Shaping the next farm bill from the ground up

OTA Farm Bill Survey Partners (listed above)

As the new Administration and Congress take on their responsibilities, it is fitting to start framing policy advocacy toward building the next farm bill—a five-year omnibus bill that sets policy for commodity support and risk management, publicly funded ag research, rural development, conservation and nutritional support programs like SNAP—with the current bill set to expire in September 2018. This will be the first time that a farm bill has been written under an entirely Republican House, Senate, and Administration since 1954. 

Admittedly, the current political environment is anticipated to be a factor in the next farm bill. With analysts crediting rural voters with shaping the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, it is prudent to be aware of the following early trends:

  • Strong anti-regulation mood and agenda 
  • Agricultural diversity including local, regional, organic, and urban production
  • Labor
  • Trade.  

In preparation for developing its advocacy work on the next farm bill, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) recently partnered with 17 other organic organizations—many of them members of OTA’s Farmers Advisory Council—to poll stakeholders on issues they see are important concerning U.S. farm policy for the organic sector. The results sum up responses from over 500 participants from 45 states representing organic producers and handlers and others in the sector.

Participants answered questions concerning barriers — from regulatory, research, and marketing, to production and investment. Here is a summary of their views. 

Regulatory barriers: Producers and handlers both cited cost and complexity of food safety regulations and organic certification. Producers also cited the requirement to participate in regulatory programs designed for conventional supply chains; handlers cited the lack of clear, common understanding of organic regulations.

Research and extension barriers: Producers and handlers both cited the lack of university or professional programs focusing on organic processing and technology. Producers also cited the lack of research to support developing effective pest control products approved for organic and inadequate food safety programs. Handlers also cited the lack of incentives to develop increased organic acreage, and the lack of education and outreach to train organic processors and employees.

Marketing barriers: Producers and handlers both cited lack of consumer awareness of organic benefits and value. Producers also cited downward price pressures from less expensive or imported organic products, and threats of contamination posed by prohibited materials (GMOs, pesticides). Handlers cited shelf-space competition with products labeled “natural’ or “non-GMO,” and lack of organic pricing information.

Production and capital barriers: Producers cited cost of buying land, cost and availability of labor. Producers and handlers agreed on the cost and impact of government programs designed for conventional supply-chains rather than organic.

Supply chain barriers: Handlers cited lack of dependable supply of domestic—and any—organic raw materials, as well a lack of access to a certified organic co-packer.

A preliminary analysis of the responses yields the following top organic policy actions suggested by participants 

  • Increased public education about the benefits of organic
  • Investment to support transition to organic
  • Increased funding for organic production and ingredient research 
  • Access-to-land programs geared around organic production
  • Increased consistency by the National Organic Program in applying standards across certifiers and operations
  • Programs to improve transparency and tracking of international organic trade 
  • Improved and increased data on organic industry . 

At this juncture, OTA envisions that the primary themes for organic in the Farm Bill will center on measures to expand the production base, provide for successful organic farmers, and keep markets growing. OTA encourages is members to stay engaged to protect the critical gains we have made as a sector, integrating organic across USDA programs and building capacity at the National Organic Program. 

Looking ahead, one way to stay engaged will be to participate in OTA’s Organic Week May 23-25 in Washington, D.C., for its Policy Conference and Hill Visits co-located with The Organic Center’s Confluences Summit May 22. //