As the winter 2023-2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener goes to press, unprecedented geopolitical events are creating new and daunting challenges for our work to create a food system that is fair and healthy for everyone. The world’s food and agriculture systems show the effects of war, famine, industrial pollution, disease, weather disasters, and fraud in the organic marketplace. Armed conflicts rage around the globe. President Biden has requested $105 billion from Congress for military and humanitarian aid in war-torn Ukraine, Gaza and Israel, and for increased security at the southern U.S. border. Our U.S. House of Representatives is unable to respond as it goes on three weeks without a speaker. Passage of a 2023 Farm Bill appears extremely unlikely this year, leaving critical funding for organic agriculture, conservation and food security programs in doubt. Many Maine farms have weathered an extremely wet and challenging growing season. Though June, July and August were rainy and cool in Maine, NASA reports that the summer of 2023 was the hottest in the Northern hemisphere since record-keeping began in 1880. Maine strives to meet the goals of the State’s Climate Action Plan by transitioning to renewable energy systems but struggles with the impacts of massive solar energy arrays and power corridors on precious farmland and natural areas. Maine continues to address the pervasive threat of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination, while we learn that more farms and wells across the country have been contaminated beyond repair. The Wabanaki Alliance continues advocating for tribal sovereignty, while Governor Mills refuses to concede. Maine towns work to promote organic land-care policies, while the pesticides industry works to preempt local control. Farmers face escalating costs of production and scramble to find a sufficient workforce, while Maine labor laws exempt farmworkers from minimum wage and overtime, the right to organize, and other fair labor standards.
MOFGA remains committed to working on public policy initiatives that address climate change and support a healthy environment, a strong rural economy and a socially just, healthy society. The list of policy initiatives that we could embrace is endless, so we have to be careful not to spread ourselves too thin. We are excited to be adding a public policy organizer position to our staff and are grateful for our many coalition partners who share our belief that organic management practices are the future — logical and necessary.
The 2018 Farm Bill expired on September 30, 2023, also the date by which Congress needed to act to keep the federal government open. To avoid a shutdown, Congress passed a stopgap funding measure just before the deadline to keep federal employees working through November 17. Measures in the 2018 Farm Bill remain in place and the new deadline for action on the 2023 Farm Bill is December 31, 2023. By then, Congress must either adopt a new Farm Bill or, yet again, extend the 2018 Farm Bill for a few more months or even a year. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees want to wrap up work on the 2023 Farm Bill but, given the standstill in which the U.S. House of Representatives finds itself, it’s increasingly likely that action on the 2023 Farm Bill will not happen until well into 2024. MOFGA and the National Organic Coalition are advocating for many important measures in the 2023 Farm Bill. Here are some of the priority marker bills:
- Opportunities in Organic Act — This bill builds on the existing Organic Certification Cost Share Program and adds flexible funding to support organic transition and expansion, organic supply chain development, and technical assistance, with an emphasis on resources for producers and regions that haven’t received a fair share of public investments in agriculture. It would increase cost share reimbursements from $750 to $1,500 per operation per scope of production each year and provide ongoing funding to build on elements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Transition Initiative.
- Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Act — This legislation brings much needed transparency and predictability to the process for updating organic standards to ensure organic standards continuously evolve and improve. The bill would amend the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 to create a two-step process to update the organic standards in a timely manner, with stakeholder input and input from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the USDA’s existing advisory committee.
- Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research Act — This legislation would provide continued, critical investments into organic agriculture research and market analysis to increase resilience of U.S. agriculture, create economic opportunity for producers, and improve the ecological vitality of the landscape. It would support applied research projects and would require USDA and its Economic Research Service to give Congress and the agricultural industry better organic production and market data and authorize additional funds for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives.
- Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act — This promotes the development of ready-to-use regionally adapted seed varieties and animal breeds that meet the needs farmers face in their regions and unique growing conditions. This bill would provide farmers more tools to confront drought and varying growing conditions, and to have plant varieties better suited to their areas and organic growing systems. It also includes provisions championed by the Native Farm Bill Coalition to protect tribal seeds and promote collaboration with tribal colleges and universities.
- Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) — This comprehensive legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, sets a bold vision of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture by the year 2040. The ARA would create conservation payment limit equity for organic farmers (currently, the payment limits for organic producers are lower than the limits for the general pool of applicants).
- Justice for Black Farmers Act — This bill includes policies to end discrimination within the USDA, protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to encourage a new generation of Black farmers and restore the land base that has been lost, and implement systemic reforms to help small-scale farmers across the United States. It creates a USDA program where young adults can serve as on-farm apprentices on farms, including on organic farms.
- Relief for Farmers Hit With PFAS Act — Maine’s entire congressional delegation is advocating strongly for this bill, which would authorize grants for states to provide financial assistance to farmers dealing with contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). It would expand monitoring and testing, remediate PFAS contamination, fund critical research, and possibly even help farmers relocate. This bill signals an opportunity for the federal government to coordinate a response so that farmers across the country will have the support they need to address PFAS contamination.
- Organic Dairy Assistance, Investment, and Reporting Yields Act (O DAIRY ACT) — This bill would provide long-needed support for organic dairy producers. Similar to what conventional dairy has received for many years, the O DAIRY ACT would provide improved data collection, support to help cover dramatically increased input costs, and key investments in infrastructure.
- MOFGA opposes Farm Bill legislation that seeks to increase consolidation and corporate power in the food and agriculture system. We are concerned about recent attempts in Congress to overturn the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards. We also are pushing back against initiatives like carbon and biogas markets that prioritize short-term profit over long-term sustainability. We are specifically opposing the Agricultural Labeling Uniformity Act, and the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, both of which would preempt local Initiatives to promote safer alternatives to synthetic pesticides and other hazardous agrichemicals.
We are preparing for the second session of the 131st Legislature, which has a long list of carryover bills from the last session, as well as many new bill titles submitted to the Legislative Council. We will post details on the specific bills when they are available. MOFGA intends to advocate for the following issues in the Legislature in 2024:
- Increased Support For Dairy Farmers.
- Agricultural Workforce Development and Fair Labor Standards For Farmworkers.
- Responsible Siting of Energy Projects To Ensure Farmland Protection.
- Strengthened Regulations On PFAS In Water, Soil and Products.
- Investment In Agricultural Infrastructure.
- Investment In Maine’s Healthy Soils Program and Climate-Smart Farming Practices.
- Increased Access To Local Foods.
- Improved Information About Pesticides Use in Maine.
- Increased Access To Farmland For Historically Disadvantaged Communities.
- Tribal Sovereignty.
- Environmental Justices In State Program Development.
- Creation of a Forest Advisory Board With Representation From Environmental Community.
Congratulations Hallowell and Cape Elizabeth! MOFGA celebrates two organic land-care ordinances passed in Maine towns this year. We congratulate Grow Green & Healthy Hallowell and the citizens of Cape Elizabeth on their successful efforts to reduce local reliance on synthetic pesticides. While neither policy applies to pesticides used for commercial agriculture, the initiatives signal a growing awareness about the need for a precautionary approach to toxic chemicals. In September, Hallowell town councilors voted to ban the use of synthetic pesticides for landscaping, allowing materials approved for organic land care. The original language of the ordinance excluded commercial agriculture but called for a ban on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on all lawns, landscaped areas, vegetable and ornamental gardens, patios, sidewalks, driveways, parks and playing fields. After a year of hearings and town council meetings, council members opted for a compromise, allowing the use of synthetic fertilizers and conventional pesticides for use on vegetable gardens. The compromise also allows residents to apply for a waiver from the Hallowell code enforcement officer in order to treat invasive species. In Cape Elizabeth, the issue of minimizing reliance on pesticides was under discussion in Town Council and Ordinance Committee meetings for more than a year. The subject went to the ballot in November and citizens embraced organic land-care on residential land with 65% of the vote. Cape Elizabeth Town Councilors will hear recommendations from the Town’s Ordinance Committee focusing on how the municipality will implement the terms of the ordinance as well how the terms can apply to public property.
– Heather Spalding, MOFGA Deputy Director and Senior Policy Director
This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.