“Like being thrown under the bus” was how organic farmers and others in the industry described their fate a little more than a year ago when Congress failed to agree on a new farm bill and instead extended the 2008 version. Gone were some previously funded programs — among them research, marketing, certification cost-share and data-collection programs — that organic farmers said had helped them be more productive and better at marketing their goods.

But, with recent passage of the 2014 farm bill (officially called the “Agricultural Act of 2014“), which President Obama signed into law on Feb. 7, it’s a totally different story. Now, instead of being “under the bus,” organic farmers and others in the industry are sitting on the bus. Funding for the previously lost programs has been reestablished, and, in some cases, increased. And other programs have been added.

Welcoming them onto the bus is none other than USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who made it a point to tip his hat to the impressive growth the industry has been enjoying — and happy to say that the 2014 farm bill will help the industry continue to grow.

“Consumer demand for organic products has grown exponentially over the past decade,” he said in a March 20 press release, pointing out that, with retail sales valued at $35 billion last year, the organic industry represents a tremendous economic opportunity for farmers, ranchers and rural communities.

Vilsack also said that the industry is growing at a record pace as more than 25,000 certified organic operations in 120 countries registered with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Also, according to USDA, the industry now encompasses a record-breaking 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses in the U.S. alone. This represents an astounding 245-percent increase since 2002.

The industry has also entered into important trade agreements with major players such as Japan, Canada and Europe. As of Jan. 1, 2014, Japan and the U.S. agreed to recognize each other’s organic standards, thus opening up even more trade opportunities with Asia’s largest market. The combined market for organic goods in both countries adds up to more than $36 billion and is rising each year.

Looking to the future, Vilsack said that new support in the 2014 farm bill will enhance USDA’s efforts to help producers and small business tap into demand and support organic agriculture as it continues to grow and thrive.

Welcome words, indeed, to the nation’s organic farmers, who not that long ago were ridiculed as “gardeners,” not farmers.

Or, as Barbara Haumann, senior science writer-editor for the Organic Trade Association, put it in when commenting on how well the industry had fared in the new farm bill: “A refreshing twist to a tortuous journey that has resulted in historic wins and promise for organic.”

Reaction from the front lines

In an interview with Food Safety News, Diane Dempster, organic specialist for Charlie’s Produce, a wholesale distributor in the Puget Sound area, echoed Vilsack’s comments about the impressive growth the industry is seeing.

“Before, only natural food co-ops carried organic food,” she said, “but now all of the grocery stores — even the little mom-and-pop stores — do. They’re all featuring it.”

As for demand, Dempster said that everyone is interested in carrying it — grocery stores, restaurants and institutions.  “It used to be a fad,” she said, “but now it’s mainstream. And it just keeps growing. I don’t see that changing.”

Pointing out that there are now a lot more organic products to choose from — packaged salad greens, for example — Dempster said growers have adapted to meet what consumers want. She also compared how the industry has changed to how the world has changed.

“People are interested in health,” she said. “They want to know where their food is coming from, who’s growing it, and that it’s safe. And they’re willing to pay more for it.”

On a more sober note, grower Bill Nunes of Contented Acres Produce in Gustine, CA, repeated what some people in the industry have said when comparing the “peanuts” the organic sector gets to what conventional agriculture is receiving.

“It’s good, no doubt, that there’s more money for organics,” Nunes said, “but we’re still the stepchild of U.S. agriculture.”

And while he said that he’s pleased universities are doing research for organic agriculture, he also said that funding has always been “very lopsided” when comparing research done for “farmers using chemicals” with research done for organic farmers.

Being a realist, Nunes said he knows there’s far more profit involved in selling chemicals to farmers than in selling products to organic growers. Nevertheless, he said it’s good news there’s more money for research and funding for organics in the 2014 farm bill.

But he’s adamant about the danger of price supports, saying that they often lead to programs “that don’t go away.”

An extensive good-news menu

In throwing some welcome support to organics, USDA is helping organic stakeholders access programs that support conservation, provide access to loans and grants, fund organic research and education and mitigate pest emergencies.

Funds are currently available for research projects under the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. These projects will be directed to solving critical organic agricultural issues, priorities or problems. The program also funds research projects to help organic producers and processors  grow and market their products.

The 2014 farm bill includes these provisions to help support the organic community:

  • $20 million annually for dedicated organic research, agricultural extension programs and education. (The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network. Every U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices staffed by experts who provide useful, practical and research-based information.)
  • $5 million to fund data collection on organic agriculture that will give policymakers, organic farmers and organic businesses data needed to make sound policy, business, growing and marketing decisions.

Organic Trade Association’s Haumann told Food Safety News in a previous interview that the Organic Production and Marketing Data Initiative has been a “wonderful help” for organic farmers and businesses because it helps keep track of what organic crops or livestock are being raised and where and what their costs are. In doing that, it helps producers and buyers make business decisions across the board, and it also helps encourage investors when they see how much organics is growing.

  • Expanded options for organic crop insurance to protect farmers. This will include the ability to seek compensation based on the price of organic crops instead of on the price of conventional crops, which are often lower than organic crops. By expanding “organic price elections,” crop insurance is expected to be more attractive to organic producers without contract prices.
  • Expanded exemptions for organic producers who are paying into commodity “check-off” programs. In the past, organic growers have often had to pay what are called “commodity assessment fees” for these check-off programs, which are designed to help market and promote specific crops. However, sometimes these fees didn’t go toward organic research or promotion. Congress has now clarified that all certified organic production is exempt from these fees. In addition, it has authorized a potential organic commodity promotion order, which would enable industry-funded organic research and promotion.
  • Improved enforcement authority for the National Organic Program to conduct investigations. This is important to assure consumers that the products bearing USDA’s organic seal have met the standards set forth by USDA.
  • $5 million for a technology upgrade of the National Organic Program to provide up-to-date information about certified organic operations across the supply chain.
  • $11.5 million annually for certification cost-share assistance, which reimburses the costs of annual certification for organic farmers and livestock producers by covering 75 percent of certification costs – up to $750 per year. According to a blog on the California Certified Organic Farmers site, this is a definite “win” for organic growers and processors because it helps them with the expense of organic certification. In 2013, only $1.425 million in cost-share funds were available to farmers in 16 states. The new farm bill reinstates the program to farmers and handlers in all states, for a total of $11.5 million per year. An additional $1.5 million is available for organic certification cost-share to farmers through the Agriculture Management Assistance (AMA) program. AMA is available in 16 states where participation in the Federal Crop Insurance Program is low: Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Additional information about USDA resources and support for the organic sector is available here.

What about food safety?

Although food safety is generally thought of as keeping food free of dangerous pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria, organic farmers and consumers view food safety from an additional perspective. For food to be safe for them, it  must also be free from pesticide residues and genetically modified organisms and cannot be raised using synthetic chemicals, compost that contains pathogens, or sewage sludge. Or, in the case of meat, poultry and fish, the animals or fish can’t be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.

These are just some of the standards organic producers must meet to qualify for certification under USDA’s National Organic Program, which allows them to sell their products bearing the agency’s official organic seal. That seal gives them an important boost in the marketplace, where some consumers are more than happy to pay higher prices for food that has been organically raised.

In an earlier interview, Lisa Bunin, organic policy director for the Center for Food Safety, told Food Safety News that organically grown food is the only food that is legally mandated to safeguard natural resources such as the soil and water, human health, animal welfare and the environment.

As an example of that, a legal guide by the National Agricultural Law Center about the USDA National Organic Program points out that the legislation specifically states that plant and animal materials must be managed by the producer “to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.”