OFA & NOC Submit Letter to USDA RE: Covid Relief

January 15, 2021

Dear Secretary-designate Vilsack,

We are writing to make recommendations about the USDA’s implementation of the “Covid-19 Relief and Fiscal 2021 Omnibus Act.” We are deeply concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on organic farmers, farmworkers, businesses, certifiers, inspectors, and consumers. We are mindful of the need to protect the health and safety of all who are involved in organic agriculture, certification, and compliance. Because of the annual organic certification process and the need to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal during this time of ongoing market disruption, some of our concerns and recommendations may be unique from those raised by other sectors of agriculture.

Support for Organic Farmers

The recently enacted Covid-19 Relief and Fiscal 2021 Omnibus Act includes $11.2 billion to:

“prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers, growers, and processors impacted by coronavirus, including producers and growers of specialty crops, non-specialty crops, dairy, livestock, and poultry, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and growers who produce livestock or poultry under a contract for another entity:”

as well as a provision that:

“in making direct support payments in this section, the Secretary of Agriculture may take into account price differentiation factors for each commodity based on specialized varieties, local markets, and farm practices, such as certified organic farms (as defined in section 2103 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. 6502)):”

As you make plans to implement this section of Act, we would like to point out that organic farmers represent a significant percentage of the farmers in each of the specialty crop, livestock and dairy, and local food supply categories prioritized by Congress. Therefore, it is critical that organic farmers be included in any payment programs created to implement this provision of the Act. The following financial assistance recommendations would be extremely helpful for the organic sector:

  • In making direct payments, it is critical that the criteria used to distribute those payments be more finely-tuned to support the diversity and richness of U.S. agriculture than was reflected in the previous coronavirus-related payment programs, and that more reasonable payment limitations govern those payments to ensure that more farmers get help with these funds.
  • Most organic and small farms have not traditionally accessed food purchasing programs run by the agency using Commodity Credit Corporation funding. As you develop new purchasing programs to both aid farms and procure food for emergency feeding or other nutrition programs, we urge you to make the procurement process flexible enough to work for organic and small farms, not just large conventional operations. This should include purchases of a diverse set of crops, not just commodity crops.
  • As farmers innovate to respond to the social distancing recommendations related to the pandemic, USDA should provide financial assistance for farms setting up virtual platforms to facilitate the sale of their products, as well as “on-farm” stands, curbside pickup, and other direct to consumer “no-touch” distribution channels that minimize interaction. In the same way that restaurants across the nation have shifted to take-out pick-up options, farmers too are shifting to this model. But farmers need some financial assistance to facilitate this shift.
  • 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. Congress reinforced these reimbursement rates when it reauthorized the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program through the 2018 Farm Bill. Unfortunately, in August, the Farm Services Agency 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. We urge you to act quickly to restore the funding levels for this program mandated by Congress.

Relaxing USDA Nutrition Program Rules to Give Low-Income Consumers Greater Access to Nutritious Food During the Pandemic

Allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments to be made online directly to farms and CSAs, and expand SNAP on-line options for customers of smaller retailers, such as local food cooperatives.

  • Provide waivers and direction to States to broaden their WIC-approved food lists to allow WIC participants to purchase organic foods.
  • Support the ability of food banks and other emergency feeding programs to purchase organic products directly from farmers at market prices.

Move Critical Rulemaking Forward to Protect Organic Integrity

There are several long-overdue rulemakings that are critical to the organic sector and the economic viability of organic farms. We urge you to move these rulemakings along without delay in order to protect the integrity of the organic label and to strengthen enforcement to shield operations from unfair competition.

The rulemaking to improve organic enforcement, both domestically and internationally, (the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” rule) is critical for the economic viability of the U.S. organic sector. The 2018 Farm Bill required USDA to complete the rulemaking by December 19, 2020, but it has not. The public comment period on the proposed rule closed on October 5, 2020. This rulemaking must be finalized and move forward to implementation as quickly as possible.

  • The final rule on Origin of Livestock (OOL), to close loopholes in the organic standards related to the transitioning of conventional dairy cows into organic dairy operations, is another critical regulation for the organic sector. Through the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations process, Congress mandated that the USDA complete the OOL final rule by June 17, 2020 but the USDA missed this deadline. We need the USDA to finalize an enforceable rule on Origin of Livestock as quickly as possible
  • 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. We urge you to reinstate the final OLPP rule as quickly as possible.

We thank you in advance for your efforts to respond quickly to the needs of organic farmers and businesses in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Abby Youngblood                                                                  Kate Mendenhall
Executive Director                                                                  Executive Director
National Organic Coalition                                                     Organic Farmers Association