This Farm Bill Must Go Big on the Health of the Planet

June 1, 2023

The Senate and House Agriculture Committees of Congress are well into discussions on the 2023 Farm Bill, the country’s enormous spending package that strives to secure our nation’s food supply, support our farmers, and protect the natural resources on which our food and agriculture systems depend. It’s difficult to comprehend the scope and size of the Farm Bill coffers, but we know that a very small portion of the possible five-year baseline funding will have enormous paybacks and help transform U.S. farms to more organic, more local agriculture. Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz infamously advised farmers in the early 1970s to “get big or get out,” which led to corporatization of agriculture and the demise of small, local farms. Attitudes are evolving in Washington, D.C., and we are excited about USDA’s emphasis on helping U.S. farmers transition to organic production — committing up to $100 million over the next five years in technical support. Now is the time for Congress to “get big” on organic agriculture with expanded Farm Bill funding.

Not surprisingly, the price tag on the Farm Bill has prompted lively partisan debate, which may delay adoption of the bill’s next iteration. The current Farm Bill, which expires in September, was projected to spend roughly $428 billion over five years. The most recent estimates from the Congressional Budget Office indicate that the next Farm Bill may expand by as much as two-thirds, reaching an estimated $709 billion in public spending for fiscal years 2024 through 2028. The vast majority of the funding (just under 85%) would support food security for families with limited income, while 6.8% would provide crop insurance for farmers, 4% would go toward conservation practices, 4% would bolster commodities production, and less than 1% would go to programs related to trade, horticulture, research, energy and a handful of other initiatives. Most of the funding that supports organic agriculture, including the National Organic Program (NOP), lives in the Farm Bill’s Horticulture Title, which also supports farmers’ markets, local food programs, and some research and infrastructure for fruits, vegetables and other horticultural crops.

If the Farm Bill is to achieve its purpose of shoring up vibrant food, farm and anti-hunger programs for the nation, it must prioritize agriculture in harmony with nature. It must elevate organic management practices. We know that modern industrialized agriculture has an enormous impact on our climate; has contributed to the loss of countless species of flora and fauna; and has contaminated our water, air and soil sometimes beyond repair — as we’ve experienced all too painfully here in Maine with farmland contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

As a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), MOFGA is urging Congress to recognize the growth of the organic sector, which now represents $63 billion in sales, and the growing demand for organic produce, which far outpaces supply. Expanding funding for organic programs will benefit the health of our people, our environment and our farm economy.

Earlier this year, MOFGA participated in a Washington, D.C., fly-in with NOC, and met with each of Maine’s members of Congress to discuss the Farm Bill and specific focus areas of legislation called “marker bills” that are inserted into the larger Farm Bill. Maine is fortunate to have strong leadership on agriculture and appropriations, with Sen. Susan Collins serving as Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree serving on the House Committee on Appropriations as well as the House Committee on Agriculture. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Angus King and Congressman Jared Golden, have been supportive of funding for organic programs in the Farm Bill and are also working hard to pass the marker bill entitled Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act, which emulates Maine’s own PFAS Emergency Relief Fund for farmers. The top Farm Bill priorities and marker bills that we’re asking Congress to advance in the next Farm Bill are:

  • Opportunities in Organic, which will restore and improve the organic cost share program, and establish a suite of flexible, easy-to-access tools to reduce barriers to organic agriculture, prioritizing support for Black, Indigenous, people of color, and historically disadvantaged communities.
  • Strengthening Organic Integrity, which will hold USDA accountable for enforcing organic standards and addressing a backlog of recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board.
  • Emergency and long-term support for the organic dairy market, similar to what conventional dairy has received for many years.
  • Expanding Organic Research, which will ensure that research funding keeps pace with the growing organic sector and that organic farmers have the tools they need to address production, marketing, and environmental challenges.
  • Agriculture Resilience Act, which addresses climate change issues related to agriculture and elevates organic management practices.
  • Seeds and Breeds for the Future, which will fund development of regionally adapted cultivars and livestock.
  • Various marker bills to strengthen USDA’s conservation programs for organic farmers.
  • The Free to Grow Act, which reforms harmful, inherently racist laws relating to hemp production.
  • Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS, which will help farmers address PFAS contamination through testing, income replacement, remediation strategies and research.

The total fiscal impact of these programs is under development, but it’s safe to say that all of it is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall Farm Bill budget.

In addition to the every-five-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill, the appropriations committees in Congress review funding requests for programs annually. This is an opportunity to ensure that programs in the Farm Bill that don’t have guaranteed or permanent funding will still be available to the intended stakeholders. This year, NOC advocated for merely $150 million to support organic programs, requesting:

  • $26.4 million for the National Organic Program (NOP) to respond to the explosive growth in organic sales and the need for enhanced enforcement of organic standards.
  • $10 million for the Organic Transitions Programs, which will provide much needed research that benefits all farmers.
  • $1 million for the Organic Data Initiative, which will expand organic data collection efforts.
  • $60 million for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, a competitive grants and education program for farmers, ranchers, researchers and educators who are improving the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.
  • $35 million for organic research within USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which will begin to address the discrepancy in market share allocation of research dollars — if ARS were to invest 6% of its total research budget on organic, it would equate to over $120 million.
  • $15 million for the Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) Survey managed by the National Agricultural Statistics Survey, which will inform the challenges of land access for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and young farmers, including organic farmers.

Organic is a small but quickly growing and mighty sector of our country’s food and agriculture system, and it holds promise for achieving true sustainability. Organic farming is climate-smart; it is healthy for people and the environment; and it is the logical evolution for our agricultural economy. The expiration date on the current Farm Bill is approaching quickly and, given the August recess for members of Congress, finding agreement between the House and Senate versions will be a challenge. If Congress fails to come to an agreement in September, only the Farm Bill programs with baseline funding will continue, which means that many organic programs could be shelved until the Farm Bill is approved. MOFGA will be following developments in the Farm Bill negotiations and will post updates and opportunities for members to help pass the legislation so that organic farmers can have the financial and technical support they need to keep growing and putting the healthiest, fresh food on our tables.

This article, written by y Heather Spalding, MOFGA’s deputy director and senior policy director, was published in the summer 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, MOFGA’s quarterly publication.B

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