CHICAGO — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns renewed his support for organics during a visit to the Organic Trade Association's annual show, stating that the category's continued double-digit growth demands more attention and resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I don't believe there are any grocery clerks out there who don't recognize the importance of organics,” he said during remarks at the All Things Organic event. “Consumers have an appetite for what you do.”
Johanns ticked off statistics: Organic food currently makes up roughly 2.5% of the overall market, is worth $15 billion, and sales are increasing at 15% annually. In 2006, the USDA itself spent $35 million on organic research.
“That's more than twice the amount of just four years ago. The increased funding commitment reflects the priority we place on your industry,” he said.
The organic industry has been vocal in calling for more resources from the federal government, and Johanns noted that the proposed 2007 Farm Bill was crafted to answer at least some of those requests. Key provisions include funds to assist smaller farmers in transitioning their fields to organic production, and to gather more data on the true size and scope of the industry.
“We've designed [proposals] to drive agricultural support toward a market-driven system that provides a strong safety net while encouraging a productive and competitive industry,” said Johanns of the organic entries. “At the same time, we're trying to provide more equitable support that is better distributed among the sector of agriculture.”
The current version of the bill expands a program that lessens the financial burden of transitioning from 15 states to all 50, and increases reimbursement to $750 annually or 75% of certification cost, whichever is lower.
“The cost-share certification program is especially helpful to small farmers, and this expansion should help small operators enter the industry throughout the country,” Johanns said.
The collection and publication of organic market data will get help from $1 million in funding, and will assist current organic producers in farm management, as well as potential organic producers trying to determine how best to enter the field.
An additional $10 million written into the Farm Bill will allow USDA and allied agencies to conduct a variety of market-related research. According to Johanns, the money will be used to examine transition strategies, development of new seed varieties, crop productivity, pest/weed control and market-driven production methods for regional/specialty products. Organic acreage already in use would become eligible for cost-share assistance through the existing Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQUIP.
“We're aware that the requirements to be certified organic are lengthy, they can be costly, and it's especially challenging for our small farmers,” Johanns told ATO attendees.
And the USDA secretary had special advice for purists in the organic industry: Work with the growth and with larger corporate entities as they enter the organic category.
“I encourage you to view this as a testament to what you are doing and the growing popularity of what you're doing,” he said, adding that such growth does not mean that standards are endangered.
“The key to continued growth in organics is maintaining the quality and integrity that consumers have come to expect from your products,” he said. “The marketplace respects meaningful standards, such as the ones we implemented five years ago for the National Organic Program. Creating a uniform set of standards and a universal definition of the term ‘organic’ is what generates consumer confidence.”