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Organic farmers weigh in on 2007 farm bill debate

Organic farmers have traditionally been an independent, apolitlical group. This year that could change.

When more than 2,000 organic farmers and would-be organic farmers met in La Crosse, Wisconsin, last Thursday through Saturday, their leaders were asking them to write members of Congress and to leave their names and contact information in "Farm Bill Action Buckets" at the convention center. The farmers were in town for the annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference.

"I want to make it really clear. The transition to organic farming is challenging," said Faye Jones, Executive Director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, or MOSES.

So, to make that transition a little easier, MOSES is asking for three things in the next farm bill:

  1. Increased spending on organic agriculture research, education and information.
  2. More financial help for farmers when they pay for certification as organic
  3. Full funding for the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a USDA program for working farms that isn't strictly for organic farms.

By federal standards, some of the MOSES requests are modest. It wants help for annual certification by private or state organizations capped at $750 per farm, or 75% of the cost of its less than that amount. Nationally, that boost to the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program would cost $25 million a year.

Organic farmers already get some federal help for research and education, but that, too is modest, according to Mark Lipsohn, policy director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation of Santa Cruz, California.

Currently, about one-half of one percent of the USDA's $2 billion research and education budget goes to organic agriculture, Lipsohn told reporters at the organic farming conference in La Crosse. "We'd like to shoot for 10%," he said.

That's because, by the end of the next farm bill, about 10% of America's food supply could be organic, Lipsohn said earlier. The $15 billion industry is already about three percent of the nation's food supply, he said.

In order to meet demand for organic foods in this country, retailers are already importing from such nations as China, Mexico and Argentina, said Lipsohn, who is a member of a business that grows and markets organic tomatoes in California. And the U.S. lags behind countries in Europe and elsewhere in helping farmers make the switch to organic production, he added.

"If we aren't able to produce these foods in this country, they're going to have to come from somewhere else," he said.

MOSES also favors full funding for the Conservation Security Program. It's a program that is already keeping some farmers who practice sustainable agriculture in business, said Dan Specht, a farmer from McGregor, Iowa.

The program was put into the 2002 farm bill by Senator Tom Harkin, who headed the Senate Agriculture Committee that year and who is back in charge of the committee again. But after 2002, funds for the program were cut and signup has been offered only in certain watersheds.

The program rewards farmers and ranchers who are using soil and resource conserving practices, which in some cases has been on organic farms. But Specht said USDA's criteria for enrolling organic farms has been too narrow. USDA isn't giving credit to organic farmers for building up soil's water-holding capacity or for saving energy by using livestock manure and crop rotations for soil fertility, he said.

"We're not using fossil fuels to produce our fertilizers," Specht said.

MOSES is seeking at least $2 billion per year for the Conservation Security Program in the next farm bill.

Organic farmers have traditionally been an independent, apolitlical group. This year that could change.

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