Surprise Cost Share Reduction Will Hurt Organic Farmers

Late last week, the Trump Administration’s USDA announced that it would significantly reduce funds available to help farmers cover the cost of organic certification.
Credit: Seattle City Council

Just a week ago, I stopped to admire strawberries at a Sonoma County, CA, farmers market stand. Before sampling the beautiful berries, I asked about the farmer’s pesticide use practices—as I didn’t see USDA-certified organic on their signage.

Turns out that he didn’t use any pesticides, but did use crop rotation, and other healthy soil practices required under the National Organic Program. I took a taste: the fruit was juicy and delicious.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that this family operation run by immigrant farmers wasn’t certified organic. The farmer explained that the cost of certification was too expensive for a small producer—something I’ve heard on many occasions. The family relies on just 20 acres of leased land for their business, and the property is perpetually at risk of being sold.

The farmer was unaware of, but quite pleased to learn about, the organic cost-share program, which could cover up to $750 per year in fees associated with organic certification and inspection.  

However, while true a week ago, my information no longer applies. Late last week, the Trump Administration’s USDA announced that it would significantly reduce funds available to help farmers cover the cost of organic certification.

Amidst a pandemic profoundly impacting small farmers, this highly problematic move disregards Congress’s directive in the 2018 Farm Bill and ignores the on-the-ground reality of small, mid-sized and diversified organic farmers who already receive little to no benefit from USDA agriculture programs.

A vital part of the National Organic Program, the Organic Certification Cost Share Program has reduced financial barriers for organic farmers for nearly two decades by making certification and inspections more affordable. Until this week, the cost share program reimbursed organic farmers for 75% of their certification costs, with a $750 maximum. 

Even during normal times, organic farmers often struggle to sustain their operations and appreciate all the support they can get. Their need is even more pronounced during the COVID pandemic, when access to key markets like restaurants and food service operations have been seriously constrained. The modest yet essential cost share program has kept organic certification within reach of countless small farms.

USDA’s decision to slash the maximum reimbursement to $500 came as a shock to organic producers, who have relied on the cost share program for years. And the reasoning behind this decision does not make much sense given that Congress established $750 as the clear limit nearly two years ago and authorized adequate resources to fulfill that commitment. Congress also granted USDA flexibility to carry over unspent funds from one year to the next, until 2023. USDA offered little in the way of details to explain this reduction of support.

This move is yet another example of how the Trump Administration de-prioritizes the needs of organic and other farmers that run diversified operations and sell into direct-to-consumer markets. These “non-conventional” producers have historically struggled to benefit from USDA programs, which are tailored for large operations that grow few crops.

Smaller scale farmers got left behind during the China trade war bailout. Back in June, I shared our concern that the same pattern seemed to be playing out with the $16B Coronavirus Farmer Assistance Program (CFAP). Those fears are confirmed by a new analysis conducted by NBC News indicating that the top three commodities—cattle, dairy and corn—received over 80 percent of the CFAP disbursements so far.

Organic farming is a practical and proven umbrella approach that offers health and climate benefits as well as increased economic stability for surrounding communities. Rather than making individual farmers bear the increased cost of organic production by reducing supports like the cost share program, it would be far wiser for USDA to allocate and invest more public dollars in farming practices like certified organic that advance health, equity and resiliency.

After all, supporting organic practices will mean less pesticide exposure for vulnerable agricultural communities, more protection for honeybees and other pollinators, healthier soil, reduced risk of groundwater pollution, increased biodiversity, and more climate-friendly farms. It also means investing in young, BIPOC, and socially disadvantaged producers that often prefer to farm without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and with healthy soil practices, but struggle to afford the business of farming rely on the cost share program to offset the cost of organic certification. 

If USDA wants organic producers—especially those who operate small farms—to survive this pandemic, it should immediately reverse course on this terrible decision and reestablish limits according to Congressional mandate. Even better, USDA could consider 100% reimbursement as an emergency measure during the COVID crisis.