A strong record and a bright future for organic agriculture

By Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

The organic market continues to be a bright spot in the agricultural economy, creating jobs and opportunities across rural America. Throughout my time as Secretary, USDA has made it a priority to support organic farmers, ranchers, and businesses. And our support has made a real difference—domestic retail sales of organic products have nearly doubled from $22.6 billion in 2009 to $43.3 billion last year. The organic sector’s success is a reflection of the resilience, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit of organic producers. USDA is doing our part by embracing diverse types of agricultural production and pursuing collaboration to create new opportunities in agriculture.   

I’m a strong believer that the diversity of American agriculture is one of its greatest strengths, and organic agriculture is a key part of that diversity. 
-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

I’m a strong believer that the diversity of American agriculture is one of its greatest strengths, and organic agriculture is a key part of that diversity. That’s why this Administration elevated the National Organic Program within USDA and made increasing the number of domestic organic operations one of USDA’s strategic goals. In our strategic plan, we set a goal of 20,000 certified organic operations in the U.S. by 2018, and I’m proud to say that we’ve already exceeded that goal two years ahead of schedule. We’ve also looked at resources across USDA—not just within the National Organic Program--to ensure that we are meeting organic stakeholders’ needs. 

For example, USDA has incorporated organic information into our regular data reports and analyses of agricultural prices, production, and more. We now understand the size and scope of the organic market, organic trade, and organic producer practices, which helps us tailor our programs to be more effective. One direct result of this improved data is that we are helping organic producers better manage their risk by recognizing organic prices for nearly 70% of crops that have traditional insurance.

We understand that organic agriculture represents a value-added proposition and that crop insurance should account for the higher price that organic products command on the market.  We’ve also created Whole Farm Revenue Protection to serve highly diversified producers, as well as a Contract Price Addendum to reflect the realities of the marketplace. Add in changes to our Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program to allow separate market prices for organic and direct-marketed crops, and you see a vastly expanded safety net for organic producers.

This Administration has made unprecedented investments in the organic sector at all levels, including over $115 million in conservation assistance to more than 6,800 organic and transitioning farmers, nearly $261 million in research to improve the productivity and success of organic agriculture, and making available nearly $64 million in cost share funds to defray the cost of organic certification. We’re also investing in training USDA staff about organic agriculture so we can better respond to stakeholder needs and ensure that organic stakeholders have access to the full suite of USDA resources.

Over 30,000 USDA employees have taken our basic organic training course, and some USDA agencies have gone even further; the Natural Resources Conservation Service has hosted dozens of educational webinars on the links between organic and conservation practices, and created the first-ever National Organic Farming Handbook to help its field staff better serve organic producers. 

Even as we’ve expanded USDA services to the organic sector, consumer demand continues to outpace supply. This is where collaboration, another fundamental value of USDA, comes into play, as we actively work to connect domestic producers with the economic opportunities offered by organic agriculture. We’ve established partnerships with numerous external groups to support outreach and training, and we created the first one-stop shop for information through USDA’s Organic Resource Guide and our organic portal at www.usda.gov/organic. Our Sound and Sensible Initiative funded 14 organizations that have worked with hundreds of farmers and livestock producers worldwide to make organic certification more affordable and attainable for all. And we’re working with partners in the private sector to help bridge the supply chain gaps between organic supply and demand for commodities like milk, grains, and more.

As we work to increase domestic organic production, we are pursuing opportunities to meet the growing global demand for USDA certified organic products—spurred by worldwide recognition of organic as the gold standard in transparency. USDA is providing U.S. organic producers with streamlined access to the expanding international market through organic equivalency agreements, which reduce duplicative paperwork, fees, and inspections.

Under this Administration, we have signed five organic equivalency agreements (with Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea, and Switzerland) to facilitate access to international organic markets valued at over $35 billion. Moving forward, we are in discussions with Mexico and other significant organic markets. 

Fundamental to all of this progress is the integrity of the USDA Organic seal. Consumers turn to organic products because they trust that the USDA Organic seal represents strong, enforceable standards, and we are committed to maintaining consumer confidence in the program. That’s why, with the support of the 2014 Farm Bill, we’ve invested in a strong National Organic Program that develops meaningful standards, provides consistent oversight, and enforces the USDA organic regulations.

We’ve made it a priority to keep pace with consumer expectations in a rapidly evolving marketplace. In response to feedback from our stakeholders, USDA finalized rules to ensure access to pasture for organic livestock and define pesticide residue testing requirements for organic certifiers. We’re also developing standards for the origin of organic livestock, the raising and handling of organic livestock and poultry, and organic aquaculture production systems. On the enforcement side, the National Organic Program aggressively pursues alleged violations and has levied more than $1.8 million in civil penalties to businesses that knowingly violated organic rules.

Collaboration through public input is vital to the success of our efforts, whether it’s through our dedicated volunteers on the National Organic Standards Board or through our many formal public comment opportunities. We are very fortunate to have an engaged and active organic community that contributes to the sector’s growth and helps us understand how we can continue to do better. 

The future is bright for American agriculture. By upholding the basic values of diversity and collaboration, we can meet the challenges of the future, from adapting to climate change to responding to new consumer demands. The organic sector is a great example of how diversity and collaboration can create new markets and new opportunities, as it brings young people back to rural communities, generates jobs, and improves quality of life in rural areas. That’s why I’m proud to have supported the organic community, and it’s why, moving forward, I want to ensure that USDA continues to support organic stakeholders.

This fall, USDA is hosting a series of fall forums to help set a vision for USDA in 2017 and beyond, and we’ll be highlighting organic agriculture at an event in Minnesota on October 11. I invite you all to join in the conversation about how we can continue to make progress together.  //