ANKENY, Iowa (DTN) -- Details of USDA's new $300 million Organic Transition Initiative, funded in part by the American Rescue Plan, were revealed Monday. The program provides opportunities for new and beginning farmers to transition to organic production to boost income potential and expand direct consumer access to organic foods.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the initiative during a webinar. He was joined by Jenny Moffitt, undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, and Maryland farmer Ann Sutton (referred to as Farmer Gale during the event), who each provided additional insights about the program and the organic certification process. Farmer Gale is nearing the end of her certification journey.
Since 2008, the number of noncertified organic farms actively transitioning to organic production dropped by nearly 71%, according to the USDA. The department is hoping to reverse this trend.
"When the President (Biden) asked us to focus the department of agriculture's work on a variety of opportunities to build and strengthen the middle class from the bottom up and the middle out, it led us to believe the need for more new and better markets," Vilsack said. "I obviously think, first and foremost, about the organic opportunity, which is a higher value proposition for producers.
"We know, from listening to folks on the ground, that we need more organic producers," he continued. "We know that we need more market opportunities for those producers."
USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will assist farmers transitioning to organic production. USDA will invest $100 million in each of the following three initiative components:
-- A new wraparound technical assistance effort, which includes a mentoring programs and online resource assistance.
-- Financial support for conservation and risk management to help defray organic transition costs. This includes conservation planning, reduced costs associated with certification and lower crop insurance premiums.
-- Establish and strengthen supply chains between producers and markets, which includes processing food and distribution.
"We're excited about this opportunity," Vilsack said. "We're excited about the chance that it gives young farmers and beginning farmers to take full advantage of a high value proposition. And, we're really excited about the climate benefits that accrue as a result of organic production."
Farmer Gale, owner of Deep Roots Farm near Upper Marlboro, Maryland, expressed appreciation for government support to grow organic agriculture.
She knows first-hand how tough starting an organic farm can be. Farmer Gale, utilizing available USDA programs, purchased about 53 acres in 2020. The former tobacco farm was void of infrastructure such as electricity, running water and buildings needed to raise food and livestock. Soil health needed to be improved as well. Farmer Gale invested more than $800,000 so far to get the operation up and running.
Today, she successfully sells a variety of vegetables, fruit, herbs and poultry products (eggs and meat) at local farmers markets and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), where customers buy shares of the farm's harvest in advance.
"By the end of this season, we will be completing our third year (of farming organically) on the land and we can then submit our application for a certification," Farmer Gale said. "We will be provided additional support from our local USDA folks here with that process. I'm anxiously looking forward to it and excited about this opportunity and the funding that's been allocated for the program."
To learn more about Deep Roots Farm, go to https://deeprootsfarm.us/….
TRANSITION TO ORGANIC PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM
AMS plans to develop partnership networks in six regions across the United States that will connect transitioning farmers with paid mentoring networks that offer practical insights and advice. Each regional team will provide community building, including train-the-mentor support, technical assistance, workshops and field days covering topics such as organic production practices, certification, conservation planning, business development, regulations and marketing to support transitioning and recently transitioned producers.
During Monday's announcement, Vilsack said they will establish a reduced cost for certification, noting the cost and expenses involved in a transition process can be difficult for those who are not able to benefit from the value proposition until they are certified.
Farmer Gale said NRCS programs have already helped her establish a conservation plan, plant cover crops to build soil health and qualify for funding to install fencing for livestock. The new USDA organic initiative will continue to assist her and other farmers.
"I can't say enough about the work that folks at NRCS and USDA have done to help me with my vision for getting this property to the condition that it's in now," she continued. "Turning this into a space where we can really produce a substantial amount of produce, vegetables, eggs, and whatever else we can here for the community."
DIRECT FARMER ASSISTANCE
NRCS plans to develop a new Organic Management Conservation Practice Standard and offer financial and technical assistance to producers who implement this practice. Payments will be modeled on those already available, meeting the existing nutrient and pest management conservation practice standards. The $75 million investment from USDA will include organic expertise throughout its regional technology support centers. Experts will train staff to provide direct services to USDA customers including hands-on organic training for state and field NRCS staff and fielding organic-related staff questions.
Farmer Gale said she's benefited from advice from veteran farmers and she intends to give back by being a mentor to new farmers in the future, which is part of the new initiative. "It's been very helpful having that support of folks that are in the same position as you are. They understand ... the challenges that you're facing."
USDA is also providing $25 million to RMA for the new Transitional and Organic Grower Assistance Program (TOGA) which will support transitioning and certified organic producers' participation in crop insurance.
MARKET DEVELOPMENT SUPPORT
Specific organic markets have market development risks due to inadequate organic processing capacity and infrastructure, a lack of certainty about market access and insufficient supply of certain organic ingredients. Because of this, USDA announced the final $100 million in fund availability will aim to improve organic supply chains in pinpointed markets.
AMS will focus on key organic markets where the need for domestic supply is high, or where additional processing and distribution capacity is needed for supply chains such as organic grain and feed, legumes and other edible rotational crops, livestock and dairy. The department will seek input on these pinpointed initiatives beginning in September and those specific policy initiatives will be announced later this year.
"As we look at this program going forward, we're really excited for the opportunity to partner with farmers across the country who are transitioning to organic and accessing more new and better markets," Moffitt said.
Matthew Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @progressivwilde
Susan Payne can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @jpusan
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