INSIDE ORGANIC: Organic Farmers Make Gains in Political Access and Support For Organic Appropriations and Farm Bill Organic Initiatives (May 07)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · May 2007

A series of recent developments strongly suggest that organic farmers and others in the rapidly growing organic sector have gained new political access and support that will enhance their ability to influence both annual organic program funding and the 2007 farm bill process unfolding on Capitol Hill.

An unusual amount of work on organic initiatives, more than can be described here, has been underway in the organic community over the past year. There may well be lingering differences of opinion about organic sector priorities and support level requests as the farm bill process moves forward. But overall, organic organizations are expected to make a special effort to get along and to rally and, to the extent possible, present lawmakers with both new approaches and a united front.

Probably the most important new political development is a result of the November elections, which changed the control of both houses of Congress and their agriculture-related committees. The four most important committees handling organic legislation and appropriations in both the House and the Senate, as a result, are now headed by members of the House and Senate from states with large numbers of organic farmers. Three of these states, Iowa and Minnesota and Wisconsin, are in the upper Midwest.

Important Committee Members

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a strong and active organic agriculture supporter on both the agriculture and appropriations committees, is the new Senate Agriculture Committee chairman. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Senate’s leading organic advocate for nearly 20 years, takes over as chair of the Senate Agriculture subcommittee responsible for legislation dealing with organic agriculture.

Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, also a consistent and reliable organic agriculture supporter, is the new chair of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee. Kohl, Harkin and others will shape organic funding levels in the Senate’s version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget. The new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee is Congressman Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who represents a rural district where organic farming has become increasingly important.

The new chairperson of the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee is Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, an organic caucus member from the region where Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) organizations successfully influence organic politics.

Also important is the significant increase in the way important lawmakers have been reaching out to organic farmers at home. Senator Kohl pledged support for organic provisions in the farm bill during a brief presentation in late February at a plenary session of the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference. The annual La Crosse conference attracted more than 2,300 participants.

Kohl told the conference attendees, and members of the press at a news conference that followed, that he strongly supported helping farmers convert to organic systems. “I’m a huge fan of the organic movement,” he noted during his conference presentation. “I think it’s great for America and I think it’s good for you.”

Chairman Peterson sponsored a “Home Grown Economy” conference earlier this month in his home district that included many organic farmers among its 300 or more participants. The conference also featured Robert Marqusee of Sioux City, Iowa, director of a county organic conversion plan that provides tax incentives for farmers transitioning from conventional to organic.

Peterson noted that the House Agriculture Committee had, for the first time, acknowledged organic agriculture’s importance by creating a new subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture. It is chaired by Congressman Dennis Cardoza of California, an organic caucus member with politically active organic farmers in his district. Peterson stressed the rural development potential of the growing market for local foods and noted strong consumer support for new opportunities in the production of both local and organic foods.

Having some indication of support for organic farming from the House Agriculture Committee represents an important change from the past. Fortunately every single member serving on the committee in 1990, when it made an unsuccessful attempt to keep the Organic Foods Production Act from reaching the House floor for a vote is now gone. This membership turnover provides an unusual opportunity for the organic community, and this important committee, to make a renewed effort to develop mutual respect and a good working relationship.

Another important turnover was the election in November of organic farmer John Tester of Montana to a six-year Senate term. Tester, a former national OCIA director, is not on the Senate’s agriculture or appropriations committees. But, as the first certified organic farmer to serve in either house of Congress, he provides Capitol Hill lawmakers with an instant source of organic farming policy guidance.

House Organic Caucus

There also are indications the Organic Caucus, made up of more than 40 House members from both political parties, will be much more involved this year in supporting organic appropriations and farm bill initiatives. This year’s caucus co-chairs are Democrats Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Sam Farr of California, and Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Republicans Wayne Gilchrist of Maryland and James Walsh of New York.

The year’s first caucus meeting on March 5 included a presentation by Administrator Lloyd Day of the Agricultural Marketing Service, the agency responsible for the National Organic Program. Representatives of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (NCSA), the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC), the Organic Trade Association (OTA), and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) also made presentations.

All of these organizations are pushing well-developed organic farm bill agendas in this session of Congress. They include increased funding levels for organic initiatives within the Rick Management Agency (RMA), Economic Research Service (ERS), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), and other USDA agencies. Their emphasis may be different but, for the most part, there is general agreement among the main organizations with organic legislative agendas.

MOSES Farm Bill Priorities

MOSES Executive Director Faye Jones, who was in Washington participating in NOC and SAC meetings, attended the caucus meeting and urged support for three MOSES farm bill priorities during followup visits to House and Senate offices. The priorities, first presented at the conference in LaCrosse, are support for significant expansion of funding for organic agriculture research, education and information; for a significant increase in organic certification cost-share funding, and for full funding and implementation of the Conservation Security Program (CSP).

More than 500 attendees signed blue cards at the MOSES conference to indicate their interest in receiving emailed farm bill and appropriations alerts that call for specific House and Senate action. They also received names and phone numbers of key Midwest Congressional contacts. This is the first time MOSES has organized an effort to help facilitate direct involvement of organic farmers and others in the national legislative process.

Although MOSES has collaborated with SAC and NCSA on CSP and other legislative initiatives in the past, it is participating this year for the first time in a national organic coalition. MOSES has joined several regional organic farming organizations, the national co-op grocer’s organization, and several national consumer and environmental organizations that support organic farming in the new National Organic Coalition. Steve Etka, who represents the coalition on Capitol Hill, works on appropriations and farm bill issues as well as on oversight of USDA’s National Organic Program.

It is significant that SAC, for the first time this year, has included certification cost share funding and several other organic initiatives in its 2007 farm bill agenda. SAC also provides overall leadership in efforts to strengthen the CSP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Reserve Program. SAC has worked for several years to raise the priority of organic production systems in EQUIP and, last June, urged the NRCS to establish an EQUIP national priority for farmers and ranchers making the transition to organic production systems.

There have been strong suggestions that having the Democrats take control of Congress and its committees as a result of last November’s election will translate into big organic gains this year. A review of the past when Democrats controlled the hostile House Agriculture Committee that tried in 1990 to derail the Organic Foods Production Act or to 1997 when the Democratic-controlled USDA put out the first proposed organic rule and was forced to take it back after a storm of protest suggests this change does not necessarily translate into better results.

The smart course for organic farmers in this important farm bill year would seem to be pressing all members of the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike, to become familiar with the organic agenda and to support it. This includes meeting with lawmakers when they are at home out of sight of Washington lobbyists as well as supporting MOSES, NOC, SAC, and other organizations working on behalf of organic agriculture on Capitol Hill.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the May 2007 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service