By Julie Bonnin

If the 2008 Farm Bill becomes law in the next few weeks as expected, it may help level the playing field for organic farmers in a changing marketplace, and encourage more to transition to organics in the face of steadily increasing consumer demand.

farm.JPGPresident George W. Bush has vetoed the bill, but the House and Senate have enough anticipated votes to override the veto.
While escalating commodity prices are expected to keep the costs of both conventionally grown and organically grown food products high for some time –the Farm Bill’s four-fold increase in federal funding could help organic farmers become more competitive. That would be good news for consumers who wish they could buy more organic products but have been deterred by high prices or limited availability as demand for organics has outpaced the domestic supply.

Holly Givens, spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association, called the funding increase – up to $100 million over the life of the bill — “outstanding progress.”

“The government’s willingness to look at the issues and listen to what organic farmers are asking for is really a hopeful sign,” she said.

Organic farmers still comprise a tiny portion — less than five percent — of U.S. farmers and growers, but their numbers have been multiplying in recent years and grocery stores have broadened their organic offerings to meet consumer demand, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Research enabled by the funding in the 2008 Farm Bill could help organic farmers maintain their market foothold by giving guidance on selecting viable plant varieties and livestock breeds.
“There have been little funds available for organic data collection,” Givens said. “With more information in the system, organic farmers can make better decisions.”

Provisions in the bill would also:

  • Make it easier for organic producers, especially small family farms, to participate in the revamped Conservation Stewardship Program, which rewards farmers for conservation practices, such as  resting fields, rotating crops and guarding against soil erosion.
  • Eliminate crop insurance premiums that organic farmers have paid for years.
  • Increase reimbursements to offset the cost of going through the organic certification process in which producers must verify that their operations are pesticide and chemical free.

These supports are especially important, Givens says, when prices for conventionally raised grains and other food products are reaching record levels, providing less of an incentive for farmers to transition to organic crops or organically raised livestock, which can cost more to produce.

Organic farmers, especially those with small, homegrown operations, need the assistance, said Erin Rosas, who with her husband, Chef Al Rosas, operate Rosas Farms, producers of grass-fed organic beef, bison, pork and chicken on a ranch south of Gainesville, Fla.

“We’re for anything that’s supporting the smaller artisan companies, the farm that has 300 acres, not 300,000,” Rosas said. “What has happened is that you have all these giant corporations cannon-balling into organics. We hope the bill will end up helping small farmers.”

But not all organic farmers think such subsidies are a good thing. Stan Schutte, of Triple “S” Farms in Stewardson, in south-central Illinois, produces dozens of varieties of organic fruits and vegetables, chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle, popcorn, soybeans and hard red wheat on his 200-acre farm. He believes it’s a mistake to offer subsidies to organic farmers. “The subsidies are going to help somebody who shouldn’t be in the game anyway,” he said. “I can’t see it helping anybody long-term.”

Schutte, who raises antibiotic- and chemical-free livestock and crops, is happy to see increased funds set-aside for research that he believes may help educate organic farmers. The bill provides $78 million in mandatory funding and up to $25 million a year in annual appropriations for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic agriculture competitive grants program.

Yet another win for consumers is the increased allocation of funds for a USDA-administered program that certifies organic food imported from all over the world. Funding will more than double, Givens said, enabling the certifying body to be more effective.

With a 20 percent increase in sales of organic food posted in 2006, the organics industry has come a long way, she said, and with the changes made possible by the bill, it’s poised to have an even bigger impact.

Copyright © 2008 | Distributed by Noofangle Media