We recognize the bounty of agriculture is not just a market outcome but also is the product of federal food and farm policy.
In 2021 there will be change in the leadership that guides U.S. agriculture policy. Arguably, it will eclipse anything we have seen in decades. New leadership will be seated on the House and Senate agriculture committees and a new secretary of agriculture will be placed at the helm of USDA.
To fortify the underpinnings of organic dairy, below are policy changes needed to ensure a healthy business climate and certainty for family farmers.
Expand Market Opportunity
America is blessed with agricultural productivity which enables the opportunity to share products across the globe. Yet politically motivated trade barriers and tariff disputes needlessly disrupt the flow of goods and increase costs for businesses.
We have faced this recently at Organic Valley. Growth in Asian markets have been suppressed and largely shelved over the past four years, and a tit-for-tat with the European Union on aircraft manufacturing has spilled over into agriculture and has hampered our co-op.
Congress and the new administration should seek to normalize trade relations and resolve disputes.
Incentivize Regenerative Land Practices
At its core organic dairy is regenerative agriculture. It represents the best of animals on the landscape that are interdependent with sustainable cropping systems. Organic dairy farms have long practiced regenerative farming systems that include pasturing cattle, growing cover crops, and establishing long-term crop rotations. A research study out of Northeastern University showed that soils from organic farms sequester 26% more carbon because of a high percentage of humic substances.
As Congress and USDA begin to re-fashion conservation programs and potentially create carbon trading platforms, organic production must be recognized for what it can offer to mitigate climate change and how it can inform all of agriculture. We are ready to see a farm policy less anchored in commodity subsidies that overwhelmingly benefit industrial scale farming enterprises, and are more open to supporting land stewardship and conservation outcomes.
Resolve Regulatory Uncertainty in Organic
Agriculture policy leaders can support organic dairy by remedying regulatory uncertainty in the organic standards–everyone needs to operate under the same requirements.
Regrettably, instances of competitive harm exist because USDA has failed to clarify and then enforce some organic standards. Most evident is making sure dairy farms all understand the terms for producing organic milk and how animals achieve organic status, called the Origin of Livestock. The organic standards and their enforcement ensure that those who voluntarily participate in the organic marketplace have the same frame of reference for the conditions required to be certified organic. USDA needs to clarify and issue the Origin of Livestock final rule without delay.
Modernize Federal Milk Marketing Orders
The pricing of non-organic farm milk, through Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs), is a methodology that has never recognized the unique position of organic dairy. For example, the price Organic Valley offers its farmers is determined by a farmer-board and is predicated on what the market will bear, not in any way reliant on an antiquated federal pricing system.
In order to balance out the conventional pricing of non-organic farm milk across different classes of use, organic dairy is forced to pay millions each year to compensate the federal order. This is despite a sustained performance of paying organic dairy farmers often twice the value of the USDA monthly determined prices.
If the goal of FMMOs is to provide a base price for farm milk, organic dairy supersedes that expectation with the organic premium. Organic dairy should not be paying the balancing needs of non-organic milk. USDA needs to hold an administrative hearing to find a fair solution that does not continue to burden the organic industry and family farmers.
Government action, whether it’s legislative or regulatory, has a massive impact on the businesses and lives of the family farmers who comprise our cooperative and are the backbone of our nation. And by extension, government action directly impacts tens of millions of Americans who prefer wholesome, nutritious organic products. At Organic Valley, we are excited about the future and ready to be at the table as agriculture leadership changes and also as agriculture itself evolves.
About the Author:: Bob Kirchoff is the CEO for Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative representing more than 1,800 organic farmers in 34 U.S. states, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.