Note to Readers — This is the seventh in a series of posts on the 2012 Farm Bill reported out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 26.
Overall, the bill that was reported out of Committee last Thursday supports key pieces of the suite of unique programs that serve the organic sector. Most of the organic provisions included in the draft bill presented by Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) we reported on early last week remained unchanged in the package that the Committee approved. Several organic amendments were filed before the markup, and two of them were included in the bill passed out of Committee.
Overview of Organic Provisions
The bill reported out of Committee maintains the mandatory funding levels included in the Chairwoman’s mark for organic programs. Funding for national organic certification cost-share remained at $11.5 million per year, for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) at $16 million per year, and for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI) at $5 million over the life of the bill. The bill also provided $5 million in mandatory funding for technology upgrades at the National Organic Program (NOP).
The modifications to OREI priorities and to ODI that we reported on last week remained in the bill, and the no-cost policy changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program organic provision that NSAC supported sadly were not made.
Organic Crop Insurance
The mark did not include changes to make crop insurance more appropriate for organic farmers, and Sen. Casey (D-PA) filed an amendment to make these changes. Sen. Casey’s amendment would have eliminated for all crops the unjustified premium surcharge that organic farmers pay for coverage of all but a dozen organic crops, and would have directed the Risk Management Agency to develop and publish a complete organic price series.
Although the amendment was filed, and these changes were included in the Senate’s version of the 2008 Farm Bill, the Committee did not vote on the amendment and it was not included in the approved bill.
National Organic Program Enforcement
Sen. Leahy (D-VT) championed an amendment to improve NOP’s enforcement authority that was included in the revised bill provided to the Committee by the Chair and Ranking Member on April 25 and remained in the bill reported out of Committee. With an increased focus on enforcement of organic standards at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NOP has identified areas of needed authority to improve organic enforcement. Sen. Leahy’s amendment grants NOP stronger enforcement authority.
Specifically, Sen. Leahy’s amendment requires organic producers, handlers, and certifying agents to submit records – that will be kept confidential – associated with organic certification at the Secretary’s request, and requires those records to be kept for 5 years for most people participating in organic, and 10 years for certifiers. The amendment allows the Secretary to carry out an investigation to verify the accuracy of the information provided, and provides USDA with authority to subpoena the records. Through the amendment, the Secretary can also issue an order to stop the sale of a product misrepresented as organic, and suspend and revoke organic certification. The amendment also outlines an appeals process, and provides a penalty for a person that violates an order or revocation.
Organic Research and Promotion Program
Sen. Casey also championed an organic check-off amendment. The amendment would have provided USDA with the authority to issue an organic commodity promotion order; would have allowed organic producers that currently participate in conventional check-off programs the ability to choose whether to participate in the conventional commodity check-off or an organic check-off if one is created; and would have clarified that an organic-only producer can choose to be exempt from a conventional check-off. The Organic Trade Association is the lead stakeholder advocating for these changes.
A much modified version of the amendment was included in the revised draft bill issued April 25 and in the bill reported out of Committee. The bill requires USDA to submit a report to Congress that describes what the Secretary is doing to ensure that check-off activities reflect the priorities of all members in a check-off, and assesses the feasibility of creating an organic check-off.