The Power of Collaboration

Organic food and agriculture have the potential to change the world. All too often, though, the participants in this sector fragment and expend energy criticizing each other as falling short of their own ideals. However, when we come together and rally around our common vision, we can achieve remarkable results. 

Our industry has gained traction in the marketplace because it offers consumers what they want:  healthy food produced without the aid of synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemicals. This helps build strong local economies, improves the environment, and provides a viable living to farmers, young and old, small and large. There is room for diversity of opinion and priorities within organic, and we thrive on healthy debate of our differences. But, when we come together to pursue a common objective, we can accomplish great things, such as the historic funding of the Organic Agriculture and Research Extension Initiative (OREI) in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The 2018 Farm Bill achieved “baseline funding” for OREI. This level of funding means that we don’t start at “zero” during each Farm Bill cycle, and that funding won’t be threatened by delays in passage of future Farm Bills, as was experienced in 2013. We will have material funding to support ongoing research to improve organic agricultural practices, provide more tools for organic farmers, and build the resiliency of organic systems. In addition, the bill recognizes the importance of funding for the National Organic Program as well as the critical role it plays in ensuring the integrity of the USDA Organic seal.  For those who have personally engaged in the process the past two years of this Farm Bill cycle and others who have been at this for decades, a hearty “Thank You” is in order.

OREI was first established in 2002 with annual funding of $3 million. In 2008, OREI annual funding grew to $20 million, where it has remained until the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Now, because of the foundational work of many of our pioneers and the continued efforts of current leaders and participants, especially our organic farmers, annual funding for OREI will reach $50 million in 2023, which will establish it as a “baseline” program in future Farm Bills.

This is a great lesson for what our community can accomplish when we focus on our mutual goals and interests. Efforts have been building ever since the passage of the last Farm Bill to achieve baseline funding for OREI.  One important tool for our advocacy efforts was the “Organic Hotspots” white paper, released in the spring of 2016 by the Organic Trade Association. Organic Hotspots synthesized three prior research papers focusing on the economic benefits of organic agriculture, and highlighted the benefits of a vibrant organic sector in farming communities around the country. The paper provided a valuable tool for many of us to use in our own personal advocacy on behalf of organic priorities, particularly with representatives for whom the economic story was most influential.

In addition to tools like the Organic Hotspots paper, it took very heavy lifting by many organizations and their members to take the “Organic Story” to Congress. Coming together to discuss what they saw as organic priorities to pursue in the 2018 Farm Bill were representatives from the Organic Trade Association and its Farmers Advisory Council, Organic Farming Research Foundation, Organic Farmers Association, National Organic Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Farmers Union, Environmental Working Group, California Certified Organic Farmers, California Farm Bureau, Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa Organic Association, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, Ag Forward, and many more. 

While the organizations had disparate issues that were important to their members, they spoke with a consistent voice on their shared priorities as they advocated for the 2018 Farm Bill.  They enlisted their members to advocate for those priorities in their meetings with members of Congress. Constituents brought up organic priorities at every one of the “listening sessions” conducted by the House Agriculture Committee in 2017. Hundreds, if not thousands, of individual organic farmers, handlers, processors and retailers told their stories to their elected representatives, and advocated for support of organic agriculture in the 2018 Farm Bill. Many universities also joined in support of organic priorities, especially in funding OREI.

How could the world be different if we focused on our common interests, and put our collective efforts toward solving the big issues? We have research documenting how organic agriculture can be a mitigation for climate change. We have documented how organic food reduces exposure to toxic chemicals in our food leading to better health for consumers and farmers. We know that organic farming builds organic matter in the soil, increasing its ability to absorb rainfall and reducing runoff and loss of valuable topsoil. Also, we have proven that organic food and agriculture improve the financial standing of communities with concentrations of organic growers, handlers and processors.

Now that we have achieved this historic milestone in federal funding for organic research, let’s continue to identify our shared interests. Maybe it is funding organic extension agents to translate the research conducted through OREI into practical use on the farm. Maybe it is the role organic agriculture can play in mitigating climate change. Or perhaps it is strengthening consumer trust in the organic brand by enhancing transparency and enforcement by the National Organic Program. Let’s work together to advocate for our interests, and encourage the organizations we participate in to collaborate in support of our common purpose.  

All of our personal involvement in advocacy for organic priorities makes a big difference. Sharing your personal story with your representatives makes a huge impact. When the organizations you are a member of ask you to support their advocacy for organic priorities, whether it is paying personal visits, writing letters, sending texts or e-mails to your representatives, or contributing to the Political Action Committees, remember what was accomplished in this Farm Bill cycle.

When we come together with consistent messages to our elected representatives, we can accomplish amazing things. //

Tim Schultz is the Vice President of Research and Development at Lundberg Family Farms, a long-time member of the Organic Trade Association.  He is an active member of the Organic Trade Association’s PAC Committee, and on the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s Board of Directors. In 2018, the Organic Trade Association Board and staff named Tim  “Member of the Year.”