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Organic transition package includes mentors, crop insurance subsidies

The Agriculture Department will spend $300 million on an initiative to help farmers transition to organic production and on “pinpointed” market development projects, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday. It would be the single largest investment ever in organic agriculture by the USDA “and a big step in the right direction,” said the Organic Trade Association.

“We know from listening to people on the ground that we need more organic producers,” said Vilsack. There were 16,585 organic farms covering 5.5 million acres in the United States, according to a 2019 USDA survey. California, Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania were the leading states. For years, organic has been the fastest-growing segment of grocery sales.

However, the number of farms actively transitioning to organic production has dropped by nearly 71% since 2008 despite a handful of USDA programs to assist producers during the three-year period to become certified as organic. Producers cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides during the transition and cannot sell their products at a premium as organic until they are certified.

The Organic Transition Initiative will put $100 million into “wraparound technical assistance” including mentorships with established organic producers, $75 million in assistance to producers who implement an Organic Management conservation practice on their land, $25 million in crop insurance subsidies to transitioning or certified organic producers and $100 million on “pinpointed” market development.

“We’re excited about this opportunity,” said Vilsack. “We’re excited about the chance that it gives young farmers and beginning farmers to take advantage of a high-value proposition and we’re really excited about the climate benefits that accrue as a result of organic production.”

Long-term funding was not guaranteed, said Vilsack in an interview with The Packer. The initiative will be implemented in the next year or two. “Then the hope would be that as people see the importance and success of it, and as Congress considers the farm bill, it figures out a way in which these initiatives can become a permanent fixture of the department as opposed to a one-off process.”

The National Organic Coalition said the initiative would “help expand domestic organic production in a sensible manner.” The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the new funding would help farmers clear hurdles to organic production. However, it said too little funding was devoted to a separate program that shares the cost with producers of becoming certified as organic.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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