Inside Organics Blog

Organic farmers need unified ‘voice’ as organic sector grows

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

Organic farmers understand the benefits of building coalitions to nudge along local, state, regional and national policies that support organic agriculture. The organic community as a whole has been able to present a mostly positive picture to the greater public of the human health and environmental benefits organic food and fiber provide. While the average consumer or legislator could not recite everything organic producers must do to meet the organic regula­tion and law, many have a basic understanding of what organic means and appreciate it as a choice. This could not have been achieved with­out organic farmers, processors, retailers, dis­tributors, environmental groups, consumer groups, educational organizations, and policy advocacy groups working toward a common goal to grow the organic sector in the United States.

However, as the sector has grown, the voice of the organic farmer has become somewhat lost. There are regional and commodity-focused organic farmer groups working to educate their members and influence policy to encourage fur­ther growth. But there is no specific mechanism or network that lets these organic farmer groups interact or build on their successes. When legis­lators, regulatory agencies, or the media want to hear what organic farmers think about an issue, they have no source to turn to that could express a unified position.

It was this dilemma that stimulated repre­sentatives from a variety of organic farmer-focused groups to meet in June. (See open letter from the meeting at the bottom of this page.) Although we did not make any specific decisions, we did recognize that there currently is no authentic national organic farmer voice nor any way to share information among all of these geographically diverse orga­nizations. We all agreed that the current coali­tions we work with are very valuable and we do not propose to end these relationships.

Numerous times during our meeting we referred back to the National Organic Action Plan (NOAP), which was published in January 2010. (See www.nationalorganiccoalition.org/noap.) We saw this nationally developed docu­ment as a model to bring together organic farm­ers and others from around the U.S. to find common ground from which to build a unified vision. While some of the short- and long-term actions listed in the plan have been imple­mented, there is still a long way to go.

In the NOAP, there are objectives and benchmarks identified within various categories. In the environmental section, one objective is to create closer ties between the organic community and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as well as other agencies of the USDA. We can see the results of this objective today— more federal dollars are available for organic producers to improve their farms or access land. The NRCS is promoting foundational organic practices, such as cover cropping and soil health. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) has a program to aid landowners whose land is coming out of CRP to rent to beginning farmers who use organic or sustainable agricultural practices. Both agencies have funding programs that organic farmers and others can use to improve conserva­tion practices on their farms.

While these steps meet some of the objectives in the environmental section, numerous issues concerning GMOs and pesticide drift still need to be addressed in a satisfactory manner. The Department of Interior’s recent declaration pro­hibiting GMOs or crops treated with neonicoti­noids from fish and wildlife managed lands is a big win. But, more needs to be done to protect organic farmland from the threats presented by GMOs and pesticides.

In the health category, we have made some progress in pushing the FDA to rewrite a prob­lematic food safety regulation, but there is much yet to be done in that arena. We are waiting for the second draft to see how many of our com­ments will be incorporated.

GMO labeling was a distant idea when the NOAP was published in 2010. While we are far from resolving GMO labeling in the marketplace, the numerous state labeling referendums have greatly increased the visibility of this important issue.

The cultural and social objectives and bench­marks list a wide variety of fair trade and work­ers’ rights, and fair pricing of food to protect the economic livelihood of those who labor to produce our food and fiber. Unfortunately, very little move­ment has occurred in this category. This is a stark reminder of why we need to raise the voice of those who work the land. A wise friend recently repeated an old saying to me: you may need a lawyer or doctor a few times in your life, but you need a farmer at least three times a day. Collec­tively, we need to do more to achieve these objectives.

There have been some increases in research dollars focused on organic production. However, we still receive proportionately much less for research than the percentage of trade organic generates. The need for more unpatented and publically available seed and livestock breeding support also is critical. Who better to express this need for regionally adapted cultivars and breeds than the organic farmers who can speak to the extremes caused by climate change and the need for more resilience in our agricultural systems?

The educational section has seen some clear gains, with policy makers more knowledgeable and aligned with the organic community’s needs and desires. The media, consumers, farmers, and agricultural professionals, have all responded favorably to outreach done by the organic sector, although we still face challenges from detractors who want to curb our growth through misinfor­mation. Technical assistance for beginning and immigrant farmers is in its beginning stages, but the needs of these groups are being addressed. Where we need improvement is in disseminating information about cutting-edge research to help existing organic farmers to continually improve their operations.

While it seems at times that the National Organic Program (NOP) moves at a glacial pace, numerous items identified in 2010 as critical have been implemented by the NOP. These include the pasture regulation, an NOP policy manual, increased staff with organic expertise within the NOP, increased communication from the NOP to its stakeholders through periodic and quarterly newsletters, consistent and regular organic certi­fier trainings, and EU and Canadian equivalency agreements. We still wait upon an origin of live­stock standard, a fully functional and well-funded system for reviewing incoming and outgoing materials on the National List, and many others. The NOAP list for the NOP is quite extensive, since the integrity of the organic label in the mar­ketplace and its practicality on the farm are close to the heart of most organic farmers.

In the marketplace, we have a small start in aiding the growth of organic seed producers. How­ever, capacity of organic processors, especially in the meat and livestock sector, needs a lot more attention to sustain current production and allow room to grow to meet the needs nationwide for organic products. We also need more schools, restaurants and institutions to purchase organic food for their patrons in order to move into the mainstream of the American food supply. The organic research and promotion program, not envisioned in the NOAP, will stimulate much discussion between farmers and other stakehold­ers in the organic community in the coming years.

Lastly, numerous benchmarks have been achieved to incentivize farmers to transition to organic. Funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program was included in the past two farm bills. After a hard fight, we recovered funding for the organic certification cost share program. The NRCS, through EQIP, helps farmers plan their transition to organic produc­tion and pays a higher cost share on certain prac­tices to those who identify as organic producers. The State of Minnesota is offering a payment to farmers to help them through the transition years. The NOAP has many other good ideas to build upon these great programs.

This summary of where we are now and where we need to go illustrates what we can accomplish when we work together and articulate a clear vision. If you have other ideas about ways organic farmers can work together as a group to present a unified voice, please share them with me: harriet@mosesorganic.org or 608-872-2164.

Harriet Behar is an organic farmer and a MOSES Organic Specialist. She serves on state and national committees, providing the organic farmer perspective. 

From the September | October 2014 Issue

Open letter about need for national voice for organic farmers, ranchers

Building an effective political voice for organic farmers and ranchers throughout the U.S. was the subject of a multi-organization mid-June 2014 meeting in Washington DC. Representatives from organic farming and supporting associations from the East, Midwest, Northwest, South, Upper Great Plains and mountain regions representing approximately 1/3 of organic farmers nationwide attended this exploratory meeting.

While many organic farmers belong to organizations and trade associations that already engage in valuable policy—focused coalitions or they do this work on their own, this group came to the conclusion that there is a need for a national organization representing organic farmers and ranchers. They believe it is time for a network or organization or federation that would bring together existing organic farmer organizations and farmer caucuses within existing organic or sustainable agricultural organizations that already exist with a more general mission. This organization would be a forum where organic farmers can debate and formulate national organic farm policy reflecting the needs and concerns of organic farmers plus represent organic farmer’s interests and concerns in broader issues where the voice of the organic farmer was needed or desired.

A national organic farmer forum would build upon the successes of individual farmers and the organizations to which they already belong to influence decision making as well as inform the other sectors of the organic community of the unique issues faced by the organic farmer community. A national organization would assist with educating farmers on the complexities of policy issues that directly affect their operations so they can develop informed opinions, as well creating a forum where they, as their own group, could share how current and proposed agricultural policy and market circumstances are affecting their own operations. This would be the basis for developing their own policy which could be applied to regional and national concerns where appropriate. Having a place where the media, elected officials, and regulatory agencies can find the undiluted voice of the organic farming community would provide the clout and influence that organic farmers lack at this time.

Unique areas of farmer and rancher concern were clearly expressed such as farm gate profitability, organically certified seed, crop insurance, transition to organic, farm and crop financing, regulatory burdens and consistent, rigorous and practical implementation of our organic law to protect the value of our organic label. To give just a taste of some of the discussion from this first day-long meeting, we can report that there was agreement on the need for a national organic farmer and rancher voice controlled by organic farmers and ranchers; that initially the organization would be open to organizations or caucuses within organizations that represent certified organic farmers and exempted organic farmers; that in order to be successful it must represent a large percentage (hopefully the vast majority) of organic farmers across the country and that there be some type of balanced regional representation at the national level so that one group or region of the country does not dominate all the rest.

This conversation is just beginning, and there is a desire to know how the rest of the organic farmers in the country feel about this concept. It was not the goal of the exploratory meeting to design a fully developed program, network or organization but it did discuss many ideas and concepts. This group wants to hear from as many farmers or farmer-based organizations as possible from all over the country and to know if they would be willing to participate in the development of a confederation, network or organization to provide for a strong and effective farmer voice in the U.S. Please contact Harriet Behar, MOSES Organic Specialist, 608-872- 2164 or harriet@mosesorganic.org with your comments/ ideas/suggestions and to get more information on how to be part of the larger discussion of forming an organization.
Present at the June meeting in Washington D.C.:

Harriet Behar – MOSES, NOC, OTA – (WI)
John Bobbe – OFARM, OTA – (WI)
Lynn Coody – OGC, NOC – (OR)
Dave Colson – MOFGA, NOC – (ME)
Steve Gilman – NOFA Interstate, NOC – (Conn/NY)
Elizabeth Henderson – NOFA NY, NOC, DFTA, AJP, OTA – (NY)
Renee Hunt – OEFFA, NOC – (OH)
Liana Hoodes – NOC, NOFA NY – (NY)
Ed Maltby – NODPA, MODPA, NOC – (MA)
Camille Miller – NOFA NJ, NOC – (NJ)
Bob Quinn – MOA, NPSAS, OTA – (MT)
Ted Quaday – MOFGA, NOC – (ME)
Barbara Rose – NOFA NJ, NOC – (NJ)
Michael Sligh – RAFI, CFSA, NOC, DFTA, AJP – (NC)

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