It took 57 years and a dozen farm bills for organic to get a place in the nearly 1,000-page legislation that defines contemporary American agricultural policy.
Organic became an official part of the Farm Bill with the inclusion of the Organic Foods Production Act in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation & Trade Act of 1990. Since that time, the organic industry has flourished under the standards and regulation established by the Farm Bill, and the Farm Bill has become increasingly critical for the continued advancement of organic agriculture in this country.
“The Farm Bill is where lawmakers set long-term strategic farm policy for the United States, and, as we say, you’re either at the table or you’re on the table. You don’t get to stand on the sidelines,” says Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “A host of programs support organic and the organic market. Fundamental data collection, risk management for organic farmers, resources to uphold the National Organic Program at USDA are just a few examples of why the Farm Bill is important to organic.”
Today’s Farm Bill is massive. It is a far cry from the first farm bill in 1933—the Agricultural Adjustment Act—that was prompted by a pair of economic catastrophes for all Americans, and particularly for America’s farmers: the Great Depression into which the country was plunged after the stock market crash of 1929, and the Dust Bowl, which began in 1931 and hung on for eight long years, driving some 3.5 million people off their farms. The goal of the 54-page bill in 1933 was to boost farm income and encourage conservation by paying farmers not to plant some of their land, and by enabling them to take out loans from the government, using their crops as the collateral.
In 1938, Congress mandated that legislators update the farm bill every five years, solidifying the law into more permanent legislation. Congress has not always been able to stick to the five-year schedule—in fact, the farm bill has not been completed on time since 1990—but lawmakers have crafted 16 farm bills since that first one, and the legislation has expanded in scope with every new version. The bill now is considered an “omnibus” piece of legislation that sets and authorizes farm and nutrition programs and policy. It has 12 separate titles and contains nearly half a trillion dollars in spending.
The farm bill has become the constant defining force in the U.S. agriculture and food sectors, and a high-priority lobbying issue for national farm groups, commodity associations, state organizations, nutrition and public health officials, conservation groups … and for the organic community.
“Organic is a very small piece of the larger farm bill, but those core programs we have are important to maintain,” says Megan DeBates, Director of Legislative Affairs and Coalitions for the Organic Trade Association. “Our goal is to build on the programs that address the unique needs of organic, and to make the kind of progress that represents the tremendous growth in the organic industry.”
Planning the work and working the plan
President Barack Obama’s signature had barely dried on the Agricultural Act of 2014 when the Organic Trade Association began working on the 2018 Farm Bill. Important gains for the organic sector had been won in the 2014 Farm Bill (which expires in September 2018), and the goal was to keep that momentum going. First, the association wanted to hear from members on what their critical issues were and to use that feedback to shape the association’s priorities.
A comprehensive survey went to thousands of organic stakeholders throughout the country. Organic fruit and vegetable growers, grains and oilseed farmers, livestock and poultry producers, dairy farmers, vineyard owners and flower growers, along with organic processors, food makers, distributors and other organic operations answered questions concerning barriers they face in their organic operations—from regulatory, research, and marketing, to production and investment barriers. Survey respondents also evaluated the effectiveness of existing programs geared towards organic. The Organic Trade Association partnered with members of its Farmers Advisory Council and 17 organic organizations to poll stakeholders on issues.
More than 500 organic stakeholders across 45 states weighed in.
“We went directly to our members. Hundreds of farmers from across the country responded, and we’ve used those responses to share our priorities,” says Batcha. “We worked with our Board, with our various councils, and have worked closely with members of Congress to shape our priorities into what we call ‘marker’ bills on research, trade oversight and rural development that will be part of the Farm Bill.” Adds Batcha, “We like to say that we planned our work, and now we’re working our plan.”
DeBates says the plan has worked well. “Releasing our farm bill priorities early allowed us and our members to coalesce around common issues and begin advocating for those issues in meetings with lawmakers and committee hearings. Lawmakers started reaching out to us based on the priorities the industry set, and expressed interest in what they wanted to work on in the farm bill. This has led to several pieces of legislation being introduced that focus on increasing organic research, improving oversight of imports and leveling the playing field for U.S. organic farmers, and expanding access to rural development programs for organic agriculture.”
The Organic Trade Association’s Farm Bill platform calls for full support and adequate funding for the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to keep pace with industry growth, set uniform standards, and carry out compliance and enforcement actions in the U.S. and abroad. It advocates for organic-focused research, risk management tools, data collection and direct dialog between industry and USDA that are critical to organic farmers’ success. It calls for improved access to land and capital, investment in distribution systems and infrastructure, and targeted technical assistance through the utilization of existing USDA conservation, rural development, and other programs to encourage orderly transition to organic.
To gain support for that platform, the Organic Trade Association works with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The association shares ideas with lawmakers and their staffs on key organic priorities, gives them on-the-ground technical advice in how legislation and policies crafted on Capitol Hill impact organic operations and businesses, and brings organic farmers and the heads of organic businesses to the Halls of Congress to share their personal stories showing what’s done in Washington really does matter to the organic sector.
In November, 20 organic farmers from around the country eagerly participated in the Organic Trade Association’s first Farmers Advisory Council-led fly-in. The group took part in a breakfast briefing with Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA), the Vice-Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Congressman Thompson was so impressed by the organic farmers that the day after their visit, he gave a speech on the House floor on the importance of organic.
“When organic farmers come to Washington, D.C., to discuss their issues and propose real solutions, lawmakers listen,” says Nate Lewis, Farm Policy Director for the Organic Trade Association and staff coordinator for the Farmers Advisory Council. “It is absolutely critical that organic farmers be involved in the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is the single most important piece of legislation to address challenges in American agriculture, and the voice of organic farmers needs to be heard.”
Where things stand now
Members of Congress interested in helping farmers or in leaving their mark on farm policy will often introduce stand-alone pieces of legislation leading up to the debate of the farm bill. These individual “marker bills” help the House and Senate Agriculture Committees charged with drafting the farm bill determine what needs to be included. Oftentimes these marker bills are rolled into the farm bill. If they do not make it in the first pass, then lawmakers can offer them as amendments when the Agriculture Committees hold their final vote on the bill or during the debate on the House and Senate floors.
Unlike most issues now swirling in the nation’s capital, organic is a bipartisan issue. That support has been vital in advancing organic priorities in the upcoming farm bill. As is clear from the list of sponsors, every piece of legislation that the Organic Trade Association has supported this year is backed by both Republicans and Democrats.
“The areas in this country that have the highest concentrations of organic operations are really a mix of red and blue states and districts,” says DeBates. “Organic is absolutely a bipartisan issue, and gets bipartisan support. Not only are there high concentrations of organic farms and businesses in deeply conservative areas, but over 80 percent of U.S. households have purchased some organic products. Consumers of all political beliefs and income levels are buying organic.”
A bipartisan issue, a product that is in high demand by all types of consumers and households. Sounds like promoting organic in the next Farm Bill would be an easy lift. Indeed, organic has gained critical support across the political aisles with each farm bill. However, the competition for scarcer federal dollars is stiff, and the success of the organic sector has caused non-organic interests to challenge some of the sector’s priorities.
“The key challenges I’d identify in every Farm Bill are that none of the great programs that support organic are big enough in terms of dollars to be automatically included when it comes to setting the budget—it’s called having a baseline. Our big challenge this year is to get our research budget up to baseline levels,” says Batcha.
“Also, one of the particular challenges in the 2018 Farm Bill is that traditionally non-organic agricultural groups are advocating for specific policies related to organic that are not widely accepted by the majority of organic stakeholders. It is our view that the organic policies in a five-year farm bill should be accepted by the farmers, ranchers and food makers that they impact,” notes Batcha.
The Organic Trade Association is well equipped to fight for organic priorities in this farm bill round. “The Organic Trade Association is the largest, most diverse organization representing organic, and with our size and position comes a responsibility. That responsibility—and our role in the development of this Farm Bill—is to put together and bring forward the priorities for which there is broad agreement among the entire organic community,” says Batcha.
Protecting organic. Promoting organic. The mission and the responsibility of the Organic Trade Association—in the Farm Bill debate and beyond. //