Increased research, consumer education & land access top organic industry’s wish list for Farm Bill
Other top priorities necessary for helping to bring organic production better in line with increasing consumer demand are funding for increased public education, access to land programs, consistent application of organic standards and transparency into the benefits for farmers, stakeholders said at the USDA Agriculture Outlook Forum in Washington, DC, Feb. 23-24.
“Organic is one of the fastest and most consistently growing sectors of American agriculture. Organic plays and increasingly important role in the US economy. The market for organic is experiencing double digit growth and the number of organic producers and number of certified bakers continue to grow across the country,” said Brise Tencer, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
And yet, she noted, a significant portion of the demand for organic must be met with imported products because not enough farmers in the US use organic techniques.
To help encourage more farmers to transition to organic production, Tencer said the US must invest more in ways to improve production.
“Strong investment in research is the underpinning of growth in many sectors and farmers – conventional, organic or otherwise – need cutting edge research that is relevant to their farming systems to be successful,” she said, adding that up until now the organic industry has thrived with relatively little investment in research education or communication.
She adds that now is the time to change this, noting: “We are coming to the reauthorization of the Farm Bill and we are very optimistic that the value of investing in research opportunities to support innovation in economic opportunities for our nation’s farmers will be prioritized.”
In particular, research needs to be focused on better production strategies, including how to improve soil health, which 74% of the more than 1,000 producers surveyed by The Organic Farming Research Foundation said was a high priority. Likewise, addressing weed management challenges was listed as a top priority for 67% of respondents and 64% said they wanted to see more research on seed availability and breeding of cultivars, Tencer said.
Livestock health, especially in carefully controlled livestock breeding, is another area in desperate need of research funding, Tencer added. She noted that there has been relatively little public funding for organic meat, pork, turkey and poultry among other select crops.
A separate survey of more than 500 organic farms and facilities across the country conducted by the Organic Trade Association also echoed the need for more research funding, said Nate Lewis, farm policy director with the Organic Trade Association.
Strategies to reinforce organic’s premium
OTA’s survey also revealed a deep need for policy action that supports public education about the benefits of organic, including what organic means and what the standards entail – a pivotal component for protecting the current premium price that organic currently demands, Lewis said at the conference.
Also necessary to protect organic’s premium price is increased consistency by the National Organic Program in application of organic standards, Lewis said. “This really underscores the need to keep the funding for the national organic program in place in the Farm Bill. Without a National Organic Program, we would not have the consistency and same level of oversight and enforcement that drives the industry forward and keeps consumer confidence high,” he explained.
Providing opportunities to farmers with organic
Finally, he said, regulators must keep their eye on the high import of organic products, which “are a serious concern for producers.”
He explained: “They see it as a missed opportunity. The US is a corn and bean exporting country. Why are we importing our organic corn, when we know it is not just only probably for the farmers, but good for rural economy to go organic?”
He also noted land access is a serious hurdle to more organic development in the US and young farmers in particular. He encourages policy makers to consider increasing land programs for young and beginning farmers who don’t have family land on which to move and start farming.
Concluding, he noted, “There is always somewhere to go in organic” if the right tools are available.