“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.”

  • Sadly, the lion’s share of the “research” in organic agriculture boils down to negative marketing against conventional farming, specifically the new and promising science of genetic engineering. Why should taxpayers be forced to pay for that? Let the anti-GMO organic activists pay for their own propaganda.
    Also be sure to take note that there is NO MONEY in the Farm Bill for organic field testing. Record-keeping and record-checking will continue to be used instead.
    With over 40% of the certified-organic food sold in America containing prohibited pesticide residue, there’s good reason to start testing organic crops to ensure they’re genuine.
    Crops should also be tested to ensure improperly-composted manure doesn’t make its way into the premium-priced organic food chain. But there’s no money for that either.

    • Michael Bulger

      Mischa, I’m sure we are all interested in whether you have any data to support your claims. However, I’m not expecting you to be able to back up any of your theories with actual figures.

      “Lion’s share of.. reasearch”?

      • See above please. All backed up by the USDA.

        • Michael Bulger

          Please, see above. All contradicted by current events and a better reading of your USDA report.

    • pawpaw

      Interesting comments. Could you please cite a primary reference for your claim, that >40% of certified organic food contains pesticide residue?
      Also, a primary reference that the organic “research” is mostly negative marketing?
      I attended a conference last week recruiting organic growers, for regional variety trials. Nothing was mentioned about negative marketing as part of this funded, organic research.

      • See above.

      • detroit58

        P, what you are seeing is the drumbeat of the Disqus-posting-negative-marketing campaign.

    • Sorry for ranting

      I am not sure where you got the 40% figure but i would really like to know please??

      Organic produce may actually expose us to less pesticides, but thats not what I have seen in the real world and no one test to prove wrong, including the USDA, FDA and EPA.

      According to 2012 USDA pesticide data report the only two commodities that have pesticides on them are cherry tomatoes and snap peas and none of the residues on any commodities were over MRL for thousands of samples… such a bullshit report its not even funny…

      I am being sarcastic, but an overwhelming amount of positives were found on those two commodities compared to the rest which is astounding. WHY DIDNT THEY TEST ANY BERRIES??? I know why, try 10 positives on one sample not pretty data. No grapes? No citrus other then tangerines??? who the fuck eats banana squash on a daily basis

      Why do companies only test when exporting? Because that is the only time they stand a high chance of their product being tested and if over MRL destroyed resulting in the loss of millions of dollars.

      That risk is not there for domestically grown and sold produce. It is VERY VERY VERY rare that the FDA or USDA will pull a sample from a shopping market for pesticide residue analysis. In california the CDPR is a bit more proactive.

      If its staying in the U.S. they do not test. Its truly sad, american companies dont and wont spend LESS then pennies on the dollar to ensure their food doesnt have excessive or unapproved residues on them.

      This shows that money drives food safety, if there was no risk of losing your product or being sued companies would not test period. I dont blame them but dont bitch when there is new regulations…, this is capitalism nobody’s going to spend money unless you have to, even if lives/health are at risk. This is why they make regulations, then the industry complains about regulations without acknowledging that industry’s blatant ignorance to human health is the reason why they had to make new regulations.

      • Source: USDA’s 2010–2011 pilot study on organic pesticide


        Only 57% of 571 samples had no detected pesticide residue.

        • detroit58

          21 of 327 were not in compliance. The complete section:

          In the pilot study, 327 samples (57.3 percent) had no detectable levels of pesticide residue and 244 samples (42.7 percent) had detectable pesticide levels. Of the 244 samples with detectable pesticide levels, 21 samples had values that were greater than 5 percent of EPA tolerance levels and in violation of the USDA organic regulations. The values of the other 223 samples with detectable residues were less than 5 percent of the EPA tolerance level. This outcome was consistent with the results from previous studies and reviews.

        • Michael Bulger

          Reviews of multiple studies found 7% percent of organic produce had detectable levels of pesticide residues. That meant a 30% lower risk of pesticide residue when compared to conventionally grown produce.


          In any case, the pilot study you cite prompted USDA to finalize a rule requiring certifying agents to test for pesticide residues. So in addition to obscuring the fact that pesticide residue above EPA-allowed levels is rare in organic produce, you’ve seemed to be at a loss when it comes to current requirements.


          Additional reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/08/us/study-finds-far-less-pesticide-residue-on-organic-produce.html

  • Michael Bulger

    Rob, there are plenty of studies showing organic agriculture can result in lower agricultural pollution, fewer pesticide residues, benefits to soil, and increased biodiversity.

    Try searching Google Scholar. I’m sure you’ll be amazed.

    • Sadly, as long as the organic industry continues to rely on mere record-keeping and record-checking as opposed to testing organic crops and livestock in the field, no one should be surprised to hear that choosing organic provides no guarantee of reducing pollution or decreasing pesticide use
      As for increasing biodiversity, you will be surprised to learn that most organic farmers (my guess would be 98%) practice mono-cropping.

      • Michael Bulger

        Certifying agents don’t rely solely on record-checking, and testing is conducted. Scroll down to “How Do I Become Certified” and read about required on-site inspections: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPFAQsHowCertified

        In any case, I know many organic farmers and none mono-crop. Your “guess” is contradicted by the research. Here is but two examples:


        You’ve been at this for quite a while Mischa, but it always amazes me how easily your proven wrong by simple Google searches… not to mention real life experiences.

        • Organic Smoke Screen

          Dude, they do rely on one, thats 1, o-n-e test per year for certification purposes. Do you understand that michael? That means your beloved organic produces test ONCE, ONE TIME a year. Thats one time.

          You have an awful lot of blissfully ignorant faith to think that for the rest of the year for every organic farmer in the U.S., that they will make absolutely no mistakes when: a.) cleaning tanks b.)mixing the correct formulation c.) using chemicals that are not on the NOP banned list.

          Not to mention no one ever applies one pesticide at a time. Its called a formulation, this coupled with the geographic/climatic conditions you are working in cause great variability in PHI.

          Organic farming is great I am all for it, the standards growers must meet are adequte make agriculture more sustainable in certain aspects, but HOW DO YOU KNOW ITS ORGANIC WHEN THEY TEST ONCE A YEAR?

          Ill tell you this Mr. Bulger, buy some organic produce from whole foods, save up $300 bucks, send it to your favorite lab (primus, ema, siliker, eurofins, abc, agq, medallion, amresco, to name a few here in the U.S.) and let us know how organic that is in real life.

  • susanrudnicki

    The reason you “don’t understand” is because you are narrowly focused on the aspect of “benefit” as it relates to your personal ingestion of food. Farming has a huge impact on soil microbiology, pollution of air, surface waters, and soils, and ecological biodiversity. The self-absorbed view of “what does it mean to me” discounts the ecosystem services provided by a wider world, of which we are simply one more cog in the wheel. Organic farming is concerned with the poisoning of these resources by the methods of conventional agriculture and has a strong interest in building them up, not tearing them down. You need a course of self-education in these subjects to “understand” fully

  • Organic food costs more because yields are a lot lower. This would be fine as long as those yields were purer and more nutritious as advertised. Sadly, as you can see from the USDA’s 2010 – 2011 Pilot Study Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce, we are a country mile away from getting what the organic industry promises.
    The only way to get there is to begin across-the-board field testing to ensure organic food is safe and genuine. Replace all the paperwork with a once-annual test.
    Tell me Dr. Rob Stuart… were you aware that organic crops and livestock are not currently being tested to ensure they’re genuine and safe? A bit of a shocker, eh?

  • flutterby

    Thank you, Food Safety News, for a great description of the Cooperative Extension network and what we do. I think the discussion of this article is very interesting, but some of you are missing some points…. the argument about pesticide residues seems to be based in the myth that organic produce is supposed to be pesticide free. In fact, there are a wide variety of OMRI approved pesticides available to growers. They are deemed to be safer for the environment, and, in many cases, are more expensive and less effective than their conventional counterparts, one of the factors that leads to the higher cost of organic produce. Some of you are arguing about perceived benefits of organic. Does it matter? There is incredible consumer demand for organic- and those people are not all seeking organic for the same reasons. There are numerous products, including agricultural ones, in our marketplace with questionable benefit, and questionable regulation. That’s the world we live in. Finally, there is plenty of research in organic agriculture looking at yields, pest management strategies, cover cropping and weed control, just to name a few. There is also a lot of negative marketing against conventional- but that is not research. It’s marketing.

  • Wake up USA

    Not matter what all your usda fda studies show about organic produce, the fact remains, most companies do not test for pesticides except for when they need to get their certification… So thats 1 residue test per year…. The rest of the year? paperwork.

    Lets get real. If you dont test your produce you DO NOT KNOW what is on it. Its that simple, no study is going to tell you that your product is safe just because some skewed statistics on residue concentrations. No PHI is going to guarantee you your residues are within MRL…

    The fact that FSMA makes no mention of improving residue food safety is just plan irresponsible.

  • organic…

    fair enough, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and i more or less agree with you.

    I just think its ridiculous how little testing is done outside of these studies done. Studies are nice, but i prefer to know for sure that my produce whether it be organic or conventional doesnt have harmful residues on it, the only way is for producers to test their product.

    My beef is at least with conventional there is no claim that it has less/no pesticides on it. Organic makes that claim and alot of times its false advertising and borderline food fraud. If you want that title i feel like you should have to ensure to consumers that it actually is organic through testing verification.

    • Michael Bulger

      I see your point, and I think that’s fair enough. I agree that more testing would be better.

  • The New Farm Bill will have a long way to go.