Farm Bill for an Organic Future: Report from Eco-Farm 2018


The Farm Bill is coming! The Farm Bill is coming! Attendees at the 2018 Ecological Farming Conference got an expert-level rundown of organic agriculture in the upcoming federal Farm Bill.  OFRF’s Executive Director Brise Tencer (center) was joined on the panel by Laura Batcha (at right), CEO of the Organic Trade Association, and Kelly Damewood (at left), Policy Director for California Certified Organic Farmers. Here’s a brief rundown of the highlights.

Doing the Heavy Lifting, Together

The session’s moderator recognized that this panel, all women, are doing the heavy work of the organic community on federal legislation. The fact that women are mainly taking this load, it was noted, is not a coincidence. Nor is that fact incidental to the high level of cooperation among the organizations bringing the organic messages to Capitol Hill (a topic later explored in the conversation). 

Making our Mark on the Farm Bill

The Farm Bill is a long slog, worked out over several years and covering four or five years of agriculture program policies and spending. At this stage, agriculture interests and their Congressional champions are filing specific pieces of proposed legislation known as “marker bills”. These proposals will be considered by the agricultural committees for inclusion in the massive, assembled bills that will go from the committees to the floor of each chamber.

There are a number of organic marker bills in play now, which the panelists variously explained. Each has a life of its own, but the panel noted that ultimately all the organic-related objects exert gravity on each other and have to be navigated together. Thus, the need for cooperation among organic advocates is imperative.

The Organic Political Landscape: Red, Blue and Purple all go Green

A brief background on the Farm Bill illustrated that organic agriculture has been a part of the “omnibus” farm legislation since 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act became law. In 1997, the first directives for USDA organic research were adopted. In 2002, certification cost-share was added to the mix. In 2008 and 2014, organic research funding was increased and organic farming made policy inroads on data collection, crop insurance, conservation programs, trade supports and other areas. Now in 2018 many of those gains are in play, facing high risks and big opportunities. 

All of the panelists spoke about working with current Congressional majorities and finding the path to bipartisanship. “There’s no viable scenario where we succeed without being part of the (Agriculture) Committee Chairmen’s initial bills,” said Batcha. Tencer provided the example of the Organic Agriculture Research Act. “The original champion was Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), an organic farmer herself and a member of the House Agriculture Committee,” Tencer said. “But she would not file the bill until she had a Republican co-sponsor.” In this case, it was Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA). 

Tencer continued, “Even more challenging was adding to the list of co-sponsors. We could not accept more Democratic co-sponsors until we showed additional Republican support.” This turn in the story revealed the cooperative work with not only CCOF and OTA, but the California Farm Bureau Federation.  Said Damewood, “CCOF has been building a stronger relationship with the Farm Bureau. Organic growers are part of the CFBF leadership. Last fall we successfully worked directly with Farm Bureau staff to get the Organic Ag Research Act endorsed by CFBF and they in turn got several key Republican Members of the California Delegation to sign on as co-sponsors.”  Damewood noted that the key CFBF staffperson, Sara Negau-Reed, was in the audience. The audience spontaneously broke out in extended applause for Sara and CFBF.

Batcha pushed back on the notion that playing ball with the majority meant that the goals had to be moderated or toned down. “We, in fact, are advancing some very major asks, especially in this environment. And we are making good progress,” she said.

The Power of Farmers’ Voices

Another major theme of the panel was the importance of individual farmers making their needs known directly to their legislators. Batcha said that grass-roots action by organic farmers and other players in the organic economy, “has been critical to our success so far.” Tencer pointed out that OFRF and OTA work together on “farmer fly-ins” to Washington, DC to help make this happen. “Farmers have a great impact,” she said, “when they speak directly to their representatives about their operations, their markets, and the support they need in research and data.”

One organic farmer, in particular, had a striking effect in Washington. Batcha told the recent story of escorting star baseball player Jason Werth – a committed organic farmer in his home state of Illinois – through the Capitol. “That got us some serious attention,” she said with a laugh. Werth plays for the Washington Nationals and is a major celebrity in the capitol city.

Jobs Jobs Jobs

The panel was asked why there is this groundswell of bipartisanship around organic agriculture? Each of the panelists cited various reasons, but they all agreed that the economic power of the organic sector is the common denominator. Organic food businesses are building economic power in rural and urban America and that is making legislators take notice. The “Hot Spots” economic analysis from Penn State shows that clusters of organic businesses are raising local economic activity and incomes to a significant degree, with an effect as powerful as some major federal programs.

Finally, the panel was asked about mobilizing the grass-roots force of organic customers. How do everyday consumers of organic products add their voices to the cause, and how can consumer and environmental groups help?  The panelists all said that the time for that mobilization is coming. “It has to be a positive message,” said Tencer, “in order to keep the momentum.  We are not demonizing other farmers or other foods. We have always advocated for organic farming as a positive solution for farmers, for the environment, and for human health.”

Submitted by Mark Lipson, Senior Policy & Program Specialist, OFRF