Category Archives: OEFFA in the News

At Least 4 Good Reasons to Boost Soil Organic Matter, and a Chance to Learn How to Do It

By Kurt Knebusch, OSU CFAES, 2/1/16

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The key to successful, sustainable farming is found in the ground — or should be, says soil scientist Rafiq Islam of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

“Soil organic matter is the cornerstone of soil health,” said Islam, a member of a regional research team that’s spent the past 15 years studying soil organic matter, its benefits to crops and the best ways to boost it on farms run organically.

“As with any agricultural production system, maintaining a healthy and productive soil is the foundation of sustainable organic farming,” he said.

On Feb. 12, Islam and other team members will share their findings in “The Dirt on Organic Matter.” It’s a special preconference workshop being held before the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s Feb. 13-14 annual conference in Granville.

OEFFA calls the conference the largest such event devoted to sustainable food and farming in Ohio.

Rafiq Islam, soil scientist based at the Ohio State University South Centers in Piketon, will be part of the team presenting “The Dirt on Organic Matter.” (Photo by Ken Chamberlain, CFAES.)

Islam said the workshop is for farmers, people who work with farmers, and anyone who studies, teaches about or has an interest in sustainable farming.

More broadly, so is the conference, whose theme is “Growing Right by Nature.”

Both events are at Granville High School, 248 New Burg St.

Benefits microbes, pH, moisture, more

Soil organic matter is made up of plant, animal and microbe residues — possibly from manure or cover crops, for example — in various stages of decomposition. Islam said its benefits include:

  • Providing food, energy and enzymes for soil microbes. The microbes boost plants’ growth and health.
  • Providing a reservoir of essential plant nutrients that support good-yielding, high-quality, nutritious crops.
  • Being a catalyst for regulating the soil’s ecological functions. The functions include buffering the soil’s acid-alkaline balance, or pH. They also include improving the cation exchange capacity, which helps the soil store nutrients until needed by plants and microbes.
  • Improving the soil’s structure and moisture retention. Better soil structure improves drainage during rains and wet times. Better moisture retention helps plants during drought.

Big picture, soil organic matter also takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stores it in the soil. Excess atmospheric CO2 is one of the causes of climate change.

All about tools and best practices

Islam said people who take the workshop will learn how to increase soil organic matter levels by using, among other things, compost, manure, cover crops, and soil amendments such as gypsum, zeolite and leonardite, or black carbon. They’ll also get instruction on how to use an online soil organic matter calculator to monitor those levels.

The knowledge “can help greatly improve soil organic matter content and, consequently, soil health,” he said.

“Organic farmers are striving to reduce their operating costs, maintain soil organic matter and increase farm profits,” Islam said. “Often this results in intensive tillage-based practices that provide short-term yield gains but lose soil organic matter and productivity over time.”

The workshop is meant to reverse those losses, he said, with the goal being organic farms that aren’t just good for the environment but are viable and profitable — or even more so — as businesses.

The research team’s members include farmers; experts from the college’s outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center; and experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Michigan.

How to register

Registration for the workshop, which is separate from conference registration, is $75 for OEFFA members and $90 for nonmembers. The costs include lunch and resources that participants can take home. The deadline to register is Feb. 8.

Registration for the conference is $160 for OEFFA members and $220 for nonmembers, with lower-priced child, teen, student and one-day options available, too. Meals cost extra and can be reserved at registration.

Details about the workshop and conference and a link to online registration for either or both events are at oeffa.org/conference2016.php.

Farming is a public service and we need more of it, says TedX talker Lindsey Lusher Shute

By Debbi Snook

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/1/16

Lindsey Lusher Shute returns to Ohio next weekend to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Granville. She farms with her husband, who is a self-taught grower, and she now leads the National Young Farmers Coalition, a group that hopes to make the career of farming more possible for more people. She answered a few questions and a follow-up by email this week.

This year’s OEFFA conference will include a free session (with registration by Feb. 7) that hopes to match young farmers with landowners seeking their skills.

Tell us about your ties to Ohio and Ohio farming.

My earliest and most joyful childhood memories are of our Ohio farm in the rolling hills of Southeast Ohio. My grandfather Charles Lusher was a minister, but always considered himself a farmer. He grew the sweetest melon, and my grandmother served halves of it with vanilla ice cream in the middle and salt on top. My grandmother’s father, Henry Clerkus Sheets, was the last farmer in our family. Henry produced dairy, pork and tobacco, but all of his children moved on to other careers.

I grew up near Columbus, where my dad was a public school teacher and my mother a nurse. Other than visits to my grandfather’s farm, the state fair and an overly shaded vegetable plot, I had little exposure to farm life.

Why did you become a farmer?

I became a farmer because I fell in love with one. My husband Ben and I met in New York City,  where we built a community garden in Brooklyn. He had just returned from a farming apprenticeship in Oregon and eventually decided to start his own farm upstate. I was so inspired by Ben and the innovative and entrepreneurial farmers in the region that I eventually moved up. But in all honesty, outside of occasional chores, I do very little farming these days. With the National Young Farmers Coalition and our girls at home, the farming is left to Ben and our incredible crew.

What is your farming philosophy?

Farming is public service. That means nurturing our land; protecting our water; respecting our workers; and growing the best food for our communities.

Why is there a shortage of farmers?

For several generations, we have been losing young people in agriculture. With farm incomes declining and better prospects elsewhere, many farm families encouraged their kids to look to other careers.

The good food movement has reversed this trend somewhat, by bringing kids back to the farm as well as inspiring thousands of newcomers, but structural obstacles get in the way. With land prices on the rise, student debt and market challenges, it’s extremely difficult for many young people to get started and succeed in agriculture.

Who should be a farmer?

Everyone. If we are going to save our farmer population, every kid should contemplate a farm career. Even growing up here in Ohio, no one ever talked to me about the possibility of becoming a farmer. That’s no good. Farming is the opportunity to make a decent income, serve a community, be your own boss and get outside. Kids should put ‘farmer’ right up there on their lists with doctor, teacher and President of the United States.

What do you mean by “decent” income? What about those declining farm wages?

With affordable land, access to capital, appropriate scale and strong demand, a farmer can make a good living. The National Young Farmers Coalition believes that farmers should be in the position to support themselves and their families while farming full-time.

What’s the best thing government can do to create more farms?

Protect the affordability of farmland. One of the most difficult obstacles for young farmers is finding affordable farmland, and the problem is only growing worse. Governments can take action by conserving farmland with working farm easements and creating new tax incentives to help transition land.

What’s the best thing consumers can do to help create more farms?

We’ve all heard it a million times, but buy local. Where I live here in New York, it’s estimated that we only purchase 2 percent of our food from local sources. If demand increases, there will be more farms. Consumers can create demand by making the trip to their local farmers market, selecting locally grown at the grocery store, joining a CSA, and demanding that schools and institutions buy from farmers. Consumers are already driving change, but they can do much more.

February’s Statewide Sustainable Food Conference to Feature Cleveland Chef and Farmers

By Debbi Snook, 1/26/16

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Northeast Ohio will have a strong presence at next month’s statewide organic and sustainable food and farming conference in Granville. More than a half-dozen farmers and food producers from this area – from chef Ben Bebenroth to farm manager Maggie Fitzpatrick (Ohio City Farm) – will lead workshops at the annual meeting of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).

The two-day affair runs Feb. 13 and 14 with a third day on Feb. 12 for in-depth pre-conference sessions on beginning farming, soil health and grain marketing. Programs are geared to farmers, gardeners, retailers and consumers interested in sustainable methods of growing food.

OEFFA and national organic leaders held a news conference in November to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the standardized rules that define the federal government’s certified organic label. OEFFA, in addition to embracing sustainability in general, is also one of Ohio’s certifying organizations for the USDA label.

Organic food is now 4 percent of national food sales, but research on organic food is only one-tenth of one percent of the money set aside for research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition.

Research is necessary to keep the country’s soils healthy, many said, and to attract new farmers.

“OEFFA has been working on this for a number of years,” said Mike Laughlin, a southern Ohio farmer from Johnstown. “We’ve been developing young farmer educational programs, mentorships, and we even have a couple of different loan programs to help individuals get started. We’re starting to see some energy from that program and it really gives me a lot of hope for the future.”

Farmers and homegrowers can also get advice at the conference from these principals among many others in more than 100 workshops:

  • Ben Bebenroth, farmer and chef of Spice Kitchen & Bar, who will talk about growing, marketing and cooking unusual vegetables.
  • Elizabeth Kucinich, Rodale Institute board member, on going beyond the issue of genetic engineering to focus on soil-healthy agriculture.
  • Laura DeYoung Mannig of Urban Shepherd and Spicy Lamb Farm, Peninsula, on producing consistent meat quality.
  • George Remington of Morningside Farm (Hinckley)  on a panel discussing biofertilizers.
  • Jake Trethewey, Maplestar Farm (Auburn Township), on avoiding pesticide drift from nearby farms.
  • Maggie Fitzpatrick of the refugee project at Ohio City Farm (Cleveland) on expanding the ethnic crop market, and Jacqueline Kowalski of Ohio State University Extension in Cuyahoga County on a topic to be determined.
  • Matt Herbruck of Birdsong Farm (Hiram)  on the potential of community supported agriculture programs (CSAs).

A former southern Ohioan will deliver the keynote address on Saturday. Lindsey Lusher Shute of the National Young Farmers Coalition, now a New York State farmer, will talk about lobbying for more help for young farmers. John Ikerd speaks on Sunday. The farming advocate and critic of confined animal feeding operations wrote several books, including “Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms: Sustaining People Through Agriculture, and The Essentials of Economic Sustainability,” and taught at universities in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia and Missouri.

More registration information is available at oeffa.org. The deadline for the discounted early registration fee is Jan. 31. The highest price for advance registration is $205 for the two-day event for adult non-members, with tickets available separately for one-day or pre-conference attendance.

Land, Money Obstacles for Next Generation of OH Farmers

Ohio Public News Service

By Mary Kuhlman, 1/14/16

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The aging farm population in Ohio needs a new generation to fill its shoes, but young farmers face many obstacles getting off the ground.

Lindsey Lusher Shute, an Ohio native and executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, says capital is the biggest challenge for beginning farmers, especially those who are under financial constraints such as student loan debt.

Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, says new farmers are critical to the success of the food system. (Shute)

She says it’s also very difficult to access land, particularly near major cities where prices may be impacted by competing developers.

“Areas within 200 miles of cities where a farmer really may have the best chance of success because they can do direct marketing, direct sales, that’s where land is more expensive,” she says. “So land remains one of the major challenges.”

Shute says while the country has grown by 200 million people since 1920, there are 28 million fewer farmers. And she’ll be in Ohio next month to discuss the tools and resources needed to support beginning farmers. Shute is the keynote speaker at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s annual conference in Granville Feb. 12 through the 14.

Shute explains many beginning farmers want to give back to the land and sustainability is at the core of their motivation. Some come from a long line of farmers, but she says the majority are starting from scratch.

“Their presence is very welcome in the farm community because many farm kids have not been encouraged to stay on the farm in the past few generations,” Shute says. “And so this influx of new farm entrepreneurs is very necessary and vital for the farm economy.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows almost 30 percent of Ohio farmers are age 65 or older, and just seven percent are younger than 35 years of age. Shute says agriculture needs young people to ensure the growth of local food systems.

“If we don’t do something about this gap we have and to make sure that this beautiful farmland in Ohio and across the nation,” says Shute. “If we’re not sure that’s going to go to another working farm family, then we will not have family farms in the future and we will not have food security.”

And one policy measure that would help, says Shute, is the Young Farmers Success Act of 2016. It would add farmers to a public loan forgiveness program.

Celebrating 25 years of organic standards

By Catie Noyes

Farm and Dairy, 12/8/15

SALEM, Ohio — Organic producers, policy leaders and consumers agree the road to creating uniform standards for organic production was not an easy one. Even after the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the rules concerning organic production were disputed and would take several more years to sort out.

Twenty-five years later, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association acknowledged this milestone in a teleconference, Nov. 30, by talking about the challenges of creating unified standards in organic production. Participants also shared their hopes for the future of the National Organic Program.

Before the law

“There was no ‘ah-ha’ moment for us,” said Mike Laughlin, a certified organic specialty crop farmer from Johnstown, Ohio, referring to his decision to go organic. He and his wife had been growing a few small plots of vegetables in their backyard, nothing large-scale at the time.

“When our farm became a reality, it was a simple choice to grow in a manner that protected and enhanced the earth and provided good clean, safe food for us, our children and our customers,” Laughlin said during the conference call. But finding the information they needed was a challenge.

“It was a different time,” Laughlin said. “A lot of information was hard to find.” That’s when Laughlin discovered the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and found a group of like-minded individuals. Through the association, Laughlin was able to become certified organic under the criteria supplied by the OEFFA.

Having the OEFFA standards in place made Ohio one of the first states to develop rules for organic production, but it didn’t seem to be enough, said Laughlin. “It didn’t stop anyone else from saying they had an organic product. There were no rules to prevent that from happening.”

This began a push for more uniform U.S. standards.

Developing standards

“This was a very classic David and Goliath story,” said Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. deputy secretary for the USDA who helped write the laws for the national organic standard that would replace the patchwork standards developed across the country in the late 1980s.

At the time, there was a distrust between farmers and the government. “Farmers had not been treated well by USDA historically,” explained Merrigan. So it was a surprise to see farmers coming to government’s door for help.  Legislation for the Organic Foods Production Act was signed into law on Nov. 28, 1990. Concerns for the language in the legislation would prompt more changes in the next 12 years.

The use of GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge were all permitted in the original legislation, which ignited an uproar in the organic community, explained Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition adviser. There were over 325,000 comments submitted to the act’s implementation — “the biggest comment to any USDA rule at that point,” said Hoodes.

It wasn’t until 2002 that a final rule was published, establishing an intensive set of rules. “Back then, the organic standards were just two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper,” said Laughlin, whose Northridge Organic Farm was one of the first Ohio farms to become certified organic under the new federal standards. “Now they’re more like a telephone book.”

Future

Even with a very prescriptive set of rules, all panel members agreed, the future of the organic industry looks promising. Organic products have seen an “astounding” growth, said Abby Youngblood, National Organic Coalition Executive Director, with sales reaching nearly $40 billion annually, which she said is about 5% of total food sales.

“I think organic is a key opportunity for those who are getting into farming,” she said. “In terms of profitability, on a per-acre basis, in many cases organic does offer increased profitability and a way for people to get started in farming.”

Research

But more organic research funding is needed, added Youngblood. “Only one-tenth of 1 percent of all agricultural research is dedicated in the (USDA’s) flagship research program to organic research.”

Kathleen Merrigan said she has seen practices led by organic farmers be adopted by a larger number of farmers who are not organic. “Investing in organic research is not just investing in organic agriculture, it’s investing in agriculture,” she said.

Her example was the use of rotational grazing on dairy farms, a practice she said was “pioneered by organic producers” and has since been widely adapted on a variety of operations both organic and non-organic — “because it makes sense.” The kinds of research that (organic producers) are calling for is a way to broaden our American agriculture portfolio, said Merrigan.

Silver celebration: Organic enthusiasts mark food law’s 25th anniversary

Sup­port­ers cel­e­brated the 25th an­niver­sary of the Or­ganic Foods Pro­duc­tion Act last week. Lead­ers re­flected on how far the move­ment has come in the past few decades dur­ing a vir­tual press con­fer­ence hosted by the Ohio Eco­log­i­cal Food and Farm As­so­ci­a­tion, one of the na­tion’s first pro­mot­ers of or­ganic food.

Signed into law in 1990, the OFPA was a bat­tle be­fore and af­ter im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Liana Hoodes, Na­tional Or­ganic Coali­tion ad­viser, said prior to the OFPA there was no na­tional stan­dard for or­ganic farm­ing.

“It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the de­vel­op­ment of the law came from farm­ers and con­sumers, joined by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and in­dus­try in the very be­gin­ning,” she said.

Kath­leen Mer­ri­gan served as head of the Agri­cul­tural Mar­ket­ing Ser­vice from 1999 to 2001 and is known as the chief ar­chi­tect of the present-day or­ganic stan­dards. She later served as Deputy Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture from 2009 to 2013.

Prior to the OFPA, Mer­ri­gan said a deep mis­trust had grown be­tween or­ganic farm­ers and gov­ern­ment. With growth in the or­ganic sec­tor, farm­ers were con­cerned or­ganic stan­dards would be wa­tered down, so they went to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture for help.

Mer­ri­gan said the USDA orig­i­nally tried to work with la­bel rules but de­cided the is­sue needed leg­is­la­tion. Govern­ment of­fi­cials, farm­ers and or­ganic stake­hold­ers part­nered to write the bill.

“I think that part­ner­ship, that col­lab­o­ra­tion, is em­bed­ded in the law through the con­struc­tion of the Na­tional Or­ganic Stan­dards Board,” she said.

Even af­ter the draft bill was writ­ten, the group had trou­ble get­ting it passed. Sen. Pa­trick Leahy, D-Vt., the Se­nate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee chair­man, in­tro­duced the bill in a cham­ber with a Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity. While the Se­nate went along with the bill, Mer­ri­gan said, the House was a dif­fer­ent story.

“When I look back on that time, this is a very clas­sic David and Go­liath story,” she said.

Mer­ri­gan said the USDA had trou­ble find­ing a Con­gress­man to in­tro­duce the leg­is­la­tion be­fore Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed to spon­sor it. He was not on the House Ag Com­mit­tee and had an up­hill bat­tle be­fore the bill passed and Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush signed it into law.

After pas­sage, the law was slow to get off the ground, ham­pered by a lack of ap­pro­pri­a­tions for USDA staff and the Na­tional Or­ganic Stan­dards Board to de­velop the rules.

The first draft rules were fi­nally pub­lished in 1997, but con­tained what Hoodes de­scribed as a “head­line grab­bing” al­lowance of three con­tro­ver­sial things: GMOs, ir­ra­di­a­tion and sewage sludge.

Hoodes said grass­roots groups pulled to­gether and the draft rules re­ceived 325,000 com­ments in an era be­fore In­ter­net sub­mis­sions. Hoodes said the com­ments rep­re­sented the most sub­mit­ted on a USDA rule up to that point.

Dur­ing Mer­ri­gan’s ten­ure at USDA, the rules, which she de­scribed as “a phone book” thick, were re­fined and pub­lished in 2002.

Mer­ri­gan said while food safety was the mo­ti­va­tion at the time of the OFPA’s pas­sage, en­vi­ron­men­tal health, sus­tain­abil­ity and farm struc­ture have ben­e­fited.

“I think we have seen in time that we are ready to start go­ing be­yond that ini­tial food safety, con­sumers driven to or­ganic be­cause of con­cerns about pes­ti­cide residues,” she said. “Now, con­sumers in the mar­ket­place are reach­ing for the or­ganic la­bel be­cause of a whole host of at­tributes.”

Abby Young­blood, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Or­ganic Coali­tion, said or­ganic food sales have grown to $40 bil­lion, rep­re­sent­ing 5 per­cent of U.S. food sales.

“We have seen re­ally as­tound­ing growth in a short pe­riod of time,” she said.

How­ever, re­search fund­ing has not kept up. Young­blood said just one-tenth of 1 per­cent of the re­search in the USDA’s flag­ship pro­gram is ded­i­cated to or­ganic sys­tems. She said more fed­eral fund­ing is needed for or­ganic re­search to help farm­ers breed seeds bet­ter adapted to chang­ing cli­mate and or­ganic sys­tems.

Young­blood said farm­ers are ben­e­fit­ing from the OFPA by or­ganic farm­ing prac­tices and price pre­mi­ums. It also of­fers a way for be­gin­ning farm­ers to start a ca­reer.

“Or­ganic is a key op­por­tu­nity for those who are get­ting into farm­ing,” she said. “We know that if we want to con­tinue to pro­duce food do­mes­ti­cally, we need to have more farm­ers and we need to at­tract young peo­ple to the pro­fes­sion.”

Young­blood also said the OFPA laid the foun­da­tion for a much more demo­cratic and trans­par­ent food sys­tem.

“It is this op­por­tu­nity that cit­i­zens have to par­tic­i­pate in the process and to en­gage in help­ing to de­cide what that or­ganic la­bel means,” she said. “It’s re­ally so im­por­tant and so ex­cit­ing, be­cause we know that we can keep build­ing the or­ganic la­bel. It’s not static, and it can keep chang­ing and adapt­ing to re­flect new pro­duc­tion meth­ods.”

Ohio activists planning National Day of Action on Tuesday

Akron Beacon Journal

11-13-15

By Bob Downing

From a Friday press release:

Groups Join Together to Call for a Halt of Toxic Fracking Waste and Man-made Earthquakes in a National Day of Action on Tuesday, November 17, 2015
      Youngstown, Ohio, November 12, 2015 – Groups of concerned citizens from several states are joining together to call for a halt of toxic fracking waste and related man-made earthquakes in a November 17, 2015 event titled, “Freedom From Toxic Fracking Waste and Earthquakes: A National Day of Action.”
     On Tuesday, November 17, 2015, a national coalition of local coordinators and groups will hold rallies or actions throughout the day to shine light on the numerous problems associated with toxic, radioactive fracking waste and its “disposal,” including its links to earthquakes, spills, and leaks. Groups have been communicating with each other to raise public awareness and to call for positive public action to protect their family’s health, safety, and well-being from the onslaught of fracking waste injection and disposal wells or other fracking-related infrastructure or processes, including dumping fracking waste on landfills.The high risks to water, air, and land and pollution due to toxic fracking waste are unacceptable.
     The coalition says there is no good or safe solution to the ever growing problem of the constant production of millions of gallons or tons of toxic fracking waste. Where will it all go? They say that injection or disposal wells are being drilled next to homes or in rural or residential areas that should not be heavy industrial toxic waste sites. As evidenced by numerous news reports and other documentation, there is damage to family homes or other structures because of fracking or injection well-related earthquakes. One Oklahoma woman is suing due to injuries she said she experienced during an injection well-related earthquake. The man-made earthquake situation is getting worse, not better.
      “The truth about fracking waste, injection wells, and earthquakes is showing itself everywhere. The unfolding of this truth can’t be stopped even if the oil and gas industry, some officials, and their allies want to put their heads in the sand or try to deny or minimize the real unacceptable impacts to people and their air, water, land, and property values and their quality and way of life.  There is no good solution to what to do with, or where to put, unprecedented, massive amounts of toxic fracking waste fluids or solids. There is no safe way to dispose of it. Since the public is suffering and being negatively impacted by current practices, the creation of the waste must stop,” said Teresa Mills of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), founded by Lois Gibbs of Love Canal renown.
      The November 17th National Day of Action is being coordinated by Buckeye Forest Council (BFC), The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), Faith Communities Together for a Sustainable Future (FaCT), Frackfree America National Coalition (FANC), Network for Oil & Gas Accountability & Protection, (NEOGAP) and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
     Coordinators say there is still time for more individuals or groups to get involved in the events planned for November 17, 2015, by contacting Frackfree America National Coalition at: 234-201-8007 or by e-mail at frackfreeamerica@gmail.com.

Happy 25th Birthday, National Organic Program!

organic foods protection act anniversary

Shutterstock

Former president George H. W. Bush was not known as a supporter of organic agriculture, not even remotely. But back on November 28, 1990, the elder Bush did play a small, but significant role in the history of the movement when he signed the Organic Foods Protection Act (OPFA) into existence. This was the beginning of USDA Organic certification and a momentous leap forward for what has grown from a fringe movement in the 1960s—what some saw as just a “hippy garden project”—to a formidable market force in the global food industry today.

But with all its success, the national organic program has weathered its share of challenges. Modern Farmer was invited to participate in a virtual press conference yesterday, held by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in honor of the milestone, where a panel of organic movement veterans reminisced about the long, and often turbulent, journey thus far and shared their hopes for the future of the National Organic Program.

“It was a classic David and Goliath story,” recounts Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of the USDA, who was asked by Mark Lipson of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to help draft a national organic standard, which would replace the patchwork state-level organic standards that existed in the late 1980s. Organic food was becoming increasingly popular in the general public, leading some large conventional growers to take an interest—folks whose interest seemed to be motivated more by profit than by organic principles.

“There was a concern that the standards would get watered down,” says Merrigan, who ultimately prevailed in shepherding the OPFA through the halls of Congress at the behest of a nationwide coalition of organic farmers and certifying agencies. “This was tough for the organic community because they had not been treated well by the USDA historically … but there was a sense that [OPFA] was necessary. It was interesting that a community of folks, who historically were distrustful of government, actually came to government’s door for help.”

Though the law was signed in 1990, it would be 12 more years before the rules governing organic practices were sorted out and implemented. This was largely due to a massive backlash against three components that were included in the new national standard, but that few people outside of large food corporations thought had any business being there. The use of sewage sludge, irradiation, and GMOs were all permitted in the original wording of OPFA, but after receiving more than 325,000 public comments—mostly in opposition to these three practices—the USDA caved in and reworded the final rule, which was finally published in 2002.

That was only the first in an ongoing series of battles concerning exactly what should and should not be allowed under the organic standards, resulting in the labyrinthine rulebook that organic farmers must follow today. It’s on par with the tax code in terms of its heft and complexity. “Back then, the organic standards were just two sides of an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet of paper,” says Mike Laughlin, of Northridge Organic Farm in Johnston, Ohio, who was one of Ohio’s first certified organic farms under the new federal standards. “Now they’re more like a telephone book.”

“To move forward in the future with organic, it’s going to be imperative that we devote more money to funding organic research.”

The original proponents of the national organic standard—mostly small, diversified organic growers—got the recognition and legal protection they were after, but ironically, having a unified code with the weight of the federal government behind it gave large corporations exactly the opening they needed to enter the market and take advantage of the growing demand for organic produce. The industry has exploded in an exponential growth curve that would make any Wall Street capitalist sit up in their chair: Sales of organic products in the US have risen more than tenfold from $3.6 billion in 1997 to almost $40 billion in 2014. Costco recently rose above Whole Foods as the nation’s top organic retailer.

While organics have grown from less than 1 percent of total US food sales in 1997 to nearly 5 percent today, the organic industry receives a disproportionately smaller share of public funding for research and development than the conventional food industry. “To move forward in the future with organic, it’s going to be imperative that we devote more money to funding organic research,” says Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition, noting that the USDA currently allocates just 0.1 percent of the budget for its flagship research program, the Agriculture Food Research Initiative (AFRI), for organic farming research. “We have identified a long list of organic research needs,” she says. “We know that farmers are going to need seeds better adapted to our changing climate, and better adapted to systems of organic production, and we know that we’re going to need new ways to control pests and disease that aren’t reliant on chemical inputs.”

A huge chunk of the organic food flying off the shelves of Costco and other large retailers is imported from overseas.

It’s not just research dollars that don’t match the tremendous sales growth of the organic industry: The number of acres in organic production has barely budged since the USDA started keeping track of them in 2002. In 2012, when the most recent agricultural census was conducted, the number of organic farms in the US was just 0.6 percent of total US farm acreage. In other words, a huge chunk of the organic food flying off the shelves of Costco and other large retailers is imported from overseas. According to a recent global survey of organic production, North America ranks 5th, ahead of only Africa, in acres of certified organic land. In Italy, 10 percent of agricultural land is certified organic, compared to 0.6 percent here. India has more than 650,000 organic producers compared to less than 13,000 in the US.

Merrigan says the discrepancy between demand for organic goods in the US and domestic supply is certainly not for a lack of enthusiastic young people who want to start organic farms, but there is a high cost threshold for new farmers to enter the market:

“We want to grow our own home base of organic farmers, but that requires bringing on the next generation of American farmers…and they are facing huge capital costs. Many of them are not hailing from the farm, but are college graduates wanting to go to the land and be a young entrepreneur, and they all of a sudden find the price tag of what an acre costs and what a combine costs and that sort of thing. But if there is anything that should be a call to arms in this next decade moving forward, it is to find a way to put those young people on the land. To me it just cries out opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. We know that there is a market for them to sell to.”

Besides the capital costs involved in farming, which are a reality that both conventional and organic growers face, labor costs are a particular concern to organic farmers, who rely largely on human power for weed and pest control, rather than chemicals. In this regard, it’s hard to compete with places like India, where wages are a fraction of what they are in the US. It will be a steep row to hoe for organic farmers in the US to keep up with demand, but it’s a worthy challenge for the next 25 years.

USDA Awards $113M to Support Speciality Crop Production

Illinois Ag Connection

10/06/15

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Monday awarded more than $113 million in program grants to support farmers growing fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery crops, also known as “specialty crops,” through research, agricultural extension activities, and programs to increase demand and address the needs of America’s specialty crop industry.

Monday’s announcement is part of a USDA-wide effort supporting President Obama’s commitment to strengthening local and regional food systems. These grants are administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

“Increasing market opportunities for local food producers is a sound investment in America’s rural economies, while also increasing access to healthy food for our nation’s families,” Vilsack said. “These investments will support local and regional markets, and improve access to healthy food for millions of children and supply thousands of farmers markets, restaurants and other businesses with fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables. The grants also help growers solve technology needs or make better informed decisions on profitability and sustainability, leading to stronger rural American communities and businesses.”

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is awarding $63 million to 755 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program projects nation-wide. The grants are issued to State departments of agriculture for projects that help support specialty crop growers, including locally grown fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops, including floriculture through research and programs to increase demand. Since 2009, AMS has awarded 385 grants totaling $392.9 million for 5,484 projects, including those announced Monday.

For example, an Ohio program was awarded a grant that will increase specialty crop competitiveness by helping Ohio growers with organic production and food safety grant. The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association will provide Ohio beginning and existing organic farmers direct technical support and educational programming to help improve organic production and marketing skills. The project will also help transition other growers to certified organic production, and will help farmers of all sizes and levels of experience to establish and implement on-farm food safety plans.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is announcing $50 million in grants funded through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which is made available through the 2014 Farm Bill. This program develops and disseminates science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops across the entire spectrum of specialty crops production, from researching plant genetics to developing new production innovations and developing methods to respond to food safety hazards.

In fiscal year 2015, NIFA made 15 new awards totaling more than $40 million. Fiscal year 2015 grants includes USDA Agricultural Research Service, Peoria, Ill., which will receive $3,672,482.

Additionally in fiscal year 2015, NIFA made also made five continuation awards totaling $9.7 million for grants initially funded in prior fiscal years. Continuation awards are based on available appropriations and project success.

Examples of funded projects include a project at the University of California working to sustain the supply of high quality lettuce in the face of changing technology and climate. The University of Florida will research management strategies for Laurel wilt, a lethal disease in avocadoes. And Michigan State University aims to use applied genomics to increase disease resistance in cucurbit crops. Since 2009, NIFA has funded almost $285 million for 138 research projects including those announced today. Abstracts of projects previously funded are available on NIFA’s website.

AMS works to improve global opportunities for U.S. growers and producers. AMS grant funding supports a variety of programs, including organic certification cost-share programs, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program. This funding is one of the ways that USDA invests in the future of rural America and the nation’s agricultural sector. NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

 

More Ohio farmers go organic

The Columbus Dispatch

10/15/2015

By JD Malone

More Ohio-grown organic produce should be finding its way to supermarkets as an increasing number of the state’s farmers turn to this method of growing in a nod to consumer demand.

Though the image of organic farming is one of back-to-the-land hobbyists raising heirloom vegetables for farmers markets, Ohio’s organic farms have found that what was once a niche is now an industry.

The state’s organic farmers added 12,000 acres to their more than 500 farms and doubled sales between 2008 and 2014, the only two years of full U.S. Department of Agriculture census data on organic farming nationwide.

Another sign of Ohio’s organic farming growth is that 25 percent of organic operators get all of their income from their farm, up from just 14 percent in 2008. Last year, 34 of Ohio’s organic farms had sales of $500,000 or higher, more than double the number in 2008.

“A lot of farmers are seeing that there is a tremendous amount of potential in the organic market,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “We have seen more growth in demand than supply. The market opportunity is just incredible.”

Ohio’s organic producers grow peppers, squash and tomatoes, cut flowers and herbs. They make pickles, grow microgreens indoors and raise sheep. They also grow some organic corn and soybeans for animal feed. But the big growth in Ohio’s organic production has been in dairy and eggs, two longtime Ohio specialties.

Ohio’s organic milk production, with $36.6 million in sales last year, makes up more than 40 percent of the state’s entire organic production.

Perry Clutts converted his family’s 116-year-old crop farm near Circleville into an organic dairy, and he’s never looked back.

“We transitioned in 2007, and it has been nothing but asking for more and more milk,” he said.

Clutts sells to Horizon, one of the largest organic dairies in the nation. When his family’s tenant farmer retired, Clutts wanted to invest in something with a bright future. He knew his family’s farm, with its poor soil, couldn’t compete with conventional growers. He saw potential in organic products.

“Demand wasn’t great in 2007, but it looked like an opportunity,” he said. “It looked like something that would be around for awhile. I figured people would be more interested over time than less interested in these products.

“I wish I could pick things as well at Scioto Downs.”

Organic egg production has seen hockey-stick growth. The segment had sales of about $2 million in 2008 and grew to more than $17 million last year — about 19 percent of the state’s total organic sales. Ohio is home to enormous egg operations and trails only Iowa in egg production, so it makes sense that farmers here exploit an opportunity when they see it.

“It depends on consumer trends. If the consumers are asking for more (organics), farmers like us will continue to produce more organics,” said Lisa Timmerman, egg division manager for Cooper Farms in Fort Recovery, in western Ohio. “We are seeing a strong market for organics.”

Cooper Farms produces regular white eggs, cage-free eggs and about a year ago added organic eggs. Organic now makes up 5 to 6 percent of its egg business, Timmerman said.

Finding partners and making sure its operation met organic standards has been pretty smooth so far, Timmerman said. The company contracts with local farmers in Indiana and Ohio for its organic eggs.

“The key is that no matter what kind of eggs, cage-free, conventional or organic, farmers will be willing to produce what the consumers want,” she said.

Though it is growing in leaps, organic farming is a tiny fraction of the state’s agricultural footprint.

Ohio has about 75,000 farms and more than 10 million acres in production. The value of Ohio’s bounty tops $10  billion a year.

Lipstreu sees Ohio’s strength in conventional farming as a boon to its future organic growth. A lucrative organic grain market — for high-demand organic meats — could attract more of Ohio’s large, experienced grain farmers into organic production, especially as prices for conventional corn and soybeans continue to fall.

The U.S. imported more than $1.4 billion in organic foods in 2013, according to the USDA. A lot of that food, such as bananas and coffee, can’t be grown here. Soybeans and wine, of which the U.S. has abundant conventional producers, are also leading organic imports because demand far outstrips domestic supply.

Organic grapes won’t likely be a major Ohio crop, but Lipstreu sees grains like soybeans, wheat and corn as the next big growth area for organic farmers.

“We have seen some farmers split operations, doing both organic and conventional, testing it out,” she said. “There is a huge opportunity there.”