The end of 2011 is bringing news from the USDA for organic and conventional farmers alike, while the recent failure of the congressional supercommittee means that there will be plenty of Farm Bill-related news in early 2012. As you wrap up the last of your gifts and put them under the tree, we’re rounding up the stories from Washington that may be impact your farm in the new year and beyond.
With numerous hot-button issues on the agenda, the fall meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (held from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, 2011, in Savannah, Ga.) was a site of contentious debate within the organic-farming and -processing sector.
The NOSB is a USDA advisory committee appointed by the agriculture secretary and comprised of organic farmers, environmentalists, consumer- and public-interest advocates, organic handlers and processors, an organic retailer, a scientist, and an accredited organic certifying agent. In addition to making recommendations on a wide range of topics, including organic pet-food standards and organic-inspector qualifications, the NOSB has the sole power to recommend additions to or deletions from the National Organic Program’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
Among the topics of greatest concern to consumer-interest groups, like the Cornucopia Institute, was the petition to allow synthetic preservatives (i.e., sulfites) in organic wine. The NOSB rejected this petition.
Much to the dismay of the Cornucopia Institute, the NOSB approved the use of DHA algal oil and ARA fungal oil, additives that appear in organic infant formulas, milk and baby food, with the caveat that these substances can’t be extracted using the petrochemical solvent hexane.
The NOSB also voted on several animal-welfare recommendations. Among these, the board redefined “outdoor access” at poultry operations to exclude covered porches; the board also recommended minimum indoor- and outdoor-living-space square footage for organic laying hens and broilers.
The next public NOSB meeting will take place from May 21 to 24, 2012, in Albuquerque, N.M., with a public comment period opening approximately six weeks in advance.
Cash for Conservation
On Nov. 30, 2011, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the ranking dates for the On-Farm Energy, Organic, Seasonal High Tunnel and Air Quality conservation initiatives. All four initiatives are funded by the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The NRCS accepts applications for financial assistance on a continual basis throughout the year. There will be three ranking periods for the Organic, On-Farm Energy and Seasonal High Tunnel initiatives (all of which are available to farmers in all 50 states, the Caribbean area and the Pacific Basin); periods for all three initiatives will end on Feb. 3, March 30, and June 1, 2012. There will be two ranking periods for the Air Quality Initiative (open to farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas counties with serious air-quality resource concerns); these periods will end on Feb. 3, and March 3, 2012. At the end of each period, the NRCS will rank all submitted proposals for consideration, notify all applicants of the results and begin developing contracts with selected applicants.
For more information on applying for EQIP funding, or to find an NRCS office near you, visit the NRCS website.
Top Bill-ing for Ag Legislation
For a few months this fall, there was much discussion about the possibility of a “secret Farm Bill”—a legislation package that would be hammered out by a newly formed congressional “supercommittee” and that would replace the 2008 bill that’s set to expire in September 2012. With the collapse of the supercommittee, however, it appears that the Farm Bill will be negotiated as usual beginning as early as mid-January.
Three recently introduced acts will be of particular interest to small-scale farmers as they begin to move through committee next month.
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011 was introduced in Congress by Reps. Tim Walz and Jeff Fortenberry on Oct. 14, 2011; an identical companion bill in the Senate was introduced the following month by Tom Harkin. The bill, which is the result of efforts by several farmer-advocacy organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, is an effort to respond to young and first-time farmers’ needs for capital and education. In addition to making provisions for credit access, conservation programs, and research and extension activities, among other items, the bill provides for a program to support military veterans interested in farming as a vocational and/or rehabilitative option.
Introduced on Nov. 1, 2011, the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act promotes rural development, job growth and public health at the level of local and regional food systems. If passed, the bill will grant authority to the USDA’s Risk Management Agency to develop farm insurance that better meets the needs of diversified operations of all scales. The bill also provides for local-marketing promotion (replacing the existing Farmers Market Promotion Program), changes to school-lunch procurements that will encourage schools to purchase from local farmers, and renewed funding to the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program.
On Nov. 17, 2011, a bill focused explicitly on the needs of small-scale farmers was introduced in the Senate. The Growing Opportunities for Agriculture and Responding to Markets (GO FARM) Act gives the USDA authority to establish a loan program that issues grants to rural-development organizations. These organizations, in turn, will issue loans to market farmers growing crops for direct-sales venues and local schools and grocers. According to the bill, loan priority would be given to small- and medium-scale producers, socially disadvantaged farmers/ranchers, specialty crop growers, and farmers who are best able to meet the nutritional needs of underserved communities.