When the last Farm Bill passed in 2002, organic was still getting its act together. Cut to present day, and the difference is dramatic. Now the industry and its agent, the Organic Trade Association, have adjusted to the category's Oscar-winning debut and are ready to tackle the next big role.
Without a doubt, it's the next Farm Bill. Here, the OTA hopes above all to increase organic's resources and separate itself from the conventional farming herd. This means lobbying for financial assistance and data-gathering services that are specific to organics, rather than being lumped in with the rest of the industry, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has done up to now. Case in point: the OTA's various proposals that would help farmers transitioning to organics — including financial assistance capping off at $10,000 to $20,000 per farmer.
“These are not gigantic, six-figure programs where people are looking to get rich off of going certified organics,” said Caren Wilcox, the OTA's executive director. “They're really targeted to the smaller guy.”
Creating a level playing field also includes eliminating hurdles, Wilcox said, like the extra 5% premium that organic farmers pay for crop insurance.
“And then they only get paid if they have a loss on the conventional price,” she explained. “So they've been led into a double whammy.”
The association's louder voice should pay dividends in Washington as the Farm Bill wends its way through Congress. But organic has grown too fast as an industry over the past five years for the OTA to wait for legislation alone as guidance. Recently, the association launched howtogoorganic.com, a website that directs and connects farmers making the organic transition. Another new initiative created a task force that oversees safety issues in the industry — “to make sure we're up to speed,” said Wilcox.
Organics is a category seemingly pulled in two different directions: forward to mass market appeal, yet backward to the principles of stewardship and the ethics that define it. Through the industry's tricky evolution, the OTA has struck a keen balance in appealing to both sides under a set of uncompromising standards.