator Collins (R-ME) sent her own letter expressing concern. We are going to keep working with members of Congress to try to restore the funding for organic certification cost share this year and to prevent funding shortfalls like this in the future. You can find out how to take action on cost share here.

Don’t Forget to Comment on Stopping Fraudulent Organic Imports!  

OFA has worked for years to demand better enforcement to prevent fraud in organic markets. In last month’s policy update, we gave some detail on the proposed rule on Strengthening Organic Enforcement. The public comment period for this proposed rule is open until October 5th, so check out what is in the rule and find out how to add your comment here.

COMMENT ON STRENGTHENING ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT RULE

National Organic Standards Board Fall Meeting

The fall NOSB meeting will be held online, spread out over several days. The public comment sessions will be from noon until 5:00 eastern on October 20 and 22, and the NOSB meeting will be from noon until 5:00 eastern on October 28, 29 and 30th.

You can get information about registering to watch the meeting online, how to submit written comments and how to sign up for a public comment slot on the USDA’s website for this meeting. The deadline to submit written comments and sign up for a public comment slot is October 1st.

You can see the full agenda for the meeting on the USDA’s website, but two items that might be of interest to OFA members are paper pots and a parasiticide for laying hens called fenbendazole. You can read more about the proposals the NOSB will vote on at the October meeting here. OFA will be urging the board to approve paper pots as an allowable synthetic because they are similar to already-approved inputs and because they are particularly important to smaller operations. And we will be urging the board not to allow the use of fenbendazole with no withholding period and no defined parameters for use. There are real concerns about the potential for residues of the drug to remain in eggs laid by treated birds as well as concerns about how this drug fits into a properly managed organic system with adequate outdoor access.

 

TAKE ACTION ON ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT

We also need OFA members to weigh in during the public comment period for the Strengthening Organic Enforcement proposed rule to make sure it gets finalized quickly and that the final rule is a strong as possible.

Here’s how you can comment:

The fastest way to submit a public comment is through the federal government’s online system. This proposed rule has its own web page and you can click on the “Comment Now” button on the top right to enter your comment. You can either copy and paste your comment into the system or attach a file.

If you want to submit a hard copy of your comments instead (you don’t need to do this if you submit online), send it to:

Jennifer Tucker, Deputy Administrator, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Room 2642-So., Ag Stop 0268, Washington, DC 20250-0268;  Fax: (202) 260-9151

What to include in your comment:

  • Make sure to include the docket number for this proposed rule in your written comment: AMS-NOP-17-0065.
  • Explain that you are an organic farmer and mention any specific concerns you have or examples of how fraud in organic supply chains has impacted you.

TALKING POINTS:

  • This proposed rule is necessary and long overdue. I especially support the end to exemptions for uncertified handlers in the supply chain and the requirement of electronic import certificates.
  • I urge the USDA to finalize this rule as soon as possible and speed up the effective date so that the agency can start enforcing these rules to prevent fraud in organic supply chains.
  • For section 205.273(c), I urge the USDA to shorten the time frame allowed for an importer to submit an electronic import certificate into the ACES system. Allowing importers 10 days to file the electronic certificate after the shipment has reached a U.S. port could mean the difference between preventing fraudulent products from entering the U.S. and having to try to retrieve them once they have entered commerce.
  • I appreciate the proposed rule’s requirements that non-retail containers be labeled with more information about the organic status of products (section 205.307). But I urge the agency to expand this requirement to large non-retail containers such as trailers, tanks, rail cars, shipping containers, grain elevators/silos, vessels, cargo holds, freighters, barges, or other method of bulk transport or storage. Providing a visual indicator that these contain organic products serve as a valuable backstop to other methods, such as organic certificates, and provide one last opportunity to prevent unintended commingling or treatment with irradiation or other prohibited substances. I also urge the agency to investigate technologies that indicate whether containers have been opened or tampered with during shipping for large-scale shipments.

 


NOC & OFA Issue Press Release on Cost Share

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 26, 2020

Media Contact:
National Organic Coalition, Abby Youngblood, abby@nationalorganiccoalition.org, 646-525-7165
Organic Farmers Association, Kate Mendenhall, kate@organicfarmersassociation.org 202-643-5363

National Organic Coalition and Organic Farmers Association

Thank House Members for Their Bipartisan Letter to USDA Calling for Restoration of Organic Certification Cost Share Funding

Washington, D.C. – August 26, 2020 — Yesterday, 39 Members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to urge the restoration of funding for the Organic Certification Cost Share program (OCCSP), and to extend all applicable program deadlines to ensure that farmers who are still dealing with COVID-19 impacts have ample time to access these funds.  The letter was led by Representatives Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Rodney Davis (R-IL), Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), and Dan Newhouse (R-WA).  All signers of the letter are members of either the House Committee on Agriculture or the House Organic Caucus.

The letter is in response to the announcement on August 10 announcement by the FSA of the agency’s plans to reduce reimbursement rates for the organic certification cost share program, which provides reimbursements to organic farms and handling operations. The Federal Register notice stated that FSA is “revising the reimbursement amount to 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope,” because of lack of funding. The 2018 Farm Bill clearly set reimbursement rates at 75 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope.

“The National Organic Coalition thanks Representatives Plaskett, Davis, Brindisi and Newhouse for their leadership in organizing this letter calling on USDA to restore funding for this crucial organic program.” said Abby Youngblood, Executive Director at the National Organic Coalition. “Producers and other organic operations need this support now more than ever because they are faced with economic disruptions and loss of markets due to COVID-19.”

"The Organic Certification Cost-Share Program is especially important for small and mid-size organic farms,” said Kate Mendenhall, Director of the Organic Farmers Association. “Organic farmers scrambled this season to make sure healthy food was available for our local communities in a time of crisis.  This is a time when the USDA should be looking for ways to support organic farmers, not harm them."

This action by USDA is unwarranted and completely unacceptable. The 2018 Farm Bill provided new funding for the program and also directed USDA to use the program’s carryover balances from previous years to fund the program for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. Given these sources of funding, there should be plenty of funds available for the program’s operation in fiscal year 2020. Either USDA’s accounting for this program is flawed or the agency has redirected some of the organic certification cost share funding to other programs, in conflict with the funding directives in the 2018 Farm Bill. In addition, the FSA has done a huge disservice to the organic community in this time of crisis by delaying the release of funds by many months while organic operations struggle to stay in business as they weather a pandemic and loss of markets.

In addition, NOC and OFA urge organic operations to apply for certification cost-share assistance as soon as they are able to do so with their state agency or local FSA office: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/occsp/index

Operations have until October 31, 2020 to apply for funding. FSA has stated that “if additional funding is authorized at a later time, FSA may provide additional assistance to certified operations that have applied” for the organic certification cost share program.

About the National Organic Coalition:

The National Organic Coalition (NOC) is a national alliance of organizations working to provide a "Washington voice" for farmers, ranchers, conservationists, consumers, and industry members involved in organic agriculture. NOC seeks to advance organic food and agriculture and ensure a united voice for organic integrity, which means strong, enforceable, and continuously improved standards. The coalition works to assure that policies are fair, equitable, and encourage diversity of participation and access. Learn more at NationalOrganicCoalition.org.

 

About the Organic Farmers Association:

The Organic Farmers Association (OFA) provides a strong and unified national voice for domestic certified organic producers, by supporting a farmer-led national organic farmer movement and national policy platform, strengthening the capacity of organic farmers and farm organizations, and supporting collaboration and leadership among state, regional and national organic farmer organizations. Rodale Institute supports this initiative as fiscal sponsor and partner with OFA’s farmer leadership. Learn more at OrganicFarmersAssociation.org.


Take Action: Organic Cost Share

On August 10th, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced a reduction in the reimbursement rates for the Organic Certification Cost Share Program. The cost share program reimburses organic farms and handling operations up to 50 percent of an operation’s certification expenses, to a maximum of $500 per certification scope (crops, livestock, wild crops or handling). Previously the limit on reimbursement was 75 percent, up to a maximum of $750 per scope.

The FSA is blaming lack of funding for this change. But the 2018 Farm Bill provided new funding for the program and also clearly directed USDA to carry over balances from previous years to fund the program for the next several years. There should be plenty of funds available for the program to maintain the same reimbursement levels for 2020 as in the past. And this reduced reimbursement level comes after months of delay by the FSA in releasing the money for the program, during a period where organic farms have largely been left out of other pandemic response programs and taken on new expenses to stay in operation.

There are two things organic farmers can do right now:

1.  Apply now to receive your organic certification cost share reimbursement!

You can apply at your local FSA office, or in some states, with your state agriculture department. There is conflicting information coming out of USDA about the deadline, which is either October 31 or November 2nd. Either way, it makes sense to apply now in case funding runs short. Right now, your reimbursement would be based on the 50 percent / $500 maximum level announced this week. But FSA did say they could potentially make an additional payment to those operations that had already applied if more funding becomes available.  You can get more information on how to apply here.

2.  Tell your members of Congress to restore organic certification cost share!

Right now, the best way to reach your members of Congress is likely to be email, since many congressional offices have shifted their staffs to working remotely. You can find contact information for your Representative at www.house.gov (use the “Find Your Representative” box at the top right and then go to your member’s website and look for a Contact tab) and your two Senators at www.senate.gov (go to the “Senators” tab and then “Contact” to find the Senators from your state.)

Sample Email:

I am your constituent and an organic farmer. I urge you to make the USDA restore full funding for the Organic Certification Cost Share program, which helps organic farms stay in business.

The USDA announced it was cutting how much organic farmers could be reimbursed for their organic certification expenses, despite the fact that Congress has already provided adequate funding for this program. Congress clearly set reimbursement rates at 75 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope, but the USDA announced a revised reimbursement rate of 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope.

This decision by USDA disregards the Congressional funding directives in the 2018 Farm Bill and is unacceptable, especially in light of USDA’s long delay in making these funds available at all. Organic, direct market, and diversified operations have largely been left out of the USDA’s pandemic relief programs, so to delay and then reduce this modest program for organic farms during a pandemic is inexcusable.

I urge you to ensure that the USDA’s Farm Service Agency reinstates the full organic certification cost share reimbursement. In addition, given USDA’s delay in announcing the funding availability, they should extend the deadlines for state agencies to apply to administer the program, and for organic operations to apply for the assistance.

Sincerely,

[Your name, Your Farm Name]

[Address]


TAKE ACTION: ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT

DEADLINE: OCTOBER 5

We need OFA members to weigh in during the public comment period for the Strengthening Organic Enforcement proposed rule to make sure it gets finalized quickly and that the final rule is a strong as possible. 

COMMENT ON STRENGTHENING ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT RULE

Here’s how you can comment:

The fastest way to submit a public comment is through the federal government’s online system. This proposed rule has its own web page and you can click on the “Comment Now” button on the top right to enter your comment. You can either copy and paste your comment into the system or attach a file.

If you want to submit a hard copy of your comments instead (you don’t need to do this if you submit online), send it to:

Jennifer Tucker, Deputy Administrator, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Room 2642-So., Ag Stop 0268, Washington, DC 20250-0268;  Fax: (202) 260-9151

What to include in your comment:

  • Make sure to include the docket number for this proposed rule in your written comment: AMS-NOP-17-0065.
  • Explain that you are an organic farmer and mention any specific concerns you have or examples of how fraud in organic supply chains has impacted you.

TALKING POINTS:

  • This proposed rule is necessary and long overdue. I especially support the end to exemptions for uncertified handlers in the supply chain and the requirement of electronic import certificates.
  • I urge the USDA to finalize this rule as soon as possible and speed up the effective date so that the agency can start enforcing these rules to prevent fraud in organic supply chains.
  • For section 205.273(c), I urge the USDA to shorten the time frame allowed for an importer to submit an electronic import certificate into the ACES system. Allowing importers 10 days to file the electronic certificate after the shipment has reached a U.S. port could mean the difference between preventing fraudulent products from entering the U.S. and having to try to retrieve them once they have entered commerce.
  • I appreciate the proposed rule’s requirements that non-retail containers be labeled with more information about the organic status of products (section 205.307). But I urge the agency to expand this requirement to large non-retail containers such as trailers, tanks, rail cars, shipping containers, grain elevators/silos, vessels, cargo holds, freighters, barges, or other method of bulk transport or storage. Providing a visual indicator that these contain organic products serve as a valuable backstop to other methods, such as organic certificates, and provide one last opportunity to prevent unintended commingling or treatment with irradiation or other prohibited substances. I also urge the agency to investigate technologies that indicate whether containers have been opened or tampered with during shipping for large-scale shipments.

 COMMENT ON STRENGTHENING ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT RULE  


The Tragedy of Fraud

By Harriet  Behar, Sweet Springs Farm, Gays Mills, Wisconsin. Harriet is an Organic Farmers Association Governing Council and Policy Committee member.

“Organic Integrity from Farm to Table- Consumers Trust the Organic Label” – Slogan used by the USDA’s National Organic Program

The organic market has enjoyed decades of growth, reaching $55 billion annually in U.S. sales in 2019. It is one of few labels that has a strong meaning and a system of federal oversight to provide a consistent definition from farmers markets to grocery store aisles across the country. However, trust in the label has been shaken by recent high-profile, mass-volume fraudulent sales with malicious intent—a tragedy for the both the farmers and consumers who have relied on the organic label for their livelihood and as an important choice of food and fiber for themselves and their families. Organic sales are booming, but unfortunately it seems, so is fraud.

It is no surprise that those willing to make a fast buck would seek to relabel conventional crops as organic, which fetch a higher price premium. Numerous cases of organic fraud have come to light in recent years, mostly centered on organic commodity crops like corn and soybeans, although produce and other sectors are not immune to phony organic products. Both domestic and imported grains have been found fraudulent. The scale and elaborate nature of the fraud over the past decade spans hundreds of truckloads, numerous large ocean-going vessels, and hundreds of millions of dollars.

The vast majority of organic farmers are not fraudulent and view their organic certification as an achievement. There are many organic certificates framed on the wall next to the family pictures of children, graduations and weddings. Organic farming typically relies on more management, planning, and labor than growing the same crops conventionally. Maintaining documentation on activities, inputs, and rotations is necessary under the law. Sharing this information with certifiers and inspectors adds an extra burden, somewhat compensated by the higher organic price received in the marketplace. Both anger and sadness are felt by the organic community when nonorganic products are scammed as organic. Real organic producers have experienced large economic losses due to their legitimate crops being replaced by questionable grain at cheaper prices. Many share the sentiment of Dave Campbell, longtime organic farmer from Illinois; "I have been positive about the organic marketplace for the many decades I have been growing organic corn and soybeans, but the recent fraudulent organic sales by both domestic and foreign operators has lowered my optimism."

Farmers and businesses had provided numerous tips to certifiers and to the National Organic Program (NOP) illustrating both domestic and import fraud activities. Did the tips lead the NOP to require enhanced oversight and subsequent enforcement actions against these operations? Why has it been so difficult for the National Organic Program and the USDA to find and stop this fraud? To many organic farmers, it does not appear the USDA has made protection of the organic label a top priority.

Fraud in the American Heartland

The scale of one recent (2019) case of domestic fraud is astonishing. According to the Department of Justice in the Northern District of Iowa, a well-respected man in his community, Randy Constant, admitted to $142,433,475 of “organic” grain sales, the vast majority of which were fraudulent. During the years of 2010 to 2017, he sold over 11,500,000 bushels of

grain (this volume is estimated to fill 3,600 rail cars or 14,375 semi-trailers), with more than 90% of it falsely marketed as organic.

David Glasgow, Associate Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, at the MOSES 2020 Conference.

How did this happen? David Glasgow, Associate Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, stated “people who commit this kind of fraud are of

ten well-known and trusted in their community. It is hard for good people to believe bad things about someone they know, which can allow the criminal activity to go unseen for years.”

Glasgow preferred not to share the various methods Constant used to gather and market his phony organic grains as he does not want to provide “a roadmap for future offenders.” Members of the organic community did submit complaints to the NOP about Constant over the years. There was at least one complaint against Constant submitted to the NOP from a competitor who was concerned by the volume of sales moving through Constant’s Ossian, Iowa-based brokerage, Jericho Solutions. His lower-than-standard prices gained him buyers, drove down prices, and stole sales from his legitimate organic competitors. Another complaint stated organic soybeans sold by Constant in 2007 were grown from genetically modified seed (prohibited in organic). Glasgow would not comment on these complaints stating that the USDA, like all government agencies, will not discuss actions on specific complaints until they have been settled. However, Glasgow did confirm the “NOP has worked with other enforcement agencies with international reach to develop tools that help us identify higher risk activities in the marketplace and rapidly increase surveillance, build the case, and take action.”

As a result of increasing pressure from the organic community, Congress, and these cases of fraud, Glasgow explained the USDA has strengthened “the partnership between the NOP and other law enforcement agencies including the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General,

Food Safety Inspection Service, and the Animal and Plant Inspection Service; as well as the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, and Customs and Border Protection.” These agencies have deeper resources for investigation and the ability to charge an individual with criminal activity, an authority the NOP does not have. The NOP fines for mislabeling a product as organic are not as strong as criminal penalties that can be brought by these other agencies. The NOP explained that, “fining someone who is facing prison time and multimillion-dollar asset forfeiture is a much steeper penalty than NOP’s authority to issue a civil penalty.” Furthermore, the NOP does not have the authority to “stop sale” of fraudulent products.

The U.S. justice system requires strong evidence to bring a case to criminal court. In the Constant case, even though there was covert surveillance of the illegal activities, until the government was able to get testimony of witnesses who were involved in the movement and false labeling of the organic grain, and they had a concrete false communication for a wire fraud charge, there was not a strong enough criminal case to bring Randy Constant to justice for his substantial crimes.

Sentencing

Three additional farmers from Overton, Nebraska were also found guilty in the Constant crime. They admitted in court that they produced nonorganic grain and knew that Constant planned to fraudulently sell it as organic. These farmers received over 10 million dollars from Constant for their collaboration. It seems these farmers rationalized the dishonest dealings by believing they were not the person actually selling the crops as organic, yet the court proved otherwise. During the sentencing, their attorney asked for leniency because no one was hurt. United States District Court Judge C.J. Williams felt differently, calling their activity “massive fraud, perpetrated on consumers over a long period of time” that “caused incalculable damage.”

The Nebraska farmers received sentences, from 3 to 24 months in prison, and Constant was sentenced to 10 years. All were given stiff fines totaling over $120 million. Three days after sentencing Constant committed suicide in his garage, bringing his case to a tragic end.

Organic Fraud from Abroad

John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing, Inc., is one of the world’s authorities on fake organic imports. He says federal failures to track and stop it are killing U.S. organic farmers and creating fraud profits rivaling that in narcotics. Photo taken Feb. 23, 2018, in LaCrosse, Wis. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

 

This recent domestic fraud case comes on the heels of years of suspected international organic import fraud from ocean freighters carrying grain labeled as organic from high-risk foreign markets. Countries such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova and the Russian Federation were identified by the European Union in early 2018 as high-risk areas for organic fraud and the E.U. limited imports from these countries. These shady businesses then focused on the lucrative U.S. organic market with less scrutiny at the border. In March 2018, a shipment of “organic” grain from these countries was found to be fraudulent and 25,000 metric tons of corn was refused entry into the U.S. However, this refusal was because it was whole seed and not cracked corn (only cracked corn is allowed from these countries,) rather than its organic status.

Even though the NOP issued a memo in July 2018 to organic certifiers to be wary of these high-risk countries for grain fraud, little was done at the border to ensure their grain was actually organic. “Although organic farmers were complaining to the USDA about suspected organic grain fraud from imports since 2015, it took a high-profile story in the Washington Post and a lot of pressure on Congress to get them to act, “said John Bobbe, former Executive Director of the Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM). “Organic farmers need more protections from the National Organic Program.” The Strengthening Organic Enforcement Rule is one result of the action from Congress asking for more focus on this issue from the NOP.

Where do we go from here?

With pressure from the press and organic community, the NOP has responded with various efforts to improve their oversight of organic fraud. In 2018, they began facilitating a tighter working relationship with Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Since the NOP does not have any authority to control commerce at the border, the first step was educating CBP about organic. There were some easy improvements to make such as educating CBP employees about organic status. CBP also now knows to flag any incoming organic products that were fumigated with prohibited substances by APHIS at the border because of invasive pests. The CBP also knows to inform the NOP and prevent those commodities from being sold as organic.

The NOP has recognized that certifiers are on the front lines of protecting organic integrity. They are sharing their improved analytical tools that identify risky behavior with the certifiers and asking certifiers to implement more consistent complaint documentation and follow-through. The NOP has the authority to take away a certifier’s accreditation, yet even with some questionable certifier actions this tool has been used sparingly. Instead, certifiers are told to improve when they are doing poorly in the oversight of the organic label, but have been allowed to continue in the organic certification business.

Additionally, the NOP has improved their complaint review process and are now encouraging more complaints from producers and consumers to identify fraud using a form found at https://organic-compliance.ams.usda.gov/.

Strengthening Organic Enforcement: Improvements to the Organic Regulation

The USDA published a proposed rule, Strengthening Organic Enforcement, in the Federal Register (Docket #AMS-NOP-17-0065) on August 4, 2020 to deal with many necessary changes to more effectively protect and enforce organic integrity.

To deal with fraud, this rule proposes the U.S. implement an import certificate requirement, requiring the certifying agent to approve the specific import sale of an operator shipping a product into the U.S.  This would provide tighter oversight on the volumes being imported, by providing certifiers the info they need to track sales in real time, rather than just once a year at the inspection. The European Union has used this system for numerous years, which has proved to improve traceability and fraud detection.

The rule also requires organic inspectors and certification personnel to demonstrate the necessary knowledge and skill needed to perform their jobs through quantifiable requirements and ongoing continuing education. In addition, specific auditing activities will be required on every inspection to ensure the volumes of outgoing organic products match sufficient incoming organic products.

The rule will also require certifiers to share compliance-related information with other certifiers.  Certifiers will also be required to perform a percentage of unannounced inspections each year on operations considered “high risk.” High-risk spot inspections should shed light on suspicious activities and lessen the avenues for hiding illegal dealings.

The rule also proposes that all organic operations will have a uniform organic certificate generated through the NOP database to reduce inconsistencies, making it easier to understand if the operation has recently been certified, or is about to be reinspected for continued certification. Certifiers will be required to keep this publicly searchable database current, whereas they currently are only required to update it on an annual basis.

The NOP proposed rule appears to have included the suggestions both required by Congress and brought forward by many in the organic community. However, more needs to be done to boost the investigative and punitive capabilities of the NOP. The system within the NOP to scrutinize complaints and bring cheaters to justice must become more robust, with the capability to stop the sale and commerce of fraudulent products. The deterrent to criminal behavior relies not only in tight oversight from certifiers and inspectors, but also requires the quick hand of enforcement by government. The great majority of U.S. organic farmers are doing an excellent job and uphold the integrity we all depend on for a successful organic market. It is very frustrating to see the integrity of the label damaged by bad actors and a lack of enforcement. While the NOP is implementing some improvements, they continue to be under-resourced and try to implement 20th century tools for oversight of the 21st century organic supply chain. We must all continue to work to demand more protections of organic products from fraud. The National Organic Program must do better to live up to their slogan, “Organic Integrity from Farm to Table- Consumers Trust the Organic Label.”

 

About the Author:  Harriet Behar farms organically on Sweet Springs Farm in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, producing bedding plants, fresh and dried herbs, vegetables, grains, eggs and honey. Harriet serves on the Organic Farmers Association Governing Council and Policy Committee and has been involved with federal, state and local policy advocacy for over 30 years. Harriet has worked as an educator with MOSES, the International Organic Inspectors Association and the University of Wisconsin. She is an active member of the National Organic Coalition, Wisconsin Organic Advisory Council, and most recently served as Chair of the National Organic Standards Board. She has been an organic inspector since 1992 and has visited more than 2200 organic farms and processing facilities around the world.

 

This article was written for New Farm Magazine, the magazine of the Organic Farmers Association.  All OFA Members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm annually.  Join Today!


August Policy Update

By, Patty Lovera, Policy Director

COVID-19 RESPONSE

The end of July and early August in Washington D.C. have been consumed by what will happen next in Congress to respond to the ongoing disruption caused by Covid-19. The House passed the HEROES Act in May, which would largely continue the approach from the CARES ACT (passed in March) of providing funding for USDA to make payments to producers, as well as some additional funding for things like protective equipment.

We have been waiting since May for the Senate to come up with their version of a bill. At the end of July, Senate leadership released a draft of their package. On many topics – unemployment insurance, aid to state and local governments, increasing SNAP benefits, and creating immunity from liability for businesses, healthcare institutions and schools – the Senate draft and the bill passed by the House are very different.

On agriculture, they are not all that different. The House bill uses a different source of money (the Commodity Credit Corporation) to fund USDA Covid-19 response, while the Senate bill would give USDA direct appropriations. The House bill has a few more strings attached to how the money should be spent than the Senate bill, but neither provides very strong standards for how USDA designs their programs.

At the end of last week, the leadership of the House and Senate and the White House were still negotiating about what will be in a final package, with major disagreements over the big economic issues that differ between the two bills. Once these big items are worked out, there may be some opportunity for members of the agriculture committees to weigh in and add more provisions related to the USDA programs. OFA continues to be in touch with members of Congress who are on the appropriations and agriculture committees to stay on top of this process and urge them to make sure these programs work better for organic farmers than the initial round of programs.

While Congress continues to debate what’s next, the USDA is still running two programs created by the CARES Act – the Farmers to Families Food Box (contracts to ship boxes of food to food banks) and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (direct payments to farmers for eligible commodities).

The USDA has opened a third round of contracts for the Farmers to Families Food Box and is now accepting bids. They have changed the requirements for this round, and now require contractors to deliver larger boxes (20-30 pounds of food per box) and are also requiring that each box contain a variety of meat, dairy and fruits and vegetables (previous rounds allowed contractors to provide 5 pound boxes with one type of product.) If you are interested in pursuing a contract through this program, check out the USDA’s website.

For the farmer direct payment (CFAP) program, you can get more information here, including which crops are eligible for direct payments (based on USDA’s assessment of whether they suffered a significant price drop between January and April.)  USDA has expanded the list of additional fruits and vegetables that are now eligible for direct payments to producers. The USDA recorded a series of webinars about this program, which might be useful if you are considering whether to apply.

 

 

STRENGTHENING ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT PROPOSED RULE RELEASED!

After many months of delay, the National Organic Program has released the proposed rule on Strengthening Organic Enforcement. In early August, the proposed rule was finally published in the Federal Register, which starts the clock on a 60-day public comment period, ending on October 5th.

This proposed rule is required by language that OFA supported in the 2018 Farm Bill, which gives the NOP additional authority to track imported organic products, including requiring imports to have an electronic import certificate. The need for better systems to prevent and detect fraud in both imports and domestic supply chains has been clear to OFA members for many years, as Harriet Behar’s article, The Tragedy of Fraud, on our website lays out.

The new proposed rule addresses not only the provisions required by the Farm Bill, but also other issues including:

  • applicability of the regulations and exemptions from organic certification;
  • import certificates;
  • record keeping and product traceability;
  • certifying agent personnel qualifications and training;
  • standardized certificates of organic operation;
  • unannounced on-site inspections of certified operations;
  • oversight of certification activities;
  • foreign conformity assessment systems;
  • certification of grower group operations;
  • labeling of non-retail containers;
  • annual update requirements for certified operations;
  • compliance and appeals processes;
  • and calculating organic content of multi-ingredient products.

You can read the proposed rule (or a summary) on USDA’s website (go to the “Supporting Documents” section near the bottom of the page).

OFA’s policy committee is working to do an in-depth analysis of the proposed rule and OFA will make detailed comments about ways to make the proposed rule even more effective, including decreasing the time importers would have to provide import certificates, expanding the requirement for indicating organic products on bulk shipping containers and speeding up the effective date of the rule.

 

TAKE ACTION ON ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT

We also need OFA members to weigh in during the public comment period for the Strengthening Organic Enforcement proposed rule to make sure it gets finalized quickly and that the final rule is a strong as possible.

Here’s how you can comment:

The fastest way to submit a public comment is through the federal government’s online system. This proposed rule has its own web page and you can click on the “Comment Now” button on the top right to enter your comment. You can either copy and paste your comment into the system or attach a file.

If you want to submit a hard copy of your comments instead (you don’t need to do this if you submit online), send it to:

Jennifer Tucker, Deputy Administrator, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Room 2642-So., Ag Stop 0268, Washington, DC 20250-0268;  Fax: (202) 260-9151

What to include in your comment:

  • Make sure to include the docket number for this proposed rule in your written comment: AMS-NOP-17-0065.
  • Explain that you are an organic farmer and mention any specific concerns you have or examples of how fraud in organic supply chains has impacted you.

TALKING POINTS:

  • This proposed rule is necessary and long overdue. I especially support the end to exemptions for uncertified handlers in the supply chain and the requirement of electronic import certificates.
  • I urge the USDA to finalize this rule as soon as possible and speed up the effective date so that the agency can start enforcing these rules to prevent fraud in organic supply chains.
  • For section 205.273(c), I urge the USDA to shorten the time frame allowed for an importer to submit an electronic import certificate into the ACES system. Allowing importers 10 days to file the electronic certificate after the shipment has reached a U.S. port could mean the difference between preventing fraudulent products from entering the U.S. and having to try to retrieve them once they have entered commerce.
  • I appreciate the proposed rule’s requirements that non-retail containers be labeled with more information about the organic status of products (section 205.307). But I urge the agency to expand this requirement to large non-retail containers such as trailers, tanks, rail cars, shipping containers, grain elevators/silos, vessels, cargo holds, freighters, barges, or other method of bulk transport or storage. Providing a visual indicator that these contain organic products serve as a valuable backstop to other methods, such as organic certificates, and provide one last opportunity to prevent unintended commingling or treatment with irradiation or other prohibited substances. I also urge the agency to investigate technologies that indicate whether containers have been opened or tampered with during shipping for large-scale shipments.

COMMENT ON STRENGTHENING ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT RULE


ORGANIC FARMS ADAPTING FOR COVID-19

Flexibility, Diversity & Direct-to-Consumer Sales Winning Strategies

By, Noah Cohen, Organic Farmers Association Intern

Despite uncertainty at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020—as restaurants, schools, and other institutions shuttered to a close—many organic farms have been bright spots of the COVID-19 economy. Nearly every organic category has seen year-over-year sales gains since March, and, with the pandemic radically reshaping consumer behavior, that growth could continue. Steve Lutz, senior VP of strategic insights firm Category Partners, says consumers are prioritizing immune health more than ever before,  and expects this newfound focus to have a “lasting impact” on their spending habits. Meanwhile, safety-conscious consumers are more wary about who is touching their food, driving direct-to-consumer sales such as CSAs. Even while COVID-19 has presented many challenges, these shifting consumer priorities have created new opportunities for farmers—particularly organic farmers, who can market themselves as a healthy choice, and has benefited farmers that can sell direct-to-consumer or had diverse markets already established.

Here’s how a handful of organic farmers from around the country have fared:

DAVE BISHOP, PRAIRIERTH FARM, ATLANTA, IL

  • FARM FACTS: PrairiErth Farm is a 480-acre multigenerational, diversified farm that sells “a bit of everything” through various channels throughout central Illinois and Chicago.
  • EXPERIENCE: Bishop calls 2020 “interesting times, but good times as far as our business.” While their restaurant sales rapidly contracted, PrairiErth has more than compensated by expanding its typically 150-member CSA to 300, with 100 more now on the waiting list. PrairiErth grows some feed crops like corn, but they feed it to their own livestock or sell to local rather than commercial feed mills, sparing them reliance on the now-deeply disrupted “commodity crop structure.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: Bishop credits PrairiErth’s resilience to its “diversified” crop selection, customer base, and marketing. “Diversity is not only critical in regenerative production systems, but in marketing systems. Grow lots of things and sell them in lots of places,” he recommends. Bishop particularly observes many other meat farmers who work with commercial processors struggling with processing chain disruptions. “What do you do with a 280-lb hog that’s soon going to be a 400-lb hog [because there’s no big processors open]?” he asks. “I mean, this puts you in a horrible position… that highlights very clearly that if something goes wrong, the whole (industrial food) system has no way to adapt.” Finally, he says, “nobody overrules the consumer, so that’s where the power lies… we’re on the road to developing a more resilient, local food system, and we—the public—need to support it by how we spend our food dollars.”

DAVE CHAPMAN, LONG WIND FARM, EAST THETFORD, VT

  • FARM FACTS: Long Wind Farm has grown soil-based organic greenhouse tomatoes, which they sell wholesale to supermarkets, since 1984.
  • EXPERIENCE: Chapman says Long Wind Farm was so well-poised to meet the COVID-era marketplace that no marketing changes were necessary. “The main thing we’ve had to do,” he jokes, “is learn how to say ‘I’m sorry,’ because we just can’t fill the [increasing] orders.” One challenge was finding enough workers to meet this surging demand. While some employees stayed home—especially the first month—Chapman managed to pay high-risk workers to stay home and give people “combat pay” for coming to work, with the help of the PPP. Chapman, one of the first wave of farmers to apply for a PPP loan, says he received it unusually quickly because he “worked with a local bank that was very committed to the process.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: “Surviving as a business is always a moving target,” Chapman says, which makes adaptability key. However, he thinks his existing business model is uniquely well-suited for current conditions: “We sell into the wholesale market as a small regional producer, and we’re big enough that the stores like dealing with us.” While Long Wind Farm easily found enough seasonal workers for harvest season, Chapman has seen many farms that typically rely on immigrant labor—particularly H2A workers—having much more difficulty due to border closures. “It’s a pretty gripping commentary,” Chapman observes, “that a lot of [American agriculture] doesn’t work without a labor force that, by and large, doesn’t have a path to citizenship, that’s treated as second—or third—class citizens, and that doesn’t have legal protections, including the right to come to work.”

LAURA FREEMAN, MT FOLLY FARM, WINCHESTER, KY

  • FARM FACTS: Mt. Folly Farm sells organic grains, hemp, pastured beef, chicken, and pork with “a local, shortened supply chain.”
  • EXPERIENCE: “The biggest challenge we had was shutting down our farm-to-table restaurant” mid-March due to COVID restrictions, Freeman says. Immediately, she recouped by turning the restaurant into a “farm grocery store” for her farm-to-table market products. “We took out all the tables, put in coolers, and started selling beef and early spring crops.” Unlike many of her beef-farming neighbors, Freeman has “gone local,” which she says has made her relatively immune to processing chain disruptions. “We have a small USDA beef and lamb packer who is open, though now absolutely swamped,” she explains.
  • TAKEAWAYS: Freeman says going local has helped her “pivot” to meet COVID-era realities by “creating a food system we can watch and manage safely.” “We are small and committed, with a great team spirit,” she adds. Further buoying Mt. Folly, like many local organic farms, was its permanent staff of 25 employees, who “became cross-trained on all sorts of projects… from salesmen and saleswomen helping the distiller, to chefs working in the garden.”

KEN KIMES, NEW NATIVES FARM, SANTA CRUZ, CA

  • FARM FACTS: Kimes is co-owner of New Natives Farm, a microgreens, sprout and mushroom farm that sells through several channels including farmers markets and health food stores.
  • EXPERIENCE: “It was hard to understand at first what we should do around all of this,” says Kimes, who initially lost roughly 30% of his business when Silicon Valley tech campuses shut down, decimating his wholesale food service demand. Nonetheless, due to its relatively self-sufficient production process—they pack their own greens, for instance—New Natives has mostly weathered the COVID storm, and, with the help of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), has retained its entire workforce. Kimes says it was “relatively straightforward” to apply for the PPP loan, but recommends applying to more than one bank, “having a good set of accounting books on hand,” and trying to get the loan from a local bank.
  • TAKEAWAYS: Kimes’ recommendations can be summed up by two words: “be nimble.” “An important thing,” he explains, “is that we sell to a lot of different channels,” many of which now demand rigorous food safety regimens to which New Natives had to adapt. “The more you can just embrace the new opportunities,” Kimes concludes, “the better it’s going to work out.”

MARK MCAFEE, ORGANIC PASTURES DAIRY, FRESNO, CA

  • FARM FACTS: Organic Pastures Dairy milks 714 pasture-grazed cows on 400 acres and produces its own line of raw dairy products, including milk, cheese, butter, cream, and kefir which they sell to 1300 grocery stores nationwide.
  • EXPERIENCE: McAfee says Organic Pastures Dairy has “never had better sales or more enthusiasm.” He credits this success to consumers’ focus on immune system health, driving many to try raw milk for its probiotic richness. “That’s what’s driving our markets, because people don’t want to be a statistic in the ICU.” Because Organic Pastures processes its own raw milk, they have not been vulnerable to the conventional processing facility closures that have become commonplace due to the loss of food service market. Instead, they bottle their own milk, package it under their own brand, then deliver it to stores on their own trucks. This direct connection, McAfee says, enabled them to pivot when they realized, come late February, that their demand would outstrip supply. “We adapted literally within a day, and sometimes we would deliver our products to stores and they would say, ‘just put all of your products on all the entire shelf, and don’t worry about anybody else, because they're not coming for another two weeks. And as a result, we picked up a lot of new customers.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: McAfee says the most important factor to COVID-era success is “a consumer connection.” “When you truly listen to consumers and adapt to respond to them, you’re winning. But if you’re not connected to them, how would you know how to respond? So social platforms, an email address, a 1-800 number… are very important.”

JUDITH REDMOND, FULL BELLY FARM, GUINDA, CA

  • FARM FACTS: Redmond is a co-owner of Full Belly Farm, a 360-acre northern California organic farm that produces vegetables, herbs, nuts, flowers, and fruit, which they sell both wholesale and retail.
  • EXPERIENCE: “The challenge was to reinvent the way we farmed, marketed, did farmers markets, harvested vegetables—everything,” Redmond says. “It was hard for us to cover all the demands for communication from the public. We also had to deal with the mental health side of things—many of our employees were very frightened to continue work. We had to make sure our employees understood that the shelter-in-place still applied to them as soon as they got home… it was very challenging, with many uncertainties.” Despite these challenges, Full Belly Farm has thrived, especially its CSA, which by July had over 2000 people on its waiting list.
  • TAKEAWAYS: Redmond credits Full Belly Farm’s resilience to its “diverse marketing structure, with CSA, farmers markets, stores and wholesale outlets.” “When our restaurant and food-service business ended, we were able to fill-in elsewhere,” she explains. “We already have an on-line presence, so people could find us and order CSA boxes using our on-line interface.”

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Most organic farmers seem to agree on one thing: that COVID-19 has exposed fundamental flaws in the food system status quo. Mark McAfee calls the pandemic “a national stress test on our food system [where] consolidated, huge industrial systems have failed” while local, organic, consumer-connected systems have thrived. While COVID-19 has been tragic, Bishop says, it has unexpectedly provided “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reevaluate our current food system and imagine how it might improve for the future, using the resilience and success of the many thriving local, organic farms as a blueprint.

Several farmers also recommended specific policy priorities, including:

  • Enforcement of antitrust laws to combat meat/dairy industry concentration, which many have called “the root cause” of COVID-related processing supply chain disruptions
  • Fixing the organic livestock enforcement loophole, which has tanked organic dairy prices
  • Mitigating the farm workforce’s vulnerability to border closures by introducing a new longer-term farm worker visa for immigrants and an agriculture-centric path to citizenship
  • Prioritizing local farms + disproportionately impacted communities when distributing stimulus money
  • Making federal investments into organic sector development
  • Revising eligibility restrictions for SNAP, creating incentives to buy fresh, local foods

This article was written for New Farm Magazine, the magazine of the Organic Farmers Association.  All OFA Members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm annually.  Join Today!


July Policy Update

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

After months of normal procedures being stalled because of the disruption caused by COVID-19, some of the policy machinery started to come back to life this month. There’s a lot going on, with continued work to respond to the increasing pandemic, the fight to improve the organic standards, and a report from a special committee in Congress about climate change.

PANDEMIC RESPONSE

The USDA and Small Business Administration are still running several programs for agriculture that were created by the CARES Act in late March. You can see more details about the SBA programs, called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) here. In early July, Congress passed and the President signed a bill to extend the time frame for applying to the PPP program until early August (the original bill expired June 30.)

The USDA continues to run two programs created by the CARES Act – the Farmers to Families Food Box (contracts to ship boxes of food to food banks) and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program(CFAP) (direct payments to farmers for eligible commodities).

The USDA started a second round of contracts for the Farmers to Families Food Box, with most of the vendors that got a contract in the first round being renewed for the second round, but not all. There are some reports that USDA may initiate a third round of contracts later this month, so if you are interested in this program, keep an eye on their website.

For the direct payment (CFAP) program, you can get more information here, including which crops are eligible for direct payments (based on USDA’s assessment of whether they suffered a significant price drop between January and April.)  Last week, USDA announced additional fruits and vegetables that are now eligible for direct payments to producers. The USDA recorded a series of webinars about this program, which might be useful if you are considering whether to apply.

In addition to these existing programs, Congress is expected to pass another bill this summer to address the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. The House already passed their bill in May, called the HEROES Act, which would continue the approach from the CARES Act of providing funding for USDA to make payments to producers, as well as some additional funding for things like protective equipment. The Senate will develop their own version of a bill. The Senate is on recess until the last week of July, and it looks as if the discussions on their bill will start in earnest when they return to DC. Now that this process seems to finally be underway, we are reminding Senate offices about the needs of organic farmers, in hopes they will include these in their version of the bill.

APPROPRIATIONS: Funding for Organic Programs

After months of delay because of the pandemic, there are some signs that Congress is starting to turn back to their standard agenda, specifically the annual process of passing the “appropriations” bills that provide funding for federal agencies like the USDA. Last week, the House Appropriations committee adopted its version of the spending bill for USDA. It would provide increased funding for the National Organic Program ($18 million, up from $16 million this year) and continue funding levels for organic transition research and other programs OFA and our allies have supported. The next steps in this process are a vote by the full House, and the Senate still has to write a bill and pass it through committee before going to the full Senate. The next fiscal year for the federal government starts on October 1st, so this process will speed up (or raise the prospect of a government shutdown) in September.

IMPROVING ORGANIC STANDARDS

After many months of delay, there is finally some good news on one of the rules we need to improve the integrity of the organic standards. The National Organic Program last week released the text of long-awaited proposed rule on Strengthening Organic Enforcement! This proposed rule will implement the provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill on preventing fraud in the organic supply chain and ensuring that U.S. organic farms can compete on a level playing field.

You can read the text of the proposed rule and view a webinar by the NOP here. OFA is analyzing the details of the proposed rule and will be back in touch soon with how you can submit a public comment.

Unfortunately, another critical rule on organic integrity, Origin of Livestock (OOL), is still stuck in the process at USDA. In June, USDA missed a deadline set by Congress for finishing the long-delayed rule to close loopholes in the standards for how livestock are transitioned into organic. OFA and 70 other organizations wrote to Congress (and alerted the media) that the deadline passed with no rule from USDA. Keep reading to find out how you can urge Congress to make sure USDA finishes this critical rule.

HOUSE SELECT COMMITTEE ON THE CLIMATE CRISIS

This month, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released their report, “Solving The Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy and Just America.”  The report covers a lot of topics, including agriculture, and makes recommendations for what the House and Senate Agriculture Committees could do to make agriculture adapt to and help address climate change, including a specific recommendation to increase support for organic farming and tightening organic standards (see page 347 of the report.)

 

TAKE ACTION:  Level the Playing Field for Organic Dairy Farmers!

In June, the USDA’s National Organic Program missed a deadline set by Congress to finalize a long-overdue rule to improve the standards for how livestock are transitioned into organic (the “origin of livestock” rule.)  We need your help to tell Congress to put pressure on USDA to get this done!

Right now, the best way to reach your members of Congress is via email. Look up your Representative at www.house.gov (use the “Find Your Representative” box at the top right and then go to your member’s website and look for a Contact tab) and your two Senators at www.senate.gov (go to the “Senators” tab and then “Contact” to find the Senators from your state.)

Here’s an example email for you to use.  Add details about your farm (especially if you are a dairy farmer) if you would like:

Dear Senator/Representative:

I am your constituent and I urge you to act now to ensure that the USDA closes loopholes in the organic standards that are hurting organic dairy farmers. The USDA’s National Organic Program missed the deadline set by Congress in the FY 2020 appropriations bill to finalize a rule on how animals are transitioned into organic production.

We desperately need this rule to close loopholes in the organic regulations that are being exploited by large-scale dairy operations that continuously cycle animals in and out of organic production. This rule is long overdue, and it is necessary for consistent enforcement to create a level playing field for all organic dairy producers. USDA’s failure to tighten these standards has allowed some large operations to unfairly flood the market with organic milk, hurting smaller farmers and endangering consumers’ trust in the organic label.

Congress required USDA to complete the OOL final rule by June 17, 2020.  This deadline has now passed, and we need you to make sure that USDA finishes this rule as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

<<Your Name, Farm Name (if applicable)>>