January Policy Update

January, 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

When I wrote my first OFA policy update last winter, I remember thinking it was pretty strange to have to discuss how an impeachment trial was disrupting the normal function of Washington, including agriculture policy. And here we are a year later, just days after an attack on the U.S. Capitol, once again trying to determine how the dramatic national developments will impact our day-to-day work for organic farmers.

The transition period after the 2020 election, both for the new Congress and the Biden Administration, had already been challenging because of the ongoing controversy about the election results and the logistical challenges created by the pandemic. And things are still very unsettled in Washington after the events of January 6th. This week, and at least through the inauguration on January 20th, the Presidential transition and investigation into what happened are going to dominate attention.

But here is what we know so far about organic policy as we embark on 2021:

At the end of the year (up against the deadline of shutting down the federal government), Congress passed and President Trump signed a massive spending bill that did a couple of things:

  1. Funded federal agencies (like USDA) for the rest of Fiscal Year 2021 (which started on October 1st)
  2. Authorized 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 funding for agriculture, see below for more detail.

USDA Organic Funding

The 2021 spending bill includes several increases that OFA supported, including increases for the USDA’s National Organic Program, organic data collection, sustainable and organic agriculture research and beginning farmer and socially disadvantaged farmer training programs. It also contains language that directs the NOP to resolve inconsistent interpretation of the standards for transitioning organic dairy cows and the enforcement of pasture requirements. Unfortunately, it did not include additional funding to fix the shortfall in the Organic Certification Cost Share Program. We will have to keep working on Congress to provide additional funding to correct USDA’s management failures with that program.

USDA Pandemic Response

The pandemic response portion of the law provides $13 billion to USDA to respond to impacts of the pandemic on agriculture, as well as funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs. The law instructs 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. There were three rounds of these contracts issued in 2020, and USDA quickly announced it was issuing another set of contracts in early January after the new funding was provided.

It is not yet clear when USDA will announce the rules for additional direct payments to producers. The application program for payments under the CARES Act (from last year) closed in December. The new bill does include slightly better language that would allow the USDA to offer different payment rates based on organic or other premiums, so we will be pursuing that issue with USDA as they develop this year’s program. Stay tuned.

Small Business Administration programs

The new law also provided additional funding for small business assistance programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program and Small Business Administration (SBA) loan programs like the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). So far, we have the most information on PPP. The new law impacts people who got a PPP loan last year with some clarifications on tax issues and also allows for a second PPP loan for some businesses.

Tax Issues for First Round PPP Loans – the new law clarifies that a PPP loan from 2020 that was forgiven will not be considered taxable income by the IRS (but you will still have to check the rules for state and local taxes.) It also states that business expenses that were paid for with PPP loan funds can still be counted as a deduction for federal taxes.

Second Round PPP Loans – the SBA released rules for second loans under the PPP program. To be eligible, 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 SBA is allowing smaller community banks to issue these loans first, starting this week. It is not yet clear when larger banks will be able to start issuing these loans. If you are interested, check with your bank to see when they are going to start taking applications and what paperwork they will require to qualify.

The New Congress

Now that the Georgia runoff election is complete, things will start to fall into place for the new Congress. The Democrats will control both the House and the Senate, although with extremely tight margins, especially in the Senate. We are still waiting for the complete roster of members of key committees like agriculture and appropriations. But we do know who will be leading the committees. In the House, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee is Rep. David Scott from Georgia, and the 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 ranking member is Senator John Boozman from Arkansas.

One of the first orders of business for the Senate Agriculture Committee will be scheduling a confirmation hearing for President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. We will be working to make sure questions about our organic priorities are on the list for his hearing.

How You Can Help

2021 has been quite a year so far, and it’s only the second week of January. But 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 way for you to get involved is to participate in the OFA 2021 Policy Survey. Make sure to weigh in on what OFA’s top priorities should be and proposed new policies to guide our work.

And mark your calendars and register for our Virtual DC Advocacy Days. This year, 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.   Register 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.


OFA Starts the New Year Strong!