February Policy Update

February, 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

After a chaotic start to the year, Congress is starting to get down to business and the Biden administration is filling jobs across the federal government, including the USDA. There are lots of things happening on issues that impact organic farms.

COVID-19 Vaccine

We’ve heard from some organic farmers that it has been a struggle to figure out when employees of farms or farmers markets will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s not just farms that are struggling – all kinds of agriculture and food-related businesses are reporting challenges in the face of shortages of the vaccine.

The federal government has recommended that workers in agriculture, food manufacturing and grocery stores be included in an early vaccination phase, 1b. But the actual decision about who is eligible for each vaccination phase is made by state health departments. States are balancing the availability of vaccine doses and how to prioritize various groups of people that may be at high risk as they design their vaccination programs.

To find out when agriculture and food system workers in your state will be eligible for vaccination, the best place to start is your state health department. And if you want to urge your state to make sure agriculture and food system workers are in an early phase, here is a letter sent to California regulators from the Community Alliance with Family Farmers that could serve as a model.

Economic Stimulus and Pandemic Response

USDA: In late December, Congress passed a new law to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic disruption. The new law authorizes spending for a long list of pandemic-related programs including direct payments to individuals, supplemental unemployment payments, funding for the transportation and airline industries, healthcare, vaccine distribution and more. There was also $13 billion provided for the USDA to respond to 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.

So far, the USDA has announced it would do another round of the Farm to Families Food Box program, which pays contractors to assemble and deliver boxes of foods to food banks and other charities to distribute.

On the direct payments front, things are not as clear. In his last week in office, former Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced that USDA would spend over a billion dollars to provide supplemental payments to certain producers who had already received payments through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program in 2020. The “top up” payments were for specific categories of producers, like hog producers. The funding was also supposed to go to several new categories of crops, including turf grass and pullets, and contract livestock producers who were made eligible in the new law passed in December. Just a few days after President Biden was inaugurated, the USDA announced that it was pausing the payments announced by Secretary Perdue to allow the policy to be reviewed. At some point, the status of those pending payments will be clarified, and the USDA will release the rules for a new round of direct payments using the funding provided in the new law. OFA and the National Organic Coalition sent a letter to the USDA in January urging to make sure any new payment program works for organic operations. We will let you know when the details of the new program are released.

Paycheck Protection Program: The new law also provided additional funding for small business assistance programs, including the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program, including second loans under PPP. To be eligible for a second loan, a business has to 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.) The deadline for applying for a PPP loan is March 31, but if you are interested you should contact your bank as soon as possible to make sure there is still funding available.


After a lot of delays at the beginning of the session, Congress is now getting down to work. Both the House and the Senate are now officially under Democratic control, but have the majority by the slimmest of margins, which is likely to make it difficult to pass bills that don’t have bipartisan support. We are also getting used to some changes in the key committees, especially the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. In the House, the new chairman of the Agriculture Committee is Rep. David Scott from Georgia, and the new ranking member (top Republican) is Rep. G.T. Thompson from Pennsylvania. In the Senate, the chair of the Agriculture Committee is Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan and the new ranking member is Senator John Boozman from Arkansas.

We hope that both of the Agriculture committees are more active this year than they were in 2020, and conduct hearings on key issues like USDA’s pandemic response programs, how food and agriculture supply chains fared during the pandemic and how to design climate policy for agriculture that will work for all types of farms, including organic.

Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on the nomination of Tom Vilsack to be the Secretary of Agriculture, and later the same day advanced his nomination out of committee. At some point, possibly quite soon, the full Senate will vote to confirm his nomination and he will begin serving as the Secretary. His reception by the senators on the Agriculture Committee was overwhelmingly positive, with many questions about his approach to climate policy, rebuilding supply chains after the challenges of the pandemic, SNAP and perennial issues like supporting the ethanol industry. Senator Leahy (D-VT) did ask specifically about the stalled Origin of Livestock rulemaking process and Vilsack replied that he wanted to  address that issue quickly.

Climate Change

The role of agriculture in addressing climate change has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately. The Biden Administration has made using federal agencies to fight climate change an early focus, which is triggering a flurry of speculation about how the USDA will engage on this issue. At his Senate hearing, Vilsack emphasized that he will get farmer input as the agency designs its programs on climate change and expressed interest in using existing programs, like conservation programs, to help farms adopt climate-friendly practices. He was also very supportive of a more controversial idea, using USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation to establish a “carbon bank” that would facilitate farms participating in market-based programs to pay farms for carbon sequestration. There’s going to be a lot of discussion this spring about the appropriate role for USDA in these efforts, and organic farmers will need to weigh in to make sure any new programs work for all types of agriculture. The OFA Policy Committee has been developing a list of questions we need to inject into the debate. We will let you know when the USDA opens up a process for farmer input on climate change programs. We will need as many organic voices in that process as we can get.

What You Can Do

As the new Administration and new Congress get down to work, we will be pushing them to address our priorities for organic, including getting the USDA moving on long-overdue rules and making sure organic farmer voices are included in debates on climate change and other issues.

One immediate way to help is to ask your members of Congress to make sure that USDA restores the reimbursement level for organic certification cost-share.  You can take action here.

UPCOMING EVENTS:  Mark Your Calendars!

Advocacy 101 Webinar

How can we get Congress to support organic farmers? Learn how to make your voice heard in the legislative process during this webinar about how to lobby your elected officials. Get ready for meetings with your members of Congress. We’ll cover how to schedule a meeting, what to say, and how to create ongoing communication with elected officials.

OFA “Virtual” Lobby Days

In 2021, instead of traveling to Washington, DC for an OFA lobby day, we will be coordinating a week of virtual lobby visits instead. Mark your calendars for the week of March 22nd, when OFA members will be working together to have online or phone meetings with their members of Congress.  You can register now and we’ll keep you in the loop about upcoming trainings and how to participate!  Open only to OFA members.