USDA Announces Plan for Farm Payments for Coronavirus

This week, the USDA announced details on how it will distribute $16 billion in direct payments to farms impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and public health response. The funding for these payments came from the CARES Act that Congress passed in late March, as well as the Commodity Credit Corporation, a USDA-run financial institution that funds many farm programs and commodity purchasing programs.  The details for the payments are available on USDA’s website for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

ELIGIBLE CROPS

USDA has determined that these crops suffered at least a 5% price decline or loss due to significant market disruptions from the pandemic from January through April 2020.

  • Non-specialty Crops malting barley, canola, corn, upland cotton, millet, oats, soybeans, sorghum, sunflowers, durum wheat, and hard red spring wheat
  • Wool
  • Livestock: cattle, hogs, and sheep (lambs and yearlings only)
  • Dairy
  • Specialty Crops
    • Fruits: apples, avocados, blueberries, cantaloupe, grapefruit, kiwifruit, lemons, oranges, papaya, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, tangerines, tomatoes, watermelons
    • Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, dry onions, green onions, peppers, potatoes, rhubarb, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, taro
    • Nuts: almonds, pecans, walnuts
    • Other: beans, mushrooms

PAYMENT RATES

USDA has set up different payment rates for each eligible crop. The rates are listed on the program website. (Note: the charts with the payment rates show two columns that split the payment by the source of funding, but the payment should be based on combining the two columns.) USDA is planning to pay 80% of the payment rate in this round of funding, and making the final 20% payment later in the year if funding is still available.

ELIGIBLE PRODUCERS

Producers must have an average adjusted gross income of less than $900,000 for tax years 2016, 2017, and 2018. If 75% of adjusted gross income comes from farming, ranching, or forestry, the limit of $900,000 does not apply.

Producers and legal entities also must:

  • Meet the conservation compliance provisions;
  • if a foreign person, provides land, capital, and a substantial amount of active personal labor to the farming operation; and
  • not have a controlled substance violation.

PAYMENT LIMIT

USDA has set a $250,000 maximum payment per individual/operation. Corporate entities with multiple shareholders may be able to collect up to three $250,000 payments.

CROPS NOT ELIGIBLE FOR PAYMENTS

The USDA listed some specific crops that are not eligible for payments, including sheep more than two years old, eggs/layers, soft red winter wheat, hard red winter wheat, white wheat, rice, flax, rye, peanuts, feed barley, Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton, alfalfa, forage crops, hemp, and tobacco.

There is a comment period open until June 21st to request that USDA add more crops that will be eligible for payments. The request would need to demonstrate the price loss due to disruption from the pandemic. Details found here.

HOW TO APPLY

The Farm Service Agency is the USDA division that will handle applications for these direct payments. They will start accepting applications on Tuesday, May 26, 2020.

The USDA is advising people to schedule an appointment now to talk to FSA. You can find your local FSA office on the USDA’s website (bottom of the page).

If you are already in the FSA system, some of the information you will need to apply for these payments should already be on file (farm number, adjusted gross income information, etc.) If you have not worked with the FSA system before, take a look at the list of information they will need from you to get started on the website.

The USDA has also posted a short video on what the direct payment application will look like.


Take Action for Organic Integrity!

Coronavirus is going to continue to dominate Washington, D.C., but we also need to make sure the rules and enforcement needed to ensure integrity of the organic label aren’t forgotten.

The USDA is past its deadline for a new proposed rule to prevent fraud in organic supply chains (the Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule required by the 2018 Farm Bill) and the deadline for finishing up the Origin of Livestock rule (about transitioning livestock into organic) is coming up fast.

Help us remind Congress they must make sure USDA meets the Congressional deadlines to protect organic integrity.

Right now, the best way to reach your members of Congress is email, since many congressional offices are 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.)

Ask your members of Congress to make sure USDA finishes these two rules ASAP:

  • The Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule is critical for preventing fraud in the organic supply chain and ensuring that U.S. organic farms can compete on a level playing field. During the disruption caused by the pandemic, it is more important than ever to show that the U.S. is taking organic enforcement seriously. The 2018 Farm Bill required USDA to complete the rulemaking by December 19, 2019, but the proposed rule is still under review by the Office of Management and Budget.  Can you help us move this forward in the rulemaking process?
  • The final rule on Origin of Livestock (OOL) is desperately needed to close loopholes in the organic standards related to the transitioning of conventional dairy cows into organic dairy operations. Through the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations process, Congress mandated that USDA complete the OOL final rule by June 17, 2020.  This deadline is fast approaching, and we need Congress to make sure that USDA finishes this rule as soon as possible.

Report back!

Email us to let us know what you find out!  Email us at: patty (at) organicfarmersassociation.org


May Policy Update: Coronavirus, NOSB & Action on Organic Integrity Rulemaking

By, Patty Lovera, Policy Director

The big news in DC, just like everywhere, continues to be the coronavirus pandemic, the impact on the food supply chain and how the government should respond. But there are other things happening in the world of organic policy, including the National Organic Standards Board spring meeting and continuing to push the USDA National Organic Program to finish rules we need to maintain the integrity of the organic label.

Pandemic Response

Congress passed the CARES Act in late March, which provides money that farms can access from two parts of the federal government, the USDA and the Small Business Administration. In late April, Congress passed another bill to provide more funding to the Small Business Administration programs because the original funding was spent very quickly due to high demand. You can see more details about the SBA programs here, but the most important update since last month is that farms can now apply to both the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.

The USDA is still developing the rules for one of its programs, direct payments to producers for losses caused by the pandemic, and we don’t yet have any specific details for how farms can apply. Those rules are expected to be released very soon. A basic description of the payment program can be found here.

The USDA has released the details for its new program to buy farm commodities for distribution to food banks. The deadline for the first round of contracts was May 8th, but you can check out the USDA’s website for the deadline for the next round of contracts.

At some point, Congress will consider other spending bills in response to the pandemic. It still isn’t clear if the next package will be more specific on how departments like the USDA spend money or will just be a repeat of the broad strokes provided in the CARES Act. OFA has been sharing specific requests for organic funding with members of Congress to make the case for programs that will work better for organic farms.

National Organic Standards Board Meeting

At the end of April, the USDA’s organic advisory committee, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its spring meeting online. The previous week, more than 20 organic farmers and representatives from farm organizations gave public comments to the board through a webinar.  You can read testimony for OFA’s Director and Policy Director on our website.

You can keep an eye on the USDA’s website for the NOSB to see the transcript and records from the meeting when they are posted.

One of the hot topics at the meeting was the ongoing discussion about paper pots. The board considered a discussion document about whether paper pots can be used by organic farms. They did not vote on the issue, and the Crops subcommittee will continue working on their recommendation about which types of paper pots (based on paper source and adhesives) will be allowed. The director of the National Organic Program made a point to say during the meeting that the NOP has instructed organic certifiers that paper pots will continue to be allowed while the board continues is work on this issue.

Take Action for Organic Integrity!

Even though the coronavirus is going to continue to dominate lawmaker’s attention for a while, we also need to make sure that the rules and enforcement we need to ensure the integrity of the organic label aren’t forgotten. The USDA is past its deadline for a new proposed rule to prevent fraud in organic supply chains (the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule required by the 2018 Farm Bill) and the deadline for finishing up the Origin of Livestock rule (about transitioning livestock into organic) is coming up fast.

Click here to TAKE ACTION!

 


OFA & NOC ask USDA for more support for organic farmers during COVID-19

May 7, 2020

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi                                     The Honorable Kevin McCarthy
Speaker                                                                     Minority Leader
U.S. House of Representatives                                  U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515                                             Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Mitch McConnell                              The Honorable Charles E. Schumer
Majority Leader                                                         Minority Leader
United States Senate                                                 United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510                                              Washington, DC 20510

Dear House and Senate Leaders:

As you begin crafting the next coronavirus pandemic response package, we are writing with recommendations about actions needed to address the impact on the organic food and agriculture sector. We offer our recommendations with full understanding that all sectors of agriculture are now in crisis and that we must all work together to address these challenges.

We are deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on organic farmers, farmworkers, businesses, retailers, certifiers, organic inspectors, and consumers. We are mindful of the need to protect the health and safety of all who are involved in organic agriculture, certification, and compliance. We also seek to advocate for responsible actions that will protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal during this difficult time.

Because of the annual organic certification process and the need to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal during this time of extreme market disruption, some of our concerns and recommendations may be unique from those raised by other sectors of agriculture.

Many of our recommendations were also suggested to Secretary Perdue as he developed his pandemic response package to implement the CARES Act but were not adequately addressed by that action.

Critical Rulemaking to Protect Organic Integrity Should Not Be Delayed by Pandemic

Two rulemakings that are critical to the economic health of the organic sector are in the final stages of clearance. Congress should reiterate the importance of publishing these two rules without delay:

  • The rulemaking to improve organic enforcement, both domestically and internationally, (aka the “strengthening organic enforcement” rule) is critical for the economic viability of the U.S. organic sector. This rule is more important now than ever to demonstrate that the U.S. is taking organic enforcement very seriously, so that fraudulent importers do not see the pandemic as opportunity to resume or expand fraudulent shipments. The 2018 Farm Bill required USDA to complete the rulemaking by December 19, 2019, but the proposed rule is still under review by OMB. This rulemaking must move forward.
  • The final rule on Origin of Livestock (OOL), to close loopholes in the organic standards related to the transitioning of conventional dairy cows into organic dairy operations, is another critical regulation for the organic sector. Through the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations process, Congress mandated that USDA complete the OOL final rule by June 17, 2020.

Direct Support for Organic Farms, Diversified Farms, and Farms Servicing Local Markets

On April 17th, Secretary Perdue announced a plan to distribute $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, with specific amounts designated for certain commodities and livestock categories, as one of USDA’s actions to implement the CARES Act.

We are concerned that the payment formulas used by USDA to distribute the payments and the rigid delineation of funding for specific commodity and livestock categories will shortchange organic farmers, particularly small-and-medium-scale diversified operations that have been economically impacted by the pandemic. We urge Congress, in the next coronavirus response package, to be more explicit about providing direct assistance to organic and diversified farming operations and to establish oversight procedures to ensure USDA compliance with the requirement. The CARES Act was very specific that one of the priorities for direct payment assistance should be “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.” In spite of that, the USDA action plan to implement the CARES Act did very little to address the needs of that sector of agriculture. Using conventional commodity and livestock product price losses is not a good proxy for the type of losses experienced by organic farmers and farmers serving local markets.

Related to this concern is the fact that price data is not as widely available for organic agricultural products as it is for conventional products, which could make it more challenging for organic farmers to prove their losses relative to baseline prices. In the short term, this points to the need for Congress to provide alternate ways of proving loss for organic farmers. In the long term, this demonstrates the need for Congress to increase annual USDA Agricultural Marketing Service funding for segregated organic price data.

For some farmers serving local and direct-to-consumer markets, sales have actually gone up as a result of the pandemic as consumers seek out local sources of food. However, in many cases, costs have also skyrocketed for these operations because of the additional investments in equipment, technology, sanitation, staffing, and transportation that must be made in order to meet social distancing and infection prevention protocols. Their incomes may be going up, but their margins may actually be declining.

Therefore, we recommend that payments for smaller organic, diversified, and direct-market operations be based on total farm revenue relative to previous years, which allows for local and organic price premiums to be taken into account. This would also be a way to address operations whose sales have gone up, but whose margins have declined.

Lastly, the USDA payment formula provides the majority of assistance for losses from January through April 15th, with a much lower level of assistance for losses from April 16th through the following two quarters. For most farmers, losses did not begin until states started to close schools, farmers markets, and restaurants and issued stay-at-home orders. The timeframe for calculating the losses should be better coordinated with the timeframe of actual losses.

Streamlined and Expanded Organic Certification Cost-Share Assistance

Annual inspection is a requirement for all certified organic operations, and a core component to maintaining the integrity of the organic label. While some aspects of those inspections are taking place remotely during the pandemic, some on-site inspections are still happening using social distancing protocols.

Because of the economic disruption related to the pandemic, many organic farmers and handlers cannot currently afford to pay their certification fees. The federal government already reimburses up to 75 percent of organic certification fees, with a maximum reimbursement of $750 per certification scope per operation. As an emergency measure, we recommend that instead of reimbursing the organic operation for certification fees paid to certification agencies, USDA should reimburse the certification agency directly for those costs. In addition, the 75 percent reimbursement should be increased to a 100 percent reimbursement during the pandemic.

One of the barriers of access to organic meat and poultry is access to slaughter and processing plant space. In addition to the normal regulatory hurdles impacting smaller meat and poultry processing plants, organic meat and poultry processing standards add additional hurdles that make it very costly for a processing plant to process organic products. Since these additional hurdles are costs necessary for organic certification, USDA should provide certification cost share assistance to help defray the cost of organic meat and poultry processing to remove hurdles in the supply chain for organic meat and poultry. In addition to assistance with the specific costs of certification, recordkeeping, and segregation of product necessary to produce certified organic products, these small-scale plants would also benefit from assistance that is needed for all small-scale plants, including USDA staffing levels that ensure adequate inspection coverage for small plants and technical assistance and small plant outreach from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Assistance to Dairy Farmers

Dairy is one of the leading sectors of organic. Congress should re-open the 2020 sign-up period for the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) Program to allow new participants in the program. In addition, reopening the sign-up period would allow existing DMC participants to reconsider their coverage decisions for 2020 given the extraordinary and unforeseen dairy market collapse related to the pandemic.

Procedures for Donating Organic Food to Local Food Banks and Community Organizations

The agricultural product procurement and distribution plan announced by Secretary Perdue on April 17th does not work well for procurement and distribution of organic products to food banks and community organizations. The USDA plan operates primarily through existing wholesaler distribution firms who have been idled by the loss of food service markets related to the stay-at-home orders. While the USDA plan has no explicit prohibition on organic food distribution, the bidding process makes it challenging for food hubs and distributors of organic foods to win a bid.

We recommend that Congress establish a process for organic farmers, handlers or food hubs to be paid to distribute food directly to food banks and qualified community organizations. Either USDA would pay for the food directly or food banks would be given funds to procure local organic foods to fulfill their customers’ needs. Organic farmers are equally as impacted as other farmers by this crisis and market outlets for their products are equally important.

Protection and Reward for Front Line Workers and Businesses

Farms and food-related businesses have been designated as essential by the Department of Homeland Security and by most states. We agree with that designation. However, it is critical that we protect and reward those farmers, workers, and businesses who are providing these essential services during the pandemic.

Emergency grants should be provided to reimburse for expenses related to personal protection equipment (PPE) and pandemic-related facility, infrastructure, technology, and staffing modifications. Grants should be provided to farmers, farmers markets, organic certification agencies, small-and medium-scale grocery stores, including cooperative grocery stores, distributors, and small-and-medium-scale food processing plants.

In addition, federally funded pay bonuses should be provided to front line food system and grocery workers, to compensate them for their essential work under hardship conditions.

Flexibility in USDA Nutrition Program Rules and Spending Needed to Allow Low Income Consumers Greater Access to Nutritious Food During the Pandemic

In addition to refining the procurement process to be inclusive of all types of producers, as described above, we also urge Congress to increase funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is a critical tool for providing a safety net against hunger. We also urge you to make several specific refinements to SNAP and other nutrition programs to make sure that the benefits of these programs are spread equitably across everyone in the food supply chain.

  • Allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments to be made online directly to farms, CSAs, and cooperative grocery stores.

USDA has granted pilot program status to some States to allow SNAP recipients to make purchases on-line for home delivery of groceries to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus. Unfortunately, in most cases, the only USDA-approved retailers that can process and deliver the purchases are very large retailers, such as Walmart or Amazon.

The SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot should be expanded to all states and additional food marketing outlets, including cooperative grocers, other small-and-medium scale grocery stores, and farms with direct-to-consumer sales capability. USDA should provide technical assistance to help small-and-medium-sized retailers, community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, and farmers set up online capability to accept SNAP.

  • Provide waivers and direction to States to broaden their WIC-approved food lists to allow WIC participants to purchase organic foods.

As the economic downturn deepens as a result of the pandemic, the percent of consumers eligible for low-income food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC will continue to grow. As low-income consumers struggle to afford access to healthy, nutritious food during these hard times, Congress should increase funding for the WIC program to meet growing demand and to enable states to allow more organic foods on their state WIC-approved food lists.

Farm Labor Accommodations Are Critical to Continuing Production of Organic Food During the Pandemic

With regard to farm workers, Congress should:

  • Establish a program to provide relief workers for sick farmers and farmworkers.
  • Provide farmworkers who are currently employed on a farm with the same payments as any other workers without questions about their status as citizens, and make farmworkers eligible for paid sick leave, SNAP, health coverage, childcare, and workmen's compensation.

Funding for Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL)

  • Funding for the Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programs should be replenished, and procedures to ensure farmers’ access to both programs should be expanded.
  • Congress should clarify that expenses paid with forgivable PPP loans are tax deductible.

We thank you for your efforts to respond quickly to the needs of organic farmers, businesses, retailers, workers and consumers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sincerely,

Abby Youngblood                                                                  Kate Mendenhall
Executive Director                                                                  Executive Director
National Organic Coalition                                                   Organic Farmers Association

 

 


Covid-19 Stimulus Package - Small Business Administration

UPDATE:  April 24, 2020

More Funding for Paycheck Protection Program:  OPEN April 27, 2020

Farms Now Eligible for Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL)

This week, Congress passed a bill that provides more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program and makes farms eligible for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).
The new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program could be available as soon as Monday 4/27 and interest in this program is still extremely high, so contact your bank soon if you are interested (see article below for more details.)
If you are interested in the Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loan process, start with this website: https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/coronavirus-relief-options

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April 3, 2020

The CARES Act (the stimulus package passed in late March) sets up two main programs for small businesses, administered by the Small Business Administration.

Here is a flow chart from the House Small Business Committee that shows the difference between the two programs.

One program is Economic Injury Disaster Loans. This is a loan that has to be paid back, and as of April 2nd, it is not open to farms. Many groups, including OFA, are working to try to refine the requirements for this program so that farms can apply.

The other SBA program is the Paycheck Protection Program. This starts out as a loan, but if businesses keep people on the payroll for 8 weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities, the loan can be forgiven (or partially forgiven based on how long people stay on the payroll). Farms can apply to this program.

Food-related businesses should be able to apply to either program (if they meet all the criteria).

Banks approved by the Small Business Administration (including some in the farm credit system) are supposed to start processing Paycheck Protection Program applications on Friday, April 3rd and demand for the program is expected to be extremely high.

If you are considering applying for this program, contact your bank as soon as possible. (Or you can find a qualified lender on the SBA website).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also received funding in the stimulus bill to direct aid to farms, including for specialty crop, livestock and producers who supply local markets. We do not yet know the details of how this money will be spent, but OFA is working to make sure that organic producers can qualify.

Useful Links:

Washington Post Article on How to Get Small Biz Loan: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/03/30/heres-how-get-small-business-loan-under-349-billion-coronavirus-aid-bill/

Small Business Owner's Gudie to the CARES Act:  https://delgado.house.gov/sites/delgado.house.gov/files/The%20Small%20Business%20Owner’s%20Guide%20to%20the%20CARES%20Act.pdf

Paycheck Protection Program Information from the Small Business Administration

Small Business Administration Covid-19 Relief Options

There are also other programs that the SBA uses for disaster lending (like micro loans and bridge loans), sometimes in cooperation with the states. Getting in touch with a SBA regional office or a Small Business Development Center is also a good idea to see if there are other programs that might work for you.


OFA Policy Director Testimony to NOSB

April 23, 2020

RE: General Comments to the NOSB via Webinar Testimony

My name is Patty Lovera, and I am the Policy Director for the Organic Farmers Association. Thank you for finding a way to have these public comments happen during the disruption of the pandemic and welcome to the new board members.

The Organic Farmers Association is led by domestic certified organic farmers. The integrity of the organic label continues to be organic farmers’ top priority.

We appreciate the role NOSB plays in the process of keeping organic integrity high, and would like to point out that an important piece of the board being able to perform this role would be restoring their ability to set their own work agenda.

Because this is space for the whole organic community to gather, I am going to mention a few things that we need from the National Organic Program to move forward on issues the board has already considered.

  1. The rulemaking on Origin of Livestock is desperately needed to address inconsistency on the ground in transition of organic animals. There are more details about OFA’s specific policy on the origin of livestock in our written comments, but two key needs for the rule are:
  • A producer can transition bovine dairy animals into organic production only once.
  • Once the regulation is finalized, fast effective date. This confusion has gone on long enough and created an unlevel playing field for those producers who have been meeting the intent of the standards for many years.

In addition to OOL rule, we also urge the NOP to continue to focus on compliance with the pasture rule, with an emphasis on higher risk operations

  1. Strengthening Organic Enforcement – we are catching up to build the enforcement capacity necessary for a $50 billion industry with complicated, often global supply chains. We understand this rule appears to be stuck in the White House review process, but we urge the program to move as quickly as possible to finish it up once it moves out of the review process. We desperately need more enforcement in organic markets.

Finally, we have a request to the program relating to the USDA’s plan for pandemic response. Organic farms have adapted very quickly to the disruption caused by the pandemic, figuring out new supply chains, online ordering, dealing with local and state regulations that change every day or every week, learning for the first time about the Small Business Administration, and host of other adjustments. In a lot of ways, the organic sector has proven more resilient and flexible than our conventional counterparts who deal with more consolidated supply chains.

But that does not mean that organic farmers don’t need help. And it is not yet clear how the USDA’s pandemic response programs – either the commodity purchasing or the direct payments – will work for organic farms. We urge the program to advocate for organic producers inside the USDA to make sure organic operations can access these new programs.

Thank you.
Patty Lovera


OFA Director Testimony to NOSB

April 23, 2020

RE: General Comments to the NOSB via Webinar Testimony

Thank you, members of the NOSB for the opportunity to speak before you today.  My name is Kate Mendenhall, I am the director of the Organic Farmers Association and am also an Iowa organic farmer.  OFA was created to be a strong voice and advocate for certified organic farmers.  We are led and controlled by domestic certified organic farmers and only certified organic farmers determine our policies.

Each year U.S. certified organic farmers are invited to participate in our grassroots policy process and identify their top policy priorities.  Organic farmers have stated that their top 5 policy priority for 2020 are:

  1. NOP Enforcement to Ensure Organic Integrity
  2. Organic Import Fraud
  3. Prohibit Hydroponics in Organic Production
  4. Climate Change
  5. Organic Dairy Standards & Enforcement (Includes Origin of Organic Livestock & Pasture Rule)

For the past three years, organic integrity has been at the top of the list.  Organic farmers built and established the organic label, and now they rely on the National Organic Program and the NOSB to preserve and enforce it.  Without strong regulations and standards enforced equitably across size, region, and commodity, the organic label will wither.  Prohibiting hydroponics has returned to 3rd place on the OFA priority list for the second year in a row.  Farmers nationwide are committed to healthy soil and the crucial role it plays in a healthy organic agro-ecosystem, and even conventional farmers and politicians are beginning to advocate for its important role in mitigating climate change. For organic to underplay the importance of organic soil now would be misguided.

Since the NOP declared just a few years ago that hydroponics is allowed, we have seen a burst of hydroponic operations and enforcement issues that highlight real problems and concerns on this issue.  We cannot have a production system out of compliance with the definition of organic.  We cannot have certifiers creating their own standards to regulate this booming sector, and we cannot undercut a label that farmers have built over the past 40 years.  With the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day celebrated yesterday, we should focus on making sure that certified organic, the gold production standard, is upholding its values, not undercutting them when Mother Earth needs us most.  The NOSB needs to revisit this issue.

Organic Farmers Association supports the NOSB process and agrees with the Crop Subcommittee’s assessment and support for paper-pots as an allowable synthetic and defined planting aid.  One lesson that is clear from COVID-19 is that we need more small to mid-size organic farmers throughout our communities able to meet our local food needs.  Paper pots help small organic farmers and are similar to already-approved inputs.

While Organic Farmers Association does not have a position on biodegradable mulch, I will comment that this policy issue was proposed in our grassroots process, yet it did not receive any farmer support to bring it forward.  With domestic and import fraud still gaining headline space nationwide, a lack of guidance from NOP on 3-year transition equity across growing practices, hydroponic production operating on a per-certifier basis and undermining the very definition of organic, biodegradable mulch seems like a low-priority topic for precious NOSB volunteer time.  Let’s get busy on the issues that are crucial for the organic community, not special interests.

I appreciate all of your dedication to working for the full organic community, for hearing public comment today, and for the farmers especially, who have had to find others to cover their farm-work so they can fully participate in this process over the two-weeks of meetings.


D.C. Covid-19 Policy Update

By, Patty Lovera, Policy Director

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic is essentially the only topic being discussed by elected officials and policymakers in Washington, DC. The response has a lot of moving parts, some more clear than others at this point.

At the end of March, Congress passed its third bill to respond to the pandemic, called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). It includes an estimated $2 trillion in federal spending, spread among different programs including unemployment insurance, payments to individuals, industry specific assistance (like airlines), and several provisions that cover agriculture. Here is what we know at this point about how organic farmers will be affected.

US Department of Agriculture – Aid for Farmers

The CARES Act includes funding for several divisions of the USDA to maintain operations and cover extra expenses created by the disruption of the pandemic response, some limited increases for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-formerly known as food stamps), and some increased funding for rural broadband and rural business loans.

The bill also provides almost $24 billion dollars to USDA, without very detailed instructions, to use to aid farmers affected by the pandemic. Some of that funding will be used to purchase food to distribute it to emergency feeding or other nutrition programs. The CARES Act also instructs USDA to provide aid to impacted farmers, including specialty crop producers, livestock producers (including dairy), and producers selling into local food systems.

The USDA has not yet released any plans for how they will distribute this aid or make food purchases. OFA has been working to let USDA and Congress know that organic producers need to be included in any response, including direct aid to producers or food purchases, and we are also urging the department to find other ways to help such as technical assistance for direct marketers to transition to online sales, speeding up organic certification cost share payments and helping ensure that farmers markets are declared essential services.

National Organic Program and Organic Inspections

We are waiting for more details from the National Organic Program and organic certifiers about what the public health response to Covid-19 means for organic inspections. Limitations on inspectors’ ability to visit farms are causing inspectors and certifiers to experiment with using phone calls or video in place of on-site visits, or may lead some certifiers to do records reviews first and delay farm visits until public health restrictions are lifted. We hope that the NOP will soon be releasing some uniform guidelines for how certifiers are supposed to handle inspections during this disruption, and will be working to get more information from the agency about how they are handling ongoing enforcement priorities like pasture rule compliance at high risk dairy operations.

Small Business Administration Loans

The CARES Act sets up two main programs for small businesses, administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA). Here is a flow chart from the House Small Business Committee that shows the difference between the two programs.

One program is Economic Injury Disaster Loans. This is a loan that has to be paid back, and as of April 9th, it is not open to farms. Many groups, including OFA, are working to try to refine the requirements for this program so that farms can apply and many members of Congress have called on the SBA to allow farms to access this program. A new bill from the Democratic minority in the Senate would change this program to allow farmers to access these loans.

The other SBA program is the Paycheck Protection Program. This starts out as a loan, but if businesses keep people on the payroll for 8 weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities, the loan can be forgiven (or partially forgiven based on how long people stay on the payroll). Farms can apply to this program.

Food-related businesses should be able to apply to either program (if they meet all the criteria).

Banks approved by the SBA (including some in the farm credit system) are supposed to start processing Paycheck Protection Program applications on Friday, April 3rd and demand for the program is expected to be extremely high.

If you are considering applying for this program, contact your bank as soon as possible. (Or you can find a qualified lender on the SBA website).

Useful Links:

There are also other programs that the SBA uses for disaster lending (like micro loans and bridge loans), sometimes in cooperation with the states. Getting in touch with a SBA regional office or a Small Business Development Center is also a good idea to see if there are other programs that might work for you.

WHAT'S NEXT?

At some point this spring, Congress will consider other spending bills in response to the pandemic. It still isn’t clear if the next package will more specifically dictate how departments, like the USDA, spend money or if it will just be a repeat of the broad strokes provided in the CARES Act.  We have been sharing our specific requests for USDA program funding with members of Congress in case they have some flexibility in how the money is distributed.

TAKE ACTION

If you want to tell your members of Congress to support organic farmers and direct market farms, the best way to reach them is likely to be email, since many congressional offices have shifted their staff 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.)

Tell them you want any response to the pandemic to:

  • Make sure that organic farmers are included in USDA’s aid payments and commodity purchases
  • Include organic farmers in emergency disaster payments, emergency farm loans and loan forgiveness at the USDA and Small Business Administration, especially the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program of the SBA
  • Ensure that farms, farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs are deemed essential services and have the same status as retail stores when it comes to social gathering and loss of income
  • Increase certification cost-share assistance for certified organic farms and handlers and provide immediate payment

 


Written Testimony to NOSB

April 2, 2020

Ms. Michelle Arsenault Advisory Committee Specialist
National Organic Standards Board
USDA-AMS-NOP, 1400 Independence Ave. SW Room 2642-S, Mail Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268

Re: Docket # AMS-NOP-19-0095

Dear National Organic Standards Board Members,

The Organic Farmers Association is led and controlled by domestic certified organic farmers and only certified organic farmers determine our policies using a grassroots process. We believe organic farmers were instrumental in creating our successful organic market and must be leaders in directing its future.

OFA supports the work of the National Organic Standards Board and we know that you play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity in the USDA organic label. We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments to the Board and the National Organic Program on general issues impacting organic farmers, as well as several specific items on the agenda for your April meeting.

Issues Impacting Organic Farmers

We support NOSB recommendations moving forward to rulemaking or guidance in a timely manner, and we urge the National Organic Program to continue to prioritize two rulemaking efforts that are critical to the integrity of the organic label – the proposed rule on Strengthening Organic Enforcement and the final rule on the Origin of Livestock.

Specifically, as the NOP develops the rule on Origin of Livestock, we would like to offer the following OFA policy position on what should be in that rule:

  • A producer as defined by the USDA NOP may transition bovine dairy animals into organic production only
  • A producer is eligible for this transition only if they convert an entire established non- organic dairy operation to organic production at the same geographic location within a defined 12-month period. Once that transition has started, other non-organically certified animals cannot be added to the
  • This transition must occur over a continuous 12-month period prior to production of milk or milk products that are to be sold, labeled, or represented as
  • A producer must not transition any new bovine dairy animals into organic production after the end of the 12-month transition
  • A producer is not eligible for the exemption if it has been used by a Responsible Connected person who has 20% or more ownership share in their legal
  • The certifying entity will file an organic system plan prior to the start of transition and the transition process is overseen by the certifier as part of their
  • Transitioned animals must not be sold, labeled, or represented as organic slaughter stock or organic bovine dairy
  • If organic management of the dairy animal, starting at the last third of gestation or at any other time it has been organic, is interrupted, the animal cannot be returned to organic
  • Split bovine conventional and organic milking herds at the same location should be prohibited.
  • Once the regulation is finalized all entities should be required to immediately meet the requirements of the Final

We also urge the NOP to continue to focus on compliance with the pasture rule, with an emphasis on higher risk operations including those on the margins of the 30 percent dry matter intake rule and dairies with 1,000 or more milking and dry cows.

OFA continues to be concerned about the consequences for the integrity of the organic label as a result of the USDA and NOSB moving forward to allow for organic hydroponics without clarity on how this type of production complies with the Organic Foods Production Act. We are also troubled by inconsistent interpretation of NOP guidance on the practices that can be used in container and greenhouse operations. We call on the NOP to issue an immediate moratorium on any new hydroponic operations and return this issue to the NOSB work agenda as a top priority. OFA believes the NOP should implement the 2010 NOSB recommendation to not allow certified organic hydroponics, but we recognize there is an immediate urgency to put a moratorium on new hydroponic and hydroponic container operations so that we can have more conversation and consensus within the organic community.

Issues on the Meeting Agenda

Crops Subcommittee: Proposal – Paper (Plant pots and other crop production aids) – petitioned

Farmers elevated the issue of paper pots as something the Board needed to address, especially for small operations that depend on this product. Therefore, we appreciate the Board’s efforts to address this need and clarify the status of paper on the national list. OFA supports this proposal.

Crops Subcommittee: Discussion Document – Biodegradable biobased mulch annotation change

 In the discussion document, the Board requests feedback from the organic community on several questions relating to the environmental characteristics of these products and their compatibility with organic standards. We appreciate that this material has been a source of discussion for the Board for a long time and that there are proponents of this product in organic production. But we will note that as part of our policy development process this year, a proposal was submitted to support the consideration of biodegradable biobased mulch by the Board, and this proposal was not adopted. This is not a priority issue for the organic farmer community, and we would encourage you to focus on the organic issues that are most important and necessary to organic farmers, the backbone of the label.

Materials Subcommittee: Discussion Document – NOSB Research Priorities 2020

OFA supports the efforts of the Board to highlight specific topics for research that will advance organic production. Specifically, we would like to emphasize the need for research into the following topics on the 2020 list:

Livestock 

  1. Evaluation of methionine in the context of a system approach in organic poultry production.
  1. Organic livestock breeding for animals adapted to outdoor life and living vegetation.

Both of these research priorities would help to support organic livestock production that meets high standards for animal welfare and reduces the reliance on confinement methods that do not meet consumer expectations for organic.

Crops 

  1. Elucidate practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that contribute to farming systems resilience in the face of climate change.

OFA members are concerned about climate change and have been documenting the impacts of a changing climate on their farms for decades. Recent severe weather events have offered a more forceful reminder that the climate is changing. The role of organic methods in addressing climate change and better tools for organic farmers to adapt to changing conditions should be top priorities for research.

Coexistence with GE and Organic Crops

  1. Testing for fraud by developing and implementing new technologies and practices.

Making sure that the NOP can develop and enforce strong regulations that are capable of detecting and preventing fraud in organic supply chains is a top priority for OFA. Fraud in organic supply chains not only impacts farmers who follow the rules but are undercut by those who do not, but it also puts the reputation of the entire organic label at risk. Research into new testing methods that can provide better tools for detection and enforcement should be a top priority.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments.

Sincerely,

Kate Mendenhall
Director


Organic Groups Send Letter to USDA RE: COVID-19

 

April 2, 2020

The Honorable Sonny Perdue
Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington D.C. 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We are writing to make recommendations about emergency actions that your agency can take to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the organic sector. We offer our recommendations with full understanding that all sectors of agriculture are now in crisis and that we must all work together to address these challenges.

We are deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on organic farmers, farmworkers, businesses, certifiers and inspectors, and consumers. We are mindful of the need to protect the health and safety of all who are involved in organic agriculture, certification, and compliance. We also seek to advocate for responsible actions that will protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal during this difficult time.

Because of the annual organic certification process and the need to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal during this time of extreme market disruption, some of our concerns and recommendations may be unique from those raised by other sectors of agriculture.

Support for Organic Farmers

The recently enacted CARES Act includes a $9.5 billion emergency fund:

“to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers impacted by coronavirus, including producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and livestock producers, including dairy producers.”

As you make plans to implement this section of Act, we would like to point out that organic farmers represent a significant percentage of the farmers in each of the specialty crop, livestock and dairy, and local food supply categories prioritized by Congress. Therefore, it is critical that organic farmers be included in any emergency response actions taken to implement this provision of the Act.  The following financial assistance recommendations would be extremely helpful for the organic sector:

  • While it is certainly a blunt instrument, providing direct payments to farmers including organic farmers, to keep them solvent during this critical production season in the face of lost or disrupted marketing channels, may be the most direct way to bolster our nation’s food supply. While the awful human health implications of the pandemic may peak and subside over the next couple of months, the long-term food security implications of a year of lost markets for U.S. farmers could have even longer lasting impacts on our society. In making direct payments, it is critical that the criteria used to distribute those payments be more fine-tuned to support the diversity and richness of U.S. agriculture than was reflected in the recent trade mitigation payments, and that more reasonable payment limitations govern those payments to ensure that more farmers get help with these funds.
  • Most organic and small farms have not traditionally accessed food purchasing programs run by the agency using Commodity Credit Corporation funding. As you develop new purchasing programs to both aid farms and procure food for emergency feeding or other nutrition programs, we urge you to make the procurement process flexible enough to work for organic and small farms, not just large conventional operations. This should include purchases of a diverse set of crops, not just commodity crops.
  • As farmers innovate to respond to the social distancing recommendations related to the pandemic, USDA should provide financial assistance for farms setting up virtual platforms to facilitate the sale of their products, as well as “on-farm” stands, curbside pickup, and other direct to consumer “no-touch” distribution channels that minimize interaction. In the same way as restaurants across the nation have shifted to take-out pick up options, farmers too are shifting to this model. But farmers need some financial assistance to facilitate this shift.
  • Increase organic certification cost-share assistance for certified organic farms and handlers and provide immediate payment to organic operations. Consider making payments directly to organic certification agencies to cover their costs of certifying organic operations so that organic farmers and handlers do not have to bear that cost during these extreme times of market disruption.
  • Dairy is one of the leading sectors of organic. Unfortunately, organic dairy farmers have been slow to embrace the new Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program because it is perceived as only being relevant to conventional dairy farmers. However, historically major declines in conventional dairy prices have resulted in downward pressure on organic dairy prices as well. Therefore, we urge you to re-open the 2020 sign-up period for the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) Program to allow new participants in the program. In addition, reopening the sign-up period would allow existing DMC participants to reconsider their coverage decisions for 2020 given the extraordinary and unforeseen dairy market collapse related to the pandemic.

Addressing the Challenges of Organic Certification in the Face of Social Distancing Requirements

As part of the organic certification process, organic operations must undergo an annual on-site inspection. This process has been challenging for organic farmers, handlers, certification agencies, and organic inspectors in the face of the social distancing requirements needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

All organic stakeholders are seeking to protect human health, but also to maintain the integrity of the organic seal. The two goals may seem in conflict, but they don’t need to be.  Organic accredited certification agencies (ACAs) have been in communication with USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) to develop mechanisms to maintain the integrity of the organic certification process while also protecting the safety of farmers, handlers, certifiers, and inspectors. In some cases, this has involved performing the record review aspects of an organic inspection virtually. In other cases, the on-farm inspections have been delayed somewhat. In other cases, inspectors have performed on-site inspections in person, but using social distancing protocols, or have used virtual techniques to do some of the actual site inspections.

Therefore, we are urging you to provide technical and financial assistance to organic operations so they can maintain their certifications during the pandemic by providing required records to certification agencies through virtual platforms.  Smaller organic ACAs could also benefit from financial assistance in this regard.

Relaxing USDA Nutrition Program Rules to Give Low Income Consumers Greater Access to Nutritious Food During the Pandemic

  • Allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments to be made online directly to farms and CSAs.
  • Provide waivers and direction to States to broaden their WIC-approved food lists to allow WIC participants to purchase organic foods.
  • Issue an emergency waiver to all States to allow food banks to skip the normal paperwork and recordkeeping requirements for gathering information from each customer. These paperwork procedures are greatly slowing down the food distribution process at already overburdened food banks, making it difficult to maintain social distancing protocols.
  • Support the ability of food banks and other emergency feeding programs to purchase organic products directly from farmers at market prices.

Move Critical Rulemaking Forward to Protect Organic Integrity

Two rulemakings that are critical to the organic sector are in the final stages of clearance.  In your communications with the Office of Management and Budget, we urge you to underscore the importance of moving these Congressionally mandated rulemakings along without delay.

 The rulemaking to improve organic enforcement, both domestically and internationally, (aka the “strengthening organic enforcement” rule) is critical for the economic viability of the U.S. organic sector. The 2018 Farm Bill required USDA to complete the rulemaking by December 19, 2020, but the proposed rule is still under review by OMB. This rulemaking must move forward.

  • The final rule on Origin of Livestock (OOL), to close loopholes with regards to the organic standards related to the transitioning of conventional dairy cows into organic dairy operations, is another critical regulation for the organic sector.  Through the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations process, Congress mandated that USDA complete OOL final rule by June 17, 2020.

We acknowledge that some of the following recommendations overlap with policy issues in other federal agencies, as well as the White House.  As the chief advocate for U.S. agriculture in the Administration, we want to make you aware of our multi-faceted concerns and to urge your inter-agency advocacy on these matters.

Farms, Farmers Markets, Farm Stands, and Community Support Agriculture (CSA) Operations Should be Deemed as Essential

Our country’s ability to produce food for its citizens has not been in question anytime in recent history. But the decision by some States to deem traditional retail grocery stores as essential, but to declare non-traditional food marketing venues as non-essential undermines thousands of farmers who market through those channels. As consumers turn more to local sources of food during the pandemic crisis, it is critical that these marketing channels be deemed essential. For many parts of the country spring and summer are critical marketing seasons for farmers who serve local markets, and for consumer desiring the fresh and healthy produce. To cut off consumers from these markets, by allowing local and state governments to deem them as non-essential, is counterproductive.  Of course, these marketing venues should be required to institute social distancing protocols, just as retail grocery stores are doing. In fact, farmers markets across the country have already established these procedures and are sharing best practices with each other.

We realize that at the Department of Homeland Security has issued some general recommendations about what should be considered essential industries and that food and agriculture are on that list. However, we are concerned that that DHS advisory does not explicitly include local marketing venues, such as farmers markets, farm stands, and community supported agriculture (CSA) operations. As a result, many local and state governments are shutting down those venue.  We urge you to advocate for a revision to the DHS recommendation with your colleagues at the DHS.  In addition, we urge you to advocate with the President, to urge that the federal declarations of essentiality of all food production and marketing venues be enforced with more rigor.

Farm Labor Accommodations Are Critical to Continuing Production of Organic Food During the Pandemic

  • Establish a program to provide relief workers for sick farmers and farmworkers.
  • In order to ensure uninterrupted food, crop, and commodity production, recognize all H-2A, as well as any other non-immigrant visa petitions involving an agricultural worker, visa consular processing functions as “essential” and direct the U.S. Consulates to treat all agricultural worker appointments as emergency visa services.
  • Provide farmworkers who are currently employed on a farm with the same payments as any other workers without questions about their status as citizens, and make farmworkers eligible for paid sick leave, SNAP, health coverage, childcare, and workmen's compensation.

The New Emergency Response Program Administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA) Should Include Farmers and Agricultural and Food Cooperatives

The Small Business Administration (SBA) is maintaining that farms and agricultural businesses are ineligible for emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programs. They are maintaining that only aquaculture enterprises, agricultural cooperatives, and nurseries are eligible for SBA disaster assistance. It is imperative that farmers be able to access SBA disaster assistance as these programs can help fill the void that many farm businesses are currently feeling due to COVID-19.

  • In addition, the SBA should clarify that agricultural cooperatives and consumer food cooperatives are eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) during the pandemic emergency. Many of these cooperatives are under a great deal of economic stress as result of the pandemic and short-term access to the PPP will allow these cooperatives to maintain their staff so that they are able to serve their farmer and consumer owners during the emergency.

We thank you in advance for your efforts to respond quickly to the needs of organic farmers and businesses in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sincerely,

Abby Youngblood, Executive Director, National Organic Coalition

Kate Mendenhall, Executive Director, Organic Farmers Association

Brise Tencer, Executive Director, Organic Farming Research Foundation