April Policy Update

April, 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

At the end of March, OFA took our annual trip to DC virtual. Instead of meeting in-person for our policy meeting, annual meeting and lobby day, we shifted to online. In early March, we held an online annual meeting with special guest speaker Senator Jon Tester, who is a certified organic farmer from Montana. He talked about why organic farmers need to get involved in policy discussions, how he got into organic farming and why he thinks hydroponic operations should not be certified organic.

The policy council and governing council have also been doing extended online meetings this year to cover the topics we would have discussed at an in-person meeting in DC. And the last week in March, OFA members used Zoom, Skype, and good old-fashioned conference calls to lobby their members of Congress on organic priorities. While we missed getting ready and debriefing together in DC, shifting to virtual meetings meant no travel time and allowed some people to participate in lobbying for the first time. We had organic farmers from 13 states do over 30 meetings with members of Congress to talk about organic certification cost share, getting USDA to finish long overdue organic regulations and how organic fits into climate policy.

Origin of Livestock

Last week, the USDA sent a notice to the White House about the pending regulation on origin of livestock. This long overdue rulemaking is needed 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. We will continue tracking this rulemaking and pressuring the USDA to finish a strong, enforceable rule as quickly as possible.

Economic Stimulus and Pandemic Response

We are still waiting for details about how USDA will distribute funding for the latest round of pandemic response. In late December, Congress passed a new law to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic that authorized $13 billion for responding to the impacts of the pandemic on agriculture, as well as funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs. The law instructs the USDA to do several different things with the agricultural funding, including purchasing commodities and providing direct payments to farmers and processors that have been impacted by disruptions caused by the pandemic.

In late March, USDA announced a few details about 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.

USDA still has other funding to spend on pandemic response related to purchasing commodities to distribute through food banks, assistance to underserved producers, and possibly other assistance to specialty crop or organic producers. We will let you know when details for any new programs are released.

Paycheck Protection Program: Congress has again extended the Paycheck Protection Program, and you can now apply until May 31 for a first or second loan. To be eligible for a second loan, a business must have less than 300 employees and also be able to show that it suffered a 25 percent loss in revenue for at least one quarter of 2020 (as compared to 2019.) If you are interested, you should contact your bank as soon as possible to make sure there is still funding available.

Climate Policy

The debate about climate change and the role played by agriculture continues to pick up steam. A few weeks ago, the Senate Agriculture Committee had a hearing on the topic (following a House Agriculture Committee hearing a few weeks earlier.) And this week or next, we expect to see bills from Rep. Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Booker (D-NJ) that highlight the role of agriculture as a climate solution. The pace is picking up because of the push by President Biden to pass an infrastructure package – there will likely be even more climate bills introduced very soon in hopes that some pieces of those bills will be included in an infrastructure package passed by Congress later this summer. We will be evaluating the various bills and sharing ways you can support those that advance organic.

House Agriculture Hearing on Black Farmers

In late March, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on that state of black farmers in the United States, which included an organic peanut farmer from Georgia as well as other advocates and the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The hearing covered the long history of discrimination that kept many black farmers from accessing USDA programs or credit and drove generations of land loss. The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this year in response to the pandemic also included funding for loan forgiveness for farmers of color, and at the hearing Secretary Vilsack answered numerous questions about how that program will be structured. You can watch a recording of the hearing on the committee’s website.

Spring Meeting of the National Organic Standards Board

Once again, the National Organic Standards Board meeting is online this spring. You can watch the public comment periods and the full board meeting online. We are hopeful that the board will adopt a recommendation allowing paper pots (after several meetings of discussion). The agenda also includes a discussion on “human capital” to make sure the organic sector has a robust pool of people to serve as organic inspectors, ways to support board members, a discussion of ammonia extract, and many materials that are up for review.

You can get information and links to watch the meetings here.

Public Comment Sessions: Tuesday, April 20 from Noon – 5 p.m. ET and Thursday April 22 from Noon – 5 p.m. ET

NOSB Meeting: Wednesday, April 28 from Noon – 5 p.m., Thursday, April 29 from Noon – 5 p.m. ET, Friday, April 30 from Noon – 5 p.m. ET

What You Can Do

This is the time of year when Congress starts to put together the “appropriations” bills that set the spending levels for each federal agency, including USDA. We still need Congress to intervene to 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.