House organic ag hearing reveals regional and partisan differences

-The Hagstrom Report
Organic producers testify at House Agriculture subcommittee. From left, Benjamin Whalen from Maine, Jeff Huckaby from California, Shelli Brin from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Jeremy Brown from Texas.
Courtesy photo

A House Agriculture Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research Subcommittee hearing last week revealed that the issues facing organic farmers in the U.S. states and territories vary dramatically from place to place, and that Democratic and Republican members of the committee have different levels of enthusiasm for organic farming.

Delegate Stacy Plaskett, D-VI., who chairs the subcommittee, said that the organic industry has been transformed from a niche market to a $52 billion industry, and that she sees “big opportunities,” even though “organic farmers and ranchers represent a vast array of scales and types of agricultural production, as well as a diverse range of rural and urban geographic regions.”

Plaskett also noted that the subcommittee had told Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach that it is vital to maintain the integrity of the USDA organic seal because “our producers depend on strong consumer confidence and clear standards to ensure the longevity of their business and continued expansion of the organic sector.”

But Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., said in a prepared statement that “The National Organic Program has proven to be a great marketing tool for the agricultural economy, but it isn’t the only tool. There are several ways that American farmers successfully differentiate their products to meet consumer demands.”

Dunn also said he is disturbed about “some segments of the organic industry who think it wise to disparage non-organic production practices.”

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said “We must protect all agriculture,” and that he is worried about the negative connotations that have been developed for genetic modification.

The hearing featured testimony from producers in the U.S. Virgin Islands, California, Maine and Texas.

Shelli Brin, an organic farmer in the Virgin Islands, said that, “as a small farm in a small market in a large sea, we are thankful to have federal support in the form of programs and grants that help us implement conservation practices and create new economic development opportunities through value-added products.”

Brin said her farm in the past two years has received a $7,500 reimbursement as a match for an off-grid solar irrigation system batteries through the USDA Rural Energy program, approximately $18,000 (50% of actual cost) for a high-tunnel for tomato, pepper, and cucumber production from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and approximately $22,600 in a 50% match to conduct a feasibility plan for fruit market expansion with a Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG).

“We eagerly await the release of the 2019 VAPG grant in order to implement our plan for long-term agroforestry food production,” Brin said. “These programs are crucial to improving our farm’s impact in our community, however we mostly survive from our own hard work and supportive customer base and do so with farming as our sole occupation.”

Brin said her farm is also participating in storm recovery programs through the Farm Service Agency, which are still in effect from the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

However, she said that the “small” FSA in the Virgin Islands “is extremely understaffed and is aligned under the Puerto Rico office, which leads to constant and significant delays for information or decisions regarding these programs.”

Brin also said that the costs of “establishing and maintaining organic certification is drastically higher on island territories and needs greater support in cost-share programs than what currently is offered.”

“We simply would not be certified today without the federal cost-share program which saves us $750 a year on program related costs, which total approximately $2,000 annually,” she said.

“The primary reason is geographic, since inspectors must travel by air and receive accommodations, meals, ground transportation, and other related costs. For example, we had to change certification companies eight years ago because the former company quoted over $4,000 for a single inspection in travel costs. We are fortunate now to have an inspector available from nearby Puerto Rico, however, we remain vulnerable to any changes that may occur and subsequently threaten our ability to afford certification.”

Jeff Huckaby, president of Grimmway Farms/Cal-Organic in Bakersfield, Calif., noted that his farm grows more than 65 items on more than 45,000 acres of prime certified organic ground throughout California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Georgia and Florida.

Huckaby said that when he transitioned from conventional to organic production, it was not as productive, but that over time the soil has become richer than the soil on conventional farms and produces the same yields.

But Huckaby said that the three-year transition period from conventional farming to organic is a barrier to some people who want to convert, and that subsidizing that period in a farmer’s life would be helpful.

He also noted the need for farm labor on organic farms.

Benjamin Whalen, who operates Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, Maine, said soil health “is the most important consideration for all aspects of our farm,” and that “organic research programs like Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Organic Transitions Program (ORG) are so important.”

But Whalen said he believes that the relocation of most of the employees of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from the capital region to Kansas City, Mo., will lead to significant delays in grant funding for these programs, “putting at risk important organic research.”

For young and beginning farmers, access to affordable farmland is an issue, he said, noting that he was “incredibly lucky to find our forever farm through working with Maine Farmland Trust, a farmland protection agency in Maine.”

When Rep. Kim Schreier, D-Wash., asked Whalen for his views on hydroponic production being considered organic, he said there are “mixed feelings” in the industry, but that his farm is soil-based.

Jeremy Brown, a cotton farmer in Dawson County, Texas, emphasized that he is both a conventional and organic farmer. Brown said he farms close to 4,000 acres of cotton, wheat, rye, corn, grain sorghum and cover crops, with 1,100 of those acres in organic-based production.

He said he converted acreage to organic production because a Conservation Reserve Program contract expired and he saw a better market for organic cotton.

“It is critical that producers continue to have access to affordable, effective crop insurance products for organic crops,” he said, adding that safety net programs in the farm bill provide important support for both conventional and organic production on an equivalent basis.

“Probably one of the largest challenges I have as an organic producer is sourcing enough labor,” Brown said. The dry climate of West Texas helps with weed control, but “we spend a lot of time mechanically and manually controlling weeds, which takes more labor to do across 1,100 acres.”