The Farm Bill Extension and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program

March 8, 2013

The farm bill extension that was included as past of the fiscal cliff deal on New Years Eve left out funding for many programs crucial to organic farming, rural development, farmers markets and rural communities. The extension also failed to cut the nearly $5 billion in direct subsidy payments that both the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee had eliminated in both of their farm bill versions during last year’s failed farm bill process. For more information on the extension, please read our blog post from February.

Recently at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association we reached out to our members across the Carolinas to find out how this loss of funding is affecting farmers, researchers, farmers markets, and local communities. Over the next few weeks we will be publishing a series of blog posts highlighting the real effects that this extension is having on organic agriculture and local food systems. This post focuses on the loss of funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) and how it is affecting organic producers around the Carolinas.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the same branch that administers the USDA Certified Organic label, administers the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. The NOCCSP was created in the 2002 farm bill with $5 million in funding over five years. The program provided reimbursements to producers for organic certification, which were limited to $500 per year. The NOCCSP was reauthorized in the 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act with increased funding of $22 million over five years and allowed participants of the program to be reimbursed for up to 75% of their organic certification costs, not to exceed $750 per year.

This investment in organics has helped the industry to grow quickly, at an average rate of 20% per year since the 2008 farm bill. Last year, the organic market had $26 billion in sales, the highest ever. North Carolina has seen a rise in requests for NOCCSP reimbursements in the past few years as this market has expanded. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which administers the funds at the state level, asked for an increase in USDA funding for their reimbursement pool in 2010 in response to the rise in demand. NCDA currently gives out around $60,000 a year in NOCCSP reimbursements, compared to $40,000 three years ago.

We live in a time when new farmers are needed across the country and the Certified Organic label helps provide an incentive to those folks that are just beginning to farm. Organic certification provides a premium market and helps bring many small and medium-scale producers to new wholesale markets, as well as increase their direct-sales marketability. Funding for programs that support this growing market are important to its continued success. Continued reimbursement for certification will allow this sector to continue to grow and to help small and medium-sized farms enter the organic market by helping overcome the cost of certification, which is often prohibitive to small producers.

Joe Martin, of CFSA member Zydeco Moon Farm in Grassy Creek, NC, said “For some folks it’s just another notch on the belt. But after so many notches, there’s only so much you can do to keep your business profitable.” Martin stated that they typically pay around $1,000 per year for organic certification for their farm and are reimbursed around $700 from the NOCCSP.

$1,000 out of pocket for certification may not be a huge obstacle to some larger farms, but for many farmers this can make them think twice about certification. Farmers who have been certified for years and rely on organic certification to wholesale market their products are likely to get certified if they can absorb the cost. Others, however, may choose to forgo certification this year in hopes that the NOCCSP will have funds available in the future. Martin explained how the extra cost of certification will be painful, “$200 to 250 out of pocket is not that bad. Now $1000, that’s a big hurdle.”

That hurdle seems to be just enough to keep some farmers from completing the certification process this year. Joe Martin’s farm is part of New River Organic Growers, a cooperative of around 60 certified and transitioning farms in the Southern Appalachian High Country area. He states, “A lot of our farmers are young and do not have a lot of money. I can imagine that several folks in transition may wait until the funding comes back to get certified.” Ryan Merck, with the Clemson Department of Plant Industry, a USDA approved Accredited Certifying Agency, stated that he had already spoken with some new potential applicants to the program who said that they are going to wait to proceed until funds become available for future reimbursements.

CFSA Board member, Daniel Parsons, of Parson’s Produce in Clinton, SC, made a passionate plea for the case of the NOCCSP funds:

“I have taken advantage of the organic certification cost share several times, including last year. I find growers in my area are reluctant to take advantage of the National Organic Program, partly due to cost. This program is essential to growing the number of farms that certify organic by removing one of the obstacles that many growers state: cost. Organic certification not only helps me to get a price premium which allows me to continue to farm, but it also opens doors to people who might otherwise choose organic produce grown in other countries instead of in their own region. I live in a rural county where jobs are scarce, and being certified organic helps me to hire workers year-round from the local community”

Mary Conner, of CFSA member Three Sisters Farm in Okatie, SC, stated, “If the cost share is not restored, we can’t keep up our certification for years going forward.” She is quick to add that although their farm may not be certified organic moving forward, “This does not mean we won’t continue to farm as before.  We are dedicated to organic methods and will continue to support suppliers of organic inputs.”

CFSA recently did survey of a handful of farmers in North Carolina on their participation in the NOCCSP. Here are some of their responses:

“While we would continue to seek certification without the cost share, as we expand our operation this may very likely to become cost prohibitive. As a small 
farm operation, we are struggling to become profitable and grow. The cost share
program has allowed us to stay in the game from a marketing perspective.”

“The cost share program has been very helpful to us over the past few years. The cost of certification is so expensive and this helps ease the burden of the
 cost of farming organically.”

“Without this program it is going to be harder to continue to certify. Costs are getting higher in all supplies and this helps offset that. To get certified without it we would 
have to go under dire financial situations.”

It is clear that the loss of NOCCSP funding is a having an impact on organic farmers throughout our region. Many of our members are already feeling the pressure of small profit margins due to increased costs in recent years for inputs, feed and fuel. As Joe Martin stated, there’s only so many more notches on the belt that farmers can add.

CFSA will continue to keep our members updated on the status of this crucial program. While the program does not currently have funding, the actual program is still authorized in the current farm bill extension, which means there are several roads towards potential funding fixes over the coming months.  Make sure to sign up for our Action Alerts so that you can stay informed and help to do your part to support the funding of this program through emails and phone calls to your Congressional representatives.

The organic market has shown amazing growth in recent years and has potential for spurring economic growth and job creation. Not only is this good for farmers and communities, but it’s also for our land and our health. Organic farmers are using farming techniques that are helping to wean agriculture off its use of dangerous herbicides and pesticides. Congress should further encourage this market and these kinds of ecologically sustainable operations, not prevent them by cutting off funding the NOCCSP.

 

 

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