Important news for organic and transitioning farmers

In March I asked readers to submit public comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture advocating for organic farmers to receive more money under USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

I’m happy to pass along good news on this front:

Speaking today to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced $50 Million for a new initiative to meet the Obama Administration’s promise to encourage more organic agriculture production. Funding for the initiative is being made available as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“Assisting organic producers is a priority of the 2008 Farm Bill as well as for Secretary Vilsack and the Obama Administration,” said Merrigan. “The objective of this initiative is to make organic food producers eligible to compete for EQIP financial assistance.”

The 2009 Organic Initiative is a nationwide special initiative to provide financial assistance to National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic producers as well as producers in the process of transitioning to organic production. Organic producers may also apply for assistance under general EQIP.

Under the Organic Initiative required minimum core conservation practices will be determined by specific resource concerns. The practices are: Conservation Crop Rotation; Cover Crop; Nutrient Management; Pest Management; Prescribed Grazing; and Forage Harvest Management. States must consider using any appropriate practice that meets the resource concern on a particular operation.

(hat tip to Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore)

Here’s some background courtesy of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

The organic conversion assistance was provided for by the 2008 Farm Bill but the plan went awry when the Bush Administration issued rules for the EQIP program just before leaving office which baffled state and local offices of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  As a result, in a majority of states organic farmers and transitioning farmers were simply not being served, in contradiction of Congress’ intent in the farm bill.

“This was a was a wrong that needed righting, and with today’s announcement USDA is not only setting it right, but doing so in an innovative and farmer-friendly manner,” said Aimee Witteman, NSAC Executive Director.  “We thank NRCS and USDA leadership for listening to the concerns of organic farmers and applaud their new initiative.”

Note: farmers must apply for these special EQIP funds between May 11 and May 29.

Kudos to Tom Vilsack for getting behind a policy that will help producers meet the growing demand for organic food. Today’s announcement is a victory for the environment, farmers and groups involved in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. It’s also clear that Food Democracy Now knew what they were doing when they included Merrigan on their “sustainable dozen” list for the USDA.  

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Last day to help end "factory farm bailout"

Last month I posted about efforts to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce the share of conservation funds that large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) receive through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP).

Food Democracy Now sent out an action alert on Thursday reminding supporters that comments on making EQIP work for sustainable and organic farmers must be received by the USDA by the close of business on April 17 (today).

You can fax your letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (202-720-4265) or submit your comments online (Food Democracy Now has instructions on that process).

Click here and scroll down the page for talking points and a sample letter on this issue. However, it’s always better to put these things in your own words if possible. I’ve posted Food Democracy Now’s sample letter after the jump. If you are writing your own letter, make sure it goes to the correct address and says this near the top:

Re: Docket Number NRCS- IFR-08005 Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Final Rules

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Stop letting factory farms hog USDA conservation funds

Jill Richardson has an action alert up at La Vida Locavore regarding new rules for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP). She lays out the problem with the status quo:

A report (Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough by Elanor Starmer and Timothy A. Wise, Dec 2008) found that nationally, factory hog farms comprise 10.7% of all hog operations – but get 37% of all of the EQIP contracts. Factory farm dairies make up 3.9% of all dairy farms – but they get 54% of EQIP contracts. All in all, between 2003 and 2007, 1000 factory hog and dairy farms ate up $35 million in EQIP conservation funding.

This happened at the expense of smaller farms that COULD HAVE gotten the money. Mid-sized hog farms make up 15% of hog operations but got 5.4% of EQIP contracts. Mid-sized dairy farms make up 13% of dairies – and got 7% of contracts.

This report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that confined animal feeding operations “have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments in recent years” through EQIP.

Do you think CAFOs should be able to hog taxpayer dollars intended for conservation programs? Neither do I. More important, neither does Congress:

USDA was directed by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill to make EQIP more inclusive of organic agriculture practices – including implementing a new provision that assists farmers converting to organic farming systems and rewarding the conservation benefits of organic farming. However, USDA fell far short of meeting this directive in their [Interim Final Rule for EQIP].

We have until March 16 to submit public comments urging the USDA to make EQIP more organic-friendly, as Congress stipulated last year. There is a clear public interest in helping more farmers meet the growing demand for organic food. As a side benefit, directing more EQIP funds to organic farms would be a step toward making CAFOs pay for the harm they cause.

For details on how to submit your comments on this issue, click here or here.

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