Organic Farmers Want Place at the Table

Posted July 6, 2007 at 3:05pm

From Whole Foods to Eastern Market, organic food has become a national obsession. The industry has been growing at a 20 percent annual clip over the past decade and now makes up 3 percent of the half-trillion-dollar retail food market, up from 2.1 percent three years ago.

And with a new farm bill slated for authorization this year, organic agriculture lobbyists want their share of the action.


Five years ago, when the previous farm bill was authorized, organic food research received just 0.6 percent of the roughly $1 billion annual agriculture research budget. Representatives from the industry say that’s not enough.


“Organic is 3 percent of the food economy,” said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, which lobbies on behalf of organic farmers. “If we had 3 percent of the research budget, we’d have $30 million a year to fund alternative management of weeds and fungus [and] alternative cropping strategies.”


Indeed, the industry has grown dramatically in the short time between the two farm bills, said Caren Wilcox, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, which represents all aspects of the organic food business, from farming to distribution to retail.


“In ’02 [at the time the farm bill was passed] there was no national rule,” Wilcox said, referring to the national organic standards put into place by the Department of Agriculture in late 2002. Because of support the organic industry received in the farm bill that year, “Now we’re the fastest-growing part of the U.S. agriculture and food and beverage market.”


In 2002, the Agriculture committees had no organics subcommittees. Now, Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has a Sustainable and Organic Agriculture Subcommittee, and House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) has a Horticulture and Organic Agriculture Subcommittee.


Besides Wilcox, a former USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety and most recently an Agriculture appropriations adviser to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the OTA has at least two other outside lobbyists: Sally Donner at Olsson, Frank and Weeda and solo lobbyist Robert Gray, a former House Agriculture subcommittee staffer.


This year, they are seeking more money for research, conservation and income support during the three-year “conversion” period farmers spend preparing their fields for fully certified organic production. They also are seeking to eliminate the 5 percent surcharge for crop insurance required for organic farms. Scowcroft explained that the premium was initially implemented “because there’s a mind-set that it’s riskier to grow organic if you don’t have chemicals or fertilizers.”


The industry’s total wish list could range from $50 million to as much as $150 million annually, according to lobbyists representing the organic food market. Organic food, however, is just one of many in a jumble of competing interests looking for scarce funds in a farm bill with a far tighter budget this year than in 2002.


While research money will presumably come from the farm bill’s research title, other funding — to offset the cost of becoming organically “certified,” to provide financial support during the transition period and to give out grants to help organic farmers distribute their food — could potentially come from Title I, the farm bill’s largest and most expensive program, which supports farmers of commodity crops in times of crisis.


The conventional farming industry wants Title I to stay intact, opposing any plan to shift its funds to support other provisions, including organic farming.


“Our stance has been uniformly that we don’t support any programs that will be funded by taking money out of the commodities title,” said Tara Smith, the director of Congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau.


The organic farming industry, adds the National Corn Growers Association’s Jon Doggett, is “just one of many folks trying to raid Title I money for their own purposes.”


The reason is obvious, Doggett said. “When the police asked Willie Sutton why he robbed all those banks, Sutton said, ‘Because that’s where all the money is.’”


In the face of such opposition, the OTA and the OFRF also count on support from the National Organic Coalition, a broad-based group that includes the Center for Food Safety and lobbies the Hill, and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of federal agriculture and environmental policy.


They are making their voices heard through direct lobbying of committee members, letter-writing campaigns and participation in hearings. Steve Etka, a contract lobbyist with the NOC, is particularly optimistic.


“I think there’s an openness to [organics],” he said.


And they sense an ally in Harkin, who is in the process of drafting a proposal for a series of organic farming provisions to include in the farm bill.


“I want to do more in the farm bill to get more farmers to tap into the organic boom by transitioning into organics, including providing them with the research, technical assistance, and market information they need to succeed,” Harkin said in an e-mail statement to Roll Call.


“U.S. farmers want to and can provide organic and locally grown food to consumers if they just had a way to distribute it to retail outlets,” he continued. “The farm bill can help change that by providing grants to those interested in local processing and distribution.”


Freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a lifelong farmer who converted his 1,800-acre land to entirely organic in the late 1980s, agreed that changes have to be made for organic producers to thrive in the marketplace. In addition to making recommendations to Harkin regarding the new farm bill, Tester emphasized that, should farmers have the resources to make the transition to organics, there are huge financial benefits.


“There’s a depopulation problem in Montana, where farmers aren’t doing well and leaving the land. Organics can keep people on the land … you can make money with organics, a lot more than you can with regular [production].”


The farm bill is moving ahead this month, with a full House Agriculture Committee markup scheduled to begin July 17. As for Harkin’s proposal, spokeswoman Kate Cyrul said he hopes to have a finished draft ready within the next few weeks. In the meantime, while the growing popularity of and demand for organic food would seem to argue in favor of increased funding, longtime Washington, D.C., veterans such as Wilcox know nothing is ever for certain.


“If you’ve been around legislation a long time, you know you just have to wait to see what’s in a final bill,” Wilcox said, “not what you hope will be in a final bill.”