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.