Care and feeding of organic agriculture in the U.S.

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Why do farmers give up their organic certification? What prevents farmers from going organic? An article in The New Farm (from Rodale Press) explores the questions and offers many answers.

Researchers from the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) interviewed more than 70 farmers who use conventional or mixed methods, or who had given up their organic certification. Money is often the cause: directly, through the financial challenge of the transition period, the expense of certification, and the difficulty in finding customers; and indirectly, through the paucity of technical and bureaucratic support. As one farmer put it: “I could use some help navigating the transition…I’ve got one field close to being certifiable, but where do I go? It feels like you’re out there on your own.”

The full article provides more details and perspectives from the interviewed farmers, including some interesting findings about how farmers who grow organically for philosophical reasons are more likely to stick with it than those who saw organic farming as a potentially bigger revenue stream. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t include any discussion with farmers who have given up organic certification because they think the standards are too weak, like the Knolls of Brentwood, California (profiled in Edible East Bay). Their perspective is especially important as giant companies launch attacks on the integrity of the Certified Organic label.

Back to the question of money. The USDA spent approximately $44.1 billion in fiscal year 2006 on food programs aside from its food stamp and anti-hunger campaigns. (Source: Figure 1 of Congressional Research Service Report RL33037, “Previewing a 2007 Farm Bill.” More USDA budget numbers here.)

But almost none of that goes to organic farming. There are a few research, assistance, and market development programs, to be sure, but the funding is minuscule compared to the commodity programs.

Some examples:

• The USDA has a cost-sharing program for farmers seeking USDA organic certification. In fiscal year 2006, $1 million was allocated (source: USDA press release), with a limit of $500 per farmer. To put things in perspective, $1 million is what U.S. taxpayers spend for just two hours’ worth of corn subsidies, or three hours’ worth of cotton subsidies. (Subsidy figures are averages from fiscal year 2002 to the estimate for fiscal year 2007, shown in Table 1 of Previewing a 2007 Farm Bill: $4.432 billion for corn, $2.999 billion for cotton.)

• USDA offers some organic-farming research, education, and extension, but the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) argues that organic farming is being shortchanged. The market share for organic foods is about 3 percent and growing rapidly. However, only 0.6 percent of USDA research, education, and extension funds, are devoted to organic projects (about $12 million). Assuming growth in the organic market, the OFRF suggests that research, education and extension funding should be $60 million in fiscal year 2008, ramping up to about $200 million in FY 2012, when it is time for the next Farm Bill. Those sound like big numbers, but bear in mind they amount to about 5 days’ and 16 days’ worth of corn subsidy funding, respectively.

The Farmers Market Promotion Program received an appropriation of $1 million in FY2006. Again, two hours of corn subsidies, or three hours of cotton subsidies.

Although funding for research or market-access programs can be increased by Congress during the normal appropriations cycle, the Farm Bill debate might be a better time to lock in a more favorable funding plan. One reason is that commodity programs are reevaluated during the Farm Bill process. Money is tight this year, but the above programs are like a fly in a feedlot. A small amount of commodity subsidy funding shifted into organic research could make a huge difference for organic farming in this nation (and throughout the world, as the research results are published). Another reason is that a lot of wheeling and dealing will be happening, so representatives of districts that value organic farming (even urban districts like Speaker Pelosi’s San Francisco or Rep. Lee’s Berkeley and Oakland) might be able to gain some “funding crumbs” in exchange for their support of something in Iowa.

Whatever the case, now is the time to tell your representative and senators that you want a new kind of Farm Bill, one that makes conservation, organic farming, and real food a priority. If you need to know more, watch the upcoming webcast of tonight’s Farm Bill Teach-In at UC Berkeley, moderated by Michael Pollan, which will be posted here.

Photo credit: Dairy Queen took this picture last fall of an explanatory article Knoll Farms had posted at its Ferry Plaza stall.

2 Responsesto “Care and feeding of organic agriculture in the U.S.”

  1. brad says:

    Much of this boils down to demand: the market share of organic produce is currently 3 percent, which is equivalent to the market share for Apple’s computers. When you look at the amount of money spent on development of new software for Windows machines versus the Mac, the picture looks simmilar. Ultimately the barrier has to do with money: unfortunately we’re all taught (mainly by our parents) to shop for the best prices, and organic produce is usually more expensive at the market. We’re not taught the difference between price and cost, nor are we taught to think about externalities. Some people buy organic because they think it’s healthier, others (like me) buy it for environmental reasons, but until the market share for organic starts climbing well into the double digits it’s just not going to get much attention from USDA.

  2. MEJ says:

    Bummer. The link to the article seems to be defunct.