WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2015 - There’s a ton of help coast-to-coast, and more on the way, for farmers transitioning to organic.

Organic producer groups say a rally in their ranks is needed as the total number and acreage of American organic farms is slipping (even though organic food sales are soaring). Despite the expectation of superior long-term profits (see sidebar) from organic commodities, aspiring organic operators have to significantly alter their practices, and absorb the costs of doing so, while waiting through a mandated three years for USDA organic certification before they can ring up the organic market’s premium prices.

John Bobbe, executive director of OFARM, the biggest U.S. network of organic grain farmers, agrees that moving from “prescription farming” of one or two crops to an organic system that is rotational with diverse crops and perhaps livestock can be a high hurdle.  To evaluate the move, and then complete it successfully, he suggests hooking up with an area organic farming group. In the leading organic state, the California Certified Organic Farmers, for example, is both the certifying agency and the trade association that mentors candidate organic producers.

Bobbe ticks off a list of such groups that will help those striving to farm organically: the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, plus the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, which holds the nation’s biggest annual organic farmers conference, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in February. Also, the Iowa Organic Conference, held each November, is another event offering a ton of education and mentoring for beginning organic farmers.

Within a few months, OFARM itself will offer a new economic crutch to help some producers in their third year toward certification. Its new trademarked Sustainable Transition Verified (STV) label will designate products for buyers who want feed grain or other commodities produced under organic practices, though not yet certified. The STV designation “will allow the farmers to extract some additional money out of the marketplace,” Bobbe says.

Nate Lewis, crop and livestock specialist for the Organic Trade Association, points out that special marketing labels and designations for products from transitioning farms have been available in West Coast states for decades, and shoppers have long selected “transition” fruits and vegetables at grocery stores. He says OTA is working with USDA on a national earmark that transitioning farmers could get through USDA’s Process Verified Program. Like OFARM’s STV program, organic certifiers would be contracted to conduct the on-farm verifications.

Lewis says some dairy, poultry and other livestock operations are pursuing dependable, long-term organic feed and forage supplies, and are ready to contract with a transitioning farm with the promise of its future organic production. “They will simply drop those (transitional) streams into commerce, and eat the difference,” he says.

The biggest new resource for prospective and transitioning organic farmers arrived on-line in November: the Organic Transition: A Business Planner for Farmers, Ranchers and Food Entrepreneurs, 180 pages of guidance, help with strategy and execution, electronic worksheets and more, produced by a team of experts through USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. It’s designed to help in deciding whether or not to go organic and, for those who do, with the transition.

Meanwhile, Florida Organic Growers and USDA’s National Organic Program recently posted their joint online series of 26 videos to coach farmers on the decision to go organic and with the transition itself. Called Bite by Bite, the videos feature organic farmers giving step-by-step overviews of organic production requirements and the road to organic certification.

Also, cash assistance is available for organic transitioners in the form of the USDA Environmental Quality Assistance Program grants. The 2014 farm bill added the EQIP Organic Initiative, tailoring EQIP to provide cost-share grants to transitioning farmers to develop conservation plans, establish buffer zones and pollinator habitat, improve irrigation efficiency, crop rotations and nutrient management, and so forth. A farmer’s contract under this initiative is capped at $20,000 a year and $80,000 over six years.

What’s more, a farmer who completes certification can get a 75 percent reimbursement, up to $750, of certification fees. The $750 maximum is available for each type of operation (crops, wild crops, livestock, and handling) on which the farmer is certified.

In the dairy sector, Organic Valley offers a wealth of technical and financial help to farmers both during their three-year path to certification and after. The organic dairy cooperative (1,500 farms in 36 states) is the nation’s biggest. It has its own Farm Resources Department that offers both transitioning and regular members guidance from veterinarians, agronomists, livestock nutritionists and others.

There’s more. Wade Miller, Organic Valley’s farm profitability coordinator, says the co-op has begun paying transitioning farmers a bonus of $3.50 per hundredweight for all their milk in their final year of transition (though the non-organic milk itself is sold elsewhere). Plus, he says, next year the co-op will start making cropland transition payments to help transitioning farms recoup economic losses because yields always droop between termination of conventional cropping and development of organic soils.

Meanwhile, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is also retooling rules for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), now USDA’s biggest conservation program, including changes that may make it more user-friendly for organic farmers. The new version of CSP is due out next month along with an upcoming guidebook for agency staff and farmers to more smoothly link up conservation practices and programs with organic transition and certification.


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