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Congress Hears From Organic Farmers Over Farm Bill Spending

(Beyond Pesticides, April 23, 2007) Organic produce growers, beef producers, and others testified before Congress this week that industrialized farming has hurt rural communities, the American diet, and family farms and asked that the Farm Bill support the fast growing and successful family businesses that are producing organic foods. The disproportionate subsidies going to conventional agriculture and leaving out organic farmers was brought to light during the first-ever hearing about organics last week before the House Agriculture Committee.

Organic farmers are vying this year to gain some federal support as Congress rewrites its five-year farm bill set to expire later this year. Organic growers, now believed to number more than 10,000 are experiencing rapid growth nationwide as interest in healthier food and a healthier environment continues to spread from local farmers’ markets to major supermarkets across the country.

Despite this rise is organic markets, growers are not nearly keeping pace with consumer demand for organic products, estimated to be growing by 20 percent a year. Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who chairs a new agriculture subcommittee on horticulture and organics, hopes to include organic farmers in the farm bill.

Since the Great Depression, congressional farm bills have been dominated by support for a handful of commodity crops such as corn, wheat and cotton, which last year received $25 billion in crop subsidies and billions more in research and marketing aid. Over the decades, subsidies have been widely blamed for contributing to the industrialization of U.S. agriculture, concentrated on vast monoculture crops on ever larger and fewer farms, driving up land prices and depopulating rural communities.

Organic growers face an uphill battle against the conventional commodity growers that get the lion’s share of farm bill spending. Mostly, the organic growers asked at Wednesday’s hearing not for direct aid, but for an added share of the research and education money, as well as better statistical collection to convince bankers to grant loans.

Organic farming is a complex undertaking that relies on crop rotations and other ecological management of insects, weeds and diseases rather than pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Even if the nation’s rapidly aging farmers were not reluctant to adopt such methods, experts said at Wednesday’s hearing that federal farm programs make it even more difficult to take the leap.

“A major problem has been supply — that is really the crux of the matter,” said Robert Marqusee, director of a rural development agency in Sioux City, Iowa. “Demand is high, but aging farmers are trapped in the subsidy treadmill. There are few young farmers left in these communities, and most economic development is focused on ethanol plants,” which he said “does nothing but put industrial farming on steroids.”

The current subsidy system, he said, “simply does not make sense.”

Farmers transitioning from conventional crops to organics have had to figure it out mostly by themselves, said Mark Lipson, policy program director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting organic agriculture among farmers. It’s past time, Mr. Lipson said, to begin devoting a portion of the vast federal agriculture research programs — from farm extension services that provide education and technical assistance to agricultural research at universities. Federal funding of organic research and education only began in 2001, Mr. Lipson said, and remains at less than one percent of the federal farm research budget.

The gap between demand for organic products and U.S. supply is filled by foreign producers in Canada, Mexico, Central and Latin America, and as far away as China. Many growers express suspicion about the quality standards from such sources. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification offices are so short-staffed that maintaining the integrity of the agency’s brown and green organic certification seal is a challenge, Mr. Cardoza said. Growers worry that with organic products in short supply and demand strong, the market creates a greater incentive to skirt the standards.

Getting into organic farming can be daunting, growers told the committee on Wednesday. The decision is often made because of a fascination with health foods or distaste for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Scott Lively, president and chief executive of Dakota Beef, in Howard, South Dakota, now the nation’s largest producer of certified organic beef, said he got into the business “cold turkey,” mainly because of his wife’s obsession with health foods.

“I knew nothing about the industry, nor did I really care much about it,” Mr. Lively said. “I was a meat-eating, potato-eating guy from Chicago. Nevertheless, we went out and bought 30 head of cattle in Illinois, processed them locally all at one time, and sold them door to door in Chicago restaurants out of the back of a Volvo.

“I think a lot of people would like to pretend that this industry doesn’t exist, or that it’s concentrated on that crunchy-granola Whole Foods shopper,” he said. “It clearly is not.”

Mary-Howell Martens, of Lakeview Organic Grains in Penn Yan, New York, said the idea came to her in 1991, when she stood pregnant at her kitchen door and watched her husband, Klaas, “leave the house dressed for battle in his white Tyvek ‘zoot suit’ and special heavy green plastic gloves ready to attack and subdue the enemy — weeds.”

Growing grain on 600 acres at the time, Mrs. Martens said, “we were like many conventional farmers, using the chemical fertilizers and pesticides simply because we saw no other alternatives, but very concerned about what it might be doing to us, our family, our land and our environment. We farmed conventionally because we had been told so often that it was the only way to survive in agriculture today.”

Now they are farming 1,400 acres of organic corn, soybeans, spelt, barley, oats, triticale, red kidney beans, cabbage and hay — each with a strong market, she said. She and her husband also opened a mill for organic animal feed for New York organic dairy farmers. Mrs. Martens said she can’t get enough organic grain to meet demand.

“Organic agriculture is no longer simply an inconsequential nice for the counterculture or extremely affluent,” she said.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

TAKE ACTION: Let your Congressional representatives know how you feel about this issue. Contact your U.S. Senators and U.S. Representative and tell them to support increased funding for organic growers in the farm bill. Take action today to ensure that there is sufficient funding authorized in the 2007 Farm Bill to protect our environment and ensure sustainable, healthy food for all.


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