USDA invests up to $300M to expand organic certification

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture will invest up to $300 million to give farmers access to the tools and resources needed to transition to organic. This includes technical assistance (roughly $100 million), farmer-to-farmer mentoring, crop insurance assistance (roughly $25 million) and direct monetary support through conservation financial assistance, USDA said. 
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release the funds will go toward “expanding USDA’s support of organic farmers to help them with every step of their transition as they work to become certified and secure markets for their products.”
  • The initiative, first announced earlier this year as part of President Biden’s $2 billion in funding toward transforming the food system, comes after organic food sales growth slowed last year.

Dive Insight:

Sales growth of organic products has plateaued, only rising about 2% in 2021, versus the 4.6% and 12.8% increases in the previous two years, respectively. The number of farmers making the switch to organic has simultaneously seen a decline. The number of farms transitioning to organic production dropped by roughly 71% since 2008, the USDA said.

In order to become organic certified, a farm must be able to show its operations follow the USDA Organic Standards for livestock and crops, including meeting land requirements and insuring that it does not use prohibited substances like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Producers must sell their products as conventional for at least three years before they can get USDA Organic certification or represent products as “organic.” This timeframe allows for the farm to adjust to farming without any residue of pesticides.

There were more than 16,500 USDA-certified organic farms in the U.S. in 2019. Some farmers are unwilling to adopt complex organic practices without seeing an immediate benefit from higher organic costs, Minnesota Farm Guide reported.

The USDA’s investment signals interest from the Biden administration to use organic farming to spur progress in agriculture. Some of the funds come from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion package signed into law in March 2021 to combat the economic impacts of the pandemic. So far under the Biden administration, USDA has allocated roughly $20 million to making the transition to organic easier, benefiting 7,383 farmers, Vilsack told The Packer.

Vilsack told the agricultural publication the USDA now hopes to develop six regional efforts nationwide to provide mentoring for new farmers in the organic space. The government also sees promise in the sustainability benefits of organic farming, he said.

“The bottom line of this is to encourage more participation in organic production, which not only has the benefit of a higher value proposition, but also, obviously, has a fairly significant climate benefit as well,” Vilsack told The Packer.

“So, this initiative is a really good opportunity to advance two of the administration’s big issues: Increasing the middle class and making our country more climate smart,” he continued.

The agriculture secretary also said the slowdown in farmers transitioning to organic was associated with the costs, paperwork and overall challenges for smaller farms without resources to become certified. Linking them “with a more experienced organic producer who can take them through the process” will make the transition easier, Vilsack told The Packer.

Industry leaders in the organic space praised the funding announcement. The Organic Trade Association said in a statement the USDA’s initiative will expand access to organic experts, specifically in historically underserved communities.

“For too long, organic agriculture has been underrepresented in government programs and support, and farmers wanting to transition to organic face steep hurdles in accessing tailored organic-appropriate programs and resources at USDA,” OTA CEO and Executive Director Tom Chapman said in the statement. “OTA has long advocated for better resources to help farmers overcome barriers to transitioning to organic, and we look forward now to helping to ensure that implementation of these programs meet the needs of organic and transitioning farmers and support the goals of the overall sector.”