Farmers Advisory Council helps bring policy reforms for farmers

Designed to convene organic farmers from across the nation and across sectors, OTA’s Farmers Advisory Council (FAC) provides a forum for elevating the issues facing the farmers who create the foundation of the entire organic industry. This is no easy task, as the organic farming industry encompasses widely different geographic regions, crops, and political districts. However, when farmers come together, share their ideas, and advise OTA on its policy agenda, the results at a national level can be swift and profound, as illustrated by recently announced significant policy reforms in Risk Management Agency’s (RMA) crop insurance available to organic farmers. 

FAC told us that current crop insurance products do not provide a safety net to highly diversified farmers, beginning farmers, or expanding farmers. RMA’s Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) program was designed to provide this safety net, but stopped short of adequate coverage due to certain policy restrictions. RMA had also been working on developing price elections for organic crops but had not yet provided a suite of price elections that encompassed the full rotation of crops (e.g., wheat, peas, safflower, and barley) that organic farmers must grow in order to manage for fertility, soil health, and pest and disease prevention.

Based on FAC’s feedback, OTA staff organized a visit to RMA in Washington, D.C., during the FAC Summit at OTA’s 2015 Policy Conference this past April. The group asked RMA to reduce the reporting requirements, allowing more beginning farmers to access WFRP, provide a mechanism for expanding operations to obtain coverage, eliminate restrictions on coverage for livestock (which is increasingly becoming a feature of diversified farms), and prioritize the development of price elections for the full rotation of organic grain crops. These suggestions were reasonable and rooted in real needs that farmers had communicated to OTA.

In August, RMA announced changes to its WFRP program. All of the changes the agency plans to implement for the 2016 crop year were key elements of the suggestions OTA and FAC made to the agency this past spring and in subsequent visits to RMA by OTA staff. RMA then announced in early September the availability of organic price elections for 15 additional crops, including barley, rye, dry peas, safflower, and wheat.

Availability of these elections will allow organic producers to obtain coverage for the organic premiums they receive for the full rotation of crops that are grown on organic grain farms. OTA and representatives from FAC have consistently communicated to RMA the need for insurance that covers all the crops an organic farmer must grow in order to manage soil fertility and pest and disease concerns.

RMA’s efforts to make WFRP more meaningful and available to beginning and young farmers, livestock producers, and farmers who grow highly diversified and specialized crops and expand organic price elections show its commitment to extending the USDA safety net to organic producers. 

Implementation of these changes at a federal policy level demonstrates how organic farmer engagement through FAC amplifies the voice of the organic sector and can truly affect change at the national level. The momentum FAC is generating by taking action on issues facing organic farmers has prompted additional participation and interest from regional organic farming organizations.

In September, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), representing approximately 700 organic farmers, joined FAC and appointed organic tomato grower Dave Chapman to serve as its representative on the council.

OTA welcomes all organic farmer-governed organizations to join FAC, as the message we can deliver to policymakers becomes stronger and more effective with increased participation. If your organization would like more information about FAC, its accomplishments, and how to get involved, contact Nate Lewis, OTA’s Senior Crops and Livestock Specialist. //

Spotlight on OTA's Farmers Advisory Council