Farm bill extension doesn’t sit well with many organic farmers

Jan 23, 2013

Liz Graznak, who runs Happy Hollow Farm in Jamestown, Mo., is one of many farmers who may not re-certify her operation organic without federal support.
Credit Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Shoppers looking for organic food may have to look a bit harder this year.

When Congress enacted new farm bill legislation on Jan. 1, it cut virtually all funding for organic agriculture programs while retaining billions in subsidies that largely benefit conventional farms. That means it will be more difficult for many farms to continue to be certified organic producers  and consumers may not see as many certified organic products in stores or at their local farmers market.

Liz Graznak, who runs Happy Hollow Farm with her partner in Jamestown, Mo., is one of many farmers who say they may not be able to afford the cost of organic certification without federal support. Graznak was one of more than 9,343 farmers who took advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Certification Cost Share Program in fiscal year 2011. Cost-share, as it's called in the ag community, reimburses farmers up to $750 annually for organic certification costs. 

"I'm not making any money yet. I don't pay myself a check every two weeks ... and my certification costs on an annual basis are close to $800,” Graznak said, her 68 laying hens and three roosters pecking at grain through the melting snow. Since she started farming full-time four years ago, her chickens' eggs have been certified organic as have her vegetables, which she sells at the farmers market and through her Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). “That would be really foolish of me to pay that and not get any cost-share money back when I'm not even paying myself yet.”

The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program was an organic farm subsidy that up until January  was funded by the farm bill. When Congress passed a temporary farm bill extension in January though, the $22 million program was one of many Congress chose not to continue to fund. 

That means that Graznak and thousands of other organic producers will have to pay out of pocket if they want to continue to sell with the USDA organic seal. For her part, Graznak says that $800 could be spent on so many other things necessary to keep the farm running -- like electric bills and her monthly mortgage payment.

“It [the certification] is important but it’s also $800 where I’m not making any money,” she said. “It’s really hard.”

Without cost-share, Graznak says she may not re-certify her farm organic this year even if that means getting new labels made that don't bear the USDA organic seal. She'll still use the same organic practices on the farm though and as a result, Graznak doesn’t think she'll lose her regular customers. But without the organic seal, she does worry about marketing her eggs and vegetables to future shoppers, which could definitely affect her bottom line.

Cost-share wasn’t the only organic program that didn’t get its funding extended in January. Lawmakers also cut some $20 million in annual organic agriculture research and a $5 million  program for organic data collection.

With Washington’s recent focus on belt tightening, it’s no surprise that Congress decided not to extend funding towards a number of farm bill programs. But after cutting virtually all the support for organic farmers, Congress didn’t touch crop insurance or the direct payment program that pays $5 billion annually to farms that grow major commodity crops. Those are subsidies that only a small percentage of organic farms qualify for.

Dan Kuebler, who owns a small organic vegetable farm called The Salad Garden in Ashland, Mo., says the farm bill extension unfairly targets operations like his.

“Why aren’t we all just created equal? That’s what America’s about and so let’s just do that in our policy. It's in some ways rather discriminatory, I'd say,” Kuebler said outside the Columbia, Mo., USDA office where he was hoping to start the process of getting a loan to dig a deep well on his property. “I don’t want to have a battle with the big growers. I don’t want to deny them what they need. But I just want it to be fair.”

There are more than 17,200 certified organic operations in the U.S., up from just 7,300 a decade ago. But with the number of total farmers expected to decline by 8 percent by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growing organic sector represents a bright spot for rural America.

"They [small, organic farmers] hire people, they're purchasing things, they're making a living at it. More and more of them are doing this. And there's a big opportunity to revive and revitalize rural economies. And to me it almost seems like a no-brainer that, you know, you need to sort of encourage this," Kuebler added.

Cutting organic programs from the farm bill won’t mean organic food disappears from grocery stores and farmers markets. And there’s no guarantee that these subsidies won’t come back once lawmakers hammer out long-term agriculture policy, which they’ll try to do in the coming months. But for now at least, the cuts will make it harder for organic farms to stay in business.

Rick Boller, who raises organic beef and grows organic wheat, barley, corn, milo and alfalfa in Lebanon, Kan., says even experienced organic farmers count on farm bill funds. Boller should know -- he's been farming organically with his brother and mother for 20 years.

“We've got to pay our bills so we’re dependent on whether we can get enough income from the farm, and if there’s any help or not, and how good the insurance levels are and everything else,” Boller said, “just like conventional people are.” 

Without farm bill support, organic farmers have an even tougher row to hoe. And so do shoppers looking to buy organic food.

Happy Hollow Farm's chickens peck at organic grain through the melting snow.
Credit Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

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