Santa Cruz nonprofit Organic Farming Research Foundation leads the charge for organics in the Farm Bill and beyond
Organic. Santa Cruz can pat itself on the back for helping bring about this word’s current ubiquity.
The area’s more obvious contributions to the organic movement include The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, which is headquartered at our City on a Hill, UC Santa Cruz, and is widely considered the birthplace of organic farming, and Westside Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), one of the oldest and largest organic certification organizations in the country.
Then there is the impressive concentration of organic farms, which is high enough to prompt Congressman Sam Farr (D-17thDistrict) to say Santa Cruz County is part of “the leading organic region in the world.” There are approximately 3,500 organic farm acres in the county, representing 18 percent of the total agricultural land, according to Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Mary Lou Nicoletti. The local organic sector is valued at $27 million, and, according to the county’s 2011 Community Assessment Project Report, was constituted by 112 certified organic operations in 2010.
For these reasons and more, it is fitting that the nation’s premier organic policy advocates also call Santa Cruz home.
The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) was founded in 1990, the same year that the National Organic Program came to be via the 1990 Farm Bill. Spawned from the CCOF scene, which had been going strong since 1973, OFRF was founded by local organic farmers who were frustrated enough by the lack of available research that they founded their own organic research hub. After about five years of raising money and funding their own small research grants, the organization took notice of the mountains of money coming out of the USDA for conventional agriculture research and decided to try to get organics a piece of that pie. This was the birth of OFRF’s policy advocacy efforts, which today make the nonprofit a leading national champion for organic farmers.
“We want to break down the barriers and build an infrastructure that supports the men and women who choose to farm organically, in order to meet the growing consumer demand in this country,” explains Maureen Wilmot, OFRF’s executive director. Simply put, she says the eight-person nonprofit operates under the belief that organic will be the leading form of agriculture in the country.
Realizing this vision will require the triumph of OFRF’s core mission—“the widespread adoption and improvement of organic farming systems,” Wilmot says—which OFRF engenders by promoting organic research (funding grants themselves, advocating for federal research dollars, publishing organic research for all farmers to use, and getting more land grant universities on board with organic research), bolstering the base of organic supporters, and building “organic champions” in Congress.
The latter of these tactics has taken center stage in recent months, as OFRF prepared for its version of the Super Bowl: the federal Farm Bill. This hefty five-year policy bundle is the country’s primary food and agriculture instrument, as well as OFRF’s best hope for getting increased resources and support for organic farmers into place.
On the morning of Wednesday, July 11, OFRF’s Harvey West office is buzzing with impatient excitement while, on the opposite coast, the House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee debates the 2012 Farm Bill.
The Senate approved their Farm Bill in June, and the House Ag Committee needed to pass their version before it went to the House floor for a vote. Theoretically, once this happened the two chambers would go into conference to hash out a single bill. With the current Farm Bill set to expire Sept. 30, and Congress’ August recess fast approaching, hopes—and tensions—are high.
National Policy Organizer Udi Lazimy pops in and out of OFRF’s conference room, where Wilmot and External Relations Director Denise Ryan are stationed, to relay live updates from Capitol Hill. The source of the play-by-plays is Faith Grant, OFRF’s Washington D.C.-based National Policy Advocate, who met with close to 70 congress members and their staffs in the months leading up to the Farm Bill debates. OFRF flew around 20 organic farmers into D.C. for meetings with their elected officials, says Grant.
Although the organization is headquartered in Santa Cruz, the majority of the work it does pertains to other parts of the country. The congress members Grant focused on were members of the Senate and House agriculture committees, many of whom are from middle-of-the-country commodity crop states, for example.
“We’re based in California, obviously, and we have quite a few farmers in California who receive our information and who we work with, but politically there are so many areas in the Southeast, the Great Plains, the Mideast, and Northeast that are really important for organic and for the Farm Bill,“ says Lazimy, who mans the national grassroots efforts while Grant pounds the pavement in Washington.
In addition to mobilizing farmers and allies and training organic campaigners through OFRF programs like Organic Advocate Training Sessions, Lazimy responds to increasing requests for OFRF’s stance on organic issues and news. Wilmot says Lazimy fields such a high volume of calls from across the country that she “feels like he should have a switchboard.”
“We’re being looked to as the voice of the organic farmer,” she adds.
Their work may be more behind-the-scenes, or “nuts-and-bolts infrastructure,” as Ryan says, than the more visible efforts of food movement leaders who have become household names du jour. But all of it, says Wilmot, is necessary to allow organic farmers to farm. “While we may not be putting the carrots on your table,” she says, “the work we do in this office ensures that someone is able to put the organic carrots on your table.”
Congress isn’t exactly making OFRF’s job any easier. Now on August recess, they have yet to produce a Farm Bill, leaving the country’s food and agricultural future up in the air—organics and all.
Federal policy has traditionally supported conventional agriculture. And although organic policies made their debut in the last few Farm Bills, they hardly reflect the sector’s escalating popularity.
In 1990, the year OFRF was founded, total U.S. organic sales were $1 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). That figure has risen exponentially ever since: to $3.6 billion in 1997 and $7.4 billion in 2001, and to $26.7 billion in 2010 and a record $31.4 billion last year.
The country has experienced a 140 percent increase in certified organic operations in the decade since federal organic standards were implemented in 2002, according to OFRF’s recently released Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity Report.
On the consumer side of the equation, more American shoppers are buying organic than ever before, according to the OTA’s 2011 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study. Four in 10 families surveyed reported buying more organic products than in the previous year. In total, 78 percent of families said they are choosing organic.
Can the 17,281 certified organic farms and processing facilities that dotted American soil by the end of 2011 meet the growing U.S. demand for organics? “All of our current and prospective partners are very concerned about supply,” says Ryan.
The gap between supply and demand presents both a significant problem as well as an economic opportunity for the United States, Ryan explains. “All these things we do in education, research and policy, they are creating the supply for the demand,” she says.
Allison Clark, former chair of Slow Food Santa Cruz and CCOF inspector, agrees that organic policies, research and supply are trailing behind the consumer trend. “We’re running to meet the need, and also running to educate people on how successful organic farming can be,” says Clark, who recently stepped down from both local positions to attend law school at UC Berkeley, where she plans to study food policy.
Perhaps the most valuable bargaining chip on the side of organic lobbyists is the industry’s impressive economic growth.
“It is an economic bright spot,” Wilmot says, who notes that OFRF dislikes the designation “organic industry” because it sounds too agribusiness. (They’re still grappling with what to call it, but are leaning toward “organic community.”)
Whatever you call it, the organic sector generated more than 500,000 American jobs in 2010, according to a joint report produced by the Obama Administration in June. According to an April 2012 OTA report, 21,000 new jobs are created for every $1 billion in retail sales of organic products. Add to that a University of Georgia finding that organic farms hire an average of 61 year-round employees, compared to 28 hired by conventional farms, and you have a pretty attractive formula.
If relatively low investments in organic enabled these results, Brise Tencer, director of policy and programs at CCOF, says that a more proportional national investment could have a big pay-off.
“Even in a time of economic recession, the organic sector is continuing to grow and to thrive,” says Tencer. “It’s helping farmers, [and] rural communities, creating jobs, and doing good things for the environment. And at the same time the domestic demand for organic products outpaces supply. By helping our growers domestically meet that supply rather than continuing to purchase internationally, we are doing a great thing for the economy. We think there is some real return on that investment.”
Regardless of the financial promise of organics, this year’s Farm Bill battle has been defined, like most everything on Capitol Hill today, by a woeful budget climate and inability to compromise where spending and/or cuts are involved. The uncertain 2012 Farm Bill would put $15 million a year (in the Senate’s version) and $11 million (in the House’s version) toward funding The National Organic Program. Overall, the Senate’s bill saves $23 billion over the next decade, cutting $4 billion from food stamps (the most divisive of the Farm Bill’s provisions and the source of the hang-up in the House), while the Republican-led House put forth a bill that cuts $35 billion over 10 years from USDA programs, including $16 billion from food stamps.
According to Congressman Farr, anything that involves spending—even a critical package of agricultural policy—creates a firestorm in Congress. He recalls the adage “the last hired is the first fired” when explaining why the House’s bill takes swings at funding for organics.
“It’s controversial because it costs money,” says Farr, “and there is one attitude here that we don’t want to spend any money even if it’s on anything good, and there’s an attitude of ‘spend it on my crops but not yours,’ and another that most of what we do is traditional agriculture so we shouldn’t spend money on anything else.”
For OFRF, the 2012 Farm Bill was all about saving what was won in 2008.
“We have a completely different landscape from four years ago,” Wilmot says. “Holding the line is a success for us. Holding the wins we got in 2008 is a win for us this year.”
The proposed House bill is chock full of other victories and losses in OFRF’s eyes, including wins like maintained funding for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives program and boosts for local food programs, like Farmers’ Markets, and misses like $3 billion in cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program and the genetically engineered organisms-protection piece being called “The Monsanto Rider.”
Given the nation’s slow recession recovery and Congress’ penchant for slashing spending, Wilmot says it is “a huge win” for OFRF that the bill sticks to the $16 million-per-year or $80 million over five years in funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, the country’s flagship organic research program.
“This isn’t the time to be asking for a bunch of money to be put into a lot of new programs,” agrees Clark, of CCOF, which has also been lobbying for organics in the Farm Bill. “But where there is money already we want to make sure organic farmers can access it and that the programs we’ve worked really hard to create in the past several years stay there and continue to improve.”
Leveling The Playing Field
One of the biggest obstacles to organic farming is the cost of getting certified; conversely, perhaps the Farm Bill’s most direct benefit for organic farmers in the past has been through the country’s two organic certification cost share programs, which were collectively allotted $7.2 million for fiscal year 2012.
Darryl Wong is the co-owner of Freewheelin’ Farms, a seven-acre farm up Highway 1 in Santa Cruz that is currently pumping out everything from rhubarb and strawberries to onions and leeks.
Although the farm has used organic practices since it began in 2002, Wong says budgetary limits prevented them from getting certified until this year.
“This year we decided the cost was worth it,” he says. So far, Freewheelin’ Farms has paid $1,200 in organic certification costs, and Wong expects to spend several hundred more before the year is over.
“It’s not a miniscule amount, but it’s something most folks are willing to do—especially those who want to get into Farmers’ Markets or any type of grocery store, where you need that certification because shoppers look for it,” Wong says.
He says the federal cost share programs, which offer reimbursement at 75 percent of an operation’s certification costs or a maximum of $750 a year, help reduce the barrier.
“In the first couple years, some farms will choose not to certify because of the costs,” he says. “The cost share is really helpful in getting over that initial hurdle to implement these practices.”
If the 2012 Farm Bill is taken up when Congress resumes its session, and if the House gets its way, the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program will be repealed and funding to help farmers like Wong certify organic will be eliminated. This program, which was given one-time funding of $22 million in the 2008 Farm Bill, is the only of the two federal cost share efforts that assists California farmers. The other program, called Agricultural Marketing Assistance, helps 16 states other than California and would continue to be funded in the House’s version of the bill, but at a 10 percent reduction.
“[Cost share] is one of the programs that has come under a lot of heat because they are looking for places to cut as much as they can,” says Clark. “To people who are less into government support for programs, it looks like a place where we are giving people money. But it’s been critical to our [CCOF] members to have that available. It has helped people stay certified when money is tight and the economy is getting harder. It’s a program we really hope to see survive the process.”
On the bright side, says OFRF’s Lazimy, there would be some boons in the 2012 bill for beginning farmers and ranchers, a growing number of whom are organic. “There is a really quickly growing beginning organic farmer movement with a lot of energy behind it,” he says.
According to Start2Farm, the USDA’s beginning farmer resource program, 28 percent of certified organic farmers have operated a farm for less than 10 years (the definition of a “beginning farmer”), compared to 20 percent of farmers and ranchers overall.
The Farm Bill’s inclusion of microloans for beginning, young and small farmers, as well as some restored provisions to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, is particularly meaningful when considered alongside the fact that the average American farmer is 57 years old, according to Start2Farm. The program also reports a recent 30 percent increase in farmers over the age of 75.
Earlier this year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s concern about the aging farmer population prompted him to call for 100,000 new farmers over the coming years.
Elsewhere in the Farm Bill jumble, organic farmers are making incremental steps toward being included in federal programs they were previously excluded from or that they could access, but not in the fairest of ways. For example, both versions of the bill would improve crop insurance for organic farmers, although the House version puts forth significantly less assertive language.
“Historically, organic farmers were considered too risky and they wouldn’t cover them,” explains Tencer. “Because of work CCOF and others have done on previous farm bills, they finally agreed to let organic farmers apply and receive crop insurance—but they are charged more to apply for it, and then if they lose their crop due to a natural disaster or something like that, they are reimbursed based on what the conventional crop would have received, when the prices aren’t actually the same.” The 2012 bill would take a step in addressing this reimbursement inequity.
Crop insurance, certification reimbursement, and beginning farmer assistance are some of the ways OFRF and the farmers they represent would like to see the playing field leveled for organic operations.
“From a grower’s perspective, they don’t want to see hand-outs over the entire lifetime of the farm, but they might want help to overcome the steep barriers in getting into farming, whether it’s organic certification or getting into markets,” says Wong, of Freewheelin’ Farms.
Jeff Larkey, of Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz, says, “I don’t want to take government money for anything unless I’m desperate.”
As for the Farm Bill, he says politics and advocacy don’t fit into a busy farming schedule.
“Farmers get involved if they have to but generally they are a fiercely independent lot, especially organic farmers because we’ve been off in this niche, developing our own market,” says Larkey, whose farm was certified organic in 1985. “I don’t have time to lobby.”
That’s where groups like OFRF come in, says Wong. “There’s enough to do to keep us busy,” he says. “Most of the folks—my peers— aren’t necessarily right up to date on what’s happening with the Farm Bill. I think it’s good that there are organizations like OFRF that do that as permanent work so they can stay on top of it.”
OFRF alerted Freewheelin’ Farms to one of the programs that Wong says has been most helpful to them, the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. “That’s where the policy work they are doing affects us directly,” he says of OFRF. “Continuing to reach out to growers and work with them to fulfill their needs—that’s where the best synergy is.”
The organization launched a new website this month, ofrf.org, that is designed to be an interactive “portal for organic farmers to connect, as well as a database of research about what’s out there and what’s available out there for farmers,” says Lazimy.
In 2013, OFRF will host daylong regional Organic Briefing Sessions that will “gather a select group of leaders in business, government, education, environment, healthcare and media” to discuss the state of organic farming.
But when the time comes for them to assemble, what will the state of organics be?
Farm Bill Fallout
The House Agriculture Committee did wind up approving its Farm Bill on July 12. But as of Congress’ departure for its August recess, the House still hadn’t voted on it. Instead, it quickly brought up and scrapped an Extension Bill that would have continued the provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill for another year—with the exception of anything having to do with organics.
The turn of events made for “a very dramatic week on the Hill for the Farm Bill,” says Grant from her post in D.C. “Basically every bit of conventional wisdom we had about it was thrown out the window,” she adds.
After dropping the extension at the last minute, and continuing to refuse to vote on the Farm Bill, House Republicans put forth and passed a last-minute $383 million disaster relief package to address the nation’s dire drought conditions, which have taken a toll on farming operations across the country. Many, including OFRF, Farr and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, say the Farm Bill would provide drought-afflicted farmers the assistance they need and that the House’s move is an excuse to kick the can down the road and avoid taking a tough vote before the November election.
“The irony is that it’s all being done under the pretense that we’re helping assist with the drought, but in actuality, it’s in avoidance, and it’s a critical hour for many farmers in the country,” says External Relations Director Ryan.
On Tuesday, July 31, Vilsak told reporters, “We need a five-year bill. If folks care about rural America they will get this done.”
Congressman Farr points out that the Farm Bill is only one in a myriad of flailing congressional responsibilities, and isn’t considered among the most urgent by its members. Given their questionable ability to pass a federal budget, everything that requires funding—including agriculture laws—“is all a chess game” right now, he says.
“Each one of those [votes] is a crisis in themselves,” Farr says. “Whether we reauthorize the Farm Bill is not as high a priority as trying to keep government open.”
In a recent newsletter to constituents, Farr explained that there will be a devastating nationwide impact if Congress doesn’t pass a new Farm Bill before the current one expires on Sept. 30. Without a new agreement, he says that key provisions of the country’s food policy would revert to antiquated standards written before 1933 that don’t reflect modern farming practices, markets and trade agreements.
However, he tells GT that he is confident Santa Cruz will carry on, no matter what happens in Washington.
“The Santa Cruz organic movement got started without ever asking the permission of the federal government and became a model for national legislation,” Farr says. “Our region is proud about being first responders to problems, and also very able to manage ourselves in crisis. My point is that even if disasters happen here in Washington, our local communities will find ways of sustaining themselves because they are professional, respected, and produce good quality [products].”
While America waits for its elected officials to return to work, to what some fear will be an uneventful lame duck session, OFRF is fighting to get the Farm Bill back on the table. As of Friday, Aug. 3, Ryan says OFRF is hopeful that the House will take the 2012 draft up when they return.
“In the meantime, OFRF will be working with congressional staff to ensure organic priorities are included in a final bill,” she says. “While much of the work has been done, the biggest hurdle lies ahead in getting this important bill passed. It being timed before the election is going to be a truly Olympic feat.”
Both OFRF and CCOF say Santa Cruzans can still help make a difference during this limbo period, despite the fact that Farr is already a leader on the side of organics (he carried the bill for organic certification in 1990 and formed the Organic Farming Caucus a few years ago).
“It’s a fine balance here between not heckling our representatives, who are already totally on board,” says Clark. “It’s almost more challenging to figure out what kind of advocacy work to do in a place like this, because what’s your call going to do? [It’s about] calling up family members living in Fresno, getting them on the phone, bringing them a basket of amazing organic strawberries from the Central Coast, [and] continuing to talk to people and make those connections.”
Whatever happens, Wilmot says it is meaningful for the organic movement to have been part of the conversation.
“Success in a public policy way is not if you win all the time but that your issue is being discussed,” she says, adding that OFRF is already looking forward to a post-Farm Bill time (whenever that may be), when they can concentrate on making sure its policies are implemented for organic farmers.
“The world does not end when the Farm Bill ends,” she says. “It just begins.”