Farm bill organic funds face budget challenge


Issue Date: March 16, 2011
By Christine Souza
Chris Matthews of Garroutte Farms in Watsonville stands in a field of triticale, planted adjacent to organic raspberries to benefit soil and reduce erosion. Matthews says a federal cost-share program helped fund the triticale planting.
Photo/Christine Souza
Garroutte Farms manager Chris Matthews checks an organic raspberry crop. A riparian area planted with federal conservation funding maintains a border between the berries and a nearby ditch, and helps control erosion.
Photo/Christine Souza

As lawmakers in Washington debate where federal spending cuts will be made and to what extent, people in organic agricultural circles are wondering what this could mean for organic programs. For the first time, organic agriculture and specialty crops were singled out as being worthy of support under a new title of the 2008 Farm Bill, giving those commodities greater stature within the nation's farm policy.

"Although we gained a lot through the new title, none of it was mandated funding. So the programs are all under huge potential of being cut," said Claudia Reid, policy director for California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies nearly 80 percent of the state's organic crop acreage. "We will advocate to keep the programs in place during this current budget year and not to cut them, and we will advocate keeping them and/or increasing them in 2012."

In addition to the Horticulture and Organic Agriculture Title, organic provisions were included in the conservation, trade, credit, research and crop insurance titles of the farm bill. Most of the mandatory funds were allocated to the two existing organic programs: the organic research program and the cost-share assistance program to help growers and handlers with organic certification costs.

Although the Obama administration asked for an increase of $3 million in 2012 for the National Organic Program—which would bring the total to almost $10 million—the existing funding is proposed to be cut under the continuing budget resolution now before Congress, said Elisa Noble, California Farm Bureau Federation director of natural resources and public lands.

"Virtually no program is safe in this new era of budget cuts. As a general farm organization that represents farmers and ranchers of every commodity and every type and system of production, it is a challenge to protect all the programs that benefit our members," Noble said. "It will be a fight to maintain funding for many programs, including organic programs, throughout the budget process."

As the farm manager for Garroutte Farms in Watsonville, a grower of about 400 acres of organic and conventional berries, Chris Matthews said he would like the federal government to maintain the current level of funding for organic programs, if possible.

"There's a lot of pressure to cut where we can as it pertains to the federal budget and make the most use of the money that we have," said Matthews, whose employer has taken part in conservation and organic cost-share programs authorized by the farm bill. "I think it would be prudent to keep (organic) funding where it is at currently. Increasing it might be seen as a bit much, given the budgetary concerns."

Garroutte Farms has used farm bill funds for conservation improvements over the years, Matthews said, including planting five acres of triticale to increase carbon and add nutrients to the soil. He has also planted cover crops between rows of berries. Before the farm was certified as organic, conservation funds were used to enhance a riparian area to control erosion.

"It shouldn't matter if you are organic or conventional, I think just promoting some of these conservation practices is a good idea," Matthews said.

Garroutte Farms was recently reimbursed for about half of its organic certification fees through the new Organic Certification Cost Share Program. The program is popular among small organic growers because it reimburses farmers up to $750 of their certification fees and is simple to use.

"Organic certification fees usually cost us around $800, so reimbursement of the fees is great because every little bit helps," Matthews said.

Fellow organic grower Tom Broz of Live Earth Farm in Watsonville said that he has not taken advantage of any farm bill-related programs, but would like to apply in the future. Broz is working with his local office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, to identify projects for which he could qualify for funding. He runs a farm of about 100 acres that serves about 800 families as part of a community-supported agriculture program.

The key to whether or not funding will be available in the future, Reid said, is based on enrollment numbers.

"Part of the way these programs get scrutinized by the Office of Management and Budget for cutting is if not enough people enroll in them," Reid said. "California is at 82 percent enrollment, which is really good. We probably have 3,500 organic 'producers' in California, which also includes handlers and processors. Close to 2,000 of them are actual farmers, so those are the people that qualify for these funds."

California has high enrollment in the certification cost-share program, Reid said. In 2010, the California Department and Food and Agriculture distributed $881,805 in federal funds to 1,299 individuals to assist with organic certification fees.

"Almost every one of our operators—big, small and everybody in between—signs up for this because it is really simple," Reid said.

A new program that had not been funded before is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organics Transition, which provides assistance to farmers who are certified organic or transitioning to organic production and would like to make conservation improvements.

Anita Brown, NRCS California public affairs director, said she has seen an increase in the number of organic growers using programs authorized by the farm bill.

"We have seen a lot more organic growers come through the doors in the last two years since there is this special program that is designed specifically for them and for those who are transitioning," Brown said. "But what we're finding is an awful lot of the organic people are signing up under the regular EQIP."

Through the regular EQIP program, any farmer can qualify for up to $300,000 during the term of the farm bill, whereas under the organic version, they are limited to $20,000 a year or a maximum of $80,000 during the term of the farm bill.

"Conservation is a big portion of what is offered under the organic title under the farm bill, because the organic rule requires continuous improvement of your natural resources or biodiversity base," Reid said. "You can get federal grant money, which is a matching grant, and do wonderful things on the ground, not only for keeping your certification in place but for taking care of the land."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.