By Ferd Hoefner, OFRF policy advisor

Engaging with government agencies on topics of mutual interest is a critical aspect of working to advance improved public policy and resource allocations for organic farming. OFRF does that type of work on an ongoing basis. Two recent examples – concerning conservation and research – illustrate the point.

In February, OFRF hosted a working meeting with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff and a wide variety of organic stakeholders. Over 20 people participated, including representatives of NRCS, OFRF, the Organic Trade Association, National Organic Coalition, Organic Farmers Association, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and National Center for Appropriate Technology, among others.

It was the first organic stakeholders call on conservation programs in several years and OFRF was pleased to organize and facilitate the conversation. Participants dove into a variety of topics, including organic issues related to:

  • the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, including the organic initiatives, state allocations, participation rates, and conservation enhancements beneficial to organic systems;
  • the difficulty in finding organic certifiers who are interested in writing conservation plans and ways to expand outreach;
  • the recent transition from Conservation Activity Plans (including so-called CAP 138, the Transition to Organic CAP) to a more flexible, three-part framework of Conservation Planning Activities, Design and Implementation Activities, and Conservation Evaluation and Monitoring Activities;
  • the Conservation Reserve Program’s Organic Field Border Buffer Initiative;
  • the role of organic in USDA plans to promote climate-smart farming; and
  • emerging plans for a USDA organic transition initiative.

The conversation was lively and aided immensely by the knowledge, commitment and passion of Lindsay Haines, a 34-year NRCS veteran who serves as the agency’s National Organic and Pest Management Specialist and is herself a farmer. Coming out of the call, three subgroups were formed for follow-up conversations. One of those, on new and revised CSP enhancements to better serve organic farmers has already occurred in early March. At that time, OFRF consultant Mark Schonbeck shared with the group a detailed list of enhancements for agency consideration for the 2023 CSP enrollment year and beyond. A second small group, on issues related to Technical Service Providers and conservation planning activities will meet later in March. The third group, on organic’s role in climate mitigation will happen in early April.

OFRF has also been involved in agency discussions about organic research activities and funding with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. In 2021, OFRF had several meetings with ARS national program leaders as well as one with the agency head to prod the agency to develop a comprehensive plan for organic research and substantially ramp up funding. We proposed that today’s meager funding reach at least a pro rata share compared to organic’s position in the marketplace, which would come to about $100 million a year, about an eight-fold increase over current funding levels.

We are very pleased to report that recent meetings with ARS national program leaders have demonstrated a renewed commitment to organic farming research. A plan has been put together along with an associated budget.  It is still in the agency clearance process, so we have not yet seen the full details. We do know, however, that it would include organic systems research, research on diverse faming environments, climate mitigation research, and cross disciplinary research funds. Among the outcomes anticipated would be new crop varieties, innovative pest management techniques, new organic feed options, climate change mitigation advances, and post-harvest improvements. We commend ARS for taking our concerns to heart. OFRF will share a summary once the details become publicly available.