Biden Administration Transition Letter

November 23, 2020

The Honorable Joseph R. Biden
Wilmington, DE

Dear President-Elect Biden,

The Organic Farmers Association congratulates you on your recent election and we look forward to working closely with your Administration on issues that are critically important to organic farmers.

OFA is a membership organization that represents America’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.

Organic is a growing sector of the U.S. agriculture system, with tremendous potential to address climate change, help family farms flourish, revive rural communities and protect public health. But for organic agriculture to meet its potential, we need the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take several steps to protect the integrity of the USDA certified organic label.

The USDA sets the regulations and standards that must be met by products that bear the organic label. Certified organic farmers rely on this label to accurately convey information about their products in the marketplace. Because consumers believe in the integrity of the organic label, the organic sector has enjoyed tremendous growth and provided a path to economic viability for many family farms. But the USDA has considerable work to do to maintain the standing of the organic label with consumers and ensure a level playing field for organic farmers, including finishing long-delayed updates to regulations and increasing the agency’s focus on enforcement.

In the short-term, there are several key actions needed to get critical rulemaking processes across the finish line after years of unnecessary delay and to reverse Trump Administration decisions that were detrimental to the organic community.

Strengthening Organic Enforcement Rule: The organic market has grown so rapidly that the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has lagged behind in building the enforcement capacity necessary to oversee a $50 billion industry with global supply chains. U.S organic grain farmers reported negative impacts on the prices they could get for their products after increased volumes of organic grains abruptly started to arrive in the United States several years ago. Since then, imports from regions with questionable oversight and that seem to lack sufficient organic acreage to produce the amount of organic product being exported have continued, while several high profile investigations have also revealed large-scale schemes in the United States to sell fraudulent organic products. After years of advocacy to draw attention to the impacts of fraud on domestic markets, organic farmers need full and consistent enforcement of the USDA organic standards and increased capacity at the NOP to detect and prevent fraud in organic supply chains.

A critical step for the new Administration is to finalize and implement the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” proposed rule as quickly as possible. This rule is required by the 2018 Farm Bill and the organic community weighed in during a public comment period earlier this fall. As well as putting the rule into effect as soon as possible, the NOP must continue to coordinate with other USDA agencies as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to increase awareness of organic commodities that are likely to be imported (and the potential for fraud) and to leverage other agencies’ inspection resources at ports of entry.

Origin of Livestock Rule: 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. Organic dairy farmers need a level playing field. Years of delay in closing loopholes in the organic standards for livestock have caused ongoing economic harm. We need the NOP to finalize an enforceable rule on Origin of Livestock as quickly as possible.

The agency has failed to address this problem for years. 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. In the FY 2020 appropriations bill, Congress gave the NOP 180 days to finalize the rule, but the agency missed this deadline.

The NOP must work to finalize this important rulemaking as quickly as possible with a final rule that can be consistently enforced and that requires that the entire one-time transition happen over a twelve-month period under the supervision of an organic certification agency as part of the producer’s Organic System Plan. Cycling dairy animals in and out of organic production must be prohibited, and once a distinct herd is transitioned to organic, all animals must be raised organically from the last third of gestation.

Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule: The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule is another long-overdue measure to strengthen the organic standards, which was delayed and ultimately withdrawn by the Trump Administration. The OLPP final rule would allow the NOP to consistently enforce stronger animal welfare standards on organic farms and close loopholes being taken advantage of by some large operations. The rule was discussed and vetted in the organic community for more than a decade and has widespread support. Animal welfare is an issue of critical importance to organic consumers, and these standards must be tightened to retain consumers’ confidence in the organic label. We urge you to reinstate the final OLPP rule as quickly as possible.

Organic Certification Cost-Share Program: All certified organic operations must complete annual inspection and certification. The federal government has historically reimbursed up to 75 percent of organic certification fees paid by organic farms and businesses, with a maximum reimbursement of $750 per certification scope (crops, livestock or handling) per operation. This summer, USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA) cut reimbursement rates for 2020 certification costs to 50 percent, up to a maximum of $500 per scope. This action leaves organic operations – who had been planning on being reimbursed for their certification costs at the same level as previous years – burdened with an unplanned expense, in the midst of a period of higher costs and disrupted markets caused by the pandemic. The cost share program is particularly important to small and mid-sized organic farms, and those who are just starting out with organic certification.

The 2018 Farm Bill provided new funding for the organic certification cost share program, and written commitments made by USDA to use pre-2018 Farm Bill carryover balances to fund current program needs were used to calculate the funding provided in the 2018 Farm Bill. But the agency has struggled to track program spending, which led the agency to provide inaccurate reports of the carryover balances to Congress as the funding provided in the 2018 Farm Bill was being considered, and has resulted in a shortfall for the program for the rest of the years of the Farm Bill cycle.

We urge you to act quickly to restore the funding levels for this program mandated by Congress. While a relatively small amount in the scope of the USDA’s budget, restoring the reimbursement level could make a big difference to many small organic operations. We also hope that the FSA will examine the administrative problems that led to this year’s shortfall and swiftly develop a plan to ensure this does not happen again.

Pandemic Response: Since the passage of the CARES Act, the USDA has been making direct payments to some farmers, through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). The payment formulas used in CFAP 1 to calculate the payments and the rigid delineation of funding for specific commodity and livestock categories shortchanged organic farmers, particularly small-and-medium-scale diversified operations that have been economically impacted by the pandemic. There were some improvements made in CFAP 2 that made the program somewhat more feasible for some organic and diversified operations. But there are still many challenges faced by organic farmers because of the pandemic that the USDA’s response fails to address, which we outlined in a letter sent to USDA earlier this summer.

We also encourage the new Administration to investigate what the pandemic revealed about various sectors of the food system. In sharp contrast to the disruption that happened in highly consolidated, conventional supply chains, organic farmers quickly adjusted to  public health restrictions that affected where and how they market their products and challenges faced by their workforce, coming up with creative solutions that allowed them to feed their communities. You can read more about how organic farmers adapted here and here. For some farmers serving local and direct-to-consumer markets, sales have actually gone up as a result of the pandemic as consumers seek out local sources of food. However, in many cases, costs have also skyrocketed for these operations because of the additional investments in equipment, technology, sanitation, staffing, and transportation that must be made in order to meet social distancing and infection prevention protocols. A more detailed examination of how the various sectors of the food system responded to the pandemic should inform future USDA pandemic response efforts.

In addition to these specific regulatory actions that the USDA should take in the immediate future, we have other suggestions that would help organic farming realize its full potential.

National Organic Standards Board: The Organic Foods Production Act that created the NOP also established a unique federal advisory committee, the National Organic Standards Board. This volunteer board plays a critical role in the function of the organic program, not just in evaluating materials allowed for use by organic operations and making recommendations on changes to the organic standards, but also in providing a venue for all of the stakeholders in the organic community to work together. We urge your Administration to treat the NOSB as a key part of the organic process by:

  • Committing to fill farmer seats on the board with people who have direct agricultural experience and deep expertise in organic practices, and actively working to increase the diversity of board members.
  • Allowing the NOSB to have more input in setting their workplan.
  • Committing to move NOSB recommendations quickly through the rulemaking process to become enforceable regulations.

Oversight and Accreditation: One of the critical roles played by the NOP is providing oversight of accredited certifying agencies who inspect and certify organic operations. But many of the controversies that have been long-debated in the organic community boil down to inconsistent interpretation or application of organic regulations by certifiers. We urge the NOP to take seriously its role as an accreditor and to acknowledge that this role is inextricably tied to its enforcement mandate. Ensuring that certifiers consistently interpret and apply the standards, everywhere they operate, is critical to the integrity of the organic label. The NOP is the only entity that can ensure that this happens.

Organic as a Climate Solution: Organic farming can play a critical role in fighting climate change. Organic regulations require certified organic farmers to implement beneficial carbon sequestration practices by eliminating chemical soil disturbance through the prohibition of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and other crop protection chemicals. The standards require organic farmers to adopt tillage and cultivation practices that “maintain or improve” soil condition. We urge the new Administration to prioritize research to document how organic practices can maximize carbon sequestration, as well as documenting the multiple benefits created by organic practices. We also urge the NOP to adhere to the goal of continuous improvement by tightening the organic standards on several issues that would make organic even more meaningful as a climate-friendly practice. These include:

  • Prioritizing enforcement of the pasture standard for large-scale dairies.
  • Reinstating and implementing the OLPP rule for livestock operations to require livestock operations to provide meaningful access to pasture.
  • Prohibiting the certification of hydroponic operations as organic. For organic agriculture. to maximize its potential as climate-friendly agriculture, soil must be recognized as the cornerstone of organic production.

Support for Organic Research: Many of the challenges facing the organic sector can be addressed with increased research. Organic research often addresses challenges or identifies practices that are also relevant to farmers who are not certified organic or who farm conventionally. An increased focus on soil health, alternatives to chemical pest management and cover crops across all sectors of agriculture show that this kind of research can serve an audience that is wider than certified organic. We urge you to increase USDA’s support of organic research. And we hope that your Administration will address the devastating impact of the decision to move the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington, DC. The move led to dramatic staffing shortages and low morale, and took these critical staff out of conversations happening at USDA headquarters.

Organic Outreach Within USDA and to Federal Partners: It is clear that, despite the rapid growth of the organic industry and the National Organic Program, many other divisions within the USDA are still not familiar with organic. In order to encourage other USDA divisions to make their programs more feasible for organic producers, we urge you to reinstate the position of organic policy advisor that was created during the Obama Administration.

We also urge you to expand the NOP’s outreach and education to other federal partners such as various policy divisions of the White House, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Another critical federal partner is Customs and Border Protection. We hope you will explore how to create an organic advisor position for CBP, which is a critical piece of the federal effort to prevent fraudulent organic products. And we urge the NOP to increase outreach and education of other USDA divisions, such as APHIS, and federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency about the impact that genetically engineered crops and associated herbicides have on the organic sector from genetic and chemical drift.

Personnel: As you work to fill open positions at USDA and other federal agencies, we urge you to choose people who are committed to the full range of agriculture that is happening in the United States, including organic, diversified, direct market and other types of production. The following list is a sample, by no means an exhaustive list, of the types of people who would bring this necessary perspective to your team:

David Zuckerman, Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, organic farmer

Amanda Beal, Agriculture Commissioner of Maine

Kate Greenberg, Agriculture Commissioner of Colorado

Elanor Starmer, former administrator Agricultural Marketing Service

Jesse Buie, organic farmer in Mississippi, member of National Organic Standards Board

Andrew Bahrenburg, staff, Senator Leahy

Kelliann Blazek, former staff, Representative Pingree

Hannah Smith-Brubaker, former Deputy Agriculture Secretary of Pennsylvania, executive director of Pasa

Michael Sligh, Alliance for Organic Integrity

We appreciate the opportunity to provide input as you develop your priorities and look forward to working with your Administration. We hope to be able to set up a time for OFA leadership to meet with your transition team and new USDA staff to further discuss these ideas. If you have any questions or need more information, please contact our Policy Director, Patty Lovera,, (202) 526-2726.


Kate Mendenhall