USDA moves organic cost share from Agricultural Marketing Service to FSA county offices | TheFencePost.com

USDA moves organic cost share from Agricultural Marketing Service to FSA county offices

The Agriculture Department announced Dec. 21 that it is moving the cost share programs that help organic producers and handlers from the Agricultural Marketing Service to the Farm Service Agency. Starting March 20, 2017, organic producers and handlers will be able to apply for federal reimbursement to assist with the cost of receiving and maintaining organic or transitional certification at the 2,100 USDA Farm Service Agency offices around the country rather than going through a state agriculture department.

States that still want to administer the program will have the opportunity to do so by applying for funding by Feb.17, 2017, USDA said.

"USDA is committed to helping the organic sector grow and thrive through a wide variety of programs, and part of that commitment is making it easy for stakeholders to access our services. That's why, starting March 20, producers will be able to visit their local FSA offices to access organic certification cost-share reimbursements for up to 75 percent of the cost of organic certification," said FSA Administrator Val Dolcini. "This will provide a more uniform, streamlined process nationwide; and it will give organic producers a chance to learn about other valuable USDA resources — like farm loans and conservation assistance — that can help them succeed."

USDA is making these changes to encourage increased participation in the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and the Agricultural Management Assistance Organic Certification Cost Share Program, and at the same time provide more opportunities for organic producers to access a full range of USDA programs, such as disaster protection and loans for farms, facilities and marketing, FSA said. Producers can also access information on nonfederal ag resources, and get referrals to local experts, including organic agriculture, through USDA's Bridges to Opportunity service at the local FSA offices.

The shift from AMS to FSA and from the state agriculture departments to the county offices was obviously a sensitive matter.

"The Agricultural Marketing Service and the National Organic Program look forward to this exciting opportunity to leverage the Farm Service Agency's rural footprint to reach more organic producers and handlers," said AMS Administrator Elanor Starmer. "At the same time, it is important to recognize and continue the valuable partnerships with states that remain at the core of the program."

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EXPANDING THE PROGRAM

Amanda Culp, a spokeswoman for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, noted that the states have administered the organic program in partnership with the USDA since its inception in 2001.

"To be clear," Culp said, "even with the announced changes, state departments of agriculture will continue to provide these funds to certified organic farmers, ranchers and value-added food producers."

She also said NASDA leaders hope the state agriculture departments and the FSA county offices "will work cooperatively to expand the reach of this program to help producers and processors obtain organic certification."

The move will also bring farmers who have not previously visited FSA county offices into those offices and broaden the constituency for the FSA county offices, which some conservatives and opponents of farm programs have tried to close.

Both the Organic Trade Association and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition praised the moves.

"The Organic Trade Association welcomes USDA's move to expand the reach of the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program to include transitional certification fees and state organic program fees," Laura Batcha, OTA executive director, said in a news release.

"OTA also commends USDA for leveraging its FSA network to make this program more available to organic producers and handlers while continuing to allow state departments of agriculture to administer NOCCSP — recognizing the importance of the involvement of state departments of agriculture in organic as a choice for farmers and entrepreneurs," Batcha added.

She also noted that OTA has worked with farmers in California who have been worried they must pay additional fees to the California Department of Food and Agriculture to operate their businesses.

"USDA heard these concerns and has responded directly to the issues raised by OTA and its members," she said. "USDA's move will utilize the full authority of the program as established in the farm bill to bring more opportunity to farmers and handlers across the country."

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the move will make the organic cost share programs "available in nearly every rural county nationwide. Applicants will also have the option to apply via mail. State departments of agriculture will retain the option of offering the program, and in states where they do so, organic certification cost share will be available through the state agency as well as all county FSA offices."

Eligible producers include any certified producers or handlers who have paid organic or transitional certification fees to a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Application fees, inspection costs, fees related to equivalency agreements/arrangement requirements, travel/per diem for inspectors, user fees, sales assessments and postage are all eligible for a cost-share reimbursement from USDA.

Once certified, producers and handlers are eligible to receive reimbursement for up to 75 percent of certification costs each year up to a maximum of $750 per certification scope — crops, livestock, wild crops and handling.

— The Hagstrom Report

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