OFA & NOC ask USDA for more support for organic farmers during COVID-19

May 7, 2020

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi                                     The Honorable Kevin McCarthy
Speaker                                                                     Minority Leader
U.S. House of Representatives                                  U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515                                             Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Mitch McConnell                              The Honorable Charles E. Schumer
Majority Leader                                                         Minority Leader
United States Senate                                                 United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510                                              Washington, DC 20510

Dear House and Senate Leaders:

As you begin crafting the next coronavirus pandemic response package, we are writing with recommendations about actions needed to address the impact on the organic food and agriculture sector. We offer our recommendations with full understanding that all sectors of agriculture are now in crisis and that we must all work together to address these challenges.

We are deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on organic farmers, farmworkers, businesses, retailers, certifiers, organic 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. We also seek to advocate for responsible actions that will protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal during this difficult time.

Because of the annual organic certification process and the need to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal during this time of extreme market disruption, some of our concerns and recommendations may be unique from those raised by other sectors of agriculture.

Many of our recommendations were also suggested to Secretary Perdue as he developed his pandemic response package to implement the CARES Act but were not adequately addressed by that action.

Critical Rulemaking to Protect Organic Integrity Should Not Be Delayed by Pandemic

Two rulemakings that are critical to the economic health of the organic sector are in the final stages of clearance. Congress should reiterate the importance of publishing these two rules without delay:

  • The rulemaking to improve organic enforcement, both domestically and internationally, (aka the “strengthening organic enforcement” rule) is critical for the economic viability of the U.S. organic sector. This rule is more important now than ever to demonstrate that the U.S. is taking organic enforcement very seriously, so that fraudulent importers do not see the pandemic as opportunity to resume or expand fraudulent shipments. The 2018 Farm Bill required USDA to complete the rulemaking by December 19, 2019, but the proposed rule is still under review by OMB. This rulemaking must move forward.
  • 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 USDA complete the OOL final rule by June 17, 2020.

Direct Support for Organic Farms, Diversified Farms, and Farms Servicing Local Markets

On April 17th, Secretary Perdue announced a plan to distribute $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, with specific amounts designated for certain commodities and livestock categories, as one of USDA’s actions to implement the CARES Act.

We are concerned that the payment formulas used by USDA to distribute the payments and the rigid delineation of funding for specific commodity and livestock categories will shortchange organic farmers, particularly small-and-medium-scale diversified operations that have been economically impacted by the pandemic. We urge Congress, in the next coronavirus response package, to be more explicit about providing direct assistance to organic and diversified farming operations and to establish oversight procedures to ensure USDA compliance with the requirement. The CARES Act was very specific that one of the priorities for direct payment assistance should be “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.” In spite of that, the USDA action plan to implement the CARES Act did very little to address the needs of that sector of agriculture. Using conventional commodity and livestock product price losses is not a good proxy for the type of losses experienced by organic farmers and farmers serving local markets.

Related to this concern is the fact that price data is not as widely available for organic agricultural products as it is for conventional products, which could make it more challenging for organic farmers to prove their losses relative to baseline prices. In the short term, this points to the need for Congress to provide alternate ways of proving loss for organic farmers. In the long term, this demonstrates the need for Congress to increase annual USDA Agricultural Marketing Service funding for segregated organic price data.

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. Their incomes may be going up, but their margins may actually be declining.

Therefore, we recommend that payments for smaller organic, diversified, and direct-market operations be based on total farm revenue relative to previous years, which allows for local and organic price premiums to be taken into account. This would also be a way to address operations whose sales have gone up, but whose margins have declined.

Lastly, the USDA payment formula provides the majority of assistance for losses from January through April 15th, with a much lower level of assistance for losses from April 16th through the following two quarters. For most farmers, losses did not begin until states started to close schools, farmers markets, and restaurants and issued stay-at-home orders. The timeframe for calculating the losses should be better coordinated with the timeframe of actual losses.

Streamlined and Expanded Organic Certification Cost-Share Assistance

Annual inspection is a requirement for all certified organic operations, and a core component to maintaining the integrity of the organic label. While some aspects of those inspections are taking place remotely during the pandemic, some on-site inspections are still happening using social distancing protocols.

Because of the economic disruption related to the pandemic, many organic farmers and handlers cannot currently afford to pay their certification fees. The federal government already reimburses up to 75 percent of organic certification fees, with a maximum reimbursement of $750 per certification scope per operation. As an emergency measure, we recommend that instead of reimbursing the organic operation for certification fees paid to certification agencies, USDA should reimburse the certification agency directly for those costs. In addition, the 75 percent reimbursement should be increased to a 100 percent reimbursement during the pandemic.

One of the barriers of access to organic meat and poultry is access to slaughter and processing plant space. In addition to the normal regulatory hurdles impacting smaller meat and poultry processing plants, organic meat and poultry processing standards add additional hurdles that make it very costly for a processing plant to process organic products. Since these additional hurdles are costs necessary for organic certification, USDA should provide certification cost share assistance to help defray the cost of organic meat and poultry processing to remove hurdles in the supply chain for organic meat and poultry. In addition to assistance with the specific costs of certification, recordkeeping, and segregation of product necessary to produce certified organic products, these small-scale plants would also benefit from assistance that is needed for all small-scale plants, including USDA staffing levels that ensure adequate inspection coverage for small plants and technical assistance and small plant outreach from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Assistance to Dairy Farmers

Dairy is one of the leading sectors of organic. Congress should re-open the 2020 sign-up period for the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) Program to allow new participants in the program. In addition, reopening the sign-up period would allow existing DMC participants to reconsider their coverage decisions for 2020 given the extraordinary and unforeseen dairy market collapse related to the pandemic.

Procedures for Donating Organic Food to Local Food Banks and Community Organizations

The agricultural product procurement and distribution plan announced by Secretary Perdue on April 17th does not work well for procurement and distribution of organic products to food banks and community organizations. The USDA plan operates primarily through existing wholesaler distribution firms who have been idled by the loss of food service markets related to the stay-at-home orders. While the USDA plan has no explicit prohibition on organic food distribution, the bidding process makes it challenging for food hubs and distributors of organic foods to win a bid.

We recommend that Congress establish a process for organic farmers, handlers or food hubs to be paid to distribute food directly to food banks and qualified community organizations. Either USDA would pay for the food directly or food banks would be given funds to procure local organic foods to fulfill their customers’ needs. Organic farmers are equally as impacted as other farmers by this crisis and market outlets for their products are equally important.

Protection and Reward for Front Line Workers and Businesses

Farms and food-related businesses have been designated as essential by the Department of Homeland Security and by most states. We agree with that designation. However, it is critical that we protect and reward those farmers, workers, and businesses who are providing these essential services during the pandemic.

Emergency grants should be provided to reimburse for expenses related to personal protection equipment (PPE) and pandemic-related facility, infrastructure, technology, and staffing modifications. Grants should be provided to farmers, farmers markets, organic certification agencies, small-and medium-scale grocery stores, including cooperative grocery stores, distributors, and small-and-medium-scale food processing plants.

In addition, federally funded pay bonuses should be provided to front line food system and grocery workers, to compensate them for their essential work under hardship conditions.

Flexibility in USDA Nutrition Program Rules and Spending Needed to Allow Low Income Consumers Greater Access to Nutritious Food During the Pandemic

In addition to refining the procurement process to be inclusive of all types of producers, as described above, we also urge Congress to increase funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is a critical tool for providing a safety net against hunger. We also urge you to make several specific refinements to SNAP and other nutrition programs to make sure that the benefits of these programs are spread equitably across everyone in the food supply chain.

  • Allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments to be made online directly to farms, CSAs, and cooperative grocery stores.

USDA has granted pilot program status to some States to allow SNAP recipients to make purchases on-line for home delivery of groceries to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus. Unfortunately, in most cases, the only USDA-approved retailers that can process and deliver the purchases are very large retailers, such as Walmart or Amazon.

The SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot should be expanded to all states and additional food marketing outlets, including cooperative grocers, other small-and-medium scale grocery stores, and farms with direct-to-consumer sales capability. USDA should provide technical assistance to help small-and-medium-sized retailers, community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, and farmers set up online capability to accept SNAP.

  • Provide waivers and direction to States to broaden their WIC-approved food lists to allow WIC participants to purchase organic foods.

As the economic downturn deepens as a result of the pandemic, the percent of consumers eligible for low-income food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC will continue to grow. As low-income consumers struggle to afford access to healthy, nutritious food during these hard times, Congress should increase funding for the WIC program to meet growing demand and to enable states to allow more organic foods on their state WIC-approved food lists.

Farm Labor Accommodations Are Critical to Continuing Production of Organic Food During the Pandemic

With regard to farm workers, Congress should:

  • Establish a program to provide relief workers for sick farmers and farmworkers.
  • Provide farmworkers who are currently employed on a farm with the same payments as any other workers without questions about their status as citizens, and make farmworkers eligible for paid sick leave, SNAP, health coverage, childcare, and workmen’s compensation.

Funding for Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL)

  • Funding for the Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programs should be replenished, and procedures to ensure farmers’ access to both programs should be expanded.
  • Congress should clarify that expenses paid with forgivable PPP loans are tax deductible.

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


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