2018 Farm Bill Analysis
Mark Rokala, Policy Director
April 18, 2018

The legislative process of reauthorizing USDA’s organic programs is a marathon, not a sprint. This marathon started more than a year and a half ago, and the finish line is a moving target. A final product could be this summer or not until next year.

Organic Farmers Association’s goal is to include our legislative priorities in the bill that will pass the finish line. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Conaway’s (R-TX) proposal includes some of Organic Farmers Association’s priorities; however, the path to his proposal getting 218 votes to pass the House of Representatives is not clear.

There are several obstacles in the path to a 2018 Farm Bill.

  1. History is not on the side of Chairman Conaway as Congress has not passed a farm bill in an election year in modern history. As you know, 2018 is an election year.
  1. The divisive nature of Congress is breaking the usual bipartisan nature of the Agriculture Committee, as the Majority released a Republican only version of the farm bill that did not include Minority (Democratic) language. Historically, both parties of the Agriculture Committee have worked together to agree on the farm bill draft before it is released to Committee members.
  1. Congress’ partisan nature will cause cracks in the loose knit coalition of agricultural, conservation, rural develop, nutrition, and other groups that have historical worked with past chairmen to pass the legislation on the floor.
  1. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP), the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net, is the main point of contention for this farm bill within the House. Fifty members of Chairman Conaway’s caucus want more extensive SNAP reforms and those same fifty members tend not to vote for farm bill programs. To gain the needed Republican votes, the Chairman will need to make even more conservative reforms to SNAP; or he will need to reverse the SNAP reforms to gain Democratic support. The bill’s SNAP reforms will also create significant difficulties for the Chairman when the bill is conferenced with the Senate. Both the Chair and the Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee have agreed not to include SNAP changes in their proposal, and both have said and agree that the Senate does not have the votes to pass the House-proposed SNAP changes.

The current farm bill expires the end of September 2018.  Closer to the deadline, Chairman Conaway will have to determine if he can pass his proposal before programs expire or he will need to extend current farm programs. Congress does not want the farm bill to expire as farm policy would return to the policies of the 1930s.

Chairman Conaway’s decision could have a significant impact on programs organic farmers utilize like organic research.  Thirty-nine “orphan” programs lack baseline funding and would not be funded if the current farm bill is extended.

This Fall’s election adds significant intrigue to the farm bill writing process.

If Republicans keep control of Congress, Chairman Conaway would most likely continue as Chairman; however, if Democrats assume control of the House, Chairman Peterson would become Chairman of the Agriculture Committee and possibly start this whole process over next year.

As with most legislation, Congress is designing the marathon trek on the fly and will be looking for a finish line. OFA wants to be part of the process that reaches the finish line with as many as our policy priorities incorporated into the best bill possible for our members.

Organic Farmers Association identified several farm bill priorities.  These are our top four:

  1. maintaining the integrity of the organic system (import integrity, dairy and pasture rule enforcement);
  2. funding the Organic Certification Cost Share;
  3. funding the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) at $50 million; and
  4. protecting the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

Below is a brief review of the House Majority draft farm bill’s response to our priorities:

Overall much of the components of the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act were implemented in the draft to improve NOP oversight and authority to enforce organic integrity:

  • Improvements to NOP investigations
    • During an investigation allow for the sharing of confidential business information with state and federal employees;
    • Allow the secretary access to Customs and Border Protection data;
    • In high risk areas, require additional information from producers and handlers organic plan;
    • limit the type of operation exclude from certification;
    • submit an annual report on all domestic and overseas investigations and compliance action taken.
  • Changes to the international trade technology system
    • Modernize trade and transition certificates to ensure full traceability.
    • Provide one-time funding of $5 million for the system.
  • Allow the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives access to Commodity Credit Corporation funds.

The farm bill draft does not provide any funding for the Organic Certification Cost Share program. The language defining and establishing the program in the farm bill remains, but the program is not funded. Organic Farmers Association and our farm members strongly value this program and we feel it is necessary to fund it. The Senate bill may be where we need to restore program funding.

Organic Farmers Association supports the Organic Research Act, which requests $50 million for the OREI program, increasing organic research dollars from the current $20 million.

The House farm bill increases organic research dollars to $30 million.  There is still an increase, but less than the organic community has established as necessary.

Organic Farmers Association strongly opposes any efforts that seek to dilute the authority and role of the NOSBin the overall standard-setting process, and opposes statutory changes to the delicate balance of stakeholder slot allocations for the Board membership.

The House legislative draft includes the following changes to NOSB:

  • Allowing certifying agents, on an annual basis, in foreign country to certify a farm or handling operation;
  • Provide an expedited procedure for the national list of approved and prohibited substances for organic farming and handling;
  • Allows employees of organic farming operations, organic handling operations and retail operation to serve on the NOSB.

Organic Farmers Association staff will continue to work with Congress as its works on re-authorizing farm legislation.