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FUNDING ORGANIC FARMERS Support You Can Tap Into
The fight for organic dairy integrity
Jessica Gigot, an OFA Governing Council member, with her family
Make your voice COUNT! TAKE THE POLICY SURVEY p. 5
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When I took soil science in ag school back in the 1970s, the professor told us that soil was just there to hold up the plant while we fed it with chemical fertilizers. Organic matter was important primarily because it helped to keep the soil loose for tillage. For me, and a small group of friends, it seemed there had to be a better way to produce our food and care for the soil. Organic farming was the answer. Fast-forward to 1982 when my family purchased land in southern Maine to raise organic veggies and herbs for the local health food co-op and a few restaurants. Although I had a degree in biological agriculture from Antioch University, five years experience working on farms, and the support of my family, I felt isolated and alone at times. I joined the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and have continued to be an active participant for the last 37 years. One reason I became involved was for the organization’s advocacy work. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen dramatic growth in organic farming and in the number of organizations representing various portions of the organic market. Still, we were missing a representative voice for the organic farmer advocating nationally for our concerns. That’s why I partnered with others from across the country to form Organic Farmers Association, the one organization run by farmers for farmers and dedicated to advocating solely for our interests. Today our organization is making a real difference on the issues organic farmers care about most. The recent farm bill (the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018) includes many provisions that OFA worked for, such as continued funding for organic certification cost share programs (helping reduce the expenses of certification) and an allocation of nearly $400 million to support organic research and extension programs. The bill also funds increased enforcement of organic standards. Just as with every organic farm, there’s always more work to do. Right now, OFA’s policy director and committee are pressing hard on the priorities that members voted on in 2018 and 2019. These include
strengthening USDA import inspection and testing protocols to ensure organic label integrity; immediate implementation of the National Organic Program Origin of Livestock Final Rule; collection of accurate pricing data on organic commodities; and much more. How can you help? First, become a farm member of Organic Farmers Association. Your membership fee is an investment in the future of your farm and organic agriculture. (Our sliding scale membership fee allows farmers to join at a financial level that works for them.) Send in the enclosed envelope or join online at OrganicFarmersAssociation.org. Second, be sure to fill out and submit this year’s policy survey. You can express your views using the form on page 5 or online at http://bit.ly/2020ofapolicy. Completing the survey will give you a say in which issues are most pressing and how to deal with them. Karen Lee of Long Island’s Sang Lee Farms (see page 32) sums up so well why OFA membership is important to her. “Having an organization to support what we do helps us to feel that our impact goes much further than it would if we were on our own.” Make your impact go further by signing up for or renewing your Organic Farmers Association membership at OrganicFarmersAssociation.org.
Dave Colson New Leaf Farm, Durham, Maine President, Organic Farmers Association Governing Council
thank yo for helpi ave e ear r r better an yo
fall 2019 Co-chairs, Board of Directors Maya Rodale, Roberta Lang Chief Executive Officer Jeff Moyer
GOVERNING COUNCIL Farmer Representatives Judith Redmond, Full Belly Farm, CA; Steve Beck, Kings River Produce, CA; Dave Bishop, PrairiErth Farm, IL; Joannee DeBruhl, Stone Coop Farm, MI; Mike Kelly, High Meadow Farm, WI; Harriet Behar, Sweet Springs Farm, WI; Nathaniel Powell-Palm, Cold Springs Organics, MT; Jessica Gigot, Harmony Fields, WA; Jennifer Taylor, Lola’s Organic Farm, GA; Loretta Adderson, Adderson’s Fresh Produce, GA; David Colson, New Leaf Farm, ME; Maryrose Livingston, Northland Sheep Dairy, NY Organization Representatives (Advisory) Phil LaRocca, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF); Renee Hunt, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA); David Perkins, Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES); Becky Weed, Montana Organic Association (MOA); Michael Sligh, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFIUSA); Ed Maltby, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA); Maria Pop, Rodale Institute Director Kate Mendenhall
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Features SEEKING HARMONY page 14 A pair of beginning farmers in western Washington sing the praises of organics as they nurture their growing operation. by Shelby Rowe Moyer LEADING THE HERD page 20 Organic Farmers Association members are working to protect the health of their dairy cows and the integrity of the organic label. by Melissa Pasanen
BLUE ROOT MEDIA Editor Scott Meyer Design Director Kimberly Brubaker Photography Director Rob Cardillo Copy Editor Diana Cobb Production Manager Nancy Rutman
ORGANIC FARMERS’ RESOURCE GUIDE page 25 A variety of federal programs offer assistance to new, transitioning, and experienced organic producers.
In Every Issue 01 NEWS FEED page 8 Presidential candidates weigh in on organic agriculture and climate change.
CONTRIBUTORS David Benthal, Shelby Rowe Moyer, Jean Nick, Hilary Page, Melissa Pasanen, Michèle M. Waite
02 GROUND BREAKERS page 10 A pioneering organic grain grower shares a few keys to success.
NEW FARM is the magazine of Organic Farmers Association.
03 FIELD WORK page 12 Prepare for the new federal produce safety regulations. rodale institute
Copyright 2019 by Rodale Institute SEND ADDRESS CHANGES, COMMENTS, AND INQUIRIES TO Rodale Institute, 611 Siegfriedale Rd. Kutztown, PA 19530-9320 USA 610-683-1400 RodaleInstitute.org
2020 ORGANIC FARMERS ASSOCIATION POLICY SURVEY
04 NEW FARMERS page 32 The Lee family of Peconic, New York. COVER: Jessica Gigot and Dean Luce are raising their daughters, June and Eloise, and organic foods on their farm in Bow, Washington. Photograph by Michèle M. Waite
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Organic Farmers Association
Make your voice COUNT!
2020 ANNUAL POLICY DEVELOPMENT SURVEY
Each year, Organic Farmers Association asks all U.S. certified organic farmers and organic farm organizations to tell us your top policy priorities and positions. The OFA-elected Policy Committee reviews the results, identifies the top priorities, and drafts policy statements from this broad-based solicitation to submit to all of our members (including supporter and organization members) for comment. These comments refine the draft policies, but only certified organic OFA farm members vote on the final policies. If you have not yet become an OFA farm member, please join today! Please select the option that best describes you: ❍❍ I am a certified organic farmer. ❍❍ I work for or serve in a leadership role with an organic farm organization. ❍❍ Other (please specify) _____________________________________ _____________________________________ Are you currently a member of Organic Farmers Association? ❍❍ Yes ❍ No
Please select the REGION in which your farm/organization resides: ❍❍ CALIFORNIA ❍❍ WEST (AK, HI, WA, OR, NV, AZ, ID, UT, NM, MT, WY, CO, KS) ❍❍ NORTH CENTRAL (ND, SD, NE, MN, IA, WI) ❍❍ MIDWEST (MO, IL, IN, MI, OH, PA) ❍❍ SOUTH (TX, OK, AR, LA, MS, AL, GA, FL, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV, MD) ❍❍ NORTHEAST (NY, VT, NH, ME, MA, RI, CT, NJ, DE)
ONLINE OPTION To complete this survey and submit it to Organic Farmers Association online, go to http://bit.ly/2020ofapolicy.
YOUR POLICY PRIORITIES Please SELECT THE TOP THREE policy positions you think should be the HIGHEST PRIORITIES for Organic Farmers Association: ❍❍ Access to affordable land ❍❍ Animal welfare rule: reintroducing the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) Rule ❍❍ Beginning-farmer support ❍❍ Climate change ❍❍ Crop insurance improvements for organic producers ❍❍ Expanded organic research ❍❍ Food safety (FSMA implementation) ❍❍ Labor and immigration ❍❍ National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) issues and agenda ❍❍ NOP enforcement to ensure organic integrity ❍❍ NRCS: EQIP, CSP, CRP programs for extended organic support ❍❍ Organic certification cost share ❍❍ Organic dairy standards and enforcement (i.e., Origin of Livestock Rule and Pasture Rule) ❍❍ Organic import fraud ❍❍ Organic liaison at USDA ❍❍ Organic production and market data initiatives (ODI) ❍❍ Pesticide and GMO contamination ❍❍ Prohibiting containers in organic production (with the exceptions of transplants and plants sold in their containers) ❍❍ Prohibiting hydroponics in organic production ❍❍ Prohibiting sodium nitrate in organic production ❍❍ Public seeds and breeds research ❍❍ Water: clean water, access, etc. ❍❍ Other (please specify) (over) ____________________________________________________
ORGANIC FARMERS ASSOCIATION Policy Proposal #1 Policy Topic/Title: ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ Recommended Organic Farmers Association Policy Position: Example: “Organic Farmers Association supports [description].” ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ More information about why this policy is important: ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ Could Organic Farmers Association have permission to contact you for more information about this policy? ❍❍ Yes ❍ No ORGANIC FARMERS ASSOCIATION Policy Proposal #2 Policy Topic/Title: ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ Recommended Organic Farmers Association Policy Position: Example: “Organic Farmers Association supports [description].” ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ More information about why this policy is important: ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________ Could Organic Farmers Association have permission to contact you for more information about this policy? ❍❍ Yes ❍ No
Join Organic Farmers Association today to help fight for the issues that matter to you. Send in the enclosed envelope or sign up online at organicfarmersassociation.org. NAME AND CONTACT INFORMATION (Your policy positions and priorities will be kept confidential and only shared as a group. If you have particular knowledge of and passion for a particular policy position, Organic Farmers Association staff may reach out to you for more information on the policy issue.) Name ___________________________________ Farm Name/Organization ___________________ Address __________________________________ Town ____________________________________ State _______ ZIP ________________________ Email ____________________________________ Phone (Mobile Preferred) ___________________ ❍❍ Please check this box if Organic Farmers Association can text you action alerts. RETURN COMPLETED SURVEYS TO Organic Farmers Association Attn: Ali Lynn 611 Siegfriedale Rd. Kutztown, PA 19530
SUBMIT YOUR POLICY POSITIONS FOR THE POLICY COMMITTEE TO REVIEW
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News feed Legislation and Regulation
Election 2020: Farming and the Environment Check out the policies on sustainable agriculture and its connection to climate change from six presidential hopefuls.
CORY BOOKER Key proposals In September, Booker introduced the Climate Stewardship Act of 2019 in the Senate. This legislation would increase incentives for conservation practices, fund grants to expand renewable energy production on farms, invest in programs that bolster local food systems, and fund urban farms and community gardens in low-income communities. He supports limits on consolidation among industrial food producers. In his words “Farmers and ranchers are on the front lines of the dramatic changes in the climate that we’re already seeing, and they have an important role to play as we move forward,” Booker told a reporter for Civil Eats (civileats. com), an online publication about food policy. Learn more corybooker.com/issues
JOE BIDEN Key proposals “The Biden Plan for Rural America” calls for increasing financial support for beginning farmers, expanding the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), investing in publicly owned research, and building regional food systems. Biden wants to allow farmers to participate in “carbon markets” so they could earn income for regenerative soil management. In his words “The Biden Plan will make a significant investment in research to refine practices to build soil carbon while maximizing farm and ranch productivity. Soil is the next frontier for storing carbon.” Learn more joebiden.com/rural
JANA SHEA (BIDEN), MICHAEL F. HIATT (BOOKER, BUTTIGIEG), PERRY MCLEOD (SANDERS), J STONE (CASTRO), JULI HANSEN (WARREN)/ALL SHUTTERSTOCK
Next year’s presidential election presents distinct choices to voters who are concerned about agricultural and environmental policies. The Trump Administration can be judged on its record on these issues, while three competitors for the Republican nomination—William Weld, Joe Walsh, and Mark Sanford—have not published positions on farming or climate change. Several of the Democrats running for their party’s nomination have endorsed the Green New Deal, a set of proposals to address global warming and structural inequality in the economy. That group includes Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and others, but their campaigns haven’t presented official plans affecting organic farmers specifically. A handful of candidates have offered ideas for supporting sustainable, small-scale agriculture and combating the challenges introduced by our changing climate. Here’s what they are saying.
BERNIE SANDERS Key proposals Sanders’s “Revitalizing Rural America” platform champions strengthening enforcement of the organic standards and tightening the rules to ensure that small producers can compete fairly against corporate operations. He supports incentives for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers; grants, technical assistance, and debt relief to encourage the transition to more sustainable practices; and reform of federal subsidy programs for farmers. In his words “We need to incentivize farming systems that help farmers both mitigate climate change and build resilience to its impacts.” Learn more berniesanders.com/issues/ revitalizing-rural-america
JULIÁN CASTRO Key proposals Castro emphasizes raising animal welfare standards with new regulations for the humane treatment of livestock and poultry for all producers. He includes expansion of EQIP and CSP in his climate change plans. In his words “Broad reforms are needed in agriculture to support independent family farms, raise labor standards, and adopt sustainable practices. Animal welfare is directly linked to healthy and sustainable farming practices and is a key component of our broader efforts to combat climate change.” Learn more issues.juliancastro.com
PETE BUTTIGIEG Key proposals Buttigieg advocates for investment in research to reduce agriculture’s carbon emissions and in technologies for monitoring and measuring soil carbon. He wants to expand the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) as well as CSP. (See the “Organic Farmers’ Resource Guide” on page 25 for more on these programs.) In his words “Farming is hard enough without climate change. But rural Americans can be part of the solution. There’s enough potential in our soil to offset all of the emissions of our transportation sector, and we need to unlock that,” he stated at a town hall on climate change earlier this year. Learn more peteforamerica.com/rural-america
ELIZABETH WARREN Key proposals Warren’s “New Farm Economy” plan would use the federal procurement process to bring food from local, independent farms to public institutions such as military bases, hospitals, and schools. She proposes a variety of programs to increase land access for black and Native American farmers, as well as urging reform of the federal agriculture subsidies, increasing funding for CSP, and preventing factory farms from taking advantage of programs aimed at smaller producers. In her words “I will provide farmers and rural communities with the resources they need to build thriving local and regional food systems so that every community has access to healthy food—and the billions in economic opportunities that come with it.” Learn more elizabethwarren.com/plans/invest-rural organicfarmersassociation.org
ground breakers People Leading the Way by Scott Meyer
Bob Quinn believes nutritionally potent heritage grains are ideal for organic farmers. “We are in the business of producing healthy food,” he says.
Growing with the Grain An experienced organic wheat farmer shares his views on the present and future of agriculture.
hen Bob Quinn became the fourth generation to farm his family’s land near Big Sandy, Montana, he had an advanced education, including a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry. He relied on the agricultural chemicals that he had learned about in the classroom and in the fields with his father. A few years later, Quinn met a Montana organic farmer whose methods and results captured his
attention, and he began to study how to apply them to his family’s grain-growing operation. In 1986, Quinn started testing organic methods on an experimental plot that constituted 1 percent of the family’s cropland. He had what he describes as “immediate success”: Within three years, the operation had stopped using all chemicals, and the whole 2,400-acre farm was fully organic. “Within a couple years, I saw that organic agriculture was improving the agronomic and economic basis of my farm,” says Quinn, who received the Rodale Institute’s Organic Pioneer Award in 2013. “After about three to four years, we were able to farm without an operating note [farm loan].” During this same period when Quinn was transitioning to organic farming, he also developed an interest in khorasan, an ancient strain of wheat that he has since branded as “Kamut” (pronounced KA-moot). Compared with standard types of wheat, this grain is higher in protein and easier for many people to digest (though it does contain gluten). The family started a company called Montana Flour & Grains and began connecting to producers of natural foods. In 1986, the first pasta made with Kamut flour was introduced to the health food market, and in 1989, the flour was used for packaged bread products. Today, products containing Kamut are widely available and include items such as pizza, pancake mix, breakfast cereal, energy bars, and pastries. Quinn believes that producing and bringing unique, nutritionally potent products to the marketplace is a smart strategy for new and transitioning organic farmers. “Heritage crops can give organic producers an edge because the crops are not adapted to chemical systems but may work very well with organic methods,” says Quinn, the author of a new book called Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food. “Many of the heritage crops have a nutritional value that’s been lost in the breeding of new varieties suited to growing with chemicals. As organic farmers, we are in the business of producing healthy food.” While Quinn encourages organic growers to try uncommon crops, he recommends gradual changes and thoughtful assessment of the marketplace. He suggests that transitioning
farmers start with certifying just 20 percent of their land. “It may take five years to convert your whole farm to organic,” he explains, “but in that time you will learn a lot about what works for you and what customers will buy without putting your whole operation at risk as you figure it out.” The learning, Quinn emphasizes, never ends, even for experienced farmers. He acknowledges, for instance, that he took 10 years to realize that rotating cover crops is as important as the cycle of planting different cash crops in his fields. “Organic farming is fun and challenging because you never stop finding ways to do better,” he says. “I’ve learned that you’ll never arrive at a perfect system, but you can always be perfecting your system.” As a longtime leader in the organic agriculture community, Quinn was among the founders of Organic Farmers Association. He recognized that while organic industry groups shared some of the concerns and goals of growers and ranchers, farmers needed a voice of their own. “I had been participating in policy discussions and advocacy with the wide community of farmers, and I
“ I’ve learned that you’ll never arrive at a perfect system, but you can always be perfecting your system.”
thought we needed a group to represent organic producers specifically,” Quinn says. Now 30-plus years after converting his operation to organic, Quinn believes that regenerative organic agriculture is more important than ever. “The 70 years of experimenting with chemical farming is coming to an end,” he says. “Consumers are showing they want food that’s safe and good for them. Organic farmers are reconnecting for the public the link between food and health.” Regenerative organic agriculture will also be crucial to combating the effects of climate change on our nation and the world, Quinn explains. “Organic systems are diverse, and by definition they are designed for resilience and adaptation to different conditions,” he concludes. “We are the key to the [healthy food] crisis in America and the solution to the challenges of climate change.” To learn more about Quinn, his family farm, his book, and his views on a wide range of topics, go to bobquinnorganicfarmer.com.
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Field Work How-To for Farmers by Jean Nick
Fresh Produce Rules Farms of all sizes must now meet updated federal food safety regulations. Here’s what you need to know.
with the standards outlined in the FSMA Final Rule on Produce Safety. By January 2020, only farms with average annual fresh-produce sales of $25,000 or less (for the previous three years) are exempt. You are required to be in full compliance unless you satisfactorily prove to your local inspector that you meet the exemption criteria in the produce safety final rule, says Ken Kimes, a greenhouse-based certified organic microgreens producer for over three decades and an outspoken sustainable food activist with extensive experience in on-farm food safety. “Unlike your friendly local extension advisor,” Kimes says, “[an inspector aims] to protect the public, not to help you, and don’t ever forget that.” He offers these hints to help you ensure your operation meets the latest food safety standards.
A well-trained team is critical to complying with the new federal produce safety standards.
The nationwide recalls of fresh produce in recent years have stirred consumers’ fears and prompted tightening of regulations on farmers and food handlers. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011, defined and provided for the enforcement of minimum safety standards for the production, processing, packaging, and transportation of food for humans and animals. Beginning this year, all but the smallest farms are subject to the FSMA Final Rule on Produce Safety, which establishes new standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables for human consumption. Sections of the rule address use of agricultural water; biological soil amendments; domesticated and wild animal exposure; workers’ training, health, and hygiene; and equipment, tools, and buildings. Sprouts sold for fresh eating have a history of association with foodborne illness outbreaks, so they are subject to more stringent standards. “Most of the requirements are pretty basic, commonsense food safety measures that will go a long way toward keeping you, your customers, and your employees healthy and happy,” says Kali Feiereisel, a food safety specialist with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), a California-based nonprofit that supports sustainable agriculture. Some elements of the enforcement process will seem familiar to certified organic farmers—who are required to keep detailed records and be ready for inspectors to show up unannounced to evaluate their operations. “If you are certified organic, you are probably keeping most of the necessary records already,” Feiereisel says. As of January 2019, farms with average annual fresh-produce sales of more than $250,000 (for the previous three years) are required to be in compliance
“ Unlike your friendly local extension advisor, [an inspector aims] to protect the public, not to help you, and don’t ever forget that.” —Ken Kimes
Know the regs Print and read the official FSMA Final Rule on Produce Safety document. Highlight sections that apply to your farm, says Kimes, a member of the Organic Farmers Association Policy Committee, and be ready to pull them out when inspectors show up. Then you can address questions about your specific operation with them. Search for “produce safety rule” at fda.gov.
Audit yourself Preparing for, or even passing, an official Produce GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) Food Safety Standard Audit is not a substitute for an inspection, Kimes says, “but it can be a helpful step in making sure you are ready for an inspection when it does happen.” Audit information worksheets and checklists are available at www.ams.usda.gov/services/ auditing/gap-ghp/harmonized.
Train the teaM Your local extension office may be able to recommend food safety workshops for your labor force. You can also sign up for the courses offered by the Produce Safety Alliance (producesafetyalliance.cornell. edu) at a variety of locations or watch recorded webinars by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers at caff.org.
Tidy up Clean up and organize all of your farm’s work and packing areas, and be certain you and your staff keep them looking neat, even (especially!) when your operation is in the midst of its busiest times. Any visible evidence of rodents— including areas where the pests could nest or hide—or clutter in general often attracts the attention of inspectors.
Keep current Maintain upto-date records and store them where you can access them quickly. Inspectors have the right to arrive without prior warning and at any time during normal business hours. You want to be ready when they do. Stay calm, courteous, and professional “Inspectors are licensed and trained by the FDA, and they take food safety very seriously,” warns Kimes. “If they decide that any of your records are lacking, that even one of your products might be injurious to consumers, or anything doesn’t seem right, they can force a recall or shut you down for the duration of an investigation.” Install an eyewash station “Inspectors love to see the eyewash,” Kimes concludes.
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Seeking Harmony A pair of beginning farmers in western Washington sing the praises of organics as they nurture their growing operation. by Shelby Rowe Moyer Photographs by MichĂ¨le M. Waite
â&#x20AC;&#x201A; New Farm
Organic farming runs deep for Jessica Gigot and Dean Luce—
not ancestrally but in their commitment to a place, to a way of life, to producing food that’s healthy for people, animals, and the environment. At Harmony Fields, their 10-acre farm in western Washington, the couple are raising sheep and two daughters as they develop markets for their cheeses, meat, and certified organic medicinal and culinary herbs. The first-generation farmers were determined and resourceful novices when they started Harmony Fields in 2011. They’ve been learning about the challenges beginning organic producers face and evolving their plans ever since. The forking roads that lead through Bow, Washington, to Harmony Fields roll past apple orchards, berry patches, and hillside pastures. The lyrical beauty of the Skagit Valley is what attracted Gigot to move there about 15 years ago. She grew up in suburban Washington, where her dad worked in advertising and her mom tended to the home. Gigot moved to Vermont to study biology and anthropology in college, and then she returned to the Pacific Northwest, where she interned on a couple of farms. Her pursuit of a master’s degree in plant pathology brought her to the Skagit Valley in 2004, and she continued on to get her doctorate in horticulture. Through her agricultural research at the Washington State University Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research & Extension Center, she got to know the local farmers and became inspired to join their ranks.
Gigot started growing some crops on a little “postage stamp” of land at Ralph’s Greenhouse, a large-scale organic farm in Mount Vernon. In 2011, after earning her graduate degrees, she bought the 5-acre property in Bow that would become her and Luce’s farm. It featured a 1930s farmhouse flanked by fruiting apple trees. Originally from Bainbridge Island, Luce attended the Art Institute of Seattle for graphic design, worked in restaurants for a while, and then started doing construction. Luce and Gigot—who now have two daughters (ages 4 and 2)—met in a bar during a singer-songwriter series and started playing music together. Today, he keeps busy caring for their children and handling projects on and outside of the farm, and she manages many daily farm operations and teaches college classes during the winter. Since 2018, she’s been a member of the Organic Farmers Association Governing Council. (Learn why she joined the organization on page 18.)
Jessica Gigot and Dean Luce are raising their family, livestock, and crops on a 10-acre farm in Bow, Washington.
FINDING DIRECTION Gigot and Luce each have a calm, nurturing presence that matches the serenity of their surroundings. But Gigot admits she had second thoughts shortly after buying the farm. In the beginning, Luce wasn’t living there yet, and she started questioning whether she’d made the right choice to go into farming instead of research.
“It felt very overwhelming to go from being a renter to owning a home with property— I didn’t even have a lawn mower,” she says as we sip coffee at their bench-style, wooden dining table. “This place came with a tractor, and we had some tools already, but it was literally starting from ground zero.” For the first several years at the farm, the couple grew a variety of herbs and vegetables, mostly squash and brassica crops, for retail and wholesale vendors. After taking a season off to focus on their two girls, Gigot and Luce reevaluated their goals. Gigot says one of her first mistakes was trying to grow too many crops. Now they grow a dozen or so certified organic medicinal and culinary herbs and raise sheep, though they also have Khaki Campbell ducks for eggs and two adopted miniature donkeys named Audrey and July. Their current flock of about 70 sheep includes a milking herd of about 30 that have been bred for qualities such as personality, milk production, and udder shape. During the spring and summer, when the farm is most active, Gigot splits her days between milking the sheep, tending to the crops, and making cheese. She and Luce launched the creamery with the help of a USDA Value Added Producer Grant,
“ For me, organic is about making a farm resilient and sustainable.” which was used to fund supplies, materials, and labor to make and sell the sheep cheese. For the last year or so, they’ve been bringing their cheeses—soft, spreadable; fetastyle; and aged, tomme-style varieties— to nearby farmers’ markets. As their herd of sheep expands, Gigot plans to add yogurt and another type of cheese to their product offerings. Harmony Fields is also part of a cooperative that processes and packs its meat to USDA standards so the farm can sell directly to restaurants and local families. The sheep’s wool is made into yarn and sold on the farm’s website. In 2016, the farmers converted a shipping container into an herb dryer with the assistance of a grant from the HumanLinks Foundation. Another recent grant helped pay for solar panels on the sheep barn. In total, they’ve received about $80,000 in grants that have made their vision for Harmony Fields possible. (See “Support Systems” on the facing page for more details.)
ORGANIC WAYS While Gigot and Luce needed a few seasons and shifts in their plans to find their niche as food producers, they never wavered from their dedication to organic farming. “For me, organic is about making a farm resilient and sustainable,” Gigot says. “I also think that it’s about farm models that protect the integrity of the animals, plants, and employees.” Right now, the herbs are the only certified organic products of the farm. The sheep are grazed on organic pastures, and the farm owners are working on making all of the livestock’s feed and pasture certified organic. Raising a mix of animals and plants is important, Gigot says, because it completes the picture of a closed-loop farm. “When you’re using organic methods, you’re not going to be able to put in a bunch of synthetic fertilizers,” she says. “You’re not going to be able to get any kind of available seed. You really have to work with the germplasm and soil health that you have, which is why I take the cultivation of our soil very seriously. And that’s one of the reasons why we have animals—so we are able to [use their waste to build] fertility.” Gigot says the local farmers are good stewards of the land, and she’s learned a lot about (Continued on page 19)
The farmers used a grant from a nonprofit organization to convert a shipping container into an herb-drying shed (opposite page). They carefully selected their flock of about 70 sheep for specific qualities. The miniature donkeys help guard the flock.
Public and nonprofit support for new organic farms is helping Harmony Fields grow and thrive. With $80,000 in grants, Jessica Gigot and Dean Luce have been able to expand their product line, extend the growing season, reduce energy costs, and speed up postharvest processing. Here are the resources they have used. CREDIT “Northwest Farm Credit Services has an AgVision program focused on new producers under 35 years old,” Gigot says. “That helped us with an initial operating line of credit.” TOOLS The couple used a grant available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to get a high tunnel under which they grow herbs year-round. ENERGY The USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provided a grant that helped cover the costs of solar panels on the farm’s sheep barn. PRODUCTION With funding from the HumanLinks Foundation, a nonprofit based in Bellevue, Washington, the couple converted a used shipping container into an herb-drying shed that decreased the drying time from two weeks to three or four days. EDUCATION “I took the Cultivating Success classes at our local extension office through WSU,” Gigot reports. “A local nonprofit, Northwest Agriculture Business Center, offered a value-added-product class that was very helpful.” For beginning farmers, the biggest challenge to accessing these resources is “making time to do the research and get all the paperwork organized,” Gigot says. But you don’t have to struggle through this on your own, she emphasizes. “Use the resources you have around you, like your local NRCS or land-grant extension educators. They are there to help you,” she advises. “Also, talk to other farmers (even in other parts of the country) that have received funding. This can save you a lot of steps.” organicfarmersassociation.org
As busy as Gigot is with picking herbs, such as the calendula pictured on this page, and caring for her young daughters, she also teaches soil science and was elected to the governing council of Organic Farmers Association.
taking ACTION As a small producer, Jessica Gigot knows it is hard for organic farmers to find the time and energy to address national policy issues, “even though they affect us all,” she says. So she joined Organic Farmers Association, and in 2018, she was elected to the OFA Governing Council. “I appreciate how OFA is committed to the National Organic Program (which took a long time to develop and come to fruition) and how instead of advocating alternative labels, the organization is trying to make the NOP work for [all organic producers] and maintain its integrity,” she explains. “It also brings together the work of state and regional farm groups like MOFA and NOFA, and it helps us feel like a louder and more unified voice in DC.” Join forces with Gigot and thousands of other certified organic farmers by becoming a member of Organic Farmers Association. Go to OrganicFarmers Association.org to sign up now.
“I want people to connect to the beauty of [food]— the quality of the flavors and that everything was made with care.”
(Continued from page 17) farming even from conventional operations. But she is trying to create an alternative to the current food system, which she believes has become more about production and convenience than quality and care going into what we eat. “When I got into college and learned how to cook for myself, it really changed my whole perspective,” she says. “Having that core knowledge of knowing where your food comes from, as well as the knowledge of how to connect with the animals and take care of them, raises strong and compassionate people, I think. I had a great upbringing, but I feel like for our daughters, being raised on a farm can teach so much about the world that I had to catch up on in my 20s.”
Thanks to a USDA Value Added Producer Grant, Harmony Fields makes and sells sheep’s milk cheese to local farmers’ markets. The animals’ wool is made into yarn and sold on the farm’s website.
Gigot jokes that she’s the biggest cliché when you conjure romantic notions of farming: She writes epicurean poetry, is in a band with Luce called the Dovetails, and lives on this charming plot with her young family, including an energetic sheepdog and an eccentric farm cat. But she’s careful not to devalue the hard work that goes into cultivating the land. She gave a TEDx talk about this a couple years ago at Western Washington University in Bellingham, where she read from her book of poetry and talked about the significance of not only seeing beauty in the food we eat but also understanding the true price that comes with growing it. “I want people to connect to the beauty of it—the quality of the flavors and that everything was made with care—but I don’t want people to think that we’re just sort of waking up and wandering out here and picking a few things,” she says. “The routine is hard, especially the milking routine, which is why we only do seasonal milking. I feel like it’s worth it, but I don’t want people to think it’s easy.” Gigot has seen a lot of beginning farmers become overwhelmed and discouraged. She feels that way herself at times: that the work is so hard and that her and Luce’s farm is so small that it’s not making much of an impact. But then she is reminded of why they have made a commitment to organic farming. “It just seems like our food systems could be a lot more compassionate,” she says. “Even though we’re doing that on a very small scale, I hope it’s a vision of what could be done on a larger scale.” NF Shelby Rowe Moyer writes about agriculture and other topics in western Washington State. Learn more about Harmony Fields at harmonyfields.com. organicfarmersassociation.org
Leading the Herd
U.S. Organic Dairy Stats for 2016 2.56 billion Pounds of organic dairy products sold
2,500 Farms producing organic milk
280,000 Certified organic cows producing milk
$1.4 billion Sales of organic milk SOURCES: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, agmrc.org; National Agricultural Statistics Service, nass.usda.gov
Organic Farmers Association members are working to protect the health of their dairy cows and the integrity of the organic label. by Melissa Pasanen Iowa dairy farmer Francis Thicke believes that keeping calves with their mothers is the most humane and healthy way to start them off. He has also determined that weaning them after three to four months is the best practice. Around that age, he acknowledges with a chuckle, “they start turning into juvenile delinquents. They won’t come when their moms call. They run around in gangs. And they get high on grass.” Thicke and his wife, Susan Noll Thicke, own Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, where they milk 90 Jerseys. The whole herd is out year-round—through most of the winter, even when temperatures can hit 0°F in southern Iowa. The cows don’t mind, Thicke says. He doesn’t push the milk production and continues to rotate the animals through paddocks by moving their hay and baleage. “They get a small amount of grain but eat mostly grass,” he says. “They’re in their natural environment, eating their natural diet. We haven’t had a vet on the farm in three years.” From its on-farm processing facilities, Radiance produces milk (whole, 2 percent, and skim), whipping cream, yogurt, and cheese. All of the items are sold within a 5-mile radius of the farm through three grocery stores and about 20 restaurants in Fairfield. Demand for certified organic dairy products is soaring everywhere: In the United States, organic milk sales reached $1.4 billion in 2016. Consumers are paying a significant premium for organic milk (double the cost of conventional milk in many markets) based in large part on the perception that it comes from family-run farms like Radiance. But the fast growth of the organic milk market is now threatening the integrity of the “USDA organic” seal, the public’s trust in it, and the future of organic dairy farms that meet the standards consumers expect.
Consumers expect that organic dairy products come from pasture-raised cows, but a few large producers stretch (and break) minimum grazing time rules.
ALL photos courtesy of organic pastures
INDUSTRIALIZING ORGANIC To supply the rapidly expanding marketplace for organic milk, a few operations have been scaling up. Six to eight U.S. dairies now manage herds of 10,000 to 15,000 cows, explains Mark McAfee, owner and operator of Organic Pastures dairy farm in Fresno, California, and a member of the Organic Farmers Association Policy Committee. “These are familiar brands sold in supermarkets around the country,” he says, “and they have been consistently failing to meet the organic standards.” In 2017, the Washington Post published an investigative report that presented evidence of violations of grazing rules and other regulations by several certified organic operations. For years, industry watchdog groups had been calling out some of these same brands for violating the standards. “For them to meet the required 120 days on pasture a year, they’d need thousands of acres for grazing, and they don’t have it,” McAfee says. After the newspaper report, the USDA opened an investigation into Aurora Organic Dairy, one of the operations named in the article. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Aurora supplies milk for the house brands of Walmart, Costco, and other major retailers. After several months of inquiry, Betsy Rakola, the director of compliance and enforcement for the National Organic Program at the USDA, wrote a letter to Aurora management (according to a follow-up story in the Washington Post) stating that “we determined that Aurora’s livestock and pasture management practices comply with existing USDA organic regulations and NOP policies. Therefore, the case is hereby closed.” Undermining consumer trust in the organic label isn’t the only problem caused by lax enforcement of standards, McAfee observes. “The organic dairy organicfarmersassociation.org
Organic standards ensure that dairy herds are healthy and their products are safe for people.
industry is in a race to the bottom in pricing because the marketplace is flooded with too much product,” McAfee says. “The pasture requirement is necessary to keep the supply in balance by limiting how much can be produced. That would hold the price where organic producers who are complying with the standards can earn a living.” Instead, the low prices have forced about 30 percent of certified organic dairies in California to shut down in the last two years, McAfee says. Organic Farmers Association and other groups have been lobbying the USDA’s National Organic Program for stronger enforcement of its Access to Pasture Rule and for improvements in the standards. (Get details in “Defending Integrity” on page 24.) So far, the USDA has not taken substantive action on these issues.
DAILY HABITS While industrial-scale dairies are increasing their share of the market, Organic Farmers Association members like Thicke in Iowa, the Arnolds of Central New York State’s Twin Oaks Dairy, and the McAfee family continue to demonstrate that maintaining high organic standards works for people and livestock. What consumers expect of organic production isn’t always happening, laments Aaron McAfee, Mark’s son. “We know what real organic practices are. We do them every day.” On the McAfees’ 400-acre Central Valley farm, the climate allows for year-round intensive rotational grazing of their mixed-breed herd. Blaine McAfee (Mark’s wife) focuses on herd health with emphasis on preventive treatments. The cows go through copper sulfate footbaths twice a day (to inhibit fungal diseases) and are watched closely for locomotion issues, since walking well is critical for cows to thrive on pasture. The farmers use about one-quarter of the acreage to raise some supplemental feed for dry cows and heifers. For the 570 milking cows, they must purchase nutritionally richer feed produced in cooler areas like northern Nevada and Oregon. The regenerative cycle is very important at Organic Pastures. Milk that retail customers return and by-products generated from the dairy’s processing plant are spread on the fields, where they add nutrients and probiotic bacteria to the soil. Last year, the family integrated sheep into their pasture rotation. The flock grazes down the plants the cows leave behind—a “natural weed-killer,” in the words of Mark McAfee. The sheep replaced diesel-powered mowers, reducing the farm’s use of fossil fuels. During the heat of summer, the staff at Organic Pastures erects temporary shade cloth structures to protect livestock. Aaron shares that organic-certification inspectors have occasionally observed the absence of wet-weather shelter, “but we only get about 12 inches of rain a year,” he notes. The McAfees firmly believe that the cows do not suffer during brief periods of inclement weather. Since Organic Pastures markets its own branded products and is also located in a well-traveled region, the farm sees a lot of visitors. “We probably do at least one tour a day,” Aaron says. It’s a constant reminder that “you’re accountable to more than the USDA. We have to go above and beyond. It’s what our consumers expect.”
SCIENTIFIC VIEW Pasturing cows is common sense, according to Brad Heins, Ph.D., associate professor of animal science at the University of Minnesota. He backs up that principle with research demonstrating that organic dairy livestock have lower rates of mastitis and respiratory disease. “Animals are just healthier when they have access to pasture,” he says. “They’re getting exercise and fresh air while eating grass.” Manure management, he points out, is handled naturally by the cows spreading their own as they graze. On top of all of that, Heins notes, organic livestock are “definitely less stressed because they’re not being pushed to produce as large an amount of milk” as the cows on conventional farms typically are. Heins’s research supports Thicke’s practice of outwintering his herd despite the farm’s location in a cold northern climate. Heins works predominantly with organic dairies in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In a report published in early 2019 in the Journal of Dairy Science, Heins and coauthors compared the effects of raising organic dairy cattle in the Upper Midwest in outdoor versus indoor housing systems. The study concluded that outdoor housing can reduce expenses “without sacrificing [milk] production and animal health and well-being.” Heins has observed an increase in organic farms milking just once daily (rather than twice) and yielding the same output with less
“We know what real organic practices are. We do them every day.”
labor and no harm to livestock. He also expects that more organic farmers will start using robotic milkers, although he notes that they require a grazing rotation planned to pull cows through the robot facility on the way to new pasture. In addition to helping with labor, robotic milking benefits animal welfare, Heins believes. “The animal is free to do what she wants and gets milked when she wants,” he says, adding that robots also have more consistent sanitation practices than humans do.
NATURAL HEALTH CARE Kathie Arnold grew up on a dairy farm not far from where she and her son, Kirk, now co-own Twin Oaks Dairy in Truxton, New York. Her family farmed conventionally, but she started thinking there had to be a better way. “Ever since I read Silent Spring in high school,” Kathie says, “I had a bent toward organic farming.” Although the farm she first owned with her late husband and his brother was not certified until 1998, the Arnolds had transitioned several years earlier to intensive rotational grazing and eliminated antibiotic treatment for mastitis. In a talk at the 2016 Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) Winter Conference, Kathie reflected back on her family’s journey to becoming organic. Although they had been pasturing the herd in the early 1990s, she recalled, “we decided to keep our fresh cows and highest-producing cows off pasture so we could feed them better and thus increase production. We did that for two years and did make more milk, but we also had many more cow health issues and a much bigger feed bill.” The Arnolds put the entire milking herd back on pasture and increased both acreage and the duration of their grazing season. “That first intensive grazing season was stressful,” Kathie admitted in her conference talk. “We watched milk production decline as we attempted to learn the art of intensive grazing management, but we also saw our feed bill drop more than the production loss and found cow health to be greatly improved. We were hooked on grazing as the way we wanted to farm.”
ORIGIN MATTERS Where and how dairy heifers are raised is a critical component of the standards for certified organic milk that is inconsistently interpreted and enforced by inspectors and the USDA. Industrial-scale operations send calves to be raised conventionally and then bring them back to produce organic milk, says Mark McAfee, a member of the Organic Farmers Association Policy Committee. “That means, for instance, they’re paying one-third of the typical feed cost for animals raised on organic farms.” Organic Farmers Association recommends that the NOP act immediately by issuing guidance based on the language in the Origin of Livestock Proposed Rule published in 2015. The guidance should clearly state that the provision for transitioning conventional cows to organic in one year is a onetime allowance and that continuous transitioning of conventional livestock is prohibited. Learn more at OrganicFarmers Association.org/policy-position.
Organic Farmers Association is advocating for closing a regulatory loophole that allows organic dairy farmers to raise calves conventionally.
Today, with 750 acres of owned and rented pasture and cropland, mother and son now raise almost all the forage they need for their 300 Holstein cows during the nongrazing months. In 2016, they invested in a new barn for the 130-cow milking herd that is complete with water beds, mechanical backscratchers, and a long alley so the animals can all eat at the same time. Automated curtains, ventilation chimneys, and circulating fans help with temperature control and air circulation, reducing the risk of problems that often occur in stagnant conditions. The Arnolds raise their calves in small-group pens, finding they do better with companionship, and the farmers only occasionally need to employ weaner rings. “After they drink, they kick up their heels and run around together,” Kathie says happily. Like Thicke in Iowa, the Arnolds breed to polled bulls so they do not need to dehorn young animals. Over the years, the family has developed health maintenance practices such as dosing many fresh cows with a calcium bolus to prevent milk fever, and fortifying calf milk with vitamins, garlic, and herbs to aid digestion and build immunity. During the summer, they sprinkle wasp eggs around calf bedding, deploying natural insect predators to keep flies down. The farm belongs to a regional co-op that produces store-brand organic milk and yogurt for the Wegmans supermarket chain, among other customers. Kathie believes that most organic dairy farmers are committed to the same high standards to which she has devoted decades. But, she cautions, “when negative press shows that some producers aren’t meeting consumer expectations, it impacts the whole organic movement.” NF Melissa Pasanen of South Burlington, Vermont, writes about sustainable food and agriculture for many publications, including USA Today, Saveur, and EatingWell.
Organic Farmers Association is taking action for all certified organic dairy farmers by advocating for stronger standards and tighter enforcement of them. “We want the USDA to take effective actions to ensure that organic dairy products meet consistent standards for all producers—large and small, domestic and foreign,” says Kate Mendenhall, OFA director. “We believe that risk assessment should be a priority when conducting inspections and accreditation.” Organic Farmers Association has asked the National Organic Program board to strengthen its enforcement of the Access to Pasture Rule by instructing certifying agents to identify high-risk dairy operations as those that have more than 1,000 milking and dry cows and/or regularly meet only the minimum requirement of 30 percent dry matter intake (DMI) from pasture over the course of the grazing season. These specific policy proposals from OFA will ensure all certified organic dairy products meet consumers’ expectations. • Requirement for organic certification file-review staff and inspectors to have documented training and experience in livestock nutrition and grazing. • Requirement for a calculation matrix to confirm that farms meet the grazing requirement. Documentation will include average animal weight, individual and verifiable unique identification of each animal, milk production, daily DMI (from pasture and nonpasture sources), acres of pasture, forage yield of pasture, and maximum distances cows walk to pasture. • Confirmation that DMI is calculated as an average over the entire grazing season for each type and class of animal and that milking and dry cows are not being mixed in those calculations. • Two inspections during the grazing season, one announced and one unannounced. You can help protect the organic label’s integrity for dairy products by supporting Organic Farmers Association. Join today at OrganicFarmersAssociation.org.
Organic Farmers’ Resource Guide
Federal programs offer assistance to new, transitioning, and experienced organic producers.
Kayla Líllí Ramírez
Hillview Farms, Auburn, California Certified organic: 2012 “Conferences have been very valuable for us as new farmers; we have learned so much from the workshops and farm tours. Because we were beginners, we were able to attend the EcoFarm Conference (eco-farm.org) through its scholarship program. We’ve also taken a five-week course through the University of California Cooperative Extension on running a farm as a small business, and [as a result] we went from trying to grow 100 different varieties to focusing on 20 that really sell for us.” —Michael and Shanon Whamond, farmers; hillviewfarmsauburn.com
Organic Farmers Association, along with other sustainable agriculture groups, advocates for federal appropriations to help organic farmers. The farm bill enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2018 provides funding for programs that offer financial assistance that can help you implement organic practices and expand your markets. To help you tap into these resources, we’ve compiled this summary of the most widely accessible federal programs and included a couple of nonprofits that work with beginning and experienced organic farmers. Finally, we’ve shared insights from a few producers who have benefited from the funding opportunities. BEGINNER LOANS
Brown’s Place Farm, Grovetown, Georgia Certified organic: 2014 “I started out as an organic farmer raising goats, and I was able to get funding for fences through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). As I’ve gotten into vegetable growing, I’ve used EQIP grants for an irrigation system and for a high tunnel. These [grants] have really helped me increase productivity.” —W. B. Brown, farmer; brownsplacefarm.com
ORGANIC CERTIFICATION COST SHARE WHAT The USDA will reimburse up to 75 percent of the fees associated with obtaining or renewing organic certification during the fiscal year for which the cost share payment is being requested. Funds are limited to $750 for each certification scope (crops, livestock, wild crops, handling). WHO Producers and handlers of organic food in the U.S. and its territories are eligible for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP). The Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Organic Certification Cost Share Program supports producers—but not handlers—in 16 states (CT, DE, HI, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NV, NY, PA, RI, UT, VT, WV, WY). The funding source is determined by the region of the applicant’s operation. HOW You can submit an application to your county FSA office by mail or in person. Starting in 2020, applications for these programs may be submitted from October 1 of the applicable fiscal year to October 31 of the following fiscal year. Be aware, though, that this funding is provided on a first-come, first-served basis until all of the applicable year’s available funds are committed. LEARN MORE www.ams.usda.gov/services/grants/occsp
CONSERVATION COSTS WHAT Through the Organic Initiative funded through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), organic farmers (and those transitioning to organics) can get grants of up to $140,000 to cover the costs of a variety of onfarm conservation efforts, such as improving irrigation efficiency, installing a high tunnel, developing a rotational grazing infrastructure, and even instating common organic practices like planting cover crops and establishing buffer zones. These grants come with technical support to help farmers implement their projects.
W. B. BROWN (BROWN), GREG BALFOUR EVANS/ALAMY (HOOP HOUSE)
WHAT The USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers direct loans for farm ownership (up to $600,000) and operating (up to $400,000). Beginners in need of more funds to purchase a farm can choose a joint financing arrangement, in which FSA lends up to 50 percent of the amount financed and a commercial lender provides 50 percent or more. FSA microloans of up to $50,000 are available to beginning farmers to cover start-up and operating costs. These smaller loans have fewer requirements and less paperwork for the applicants. WHO Family farm and ranch operators and owners who have been in business fewer than 10 years can apply. For a farm ownership loan, the operation’s acreage cannot be greater than 30 percent of the average-size farm in the county. (Go to nass.usda.gov for “Census of Agriculture” data that can help you determine the farm sizes in your county.) HOW FSA accepts applications by mail or in person at one of the more than 2,100 FSA offices across the U.S. For a joint loan, you must apply to a commercial lender that participates in the program. Your local FSA office can provide you with a list of participating lenders. LEARN MORE fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/farm-loan-programs
You can get government and nonprofit grants to help cover the costs of hoop houses.
PRIVATE SECTOR SUPPORT
Organic producers can also apply for conservation grants through the general EQIP program (which has a higher payment cap), but more farmers are eligible, increasing competition for the funds. FSA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides annual rental payments to farmers for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will benefit the ecosystem. The program aims to reestablish valuable land cover to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce the loss of wildlife habitat. WHO New and transitioning organic farmers can participate in EQIP even if they don’t own the land. CRP is open to all farmers who own the land they are working. HOW The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the USDA department that administers EQIP, assists each participating producer in developing a conservation plan that forms a contract between the farmer and NRCS. Applications are ranked based on a number of factors, including the environmental benefits and cost-effectiveness outlined in the proposal. You can apply at any time throughout the year at your local USDA Service Center or online at the NRCS website. This year’s CRP application period was held from June 3 to August 23, 2019. Visit the FSA website for details on 2020 enrollment. LEARN MORE nrcs.usda.gov and fsa.usda.gov
INNOVATION GRANTS WHAT The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program of the USDA gives grants to farmers to test new ideas through field trials, on-farm demonstrations, marketing initiatives, or other strategies. The projects must be focused on agricultural innovations that promote profitability; stewardship of the land, air, and water; and quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and their communities. The program’s goal is to develop sustainable practices that other farmers can use. The maximum amount of the grants varies by region. WHO The program is divided into four regions: Northeast, North Central, South, and West. Farmers and ranchers can apply for grants in their regions. In most cases, they will have the opportunity to partner with qualified researchers or extension agents to manage their projects. HOW Each region has its own application process and timeline. LEARN MORE sare.org/Grants/Apply-for-a-Grant
Regional and state organic farming associations and nonprofit groups also offer programs for new and transitioning organic producers. Here are a few to check in with. RODALE INSTITUTE The sponsoring organization of Organic Farmers Association, Rodale Institute trains new and transitioning farmers through an Organic Farming Certificate Program, which is offered in partnership with a university; internships; a free online Transition to Organic Course; and a farmer training program for military veterans. Rodale Institute researches organic agriculture methods and shares its findings with farmers. Learn more: RodaleInstitute.org ORGANIC FARMERS ASSOCIATION The only national organization led by certified organic farmers, OFA drafts policy positions that its members vote on and work for. Joining OFA gives beginning and transitioning organic farmers a voice right away on the issues that matter most to them. The association’s website lists member organic farm organizations that offer programs and resources for organic farmers in various states and regions. Learn more: OrganicFarmers Association.org
Conservation practices such as improving irrigation efficiency qualify farmers for Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds.
Taylor Mendell (right) with her husband, Jake
VALUE ADDED PRODUCER GRANTS
AGGIE BONDS WHAT A federal-and-state partnership allows private lenders to earn federal and/or state tax-exempt interest on loans made to beginning farmers. Aggie Bonds typically offer first-time farmers rates that are 1 to 3 percent lower than the rate of a commercial farm loan. The funds may be used to purchase farmland, equipment, buildings, and livestock. WHO The loans are currently available in at least 17 states (AR, CO, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, MN, MS, MT, ND, NE, OK, OR, PA, SD, WI). Other states offer similar types of financial support through their own programs. HOW State agriculture departments administer the various funding programs (including Aggie Bonds) available to their constituent farmers, and each program has its own requirements and application process. The National Council of State Agricultural Finance Programs has collected links to each state’s resources and other useful information on its website. LEARN MORE stateagfinance.org NF
Farmer’s Report Footprint Farm, Starksboro, Vermont Certified organic: 2013 “We were able to get a high tunnel with an EQIP grant. The hardest part of getting grants is taking the time to sift through information about various organizations in order to find the [program] you need. By talking to people about your needs, eventually you’ll get to the right name or organization.” —Taylor Mendell, farmer; footprintfarmvt.com
FLOKI/SHUTTERSTOCK (IRRIGATION), CINDY HUTCHISON (MENDELL)
WHAT The USDA Rural Development program offers grants to support the development of new products, such as crops processed on-farm for food or renewable energy, and the costs of bringing them to market. The Value Added Producer Grant program, which appropriates $18 million in annual funding per the latest farm bill, gives up to $75,000 to pay for feasibility studies and business planning and $250,000 for working capital for launching value-added initiatives. If you receive a grant, you will need to submit regular financial and performance reports. WHO Independent producers, agricultural producer groups, farmer or rancher cooperatives, and majority-controlled producer-based business ventures can apply for the grants. Beginning and family-scale operations are treated as priorities for awarding them. HOW Applications start with registration in the USDA’s Data Universal Number System (DUNS) and System for Award Management (SAM). Check the Federal Register for specific deadlines, and allow a lot of time for you to meet the extensive requirements. Your local rural development office will help you assess your proposal idea and plan for your grant. LEARN MORE rd.usda.gov/programs-services/value-added-producer-grants
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04 Karen, Fred, and William Lee Sang Lee Farms T Peconic, New York
FAST FACTS // Sang Lee Farms Farm size: 25 acres owned, 75 leased Products: Specialty vegetables; value-added dressings, dips, and soups First year farming: 1987 Organic certification: 2007 OFA membership: 2016 Learn more: sangleefarms.com
Why did you become farmers? KAREN LEE: Fred’s father and two partners operated the farm as wholesale conventional growers for many years. Fred and I met at Boston University—he was getting his master’s in finance, and I studied nursing. When his father died, Fred came home to help manage the farm. I innocently offered to help. We stayed in farming because we’re serious types and wanted to do something that’s bigger than ourselves. Growing food is important. Why did you choose to be certified organic? We were certified in 2007, but we’d been growing organically for five years before that. We had little children running through the fields, and we had concerns about their health and well-being. The “USDA organic” label answers a lot of customers’ questions. It lets us tell them that we are legitimate and have real standards. What are the toughest challenges you face as organic producers? We’re always educating customers about what it means to be certified organic and why our products cost a little more than conventional. Labor is our second-greatest challenge. We’re not highly mechanized, so we do a lot of work by hand. And the cost of labor is high. What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned since you started? Everything we do affects our community and the environment. To stay committed to [our values] requires every ounce of our being—mental, emotional, and physical. I used to get anxious about so many things. After all these years, I now stay calm, and I know we will get through whatever happens. What is most rewarding about being organic farmers? Doing work that has a greater purpose. We’re inspiring others to make organic food a part of their stories, to respect and appreciate food and the people who produce it.
The family farmers include Karen and Fred (standing) and their son, William.
Why did you decide to become involved in Organic Farmers Association? Having an organization to support what we do helps us to feel that our impact goes much further than it would if we were on our own.
For Organic Farmers. By Organic Farmers. You don’t need to leave the farm to have a voice in D.C. We’ll advocate for you on the Hill, making sure your top priorities are heard. Organic Farmers Association provides a strong and unified national voice for organic farmers.
Members can count on: • A professional lobbyist in D.C. who stands up for organic farmers • A vote in our annual policy process • Updates on important political issues from the National Organic Program, USDA, Farm Bill and more • Tools to engage leaders at the local and state level on issues important to organic farmers
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