December Policy Update

December 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

Reminder – Apply for Additional Organic Certification Cost Share!

In November, after many months of delay, the USDA announced that additional assistance for organic certification cost share is available. This additional funding is necessary because reimbursement levels were cut in 2020. Since 2008, the federal government has 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. But starting in 2020 and again in 2021, USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA) cut reimbursement rates to 50 percent, up to a maximum of $500 per scope.

The additional funding for organic certification cost share comes from pandemic response money Congress provided to the USDA. In addition to providing additional funding for cost share, USDA has also created new opportunities for farms that are in the process of transitioning to organic certification to get some costs reimbursed.

Some details about the new program:

  • Organic certification cost share limits are 25% or $250 from this round of funding. This could be in addition to reimbursement provided under the normal cost share program (which means you could get up to $500 from the original program and an additional $250 from this new round.)
  • This new funding covers expenses from 2020, 2021 and 2022. You can apply for 2020 and 2021 at the same time.
  • There are two new options for expenses that can get some amount of reimbursement (for either certified or transitioning operations):
  1. Educational expenses (such as conference registrations, reimbursable for 75% up to $200)
  2. Soil testing expenses (reimbursable for 75% up to $100.)

The application period for expenses from 2020 and 2021 closes on January 7th. OFA is working to get USDA to extend this deadline, but right now the deadline is January 7th, so apply as soon as you can.

For more details on how to apply:

Congress Debates Climate and Social Spending Bill

In mid-November, President Biden signed the long-awaited bipartisan infrastructure bill in law. The new law will fund major investments in the nation’s roads, bridges, public transit systems, broadband internet, energy grid and water systems. But this is only one of the major spending bills Congress has been debating for much of the year, and a second bill with funding for social programs, agriculture and addressing climate change is still in play. The second package, the Build Back Better, is a “budget reconciliation” bill that uses a special procedure and can be passed only with Democratic votes (which will be necessary because all Republicans have vowed not to vote for it).

The House passed its version of Build Back Better just before Thanksgiving, and it includes a big increase in funding for organic research as well as a historic $28 billion increase (over 10 years) for USDA conservation programs including the Conservation Security Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, with a focus on addressing climate change. The House package also included a new program to forgive USDA farm loans for some small farms.

Now Senate Democrats are negotiating on their version of the bill, with key players like Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) demanding changes to the bill on issues like clean energy programs and spending for social programs like childcare. The process of getting agreement within Senate Democrats will determine when (and if) this bill passes, and it looks likely that the process will drag on into the new year. If the bill finally passes Congress, there will be lots of work to do to communicate with USDA about the details for spending this new money on conservation and research programs, and making sure that organic agriculture is on the list of practices that meet the goals of the Build Back Better bill.

Organic Dairy in the Northeast

OFA has continued to work with regional organic farm organizations and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance to identify options for the 89 organic dairy farms in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and part of New York who were notified by Horizon Organic that they would not be renewing their contract to buy their milk after next September. We have been participating in a task force convened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is about to send a list of recommendations for what the federal government could do to help to the Secretary of Agriculture.

And just before Thanksgiving, the groups met with Danone to lay out options for how the company could do better by the organic farmers in the Northeast who helped build their brand. Unfortunately, the company has not committed to taking any steps the groups recommended to either stay in the region or to compensate farmers who will lose contracts next year.

We will continue to work with our allies to let consumers know that Danone North America (which owns Horizon Organic) is not living up to its commitment to being a socially responsible company. You can take action here to tell Danone to live up to its social mission.

Advocating for Organic in the Next Farm Bill

The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that Congress passes roughly every five years. The Farm Bill covers the broad range of programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including commodity support programs, agricultural conservation programs, trade and international food aid, domestic nutrition assistance (SNAP), farm credit programs, rural development, agricultural research and extension, forestry, horticulture, crop insurance, and a variety of other policies. The current Farm Bill became law in late 2018, and expires in late September 2023.

But even when Congress is not actively writing a new Farm Bill, there is still work to be done. In between periods of congressional debate on the text of the bill, advocates like OFA work to make sure that the USDA is implementing the programs created by the Farm Bill. For example, the 2018 Farm Bill instructed the USDA to establish new regulations to increase the department’s capacity to detect and prevent fraud in organic supply chains. The USDA is still working on finalizing these new rules, three years after the Farm Bill became law, and OFA and other advocates have been pushing the department to finish a strong rule as soon as possible.

Other important topics for organic farmers in the Farm Bill include funding for organic-focused research, as well as the organic certification cost-share program. And the Farm Bill can create opportunities for harmful changes too, such as past attempts to change the requirements for who can serve on the National Organic Standards Board.

That’s why OFA is starting a process to set our priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill. Even though Congress won’t pass new legislation until 2023, the debate over what should be in that bill has already begun and will pick up steam in 2022. To get ready, we are going to be reaching out to organic farmers and farm organizations around the country to get your input on what priorities we need to advocate for in the next Farm Bill.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has been hosting meetings with organic stakeholders in partnership with Dr. Kathleen Merrigan from the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University. One meeting was for organic certifiers, one for national advocacy groups, one is for organic farmers and farmer organizations, and one meeting was open to all.

Organic Farmers Association will be co-hosting the national farmer meeting on March 2nd (Virtual). OFA will bring a grassroots effort to the national organic farmer meeting and we invite state and regional groups to engage your organic farmer members in a state-level conversation to identify their farm bill priorities. An organic farmer representative and staff/board representative from each organic farmer organization will be invited to the March 2nd meeting to represent their farmers’ priorities.