Petition to Danone/Horizon to stand with NE organic dairies

Danone (owner of Horizon Organic Milk), the global leader in over 20 brands of fresh dairy products and a $10.3B company, just abruptly ended contracts with 89 Northeast organic dairy farm families.  That includes ALL their dairy farmers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and almost 50 from New York state.  These farmers have no other market options.  As a certified “B Corp” Danone is required to use its business as a force for good, but this action from Danone is disgraceful and will hurt Northeast farm families and their communities.

Danone/Horizon claims they cannot afford to continue supporting the family-owned organic dairy farms that have helped build the Horizon Organic brand for decades due to logistics and trucking issues. But there are other issues in the organic marketplace that are a part of this story – especially USDA’s failure to update and enforce key organic standards for dairy farms such as the enforcement of the pasture standards and long overdue updates to the Origin of Livestock rule to stop the continuous cycling of animals in and out of organic on large operations.

Sign your name to this petition to demand that Danone/Horizon do the right thing and reinstate these farmers who are producing organic milk the right way. Treat family farmers with RESPECT!

SIGN THE PETITION!

Thank you for your support of organic farmers.  We are stronger together!  Please help spread the word.

More Background Information

Partner articles on the issue


September Policy Update

September 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

Organic Certification Cost Share

On August 17th, USDA’s Farm Services Agency announced that funds were available for organic producers to apply for reimbursement of their 2021 organic certification costs. Unfortunately, this round of reimbursement is once again at the reduced level the agency implemented last year (50% up to $500 per certification scope). Producers can be reimbursed for expenses made between October 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021, including application fees, inspection costs, fees related to equivalency agreement requirements, travel expenses for inspectors, user fees, sales assessments and postage. 

OFA and our allies are still pushing USDA to restore the cost share reimbursement levels to the 75% up to $750 level that the program is authorized for by the last Farm Bill. Earlier this summer, in an announcement about special programs being rolled out to respond to the pandemic, USDA pledged to spend $20 million on organic certification cost share and assistance for organic transition. We are still waiting for details on this additional spending program. 

In the meantime, organic farmers should go to state department of agriculture or county FSA office to apply for the cost share assistance that is available right now. Your certifier should be able to help you find out who administers cost share in your state.

Changes to Whole Farm Revenue Insurance

On September 1, USDA announced changes to the Whole Farm Revenue Protection program for the 2022 season. Two of the changes could be make the program work better for organic producers:

  • Increasing expansion limits for organic producers to the higher of $500,000 or 35 percent. Previously, small and medium size organic operations were held to the same 35 percent limit to expansion as conventional practice producers.
  • Allowing a producer to report acreage as certified organic, or as acreage in transition to organic, when the producer has requested an organic certification by the acreage reporting date. This change fulfills one of the policy positions OFA adopted earlier this year.

You can read more about the changes to the Whole Farm Revenue program here

Pandemic Assistance for Farmers and Food Businesses

The USDA continues to roll out programs to address the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the food system. A new program called the Pandemic Response and Safety Grant Program will give grants to food processors, distributors, farmers markets, and producers to respond to coronavirus, including for measures to protect workers. Funding requests may range from $1,500 to $20,000, and small businesses and non-profit organizations will be the focus of the first round of funding, with medium sized businesses becoming eligible in the second round. Approximately $650 million is available for grants for costs incurred between January 27, 2020 and December 31, 2021. Grants will cover the activities associated with workplace safety (including PPE), developing online platforms, retrofitting facilities, increasing worker transportation services, providing worker housing or medical service to deal with Covid-19. You can get more details on these grants here. The application for grants opens on September 23 and closes on November 8th.

Coronavirus Food Assistance Program Deadline Extended

In late August, USDA announced an extension to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2, which provides direct payments to agricultural producers whose operations were directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The original application period for CFAP 2 closed in December 2020 but USDA has reopened the signup period until October 12, 2021. The program uses three different methods for calculating payment rates based on the type of crops or livestock. Even if you were not eligible for the first round of CFAP (which was the case for many organic farms), it may be worth checking again because the USDA has changed some of the eligibility requirements and the methods for calculating payments, which may work better for organic farms. You can get details about who is eligible and how to apply here. 

Organic and Budget Reconciliation

Over the August recess and into September, Congress continued to move closer towards a plan to invest in the nation’s roads, bridges, public transit systems, broadband internet, energy grid and water systems through a bipartisan infrastructure package. The infrastructure package is more limited than some early proposals, which means that funding for things like agriculture and addressing climate change will be handled through a “reconciliation” bill that is passed only with Democratic votes. (This process can only be used a limited number of times and is supposed to be limited to funding existing government programs. It was used earlier this year to pass the American Rescue Plan to address economic impacts of the pandemic.) 

Yesterday, the House Agriculture Committee passed (with only Democratic votes) parts of the agriculture portions of the reconciliation package. We are still waiting for details on a reported $28 billion (to be spent over 10 years) for conservation programs, with a focus on climate change. But we do know that the agriculture bill as it is currently drafted contains a big increase for organic research. There are still several steps to go for this reconciliation package, and negotiations will continue to be fairly tense because of the very tight margins in both the House and the Senate. 

Horizon Organic Drops 89 Organic Dairy Farmers in the Northeast

Horizon Organic, which is owned by Danone, recently notified 89 organic dairy farmers in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and the northern part of New York that they would not be renewing their contract to buy their milk after next September. Danone is blaming logistics and trucking issues for their decision to drop these farmers from their routes. But there are  other issues in the organic marketplace are part of this story – especially USDA’s failure to update and enforce key organic standards for dairy cows such as enforcement of the pasture standards and long overdue updates to the Origin of Livestock rule to stop the continuous cycling of animals in and out of organic on large operations. 

In the absence of USDA upholding high standards for organic dairy operations, larger operations in the Midwest and West have gotten into the organic market, undercutting producers in the Northeast especially. It is extremely frustrating for producers in the Northeast to see USDA’s current focus on restoring resilience in the food supply chain and encouraging more farmers to transition to organic, while at the same time USDA’s failure to strengthen the standards for organic dairy is leading to producers potentially being pushed out of the industry. OFA is working with allies like the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance and others in the region to identify other options for the impacted dairy operations, call on Horizon to offer these farms more time and more financial support and to pressure USDA to strengthen the organic standards so that all organic dairy farms are following the same rules, no matter where they are.


August Policy Update

August 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

Climate Change and Agriculture

This month, Congress moved a little closer towards a plan to invest in the nation’s roads, bridges, public transit systems, broadband internet, energy grid and water systems through a bipartisan infrastructure package. The negotiations have been tense, but it appears that the Senate will soon pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, while the prospects in the House are still somewhat up in the air. One result of the negotiations is that the infrastructure package is more limited than some early proposals, which means that possible funding for things like agriculture and addressing climate change will mostly have to be addressed in a different piece of legislation. The most likely way for that to happen during this Congress is through a “reconciliation” bill that is passed only with Democratic votes. (This process can only be used a limited number of times and is supposed to be limited to funding existing government programs. It was used earlier this year to pass the American Rescue Plan to address economic impacts of the pandemic.) 

Once Congress is done with the bipartisan infrastructure package, Democratic leadership will try to get their members to agree on a package to pass under reconciliation – and there are efforts underway to dramatically increase funding for USDA’s conservation programs as part of a reconciliation bill. The details of how the increased funding will be distributed still need to be worked out, but a major motivation for Democrats working on this issue is to provide more money to support farming practices that help address climate change.

USDA’s 2022 Budget

After some delays, Congress made some progress in the last month on one of their yearly tasks, passing “appropriations” bills that set the spending levels for various branches of the federal government like the USDA. The full House has passed its version of the bill that covers USDA, and last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its version out of committee and sent it to the full Senate. Both versions of the bill would increase funding for the National Organic Program, with instructions to emphasize enforcement of organic standards and organic research as well as urging the USDA to fix the reimbursement levels for organic certification cost share. 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. 

Pipeline Foods Bankruptcy

On July 8th, Pipeline Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to the company’s website, it contracted with 1,461 growers in 2019 (the most recent number available.) If you are an organic grain producer who sold grain to Pipeline Foods and have not been paid, there are a couple of things you can do right now:

  1. Contact the state department of agriculture for the state where your grain was delivered. Many states have grain dealer licensing programs that administer funds or insurance programs to cover obligations from grain dealer defaults. Each state has its own program, so the details vary on how to apply and how much of the loss will be covered. You can find the websites for programs in many of the states where Pipeline bought grain here. 
  2. If you delivered grain in a different state than where your farm is located, you may also want to contact your state department of agriculture to see if there are programs that cover this loss. Most states license the grain dealer, so they cover transactions at grain facilities in the state (where the grain is delivered, not where it is grown.) But it is also worth checking with your home state in case they have a program that could help. Some state programs may eventually hold information sessions about what options farmers have in this situation, so keep an eye on the websites for your state grain program.
  3. Consider seeking legal help if you made deliveries shortly before the bankruptcy filing, or before making any new deliveries to Pipeline. Several states have suspended the company’s grain dealer license. Those with open contracts for future delivery of grain to Pipeline facilities in Minnesota may now be able to get out of those contracts – see the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s website for the steps you need to follow

OFA will continue to look for other options for organic farmers who are impacted by this bankruptcy, and will share more information as we find it. But contacting a state grain program and getting your own legal advice are short-term steps you should take as soon as possible. 

What You Can Do

Members of the House of Representatives have already left DC for their August recess and members of the Senate should be leaving DC soon. Especially after last summer’s limitations due to the pandemic, you are likely to see your members of Congress out and about at fairs and other events. If you get a chance to talk to them, let them know that organic is climate-smart agriculture and that USDA needs to do more to protect organic integrity. You can also read OFA’s guide to setting up an “in-district” meeting with your members of Congress while they are back home during the August recess.


Organic Grain Buyer Files for Bankruptcy – Resources for Organic Farmers

On July 8th, Pipeline Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to the company’s website, it contracted with 1,461 growers in 2019 (most recent number available).

If you are an organic grain producer who sold grain to Pipeline Foods and have not been paid, there are a couple of things you can do right now:

  1. Contact the state department of agriculture for the state where your grain was delivered. Many states have grain dealer licensing programs that administer funds or insurance programs to cover obligations from grain dealer defaults. Each state has its own program, so the details vary on how to apply and how much of the loss will be covered. The websites for programs in many of the states where Pipeline bought grain are listed below.
  1. If you delivered grain in a different state than where your farm is located, you may also want to contact your state department of agriculture to see if there are programs that cover this loss. Most states license the grain dealer, so they cover transactions at grain facilities in the state (where the grain is delivered, not where it is grown.) But it is also worth checking with your home state in case they have a program that could help. Some state programs may eventually hold information sessions about what options farmers have in this situation, so keep an eye on the websites for your state grain program.
  1. Consider seeking legal help if you made deliveries shortly before the bankruptcy filing, or before making any new deliveries to Pipeline (several states have suspended the company’s grain dealer license.) There may be steps you can take to impact your standing as a creditor in the bankruptcy process, depending on the terms of your agreement.

OFA will continue to look for other options for organic farmers who are impacted by this bankruptcy and will share more information as we find it. But contacting a state grain program and getting your own legal advice are short-term steps you should take as soon as possible.

State Programs

Illinois Grain Insurance Fund
https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/agr/Consumers/GrainWarehouses/Pages/Illinois-Grain-Code.aspx#h3

Indiana Grain Indemnity Program
https://www.in.gov/isda/divisions/indiana-grain-buyers/grain-indemnity-corporation/

Iowa Grain Depositors and Sellers Indemnity Fund
https://iowaagriculture.gov/news/notice-of-warehouse-grain-dealer-bankruptcy-07132021

If you have a contract with Pipeline Foods for delivery in Iowa on a date after July 8, 2021 (the date the company filed for bankruptcy), you can now be relieved of any liability or claim by Pipeline to fulfill this contract.

Here is what you need to do:

–  Go to the Pipeline Foods Bankruptcy webpage and fill out the Undelivered Grain Sellers – Non-Delivery Notice Submission Form https://cases.stretto.com/PipelineFoods/content/1213-undelivered-grain-sellers/

–  After you make this notification, you can sell the contracted grain or beans elsewhere. Keep records of where you sold the grain and for how much.

This procedure covers:

  1. Iowa farmers who would truck their grain under a Pipeline contract to a facility in Iowa;
  2. Farmers in states other than Iowa who would truck grain under a Pipeline contract to a facility in Iowa; and
  3. Farmers in Iowa for whom Pipeline (rather than the farmer) would arrange the trucking to pick up grain/beans at an Iowa farm but that would be delivered to a facility in a state other than Iowa.

It does not cover contracts under which the grain/beans would be delivered to a facility in a state other than Iowa.

Michigan Farm Produce Insurance Fund
https://www.michigan.gov/mdard/0,4610,7-125-1569_16993_16996---,00.html

If you have a contract with Pipeline Foods for delivery in Michigan on a date after July 8, 2021 (the date the company filed for bankruptcy), you can now be relieved of any liability or claim by Pipeline to fulfill this contract.

Here is what you need to do:

–  Go to the Pipeline Foods Bankruptcy webpage and fill out the Undelivered Grain Sellers – Non-Delivery Notice Submission Form https://cases.stretto.com/PipelineFoods/content/1213-undelivered-grain-sellers/

–  After you make this notification, you can sell the contracted grain or beans elsewhere. Keep records of where you sold the grain and for how much.

This procedure covers:

  1. Michigan farmers who would truck their grain under a Pipeline contract to a facility in Michigan
  2. Farmers in states other thanMichigan who would truck grain under a Pipeline contract to a facility in Michigan; and
  3. Farmers in Michigan for whom Pipeline (rather than the farmer) would arrange the trucking to pick up grain/beans at a Michigan farm but that would be delivered to a facility in a state other than Michigan.

It does not cover contracts under which the grain/beans would be delivered to a facility in a state other than Michigan.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Grain Licensing Program
https://www.mda.state.mn.us/statement-minnesota-department-agriculture-regarding-pipeline-foods-llcs-chapter-11-bankruptcy
****Minnesota Grain Program held a (virtual) public information session about this bankruptcy on Weds. July 21 at 1-3 pm central. Click here to watch a recording of the session.

If you have a contract with Pipeline Foods for delivery on a date after July 8, 2021 (the date the company filed for bankruptcy), you can now be relieved of any liability or claim by Pipeline to fulfill this contract.

Here is what you need to do:

-  Go to the Pipeline Foods Bankruptcy webpage and fill out the Undelivered Grain Sellers – Non-Delivery Notice Submission Form at https://cases.stretto.com/PipelineFoods/content/1213-undelivered-grain-sellers/

-  After you make this notification, you can sell the contracted grain or beans elsewhere.

This procedure covers:

  1. Minnesota farmers who would truck their grain under a Pipeline contract to a facility in Minnesota;
  2. Farmers in states other than Minnesota who would truck grain under a Pipeline contract to a facility in Minnesota; and
  3. Farmers in Minnesota for whom Pipeline (rather than the farmer) would arrange the trucking to pick up grain/beans at a Minnesota farm but that would be delivered to a facility in a state other than Minnesota.

It does not cover contracts under which the grain/beans would be delivered to a facility in a state other than Minnesota.

Missouri Grain Regulatory Services Program
https://agriculture.mo.gov/grains/?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=
Please contact the Missouri Department of Agriculture if you or your business have any unsettled obligations with Pipeline Foods, LLC. You may call Grain Regulatory Services Program Manager Eric Berwanger at (573) 751-4112.

North Dakota Grain and Livestock Licensing Division
https://www.nd.gov/ndda/program/grain-inspection
ND Grain Complaint Form: https://www.nd.gov/ndda/submit-grain-complaint

Ohio Grain, Feed & Seed Program
https://agri.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/oda/divisions/plant-health/grain-warehouse-feed-and-seed/grain-feed-seed     (choose Grain Indemnity Fund button)
Claim forms: https://agri.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/oda/divisions/plant-health/forms/plnt_4203-006

South Dakota Public Utilities Commission Grain Warehouse Program
https://puc.sd.gov/warehouse/
Producers who are not being paid in a timely manner are encouraged to report problems to the PUC by calling 1-800-332-1782 or sending an email to puc@state.sd.us

Wisconsin Agricultural Producer Security Default Claims
https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/AgProdSecDefaultClaims.aspx

 

 

 

 


OFA Origin of Livestock USDA Comments

 

 

July 12, 2021

Jennifer Tucker
Deputy Administrator
National Organic Program
USDA-AMS-NOP
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Room 2642-So., Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268

Re: Docket Number AMS-NOP-11-0009; NOP-21-04PR

Dear Dr. Tucker,

The Organic Farmers Association (OFA) is a membership organization that represents U.S. certified organic farmers. Our organization was founded by and is controlled by certified organic farmers, and only domestic certified organic farmers vote on OFA’s policies and leadership. OFA appreciates the opportunity to provide comments on the “National Organic Program; Origin of Livestock; Reopening of Comment Period.”

Our farmer members have ranked increasing NOP enforcement, especially origin of livestock and pasture rule enforcement, as a top priority every year that we have administered a national organic farmer survey.

The economic viability of organic dairy farmers is dependent upon clarification of regulations to stop the varied interpretations or loopholes regarding dairy livestock transitioning practices.

Finalizing a strong, enforceable rule on the origin of livestock is important for the future of organic dairy farmers, their families, and the integrity of the entire organic label. The organic label is one of the most highly trusted labels for consumers. This is due to the strong Federal standards and enforcement behind the label. Solidifying standards to ensure all organic farmers operate under the same rules is essential for the entire organic community.

Unfortunately, the organic dairy producers who have utilized a loophole in the regulations, allowed by some certifiers, to continuously transition conventional animals into organic production have gained an economic advantage and contributed to the oversupply of organic milk. This has contributed to a significant drop in recent years in the milk prices paid to organic dairy farmers, the majority of whom were held by their certifiers to a higher standard and stricter enforcement.

The long delay in clarifying the regulations on Origin of Livestock is inhibiting the National Organic Program (NOP)’s ability to provide consistent and fair enforcement, leaving our nation’s organic animal standards unfair and inconsistent. Our members, who are independent small rural businesses, have experienced the inequities created by the lack of clarity within the current rules outlining bovine dairy transition to organic dairy production.

For 15 years, organic dairy farmers have advocated for an enforceable regulation applied equally to all certified producers. In 2015, USDA published a proposed rule to close the loopholes in the current regulations, by clarifying that “After completion of a one-time, 12-month transition period of an existing conventional dairy herd (or livestock to form new organic dairy operations), all new dairy animals milked on the organic dairy farm would need to be managed organically from the last third of gestation.”

The organic community has provided comments two times on the proposed rule and it garnered strong, united support from the organic community and consumers, especially the provision to stop conventional livestock from continuously entering the organic herd. Unfortunately, the 2015 rule has never been finalized.

This delay has had real consequences for organic dairy farmers. Organic has been an important market that has provided for the viability of family-scale farms across the nation for both dairy farms and associated feed and grain producers. But there are conditions in the organic milk market in some regions of the country, especially the Northeast, that are different than those in conventional milk markets. Because USDA dedicates resources to ensuring the orderly marketing of conventional milk through the federal milk market order system, changes in the conventional milk market are predictable and widely publicized. But changes in the organic milk market in recent years came suddenly and without warning for organic dairy farmers. For example, in January 2017, organic milk marketers in New York were looking for more organic milk, in February 2017, they said there was an oversupply, and by March 2017, they were imposing quotas on organic dairy farms in the state.

One factor behind this volatility is the arrival of large supplies of cheaper organic milk from large dairies in the West and Midwest that expanded rapidly when the organic milk price was high in 2016. These large operations were able to expand rapidly to capitalize on the high organic milk price by working with organic certifiers that allowed them to continuously transition conventional cows to organic. The great majority of organic dairy operations are held to higher standards by their certifiers that reflect the intent of the origin of livestock regulations and consumer expectations. But the exploitation of regulatory loopholes has upset the balance of supply and demand previously found in the organic milk market. This has impacted the economic viability of organic dairy operations. According to the NOP’s Organic Integrity Database, the number of organic dairy farms in the United States has remained essentially stagnant over the last five years, which is shocking given the dramatic annual growth rates seen in organic product sales. The number of organic dairies declined year each year since 2016, with the exception of a large increase in 2019. In all other years since 2016, the organic dairy sector lost an average of 128 farms per year. One factor that has made it challenging for dairy operations to remain organic has been the inconsistent enforcement of standards like the origin of livestock.

It is not just organic dairy farmers who believe the lack of consistent enforcement of origin of livestock rules must be addressed. As referenced in this request for comment and in previous public comment periods, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General released an audit in 2013 identifying the lack of clarity in the regulations and different interpretation by different certifiers as problems that could undermine consumer confidence in the organic milk certification process.[1] Furthermore, organic farmers across commodities support a strong origin of livestock rule because inconsistent standards weaken consumer trust in the label, which hurts the entire organic industry.

It is long past time for the NOP to finalize a rule to close the loopholes on origin of livestock. A final rule on origin of livestock must:

  • Prohibit the continuous transition of conventional dairy livestock and stop the one-time exemption from being used to combine multiple transitioned herds to form one operation.
  • Prohibit first calf heifers and young cows being transitioned from conventional production and then being sold to an existing organic dairy, which is not in line with the rule and undermines certified organic dairies by providing a cheaper, quicker alternative to raising organic replacements under organic management.
  • Ensure that the whole transition happens over a twelve-month period and under the supervision of a certifier as part of the producer’s organic system plan. 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 certification.
  • Prohibit the practice of adding conventional animals during a transition process and extending the transition period.
  • Prohibit the sale of transitioned animals (not raised in organic production from the last third of gestation) being sold as organic dairy animals that can be used to produce organic milk.
  • Prohibit transitioned animals from retaining their organic status if they are moved to a different location under the same ownership.
  • Prohibit the practice of having an organic and conventional dairy operation at the same location. While a split operation may be practical with other commodities, it is very difficult to audit and ensure that organic dairy product (raw milk) is not mixed with non-organic product. This will prevent any abuse or the
    perception of abuse.

Therefore, we urge the department to swiftly finalize an Origin of Livestock regulation that:

  • Goes into effect immediately.
  • Allows an operation or responsibly connected person(s) to transition bovine dairy animals into organic production only once.
  • 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 organic.
  • An operation or responsibly connected person(s) must not transition any new bovine dairy animals into organic production after the end of the 12-month transition period. Once a distinct herd is transitioned to organic, all animals must be raised organically from last third of gestation.
  • 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 accountability.
  • Prohibits the transfer or sale of transitioned animals to any other operation as certified organic, for any purpose.
  • Prohibits split bovine conventional and organic milking herds at the same location.

In addition to these overarching comments and priorities, we offer the following specific thoughts in response to questions posed in the request for comments.

Movement of Transitioned Animals

NOP should not allow transitioned animals to remain certified organic if they are sold, transferred, gifted, or moved to another operation. This includes preventing transitioned animals from retaining their organic status if they are moved to a different location under the same ownership. A transitioned animal should only be certified organic on the operation that used its one-time exemption. If a transitioned animal moves to new operation through sale, gift or other transfer, it must be considered a conventional animal.

OFA believes that the final rule should prohibit organic dairy operations from acquiring transitioned animals to expand or replace animals to produce organic milk for several reasons:

  • This is necessary to close the loopholes that have been plaguing the organic dairy sector for years.
  • Ending this practice does not affect the value of the transitioned animal because its initial value was as a conventional animal. The cost of transitioning the animal was reflected by the higher pay price received for the milk produced after the animal was certified as organic.
  • Family members or other responsibly connected persons who were part of the ownership of the transitioned entity who later want to start a new operation will need to purchase organically certified animals that were under organic production from the last third of gestation. They would not be eligible to transition conventional animals because they have already used their one-time exemption to transition conventional animals for the original operation. While this may complicate succession planning, strict clarity within this rule is required to end the abuse that has been undermining the integrity of organic certification across the dairy sector.
  • This is consistent with existing requirements that transitioned animals cannot be certified organic for slaughter.

Certifiers will play a critical role in ensuring a level playing field when it comes to the supply of organic livestock. We urge the NOP to provide clear instructions to certifiers about recordkeeping and inspection practices necessary to enforce this standard. Certifiers should already have systems to ensure that transitioned livestock are not sold as organic for slaughter. NOP should work with certifiers to build on those procedures and ensure that an adequate level of detail, beyond just ear tag numbers, is used to track transitioned animals and ensure that their status is accurately reflected on organic certificates and other paperwork that would be used in a sale or transfer. NOP should also instruct certifiers on adequate auditing and verification activities to incorporate into their inspections so that new regulations are actually enforced. Finally, the NOP should work with certifiers to ensure that the plan for transitioning animals using the one-time exemption is part of the approved organic systems plan that operations use to plan their start-up phase and future growth.

Description of Regulated Entity

OFA supports using the term “operation” to describe the regulated entity, with the addition of a “responsibly connected person(s),” as already defined in the organic regulations.

Using the term “operation” for this regulation is consistent with the proposed rule being developed on Strengthening Organic Enforcement. We believe that the addition of the “responsibly connected person(s)” will address another problem facing the organic dairy sector, in which new business structures are created at the same operation in order to create new opportunities to use the one-time exemption. In addition to limiting an operation to using the exemption on transitioning animals to one time, NOP also needs to limit the key people involved in the operation as well.

In accordance with the “responsibly connected person(s)” approach, any person who is a partner, officer, director, holder, manager, or owner of 10 percent or more of the voting stock of an applicant or a recipient of certification would be allowed to execute the one-time herd transition exemption only once on any operation where they have a significant financial or managerial stake. After an operation they are connected to uses the one-time exemption, all responsibly connected persons for that operation will have used up their transition exemption allowance, even for different operations in the future. Any person with a significant financial or managerial stake in a dairy operation would utilize their one-time eligibility once a transition occurs at that operation and not be allowed to participate in another operation that is using the one-time exemption.

Implementation Timeframe

OFA supports an immediate effective date for the final rule. Those conventional dairy operations with existing herds that have not yet entered the certification process should be able to plan for their transition with their certifier using the one-time transition allowance as part of their approved organic systems plan. For operations that are in the process of getting certified on the final rule’s effective date, they should complete the one-time transition approved by their certifier within 12 months of the effective date.

Regulatory Impact Analysis

While ongoing gaps in economic and other data about organic operations presented a challenge for the agency in performing this analysis, we believe that the conclusions presented provide ample justification and support for prohibiting the transfer or sale of transitioned animals to another operation without losing their organic status.

These conclusions include:

  • The benefits of clarifying the regulations will ensure a level playing field for all organic dairy producers, support consumer trust in the USDA organic seal by assuring consumers that organic dairy products meet a consistent standard, and support producer confidence in the organic label.
  • Despite years of delay in finishing this proposed rule, there remains a need for this rulemaking.
  • The uneven application of the current rule suggests that a smaller share of producers is benefitting from the cost advantage of transitioned heifers, at a higher level than is suggested by the average number of head purchased. Therefore, the majority of organic dairy farms that exclusively raise their own replacement animals are not expected to have higher production costs under the final rule. Producer cost increases would occur in limited scenarios and would amount to less than 2.5% of producer costs.
  • Consumer milk price increases are estimated to be less than 0.08% (which translates to an extra 2 or 3 cents for a half gallon of organic milk). This very low price increase is not likely to limit industry growth nor noticeably affect consumer demand for organic milk.
  • Sufficient numbers of organic heifers (organically managed from last third of gestation) would be available after the implementation of the rule to maintain and/or grow existing organic dairy operations.
  • The long-term economic impact on producers of not implementing the proposal is greater than the economic impact of the rule due to the need for greater consistency in applying the origin of livestock standard across the organic dairy sector. We believe that this point is not fully developed in the analysis. Because of limitations in the availability of data on organic agriculture, waves of economic damage to organic dairy farms are not fully captured by examining the USDA’s Census of Agriculture results or even the NOP’s Organic Integrity Database. But even using the simplified metric of number of certified operations in the OID that specify that they produce milk or dairy, there have been recent years where significant numbers of certified dairy operations exited the organic market. One year with significant increases in the numbers of certified operations, 2019, offsets some of those significant losses. Therefore, simply looking at the growth between the 2015 proposed rule and today gives an incomplete picture of the economic health of the organic dairy sector. The failure to adequately enforce the origin of livestock rules has caused ongoing disruption and economic damage to the organic dairy sector that is not adequately captured in this analysis.

Additionally, the analysis fails to fully develop some of the benefits that should come from a final rule being enforced. One benefit that should be more fully appreciated is the opportunity for growing the organic dairy sector, as well as the affiliated organic grain sector that provides feed for organic dairy operations, if loopholes are closed. According to OFA members, organically certified livestock (managed organically from the last third of gestation) currently have no premium as most are sold on the conventional market. Addressing the problem of continuous transition that undermines the price of organic replacement animals will help create value for organic operations to sell organically-raised replacement animals and create a market that could help them diversify their operations and have a better tool to avoid overstocking and better manage their herd size relative to their land base.

Fay Benson, Cornell Cooperative Extension educator and project manager for the Cornell Organic Dairy Program, investigated the cost differences between organic and conventional practices during the first year of a dairy heifer’s life and found that dairies that raised heifers conventionally to one year of age were able to save on average $884 per animal compared to animals raised using organic methods on three farms in New York. The major components of these savings were due to increased labor and more expensive feed (organic milk) on organic operations.  As an article about this research states, “Allowing the conventional raising of “pre” organic heifers allows these dairies to avoid the higher costs of feeding organic milk and also shortens the expensive period prior to weaning… This puts dairies that follow the NOP rule at a significant disadvantage, specifically in the Northeast.”[2]  The benefit of closing a loophole that provides an $884 per head advantage to those operations that continuously transition animals into organic is significant.

Another benefit of a final rule to prohibit continuous transition and sale or transfer of transitioned animals as organic would be to reduce some of the volatility experienced in recent years in regional organic milk markets, as described earlier. The use of continuous transition allowed some herds to grow at a rapid pace and created market surpluses. Requiring operations to source organic animals would provide for a more gradual rate of growth of existing herds that does not undermine existing organic operations. This could also help assure conventional dairy operations that are considering a transition to organic that it is worth the effort and time to transition because, once certified, they will be able to count on steady growth and a level playing field based on uniform enforcement.

In the discussion of benefits of the proposed rule, the agency mentions that it expects the proposed rule to help support consumer confidence and that increased confidence could “disincentivize the (costly) establishment of credentials that are alternative to USDA organic certification.” The concept that USDA organic does not represent the most credible marketplace standard for milk production is presented as an abstract possibility. But the proliferation of animal welfare and other label claims that certified organic producers feel increasing pressure to pursue in addition to USDA organic is not an abstract possibility. This pressure to pursue additional certifications is happening now and creating more work and expense for organic operations. If the USDA needs data on this, we urge you to work with groups like OFA or through USDA census processes to ask organic farmers about the pressure to pursue additional certifications because of perceived weaknesses in the organic standards and what these additional certifications are costing operations in both time and fees.

Exceptions to the One-Time Allowance

OFA does not support any exceptions to the one-time allowance.

Conclusion

In addition to the issues raised for comment, we urge the agency to consider two more important topics.

Recordkeeping and Certification Procedures: The final rule should include details about how operations will communicate with their certifier about using the one-time exemption for transition and how those transitioned animals will be tracked. Certifiers should already be tracking transitioned animals to ensure they are not being sold for slaughter as certified organic. We also believe that the transition status of animals should be indicated on organic certificates and on records used when animals are taken to auction or sold off the farm. Animal lists with information such as vaccine numbers should be part of the records certifiers examine during their inspections of dairy operations, similar to how examination of pasture recordkeeping is now part of inspection procedures.

Organic Data: The regulatory impact analysis for this rulemaking has been challenging because of the inadequate state of data and understanding of the economics of organic dairy production. Even calculating the number of certified organic dairy operations over time proved challenging because of limitations in the NOP’s Organic Integrity Database and the inadequate coverage of organic operations by the Census of Agriculture. This is in stark contrast to the wealth of data that is collected about the conventional milk sector, as a result of AMS’ charge to administer pricing programs and ensure orderly marketing conditions. We urge the NOP to coordinate with the dairy program in AMS to establish better reporting on the movement of organic milk between regions and market conditions including organic pay price. It is difficult to persuade dairy farmers to make the significant commitment of transitioning to organic production if they cannot gain a clear view of the state of the organic milk market in their region. And as the volatility of the last several years shows us, organic producers can no longer assume that growth in the organic milk sector will be gradual or regionally-based.

The changes being considered by the agency are needed to uphold consumers’ expectations about organic dairy. Finalizing this rulemaking is critical to bring consistent enforcement which would create a level playing field among all organic dairy producers and uphold strong organic integrity for all organic farmers across the country. Our members believe they can compete with the most efficient organic dairy operation of any size if they are treated equitably. Loopholes in the current rule put our members at a competitive disadvantage and allow inequitable interpretation and enforcement of the rule by some certifiers. Because organic certification is typically conducted by a regional certifier, inequitable interpretation between certifiers can pit different geographic regions or states against others.  The current system places the majority of organic dairy farmers, and particularly family-owned and operated rural dairy operations, at a significant competitive disadvantage.

We appreciate that the USDA has committed itself to responding to the pandemic by addressing long-standing issues of limited resilience in the food and agriculture system. The USDA’s new vision of a food system that is “fair, competitive, distributed, and resilient” is a worthy goal and we hope that regionally-dispersed family-scale organic operations are part of USDA’s vision. One item on USDA’s agenda for strengthening resilience in the agriculture supply chain is encouraging more farms to transition to certified organic and providing assistance for them to do so.[3] It is vital that those new entrants into the organic marketplace are able to compete on a level playing field, otherwise USDA’s investment and encouragement will be wasted. A key step to making sure that new organic operations can thrive is to close the loopholes that allow a small number of large operations to create an unfair economic advantage by continuously transitioning conventional animals into organic. A strong, enforceable rule will help ensure economic equity for all organic dairy operations and ensure continued consumer confidence in the organic label.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments on the critical issue of the origin of organic livestock. Please contact Patty Lovera, (202) 526-2726 or patty@organicfarmersassociation.org, if you have questions or need additional information.

Sincerely,

Kate Mendenhall

Executive Director

 

[1] USDA Office of Inspector General. “AMS-NOP – Organic Milk Operations.” July 2013. Audit Report 01601-0002-32.

[2] Fay Benson. Cornell Collee of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “USDA Puts Northeast Organic Dairies at a Disadvantage.” Small Farms Quarterly. January 13, 2020. https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/2020/01/usda-puts-northeast-organic-dairies-at-a-disadvantage/

[3] https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/06/15/usda-announces-additional-aid-ag-producers-and-businesses-pandemic


July Policy Update

July 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

There has been a lot of news coming out of USDA as we enter summer, with multiple public comment periods and announcements about new programs using pandemic relief money.

Increasing Resilience in Food Supply Chains

In late June, OFA submitted comments to USDA answering a series of questions about weaknesses and risk in agriculture and food supply chains. The comment period will generate input for USDA to use as it comes up with recommendations to increase the resilience in the food system, in light of the serious disruptions that happened to some food supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic. We submitted stories of how organic farmers around the country adapted to the pandemic as well as pointing out the unique characteristics of organic production that need to be considered in future programs, such as the need for updated organic regulations, strong enforcement by USDA, affordable organic certification, increasing organic research and building more organic processing infrastructure.

Organic Certification Cost Share

After nearly a year of working to get Congress or USDA to restore the reimbursement level for the organic certification cost share program, we hope to hear some good news soon. Last August, 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. In June, USDA announced a series of programs it intends to start this summer, using funding provided by Congress to deal with effects of the pandemic on the agriculture sector. Included on the list was funding for organic transition and organic certification cost share. We hope to get the details from USDA soon and will let you know when we do. In the meantime, you can take action below to remind Congress about this funding gap that still needs to be filled.

Origin of Livestock Rule

Yesterday was the deadline for a public comment period on potential revisions to a proposed rule on how livestock can be transitioned to organic production. The Origin of Livestock rule has been a source of controversy for over a decade, and organic dairy farmers have been urging the National Organic Program (NOP) to tighten up the standards to close a loophole that is exploited by some operations to continuously transition conventional animals into organic production. The NOP’s failure to strengthen the standards for organic livestock has allowed large-scale organic dairies to undermine those organic farms that comply with the intent of the organic label.

In 2015, the NOP published a proposed rule to clarify that, after completion of a one-time transition from a conventional dairy farm, all new dairy animals milked on an organic dairy farm would need to be managed organically from the last third of gestation. The 2015 proposed rule garnered strong public support from the entire organic community but has never been finalized. The NOP took public comments on the proposed rule in 2015, again in 2019 and now again in 2021. Yesterday, OFA submitted detailed comments to urge the NOP to make sure that conventional animals that are transitioned to organic using the one-time allowance are not transferred or sold as organic animals and to set the fastest possible effective date for this new rule.

Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule

In mid-June, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA would revisit the critical issue of strengthening the animal welfare standards for organic operations. The controversy over the OLPP rule has spanned multiple administrations, with a final rule released at the end of the Obama Administration, only to be withdrawn by the Trump Administration. Two lawsuits then challenged USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule, objecting to USDA’s position that it did not have the authority to regulate animal welfare standards under the Organic Foods Production Act. In his statement, Secretary Vilsack said that once the lawsuits are resolved, the USDA intends to draft a proposed rule on OLPP, including addressing the issue of porches in poultry houses. We will keep you posted on when the rule-writing process begins.

Climate Change and Agriculture

Just like last month, the debate on climate policy in Congress continued to be tied to the negotiations over the infrastructure package. In June, the full Senate passed one of the many bills that have been introduced related to climate and agriculture, in hopes that it could be included in an infrastructure package.

The bill that passed the Senate is the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would give USDA the job of providing technical assistance and certification services for private carbon payment programs. The idea of carbon markets, whether private or run by an government agency like USDA, remain very controversial. The prospects for the Growing Climate Solutions Act in the House are not clear and some powerful members of the House Agriculture Committee do not yet support the bill. And the GCSA is not the only bill related to climate and agriculture that Congress could include in an infrastructure package. Another bill that would encourage the expansion of UDSA conservation programs to promote climate-friendly practices, and that highlights organic as a climate solution, is the Agriculture Resilience Act. You can take action here to support the Agriculture Resilience Act.

Take Action – Organic Certification Cost Share

While we are hoping for good news from USDA about restoring the reimbursement level for the cost share program, we are also continuing to let Congress know that this funding gap needs to be filled. This is the time of year when Congress works on the “appropriations” bills that set the spending levels for each federal agency, including USDA. Congress could get USDA to restore the reimbursement levels for organic certification cost share through the next appropriations bill. You can help by asking your members of Congress to make sure that USDA restores the reimbursement level for organic certification cost-share.  You can take action here.


June Policy Update

June, 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

Origin of Livestock

In mid-May, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) opened a public comment period (again) on the proposed rule to update the Origin of Livestock regulation for organic. This rule needs to be updated to close a loophole in the organic standards that is being exploited by large dairy operations and the organic community has been working to fix this problem for over a decade. The NOP’s failure to strengthen the standards for organic livestock has allowed large-scale organic dairies to undermine those organic farms that comply with the intent of the organic label.

In 2015, the NOP published a proposed rule to clarify that, after completion of a one-time transition from a conventional dairy farm, all new dairy animals milked on an organic dairy farm would need to be managed organically from the last third of gestation. The 2015 proposed rule garnered strong public support from the entire organic community but has never been finalized. Now, after years of advocacy by the organic community, the NOP has released a revised proposed rule for public comment.

The comment period is open until mid-July. OFA will be submitting detailed comments to urge the NOP to make sure that conventional animals that are transitioned to organic using the one-time allowance are not transferred or sold as organic animals. And we will be urging the fastest possible effective date for this new rule. You can get more details to help you write your own comment here or sign on to OFA’s petition about the proposed rule here.

Climate Change and Agriculture

The debate on climate policy in Congress continued to be tied to the negotiations over the infrastructure package. Several bills related to agriculture and climate have been introduced in hopes that some pieces of those bills will be included in an infrastructure package passed by Congress later this summer.

The USDA is still working on its climate strategy and evaluating the input received earlier this spring in a public comment period. In May, USDA released a preliminary progress report that highlighted a long list of options they might include in their climate strategy without really narrowing the list down. There is a lot of debate, especially among Republicans in Congress, about what an appropriate role for is USDA in programs to pay farms for sequestering carbon – the options range from having USDA provide technical assistance and certification services for private carbon payment programs, all the way to USDA creating a “carbon bank” that puts USDA in the role of paying farmers for carbon sequestration and then selling those credits to carbon emitters. But while that debate rages on, one area where they does seem to be more agreement is expanding USDA conservation programs to promote climate-friendly practices. One bill that would encourage that, and that highlights organic as a climate solution, is the Agriculture Resilience Act. You can take action here to support that bill.

New USDA Officials

The process of filling USDA jobs for the new administration continues to move along. The Senate Agriculture Committee recently had a confirmation hearing for the nominee for USDA’s General Counsel, Janie Simms Hipp, who is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate soon. This is an important position for organic because the General Counsel is the top lawyer inside USDA who reviews new regulations, including organic standards, before they can be finalized.

And the USDA announced this spring that the nominee for Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs is Jenny Lester Moffitt – who comes from an organic farm in California!  The Under Secretary is responsible for several major agencies inside USDA, including the branch housing the National Organic Program. You can read more about Jenny Lester Moffit here.  We don’t know yet when she will be confirmed by the Senate, so stay tuned.

Take Action - Advocate for Organic This Summer!

Since the U.S. Capitol is still closed to the public, we don’t know when we can have organic farmers meet with their members of Congress in Washington, DC. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait to tell Congress what they need to do to help organic farmers.

Members of Congress will be home in their districts quite a bit this summer (most likely for the entire month of August), and they will be out and about trying to make up for the public appearances that were canceled last year. If you think you can attend a town hall or other public forum and ask a question about organic, let us know and we can help you get ready. Or if you want to try to meet with any of your members of Congress (or their local staff) in their local offices, we can help you set up an appointment and share OFA resources to bring to the meeting.


Origin of Livestock Rule

The Origin Of Livestock Rule started in 2015.  Will we finalize it this year? What must the rule do for organic dairy farmers?

Written by: Ed Maltby, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance and Jill Smith, Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance

Since 2013, the organic community has been working to fix a loophole in the organic standards regarding the Origin of Livestock (OOL) for organic cow dairies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) needs to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule, ensuring that all organic dairy farms are being held to the same standards.

If you are not in the dairy industry, you might wonder what the Origin of Livestock rule is about and why it is so important to organic dairy producers and the entire organic community.

Organic dairy calves drink organic milk from a group nipple feeder on pasture.

WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF LIVESTOCK RULE?

This is the National Organic Program’s guideline for transitioning conventional dairy livestock to organic dairy production. Simply put, it sets the standards for the who, what, when, and how a dairy goes into organic production. The Origin of Livestock specifies that for a calf to be considered organic when it is born, the mother cow must be raised organically for the last third of the gestation period and that once an animal leaves an organic herd, it may not return to organic.          

WHAT IS THE LOOPHOLE?

The Origin of Livestock rule allows an exception for conventional dairies transitioning to organic. For a dairy farm to transition its operation to organic, it must transition its land over a 3-year period. In the third year, it may transition its dairy herd, meaning the full herd must be managed organically for a year, then the animals in that herd will be considered organic animals for milk production (but not for meat production, since the animal was not born and raised organically its entire life).

Unfortunately, for the last decade, some dairies have manipulated this loophole to continually transition cows onto an organic farm. An example of this loophole being used by some large dairies is the practice of removing their organic calves from their farm to be raised elsewhere with conventional practices, including the use of milk replacer (calf formula). Feeding calves with conventional milk replacer and feed is less expensive than feeding them with organic whole milk. A year before these animals can be milked, they will be transitioned back to become organic and join the milking herd. This example of continual transition into the organic herd is not allowed by most certifiers, nor does it embody the intention of organic standards. However, some certifiers continue to allow this practice.

This loophole puts farmers complying with the Origin of Livestock rule as intended at a large economic disadvantage. Truly raising organic livestock from a newborn calf to a full-producing dairy cow is much more expensive when using organic practices throughout their lives. Farms taking advantage of the existing loophole to continually transition cows into the organic system can grow and manage their organic herds at a much lower cost and are benefiting from an unfair economic advantage within the industry.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

We need the USDA to issue a Final Rule on the Origin of Livestock that is enforceable, consistently interpreted by organic certifiers, stops continuous dairy animal transition, and provides specificity on what the transitioned animals and their progeny can be used for.

ORIGINAL INTENTION OF THE RULE IS IMPORTANT

The final rule must clearly delineate the intention of the Origin of Livestock rule that allows for a finite exemption for a one-time herd transition to organic.

The intention of the rule was laid out in both the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) and the preamble of the National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule (December 2000).

OFPA established a minimum standard that dairy cows must be managed under organic production for one year. The preamble of the NOP Final Rule contains several statements that build on that minimum and can be combined under three principles:

  1. The opportunity for a producer to convert a conventional herd of dairy animals to organic production is a one-time event per producer. This is clearly mentioned in two separate statements.
  2. Once the operation has been certified, all animals brought onto the farm must be organic from the last third of gestation. This is clearly stated in the first and fourth statements of the preamble.
  3. There is no allowance to move transitioned animals from the operation on which they were transitioned, to another certified organic operation.

The final rule must clearly delineate these principles so that all certifiers, operations, and the National Organic Program understand them the same way, without the possibility of varied interpretations, so the rule can be upheld in the court of law.

WHY ARE THE DETAILS SO IMPORTANT?

Organic farmers rely on an organic label with high integrity that consumers trust. This is achieved with high organic standards and regulations that are enforceable and upheld by law. Certified organic farmers voluntarily hold themselves to the highest standards. In fact, producers and industry stakeholders regularly share recommendations with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to ensure that organic integrity is upheld with high standards that continually evolve and improve.

Organic dairy farmers call on the USDA to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule this year and ensure that the rule is strong, enforceable, and able to meet these principles:

Organic Integrity: Organic milk is a building block for consumer trust in the organic seal. With this seal, consumers trust that organic milk is provided from cows free of antibiotics and do not consume feed produced with the use of chemicals or pesticides. They trust that the offspring of these cows are raised organically, and future growth of the herd is not the result of continuously bringing conventionally raised animals into the fold.

Consistency and Fairness: One consistently interpreted standard for all dairies transitioning from conventional dairy to organic dairy production, no matter the size or scope of the operation.

Economic Equality: Applying two sets of rules or allowing for inconsistent interpretation of the rule creates an economic disadvantage for producers who follow original intentions of the Origin of Livestock rule when raising young stock for their herd. Those raising youngstock conventionally by taking advantage of the continuous transition regulatory loophole benefit financially by utilizing conventional feed and treating medical issues with antibiotics and other synthetic treatments not allowed in organic production.

Consistent application of OOL leads to a gradual growth of organic milk supply in the marketplace that doesn’t undermine existing producers. The continuous transition allows herds to grow at a rapid pace and creates market surpluses forcing down the price organic producers are paid for their milk. As a result, producers are paid at a level that makes them financially unstable and without a sustainable future in the dairy industry. This impacts the dairy family not only on a business level, but leads to potentially losing their sole income, farm ground, and the home they live in.

Enforceability: A clear regulation will be an enforceable regulation, ensuring farms are held to the same legal standard by all certifiers. A final rule must be an easily enforceable rule, clearly written with easily understood standards.

Growing the Organic Footprint: If organic dairy producers can be confident that everyone is following the same rules, producers can make better informed- decisions about the future value of their organic milk and their organic dairy farms. Addressing the problem of continuous transition of livestock will also help create value for organic farms to sell organically raised cattle, creating a new market for farmers.

Organic dairy producers plan for the grazing season and work to balance the right number of cattle to their farms’ pasture and water resources. This balance is one example of organic dairies being great stewards of the land. When farmers must make the hard decision to sell organic cattle, they currently do not receive a premium over conventionally-raised cattle. This is exacerbated by the continuous transition loophole, which some farms use to purchase conventional cattle and continuously transition them into their organic farms. The loophole is stifling industry market growth and diversification.

THE RULE IS LONG OVERDUE

The national organic community and consumers have been united in calling for

Consumers of organic milk expect farms to be managed like the farm featured above, and the great majority are. But an increasing amount of organic milk is coming from a few farms that do not uphold high organic integrity. Fixing the OOL loophole would level the playing field. (Photo from Chico State Organic Dairy by Darby Heffner)

this loophole to be closed for over a decade. Without consistent enforcement, organic dairy family farmers have been at an economic disadvantage for many years. Trust in the NOSB process and the USDA’s National Organic Program has faded.

Many dairy farmers leading the fight for a final OOL rule can be credited as pioneers in the organic industry—they are the very people who helped build consumer trust behind the organic seal. Unfortunately, we have lost many of our model pioneering organic dairies because of the low milk prices paid and the volatility of the organic dairy market because of this inconsistency in the rule. A stronger Origin of Livestock rule has been recommended by every National Organic Standards Board since 1994. The USDA’s Inspector General recommended finalizing the OOL rule seven years ago. Congress instructed the USDA to finalize a regulation as a priority by June 2020. However, the proposal has languished in the USDA internal review process.

Dairy producers have fought long and hard to create fairness in the organic dairy sector with the Origin of Livestock. Equality and fairness are essential to our hardworking producers throughout the organic community. As we look to support fairness for existing producers, we are also supporting fairness for future organic farmers, providing encouragement for organic production methods, and ensuring consumer trust in the organic label.

 

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National Organic Standards Board Update: SPRING 2021 MEETING

By Harriet Behar

Organic Farmers Association

Numerous important discussions of interest to organic crop producers occurred during the virtual 2021 spring National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting the last two weeks of April, including over 11 hours of public comment and 13 hours of Board discussion.

Ammonia extract, considered a natural substance since this version is derived from manure, was petitioned to be placed on the prohibited non-synthetic list, with many comments both pro and con.  Those wanting approval for this material point to the need for a highly soluble source of nitrogen to improve organic crop yields, as well as a way to deal with extreme climate issues such as very wet, cold, or dry conditions when the soil biological activity is stifled and not providing sufficient nutrients to the crop.  Those against this natural form of ammonia extract pointed to information that stated that soil biological activity can be damaged by this material.  Since the natural and synthetic forms cannot be distinguished in the soil, it could be difficult to determine fraudulent use of the synthetic version, which is not allowed under organic standards.

Many commenters felt the allowance of this highly soluble fertilizer will begin to change current organic methods which “feed the soil” to instead mimicking conventional agriculture’s method of “feeding the plant”.  Carbon sequestration and improvement of soil organic matter were also mentioned as foundational principles of organic, which is not encouraged in an agricultural system that relies upon soluble fertilizers.  The NOSB will continue this discussion and perhaps include a wider-ranging proposal in the fall, that might look at many types of highly soluble fertility inputs.  Possible annotations discussed for these nutrients included restricting them to either specific conditions or a maximum percentage of that specific nutrient provided by that fertility input within a crop season.

Kasugamycin, an antibiotic to prevent fire blight in pear and apple trees, was petitioned to be allowed.  The two antibiotics that had been allowed in the past, have been removed from the approved list for more than five years.  Most of our organic trading partners around the world do not allow the use of antibiotics for this crop use.  West coast fruit growers spoke mostly in favor of allowing this material since the current methods of fire blight control are labor-intensive and rely upon the use of copper and sulfur, both somewhat toxic materials. They stated other inputs such as a yeast-based product are somewhat experimental and not as reliable or easy to use as antibiotics to control the possibility of losing whole blocks of trees in an orchard when the climatic conditions during blossoming allow for the rapid spread of fire blight. Commentors and NOSB members were concerned about antibiotic resistance by widespread use, as well as consumer expectations that antibiotics are not allowed in organic and should remain that way.  It is expected that this material will be voted upon at the fall NOSB meeting.

A proposal for paper-based crop planting aids, including paper pots, was approved unanimously by the NOSB.  The NOSB has been reviewing and modifying this proposal for a couple of years since the paper’s ingredients such as synthetic adhesives and non-biodegradable fibers made the wording of the proposal more complicated.  In the proposed definition, at least 60% of the fiber must be cellulose-based and 60% of all of the ingredients must be non-synthetic. At least 80% of the content must be bio-based and verified by a third-party assessment.  Many small-scale growers using the chain paper pots will be happy to know that these pots meet this definition and will continue to be allowed in organic agriculture.

Biodegradable biobased mulch film is another material that has not yet been finalized, with an improved proposal coming back for review by the NOSB in the fall.  The current listing for this material requires 100% biobased ingredients, which is not available in the marketplace, other than a difficult-to-use paper mulch.  The current biodegradable mulch films (not allowed in organic) have 70% or higher content derived from petroleum, with some of these stretchable mulch films produced through genetically engineered bacteria.  Those in favor of this material point to the environmental problem caused by tons of plastic mulches that end up in landfills, and the lack of recycling opportunities that would be solved by the use of biodegradable plastic films. Having an easy-to-install, non-removable mulch with the many heat-producing, moisture conserving, and weed prevention positive characteristics of these biodegradable mulch films would be very popular with all types of growers.  Those having concerns point to the uneven biodegradability of the mulches and that they need to be incorporated into the soil to break down.  Pieces of mulch can blow into field edges or even waterways, causing problems for wildlife and the environment.  The remnants of microplastics in the soil and their effect on soil biological life by continued use were also discussed. Many commenters felt there is not quite enough research completed on this material to change the annotation and allow for widespread use in organic agriculture.

Organic producers will also be affected by the discussion on how to improve the numbers of knowledgeable and experienced organic inspectors and certification agency personnel. As the organic regulations become more complicated and more entities are covered under USDA organic certification, the need for better trained and more numerous people working in organic certification has become clear.  Discussion of partnering with colleges or universities to train certification personnel, as well as having experienced inspectors formally mentor novices for at least a year, were discussed.  The National Organic Program has asked the NOSB to work on this topic and within a week of the meeting, put out a request for proposals from non-profits to request funding for a variety of capacity building projects.

Many other topics were discussed in livestock, handling, and crops.  The fall 2021 NOSB meeting in Sacramento, CA is planned to be in-person, where many of the materials reviewed every five years on the National List will be voted upon as well as any updated proposals.

 


May Policy Update

May, 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

Origin of Livestock

In early May, the White House completed its review of a notice from the USDA about the long-delayed origin of livestock rulemaking. This rule needs to be updated to close a loophole in the organic standards that is being exploited by large dairy operations. The review process at the White House is far from transparent – we don’t know what is in the document sent by USDA, just that it was sent and that the White House has sent it back to USDA. We expect USDA to publish the notice soon.

Economic Stimulus and Pandemic Response

USDA is making supplemental payments to producers of cattle and some row crops who received payments through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) 1 and 2 last year. Producers do not have to do anything else to receive these supplemental payments if they were in the system last year. Additionally, USDA announced that it was reopening the sign-up period for CFAP 2 for at least 60 days. If you did not apply to CFAP 2 last year and are interested, you can get more information on USDA’s website.

Climate Policy

In late April, OFA submitted a detailed comment, and a petition signed by over 1000 people, to the USDA about the department’s strategy on the climate crisis. We emphasized the need for high integrity in the organic standards, especially upgrading rules and enforcement to make sure organic livestock are raised in high welfare pasture-based systems and making sure soil is the foundation of organic production. [Do we want to post the climate comment and link to it? It should be in the policy folder.] In Congress, the debate about climate and agriculture continues because of the push by President Biden to pass an infrastructure package – several bills related to agriculture and climate have been introduced in hopes that some pieces of those bills will be included in an infrastructure package passed by Congress later this summer.

New Efforts to Increase Organic Integrity

With several critical rulemakings still stuck inside the USDA, including updates to the Origin of Livestock rule, reinstating the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, and finishing the Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule, the level of frustration in the organic community continues to rise. At the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in late April, the new Deputy Undersecretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs as well as the administrator of the National Organic Program referenced these critical improvements to the organic standards, but did not offer any concrete updates on when the agency would finalize the rules. At the close of the NOSB meeting, board’s chair Steve Ela, an organic farmer from Colorado, made a point of saying that the board was excited to see a new bill in Congress (discussed below) to address the backlog of NOSB recommendations that the USDA has not moved into regulations. As the delays drag on, there were several new efforts in the organic community to increase the pressure on USDA to speed up the process.

On Earth Day, Francis Thicke, a former member of the NOSB wrote an open letter, signed by 40 other former NOSB board members, to the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The letter expressed their “concern that the integrity of the National Organic Standards has eroded significantly over the years” and that the “erosion of the Organic Standards is in violation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and is undermining consumer confidence in the integrity of organic food and the confidence of real organic farmers in the integrity of the USDA National Organic Program.”

On April 30th, the Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act was introduced by Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rodney Davis (R-IL), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Ron Kind (D-WI). The legislation would require the USDA to advance and implement recommendations from the organic industry in a timely manner and to ensure the continuous improvement of organic standards. OFA has endorsed this bill.

The bill would create three pathways to create continuous improvement:

  • The bill requires USDA to issue an Organic Improvement Action Plan to address the backlog of recommendations by the NOSB that have not been implemented. The plan must include detailed timelines, prioritization, and implementation plans for dealing with each recommendation.
  • When the NOSB passes a recommendation that is supported by the majority of the board, the bill requires USDA to issue a final rule implementing the recommendation within two years.
  • The bill requires USDA to report annually to Congress on whether accredited third-party certifiers have implemented new rules and guidance, and identify any inconsistencies found.

Take Action on Climate Change

As Congress starts to finally get serious about legislation to tackle climate change, one bill called the Agriculture Resilience Act would expand existing USDA research and conservation programs to create farmer-driven solutions, and includes specific support for organic production such as expanded certification cost-share program. The bill focuses on six policy areas to give farmers the tools they need for agriculture to become net-zero for greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Tell your Representative and Senators to support the Agriculture Resilience Act (S. 1337 in the Senate, HR 2803 in the House.) You can go here to read more about the bill and take action on the OFA website.