State's certified organic farmers lose subsidy

2013-10-15T08:25:00Z State's certified organic farmers lose subsidyGEORGE HESSELBERG | Wisconsin State Journal | ghesselberg@madison.com | 608-252-6140 madison.com

It may seem like small potatoes to some, but about half of the certified organic farmers in Wisconsin will not get an annual federal subsidy of up to $750 to help cover the cost of getting their operations inspected, a necessary step in being certified organic.

Usually, the deadline to apply for the subsidy is the end of October, so many farmers just now are realizing that, after nearly 10 years, it is gone. Beginning and transitional organic farmers will suffer the most, as will some small businesses that must be certified to handle those products, experts say.

“I’m getting a couple of calls every week,” said Laura Paine, an organic agriculture specialist for the state, which administers the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program.

“It can really affect the smaller scale farms,” she said. “I talked with one farmer with just one crop of one product, maybe making $5,000 a year, and without (the subsidy) it just isn’t worth it.”

The program was left out of the federal Farm Bill extension passed in January.

Because of the small size of many certified organic farms, a loss of the relatively modest subsidy — $22 million over five years had been budgeted nationwide — may lead to the loss of beginning organic farmers and those making the transition to certified, said Harriet Behar. She is an organic certification specialist for Moses, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, based in Spring Valley, the heart of the organic movement in Wisconsin, which is second to California in the number of certified organic farms.

In 2012, 574 certified organic farmers in Wisconsin split payments totaling $472,030, for an average reimbursement of $823. (The average payment is more than $750 because many farmers are certified in more than one category.) Ninety-nine certified organic processor/handlers split $74,541.

The loss is a double blow to many, said Behar, because certification inspectors must pay the government to be accredited, “up to $30,000 and more,” and those costs are passed along to the organic farmers who need the inspection if they want to be deemed “certified organic,” an appellation controlled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The whole point of the organic cost share was to give people relief to that regulatory burden,” said Behar.

“It’s a help, and it really is most likely the small and mid-sized operations, and those who are in transition, who are really hurt,” she said. The loss “stifles the growth of organics.”

Behar was worried the effect would be especially hard on beginning organic grain farmers, where Wisconsin is taking a leading position.

“Wisconsin is a leader in organic livestock production, but we are bringing in organic soybeans from China and Brazil to feed. This is very sad — we would much rather have organic farmers in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota supplying those organic feed grains,” she said.

Funding runs out

Paine, at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said about half of the state’s organic farmers are certified, and the federal reimbursement program “is very well received.”

“I have been hearing especially from the smaller-scale organic farmers,” she said. Most recent federal agriculture legislation “zeroed out a lot of the organic programs,” including this one, she said.

The cost share program was created in the 2002 national farm bill with

$5 million in funding over five years and a $500 limit per year. When it was reauthorized in 2008, funding was upped to $22 million over five years and allowed participants to get up to 75 percent of their organic certification costs back, but not more than $750 per year.

The USDA administers a separate certification subsidy program that does not rely on the farm bill for funding, but that only applies in 16 states, a group that does not include Wisconsin.

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(15) Comments

  1. PapaLorax
    Report Abuse
    PapaLorax - October 15, 2013 11:04 am
    if only this were really a sign that stupid government handouts are actually going to be reduced/eliminated...if only
  2. Deke
    Report Abuse
    Deke - October 15, 2013 11:03 am
    their product is much more expensive then non organic food, they should be able to shoulder the cost as they are charging more for their product.
  3. BReasonable
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    BReasonable - October 15, 2013 10:59 am
    I do wonder whether these small organic farmers might have had two things going against them... 1) They don't have a corps of big ag lobbyists bending Congress' ears, and 2) they may tend to vote for Democrats.

    When I talked to Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner at a county fair he boasted about the family farm benefits of the farm bill he had just voted for. Its sad to hear this excluded organic startups along with those dependent on food stamps. And I hear USDA is also making the business difficult for small organic producers.
  4. aspyder
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    aspyder - October 15, 2013 9:52 am
    And I'll bet you wondered what all those hay bales were used for.
  5. Greggar
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    Greggar - October 15, 2013 8:45 am
    Thanks for the well written article, easy to read , concise and to the point. Paint me.......
  6. retired
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    retired - October 15, 2013 7:13 am
    When I drive by these farms, and see their sign, organic . Yes the cattle may only eat grasses during the summer months. BUT, what do they eat during the winter months ? Grains ? Are those grains organic ? How about the seeds that grew the grains these cows are eating ? I'll bet, not, so much for organic.
  7. Harlondo
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    Harlondo - October 15, 2013 6:53 am
    We looked at becoming "certified" for our farm. We exceeded any requirements but the cost was not worth it. It seems a cottage industry of inspectors drives the cost. The state could make the process easy and cheaper so this is a subsidy that should go away.
  8. Scootin
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    Scootin - October 15, 2013 6:14 am
    happydays - thatd be fine if there wasn't literally billions for big business in every farm bill. $220m over 10 years to cover half of the registration costs for the organic transition is just the sort of small business waivers the feds should give out.

    compare that to the nearly half a trillion we give out to companies that ALREADY making a profit.
  9. Scootin
    Report Abuse
    Scootin - October 15, 2013 6:12 am
    Oh cool, something tiny democrats go into a multibillion dollar farm bill corporate welfare giveaway in 2002 when obama was in the illinois state legislature.

    hot load pete knows how to use a calendar.
  10. In Medias Res
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    In Medias Res - October 15, 2013 3:08 am
    Then let's stop subsidizing the oil companies...it's pretty obvious that nobody is buying their products.
  11. happydays
    Report Abuse
    happydays - October 15, 2013 12:18 am
    No business should get a subsidy - business is a risk - you take the risk because you think you have a product that people will want and you make money. If it isn't selling - then it shouldn't be a business. It is not up to the taxpayer to subsidize your business. They already do that by buying your product if it is worth it. Find a product people want and get a good business plan.
  12. midwestguy
    Report Abuse
    midwestguy - October 14, 2013 9:53 pm
    So if you're hankering for genetically engineered and processed food, no need to worry anymore about being distracted by that bland healthy local stuff.
  13. concerned_citizen
    Report Abuse
    concerned_citizen - October 14, 2013 8:22 pm
    yeah, good, safe local food doesn't deserve any subsidies
    like Monsanto and the oil industry

    we have such great priorities in this country
    or at least, the Congress that is owned by large transnational corporations has lame priorities - which is not the safety and health of the American people.

    so sad.
  14. Hot Shot Pete
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    Hot Shot Pete - October 14, 2013 7:55 pm
    I'm thinking that the majority of organic farmers are likely Obama supporters, brewhahahaha. Reap what ye sow...........
  15. Crow Barr
    Report Abuse
    Crow Barr - October 14, 2013 7:29 pm
    Kicking the little guy makes the big Republican Farm Bureau members smile!

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