WASHINGTON, June 8, 2016 - The Department of Agriculture, at times, can be at a loss for how to help producers who are transitioning to organic production, mostly because they don’t know who they are.
“Folks are saying ‘What are you doing to reach out to (transitioning) organic producers?’” Betsy Rakola, USDA’s organic policy adviser, told a group of organic stakeholders recently in Washington. “Well I can shout into the wind, but it’s a large country, and there’s a lot of farmers out there.”
A survey in 2014 showed almost 173,000 acres were in transition to organic production, a three-year process during which no prohibited products may be applied to the soil. Products grown on land transitioning to organic don’t qualify for the price premium of true organic acreage, yet that land is likely to have lower yields than land in conventional production. This puts producers transitioning to organic in a sort of agricultural no-man’s land: not quite organic, but no longer conventional.
USDA isn’t against assisting these producers, but is in the dark as to how to help a group they cannot pinpoint.
“If we were able to better identify the population in transition, I think also we could understand how that producer population is growing, how the acreage is growing – that could be really helpful to us in terms of better targeting our resources and services,” Rakola said. “Right now, we’re waiting for people to get certified” under the USDA organic program to get a better idea of the organic acreage out there, she added.
For now, the Organic Trade Association is pushing for a certified transition process under USDA’s Process Verified Program. USDA also has some online resources for producers in the midst of a transition to organic production, and USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service also offers a cost share program for producers seeking certification, which pays up to 75 percent of certification costs, with a cap of $750 per operation.
Rakola says the department is “trying to think really creatively – and I would also say aggressively – about how we can get more money in that program out into the hands of people who can use it.
“Right now we do end up with a lot of money left unspent at the end of each year,” she said. According to the AMS website, that program will provide $10.7 million in fiscal 2016.
Farmers who’d like to learn more about organic agriculture and the benefits of organic certification can go to USDA’s Organic Topic Page. The page provides online tutorials, and fact sheets as well as information about crop insurance and conservation assistance, and more.
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