INSIDE ORGANIC: USDA Had an Organic Farming Coordinator in 1980; Call for Reinstatement Now Made 30 Years Later (March 2010)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · March/April 2010

At this time 30 years ago the most important organic farming policy document ever produced by the federal government was being edited for the last time and typed up at the U.S. Department of Agriculture so it could be rushed to the Government Printing Office to meet a July publication deadline.

No government report on organic farming since has even come close to being as comprehensive and significant as “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming,” the official 94-page document that summarized the work and findings of a USDA study team given less than a year to complete its assignment.

Every USDA policy and program with any potential to impact organic farming in any way was scrutinized. This included how the department gathered organic farming information and whether or not it had the administrative capacity to coordinate any organic initiatives taken.

The study team’s work assignment and deadline came straight from Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, the only secretary of agriculture before or since with the political courage to make an unconditional commitment to organic agriculture. Bergland, a Minnesota farmer before becoming involved in politics, had been impressed and convinced years earlier by a neighbor who was a successful organic farmer.

The 1980 report calling for research and education support for organic farming was published nine years after an infamous statement by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz reinforced USDA’s bad attitude toward organic farming. “Before we go back to an organic agriculture in this country,” he told a network news reporter during a 1971 interview, “somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry.”

Butz Statement Unchallenged at USDA

That surprising and highly publicized statement was unchallenged at that time at USDA. It also was unchallenged by the agriculture committees in both houses of Congress that write farm bills and appropriate USDA’s funds, by the land grant university system, and by the agricultural establishment overall. Organic farming had been officially ignored or ridiculed, or both, until the new secretary from Minnesota and his team took over.

Organic farmer complaints that the Farmers Home Administration was requiring loan applicants to use farm chemicals had resulted in a Bergland memo sent to county offices calling for an end to this practice. Other complaints about discrimination against organic farmers focused on unreasonable cosmetic requirements of federal fruit and vegetable marketing orders and policies at USDA’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) that required farmers to use commercial fertilizer in order to qualify for its cost share program.

A surprise USDA press release on June 19, 1979, reported that Anson Bertrand, the head of USDA’s Science and Education Administration, had appointed a Coordinating Team for Organic Agriculture to study organic farming. He noted that many conventional farmers questioned whether organic farming could produce enough food to feed the millions of people who must be fed in modern times.

In his statement, Bertrand raised the issue of whether new knowledge had already boosted the productive power of organic farming.

“We’ll find out,” he said. “When the facts are in, we’ll use them to develop a program or policy recommendations for Secretary Bergland. If it appears reasonable to do so, we may suggest additional redirection of USDA research, education, and funding.”

Report Estimates 20,000 Farming Organically

The study team of USDA scientists commissioned on-farm case studies of 69 organic farms in 23 states, cooperated with The New Farm magazine to survey its organic farmer subscribers, interviewed and corresponded with a long list of organic farming advocates and practitioners, and sent teams to Japan and Europe to tour organic farms and research institutes and report back.

The result was the comprehensive report USDA published the following July, which was made available by mail to anyone who wanted a copy. Thousands of farmers wrote in and requested a copy. USDA also discussed the report at a series of well-attended meetings on land grant university campuses in New Hampshire, California, Washington, and Nebraska.

USDA estimated that 20,000 organic farmers were doing well on America’s farms. It recommended development of the full range of research and education programs needed to address their needs and problems. This included the 18 specific recommendations outlined in the report.

But the report also included a clear statement addressing the challenge of implementing all the other recommendations made. “USDA,” it said, “should establish a permanent organic resources coordinator and multi-disciplinary advisory committee on organic agriculture.”

That was the one recommendation in the report that Secretary Bergland could implement right away and he took action immediately by appointing USDA’s first organic farming coordinator.

His responsibility included establishing a working relationship between USDA and organic farmers and their organizations. The job included gathering information on the organic sector and keeping USDA informed “of the problems and needs of organic growers on matters of information, support, and incentive programs.”

The new coordinator also was directed to take the lead in examining public policies that discriminated against organic farmers and that adversely impacted the goals of organic agriculture. Following an analysis of policy issues, the coordinator was given the responsibility of making recommendations “regarding how these policies could be modified to better serve the needs of organic farmers without adversely affecting the interests of conventional agriculture.”

Unfortunately this unprecedented initiative was destroyed politically when the new Reagan Administration took over in 1981. The organic farming coordinator was fired, the remaining copies of the 1980 report were destroyed, and implementation of the many recommendations was abruptly terminated.

Coordinator Recommendation Gains New Life

But one 1980 recommendation that critics had hoped would never be resurrected has gained new life over the last two years. It turned up as an important recommendation submitted by the National Organic Coalition to the new Obama Administration. It was included in recommendations aimed at giving organic agriculture “a greater role and prominence within the Administration relative to previous administrations.”

Specifically it calls for “designation of a point person and/or organic policy coordinator at the White House and in the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture for follow-through and on-going coordination. It also calls for “establishment of USDA cross-departmental and cross-agency cooperation through an organic working group . . . to expedite administrative backlogs and to implement fairly and swiftly the significant organic provisions of the 2008 farm bill.”

A similar recommendation is included in the National Organic Action Plan (NOAP) completed by organic food and farming stakeholders late last year following a series of 11 dialogue meetings held around the country.

The plan, entitled “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Advancing Organic Agriculture in the United States,” calls on USDA “to designate a point person and/or organic policy coordinator within the Secretary of Agriculture’s office to ensure follow-through and ongoing coordination and the solicitation of public input . . . and to establish and fully fund a cross-agency coordination hub whose role will be to facilitate the integration of these NOAP recommendations into government policies.”

Neither the NOC recommendation nor the more general NOAP call for action comes close to the comprehensive organic farming initiative recommended in the 1980 USDA report. But they provide a direct challenge to Secretary of Agriculure Tom Vilsack and the Obama White House.

If Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland could mobilize the entire USDA bureaucracy to rally in turning out the comprehensive 1980 report at a time when the agricultural establishment was filled with organic farming skeptics and critics, why can’t Secretary Vilsack at least take the modest step of appointing a USDA organic farming coordinator 30 years later when organic farming has been established as a farming alternative?

This is a valid question and one that organic farmers and their organizations should be pursuing until they get the right answer.

This article was first printed in the March/April 2010 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service