Unfair Food Pricing Is Killing Family Farms and Regenerative Farming

By Elizabeth Henderson

In February, a dairy farmer friend sent me a note confiding that a few farmers she knows are living on cereal until their milk checks arrive. Yet, the recently released census of agriculture shows that the number of young farmers is growing even as the average age of farmers also increases, and there are uplifting articles about young Black farmers connecting with the land and enjoying the self-empowerment that comes with being an independent farmer.

Meanwhile, voices are rising about the central role that regenerative and organic farming can play in a Green New Deal, a program to mobilize all possible forces to prevent climate disaster.

How can we make sense of these conflicting currents? What policies and programs will create a just transition for family-scale farmers? What changes will enable farmers to maximize the potential of photosynthesis for putting carbon in the soil to supplement reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in mitigating climate disaster?

Farmers who are constantly worrying about financial viability have little bandwidth for new practices or long-term improvements that take initial investments. As Robert Leonard and Matt Russell noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times:

“Government programs like the current farm bill pit production against conservation, and doing the right thing for the environment is a considerable drain on a farmer’s bank account, especially when so many of them are losing money to low commodity prices and President Trump’s tariffs.”

The farm debt crisis of the 1980s never completely went away and has now resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2017, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2013 due to vast overproduction of basic commodities, and farm income has not recovered. The North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in the loss of mid-sized and smaller farms in all three signatory countries as integrated production and marketing favored larger farms.

Since 1950, the U.S. has gone from 5.4 million farms to just over 2 million, a loss of more than 3 million farms, with important shifts from many smaller integrated farms to fewer large, more specialized farms that grow even larger. For dairy farms in particular, these have been hard times as illustrated by the losses in the two top dairy states. New York State has lost 20 percent of its dairy farms in the past five years. Wisconsin lost 691 dairy farms in 2018.

While the persistence and shrewd maneuvering of organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition meant that programs that support organic and sustainable farming fared remarkably well in the 2018 Farm Bill, the bulk of the more than 500-page bill carries on with business as usual, even making it easier for big farms to get bigger by failing to cap the payments any one farm can receive and allowing more relatives to cash in on programs in the bill.

Both mainstream parties advocate the neoliberal, free-trade policies that the ever more aggregated seed, food and chemical corporations have imposed upon the U.S. since World War II to the detriment of family-scale farms all over the world. The dairy farmers who got through the winter eating cereal and the new farmers who are eagerly starting out are in urgent need of radical change.

Why is this happening? Political economist and author Eric Holt Giménez would say this is just capitalism working as it is supposed to. Faced with slim margins in the race to cover farm expenses, farmers produce more, and that drives prices down even further. The beneficiaries are the ever-larger corporations that have consolidated their dominance in the food sector. The result? Shoppers pay more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay goes to farmers.

At first, this mainly hit conventional farms; then in 2017, organic processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business, and tragically, there are increasing reports of farmer suicides.

If you juxtapose the Agricultural Economic Insights chart with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) chart above showing the declining number of farms, it is clear that loss of farm income corresponds with the loss of farmsMore than half of U.S. farm households lost money farming in recent years, according to the USDA, which estimated that median farm income for U.S. farm households was negative $1,553 in 2018.

Farm incomes have dropped despite record productivity on U.S. farms because oversupply drives down commodity prices. Through a plethora of racist policies, Black farmers have lost land at more than five times the rate of white farmers from the peak of Black farmland ownership in 1910 until the 1990s. Meanwhile, profits in consolidated food businesses (farm inputs, retail stores) remain high with returns on investment ranging from 8 to 35 percent. Clearly, there is plenty of money in food: It just does not get apportioned fairly to the people who do the actual work.

Programs to train new farmers, especially veterans, get media attention and funding, but as the National Young Farmers Coalition repeats tirelessly, land in most parts of the country is too expensive for a farmer to buy with farm earnings. USDA data show that farm families have a middle-class income, but only on the largest farms growing a few commodities is that income from farm earnings.

So, while presidential candidates and Green New Dealers are putting bold proposals on the table for public discourse, farmers, farmworkers and concerned eaters should take the opportunity to hammer out proposals that will solve the structural issues that have turned U.S. farming into a problem instead of the win-win-win solutions that are possible.

Declaring that she wants “Washington to work for family farmers again,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren promises to take some steps in the right direction by breaking up vertically integrated trusts, allowing farmers themselves to repair the equipment they purchase, ensuring that contracts for livestock farmers are fair, reinvigorating country of origin labeling, and restricting foreign ownership of farmland.

Sen. Bernie Sanders goes much further, outlining a program that would completely restructure the food system so that farmers can make a living and afford to pay living wages to employees. These are the policies this country needs if we hope to keep family-scale farming.

When farmers can afford to adopt regenerative organic practices, they will take more carbon out of the air and put it in the soil where it builds soil health, making the people and livestock who eat those crops healthier. The original New Deal’s parity pricing also fueled the soil conservation that ended the dust bowl.

Farmers can focus on carbon farming if the price they receive in the marketplace covers the costs of running their farms. Family-scale farmers and the people who want to eat locally grown food all need a fair Green New Deal for the 21st century.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Comments on Proposed Changes to H-2A Program

Comments on Proposed Changes to H-2A Program
Adele Gagliardi
Administrator, Office of Policy Development and Research
Employment and Training Administration
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue NW, Room N-5641
Washington, DC 20210
Re: Temporary Agricultural Employment of H-2A Nonimmigrants in the United States
RIN 1205-AB89

Dear Ms. Gagliardi,
Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the H-2A program. The Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council (NOFA-IC) wishes to stand on record in opposition to most of the proposed changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. While the proposal makes a few changes that are helpful to farmers, most of the changes make conditions worse both for foreign workers who wish to come to work on US farms and for farmworkers who are already in the U.S. employed on U.S. farms and thus, ultimately, worse for the future of farming in the U.S. The proposed regulations would decrease farmworker wages, increase their travel costs, decrease oversight of their housing conditions, weaken enforcement of H-2A standards, and reduce job opportunities for U.S. farmworkers. Furthermore, the proposed changes will disproportionately favor the largest farming operations and labor contractors at the expense of family-scale farms.

Founded in 1971, the Northeast Organic Farming Association is one of the oldest organic farming education and advocacy groups in the country. NOFA is a regional federation of seven independent state Chapters in NY, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI and NJ. Beyond work on state initiatives, the Chapters work together regionally, nationally and internationally via the NOFA Interstate Council (NOFA-IC), a separate 501(c)(3) organization.

The U.S. food supply depends on the work of over two million farmworkers, most of them foreign born and more than half of them lacking legal status. The million undocumented farmworkers live in constant fear of detention, family separation and deportation, and the farmers who employ them live in constant fear of losing their employees, including workers who have served farms for many years and hold positions of responsibility. The H-2A program offers the only legal alternative to hiring undocumented people, but it is a poor substitute for root solutions to the farm labor needs of U.S. farms.

The members of NOFA believe that this country will never have a farming system that is worth sustaining until farm work is elevated to the status it deserves, contributing as it does to one of the basic functions of human existence. Workers on farms should be treated with respect, paid living wages for a 40 hour work week with full benefits, including health insurance,

unemployment insurance and Workers Compensation. They should receive adequate training in health and safety and their work should not expose them to toxic materials that threaten their health and the health of their families. They should have the same right to freedom of association as workers in other sectors of the economy. If these conditions were fulfilled, qualified immigrants as well as U.S. residents would be attracted to farm jobs.

In the short term, any credible reform to U.S. policies regarding farmworkers must retain H-2A provisions regarding compensation, housing, and transportation; strengthen protections against employer harassment and unfair practices, including wage theft, particularly focusing on H-2A labor contractors; provide H-2A farmworker access to courts regarding legal grievances against employers, like wage theft and harassment; and establish a significantly altered program that provides for flexible work stay duration, the ability to change agricultural employers, and the full integration of presently undocumented farmworkers, including a path to permanent legal status, including the option of citizenship. Unfortunately, the proposed rule changes to the H-2A program are regressive, making matters worse.

The DOL proposed changes weaken the recruitment requirements and the protections for U.S. workers that allow them first access to available jobs. Instead of importing foreign workers, undocumented workers who are already in the US should be provided with legal status so that farmers can legally hire them without fear of committing a felony.

Under the existing H-2A law, farm employers who would like to hire temporary foreign workers must first obtain a labor certification from the US Department of Labor (DOL) stating that they face a labor shortage and that they are offering wages and working conditions that will not adversely affect US farmworkers’ wages and working conditions.

The DOL proposal eliminates the 50% rule that gives U.S. workers preference for available jobs for the first half of the work contract period, reducing it to the first 30 days of a contract. This change means that U.S. workers applying for work at an H-2A employer with jobs lasting multiple months would be ineligible for the job after the first 30 days. The proposal also includes a “staggered entry” provision, a new system that would allow farmers to bring in H-2A workers at any time up to 120 days after the advertised initial date of need. This provision also makes it harder for US farmworkers to know when jobs might be available to them.

The DOL proposal would allow farmers to make changes to the job terms without providing the H-2A workers, or U.S. workers who may also be working at a farm, with any voice in the changes.

Guestworkers generally lack bargaining power to demand improvements in conditions and higher wages, due to their restricted non-immigrant, temporary status and other factors, including the debt they often owe upon arriving in the U.S. Foreign workers who have traveled long distances and often made great sacrifices for their families should be able to negotiate any changes to the terms of work that they were promised before coming to the U.S. and there should be a process for appeals.

DOL should withdraw the wage proposal because it will cause, not prevent, adverse effects to U.S. workers’ wages. DOL should continue to use the USDA Farm Labor Survey to determine the AEWR. Additionally, DOL should not weaken the prevailing wage requirement, but instead ensure that prevailing wage determinations are made and implemented.

Particularly concerning is that the DOL proposal will probably result in lower wages for farm workers. The existing low wages is one of the primary reasons that farm jobs are unattractive to many US citizens; lowering them will only make things worse. Under the current H-2A regulations, workers’ wages must be at least the higher of: (a) the local “prevailing wage;” (b) the state or federal minimum wage, (c) the agreed-upon collective bargaining rate; or (d) the “adverse effect wage rate” (AEWR). The AEWR is intended to ensure that the hiring of guestworkers does not undermine (“adversely affect”) the wage standards for U.S. farmworkers. The proposal would change the methodology for calculating the AEWR. Currently, the DOL sets an AEWR for each state based on the USDA’s Farm Labor Survey (FLS). Under the proposal, the first source for the AEWR would be USDA’s FLS; however, if the FLS does not report an annual average hourly gross wage for the standard occupational classification (SOC) for that job in the state or region, the AEWR would instead be the statewide annual average hourly wage for the SOC reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Survey (OES). The practical impact of these and other technical changes is that farmworkers’ wages will likely decrease. As the DOL itself acknowledges, the OES does not even survey farms, but rather surveys establishments that support farm production, such as farm labor contractors, who are among the lowest paying employers of farmworkers. Thus, the OES should not be used as a source of the AEWR. DOL’s own explanation of this proposed methodology shows that if it had been used in 2018, some workers at H-2A employers would have earned lower wages.

We also strongly oppose the proposed changes regarding the longstanding requirement that farmers offer a local prevailing wage if it is the highest wage. Under the H-2A program, there are supposed to be surveys of the prevailing wage for U.S. workers for particular jobs in local labor markets (while the AEWR measures wages in a broader set of jobs and wider geographic area). Under the proposal, DOL would only require consideration of a prevailing wage rate if the DOL’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) issued a prevailing wage, which would be based on the state workforce agency (SWA) submitting a wage survey that must meet a number of challenging requirements. It is likely that few prevailing wage determinations would be issued. In some jobs, the local prevailing wage rate for particular jobs is a significantly higher wage than the state AEWR. In the absence of the prevailing wage determination, however, H-2A employers could lawfully offer below-market wage rates. For low-wage farmworkers these could be very harmful pay cuts.

The DOL should withdraw the proposed changes to the transportation reimbursement. This cost should continue to be covered by employers, not workers.

The proposed regulations would shift some H-2A program costs from farmers to H-2A workers. The H-2A program for decades has required that farmers reimburse workers for their long-distance travel costs to the place of employment. Now, DOL proposes to only require farmers to pay the costs of transportation for H-2A workers to and from the U.S. consulate or embassy in their home country, rather than their homes. Yet workers often live far from consulate locations and are recruited where they live. DOL acknowledges that farmworkers will lose tens of millions of dollars per year from this change, which is money they cannot afford. Many H-2A workers borrow money to pay such costs and arrive in the U.S. under great pressure not to risk employer retaliation due to their fear that they will be unable to repay their loan. This change will only drive foreign workers further into debt to travel to jobs in the U.S. and make them more vulnerable to exploitation by unethical employers.

Despite high profile stories of dangerous and substandard housing under the H-2A program, the proposed regulations would allow housing to be provided to farmworkers without annual inspections by government agencies.

If a state workforce agency (SWA) notifies the DOL that it lacks resources to conduct timely, preoccupancy inspections of all employer-provided housing, DOL would allow housing certifications for up to 24 months, during which time conditions could deteriorate to unsafe levels. Further, following a SWA inspection, DOL would permit employers to “self-inspect” and certify their own housing. Given the high rates of violations of the minimal housing standards that apply, it is deeply troubling that DOL could allow vulnerable H-2A workers to live in housing that has not been inspected annually by a responsible government entity.

The proposed changes do include some modest improvements to address health and safety concerns regarding housing that must be provided to H-2A workers and long-distance, migrant U.S. farmworkers. In a very troubling development as the H-2A program spreads to new areas where there is limited housing, some H-2A employers have been housing workers in motels or other rental or public accommodations. Under the proposal, where there is a failure of the applicable local or state standards to address issues such as overcrowding, adequate sleeping facilities, and laundry and bathing facilities, among others, DOL would require that the housing meet certain OSHA standards addressing those issues. While this is a step in the right direction, greater protections, including improved standards, are needed for H-2A housing. Furthermore, the effectiveness of these improved standards could be undercut if there is not a sufficiently strong system for and commitment to inspections and enforcement of housing violations.

The surety bond requirement must be substantially increased and coverage extended to cover more H-2A farmworkers, as the victims of harassment.

The proposal includes a modest improvement requiring an increase in the bond amounts required to be posted by H-2A labor contractors (H-2ALCs). This is important because H-2A labor contractors are unable to pay back workers for labor violations. DOL has recognized the need for higher surety bonds, but the increases are insufficient. Improvements are also needed to help victimized workers access the bonds. However, the proposal fails to address a number of other significant challenges workers face with H-2ALCs, and the already troubling lack of transparency with H-2ALCs will be exacerbated by the proposed changes. Too often farm operators seek to keep their labor costs low by hiring H-2ALCs and seeking to use the H-2ALCs as a shield to escape responsibility. The DOL is well aware that labor contracting is a notorious method for farmers to evade responsibility for the mistreatment of farmworkers, but its responses to these abuses are utterly inadequate.

The Department of Labor should withdraw the harmful proposed changes to the H-2A program consistent with these comments.
In addition, there are serious shortcomings in the program’s policies, administration and enforcement that this proposal utterly fails to address. For example, in many locations around the country there are no prevailing wage surveys being done and therefore the prevailing wage is not required to be paid by H-2A employers, who are allowed to undercut the labor market. The Department and other agencies have also failed to prevent recruitment fees being charged to many farmworkers under the H-2A program, which leads to greater debt and contributes to the workers’ vulnerability and fear of challenging unfair or unlawful conduct. Discriminatory job qualifications are applied to U.S. workers by employers that prefer guestworkers. There are also rampant violations of farmworkers’ labor rights, including occupational safety protections.

Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal

“De-carbonize the Atmosphere, Re-carbonize the Soil!”(Jim Goodman, inspired by La Via Campesina)

By Elizabeth Henderson

Swiss Chard at Woven Roots Farm, MA

No till Swiss Chard at Woven Roots Farm, MA, 2016. Surrounded by woods, Woven Roots farmers, Jen and Pete Salinetti and their crew, use no-till regenerative organic practices to grow a diversity of certified organic vegetables for the members of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Farms like this one build carbon in the soil while also producing high quality, nutrient dense food.

“For Sale” signs have replaced “Dairy of Distinction” on the last two dairy farms on the road I drive to town. The farm crisis of the 1980’s that never really went away has resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2013, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2012. Farm income has continued to decline ever since. The moment is ripe for the movement for a sustainable agriculture to address the root causes.

Just as in the 80’s, a brief period of high commodity prices and cheap credit in the 2010’s resulted in a debt and asset bubble. Then prices collapsed. Meanwhile, ever larger corporations have consolidated their dominance in the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay going to farmers. At first this mainly hit conventional farms, but in 2017, processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business. Reports of farmer suicides are increasing dramatically.  Despite the shortage of farm workers, their wages remain below the poverty line.  People of color and women are often trapped in the lowest paying food system jobs and many are forced to survive on SNAP payments. The tariff game of #45 is only making things worse. The farm consolidation that has taken place has grave consequences for the environment and for climate change as well. The newly passed Farm Bill barely touches the structural and fairness issues that led to this on-going disaster for family-scale farms and the food security of this country.

An alliance of social movements and members of Congress led by newly elected Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) are proposing a Green New Deal that would initiate an emergency mobilization to address economic inequities and reverse our blind march toward catastrophic climate change, attracting much more attention than the Green Party version. In a draft resolution, Ocasio Cortez proposes the formation of a Select Committee to develop a plan to transition the US to a carbon neutral economy within ten years, together with a comprehensive package including guaranteed living wage jobs, public banks, and a “Just Transition” for all workers. As of this writing, 43 members of the House have signed on to the concept.

The sustainable agriculture movement with our many organizations and individuals – farmers, foodies, ngos, faith groups and enviros together with farmworkers, food chain workers and their advocates – should become active shapers of the food and agriculture aspects of the Green New Deal. Frontline communities that bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate chaos and food and economic system breakdown often have the most penetrating insights into pathways forward and real solutions.  For this reason, in addition to the ethical imperatives, fair representation of frontline communities at decision-making tables (of the Select Committee and beyond) is essential.  As a white woman wanting to be the best ally I can, I hope to warmly encourage white people in the food movement to un-learn racism and use privilege to acknowledge and overcome our history of oppression.

What was the New Deal and What Did it Do for Agriculture?

Under tremendous pressure from the social movements in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, “U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal—a set of government programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, and stimulate the economy. It included the building of homes, hospitals, school, roads, dams and electrical grids. The New Deal put millions of people to work and created a new policy framework for American democracy. New Deal programs included public employment (Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps); farm price supports (Agricultural Adjustment Act); environmental restoration (reforestation and land conservation); labor rights (Wagner Act); minimum wages and standards (National Recovery Act and Fair Labor Standards Act); cooperative enterprises (Works Progress Administration support for self-help); public infrastructure development (TVA and rural electrification); subsidized basic necessities (food commodity programs and Federal Housing Act); construction of schools, parks, and housing (Civil Works Administration); and income maintenance (Social Security Act).”[i]

Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace fashioned the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), introducing supply management together with parity pricing, a national policy of price supports that functioned from 1933 – 53. In effect, parity provided a minimum wage for farms.  In “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy,” Kevin Engelbert, NY’s first certified organic dairy farmer, explains how it established “commodity prices that would give farmers the purchasing power, with respect to items they buy, equivalent to the purchasing power of agricultural commodities in a ‘base’ period.” [ii]

In “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau describe the parity system in more detail:

The parity program had thee central features:

(1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.

(2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. Since government storage of surpluses was expensive, this feature was crucial to reducing government costs.

(3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. 

From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952. [iii] 

What Could a Green New Deal (GND) Do for Agriculture?

First of all, instead of current subsidies that purportedly compensate for constantly falling farm prices, but really only subsidize the big processors, vertically integrated livestock factories, and international traders, family-scale farms need a system of fair pricing, that is, prices that cover the real costs of living and farming, including conservation practices that regenerate natural resources. We need to dust off and refresh the concept of parity to create a just transition out of our calamitous current conditions. Twenty-first century parity should provide price supports and supply management for the basic commodities – “wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products”[iv] – as described by Ritchie and Ristau, and reestablish farmer held reserves for grains as buffer stocks in case of poor harvests or climate disasters that also protect farmers against price volatility.

Parity pricing and supply management should also be extended to other crops, what Farm Bill language calls “specialty crops.”  Since fruit and vegetables are perishable, the GND should invest in value-added enterprises that could be farmer or worker-owned coops in every county where these crops are grown.  If excess supply of fresh produce threatened to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year round.  Investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide many jobs. The GND would return livestock onto family farms, in place of large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have eliminated the need for diverse crop rotations. Family farm livestock production integrates crops and livestock for a much more flexible and resilient system that reduces the pressure for routine antibiotic use. This system also increases the biodiversity on these farms thus strengthening their economic viability adding opportunities for new farmers while improving the quality of the meat, milk, and eggs.

Next, farmers need contract reform.  Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation to protect their rights to freedom of association so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position in negotiating fair contracts without threat of retaliation.  In addition, a limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down.  With control by mega-corporations an ever greater threat to family-scale farming, the GND must be linked with anti-trust measures like the Booker bill that calls for a moratorium on mergers (S.3404, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018).

All farmers should be eligible for GND programs whether they own land, rent it with cash payments or through share cropping.

The GND should include measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession. Ocasio-Cortez wants to guarantee living wages and green jobs – that must include the jobs on farms. Since farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 60% of farm workers on US crop farms are undocumented, immigration reform based on human rights needs to accompany the GND. Human rights based immigration reform would prevent the separation of families and include a path to legal status.  Farm workers should have the option of a path to citizenship if they want to remain in the US or freedom to come and go across the border to visit their families back home.

Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If farms are guaranteed prices that cover their costs of production, farm earnings will be high enough to pay farm workers time and a half for overtime over 40 hours a week like workers in almost every other sector of the economy.

In writing about parity, Ritchie and Ristau make a very important additional point: “Paying farmers a fair price would result in a one-time increase in food prices of only 3 to 5 percent, less than a nickel on a loaf of bread. Since the supply management proposal also contains provisions for doubling the funds available for food assistance, the poor would not be hurt by this small increase in food prices.” [v]

Investment in Regenerative Farming Practices

To invest effectively in “drawdown” of greenhouse gases (GHG), the GND must include incentives and training for farmers to become the true managers of solar power that photosynthesis makes possible. The largest, and only remaining, “sink” for carbon on earth is the soil and regenerative farming practices increase soil carbon. The more fertile the soil, the more carbon it holds. The same practices that improve soil health, such as planting cover crops, recycling crop residues, and reducing tillage, the basic practices of organic agriculture grounded in agroecology, build soil carbon. In a win-win-win combination, building the health of soil improves farm viability, increasing farm resiliency to extreme weather events, and improving food quality and surrounding water quality.

Since 1/3 of the energy used by conventional agriculture comes from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which are natural gas derivatives, farms under the GND will reestablish the importance of natural nitrogen creation by legumes and compost.

Confining cattle, hogs and poultry in huge structures turns manure from a valuable soil nutrient into a big storage problem, with lagoons that overflow during extreme rainfall events with large, negative environmental impacts. Ending the confinement of livestock will also lead to better manure management.  Raising livestock on pasture turns manure back into a benefit. Especially when combined with skillful rotations, integrating livestock with crops builds soil carbon. Planting trees in pastures (silvoculture) builds carbon even faster. The GND should invest in training and incentives for farmers to make these changes in their practices. Farmers will be able to afford to farm more ecologically, if we push for the structural changes that will be part of the GND and will revitalize farms and rural areas.

The GND should preserve farmland and discourage sprawl. Research in California and New York led by UC Davis and American Farmland Trust show that the conversion of agricultural land to development, particularly low-density real estate development, increases GHG emissions. Farms emit fewer greenhouse gases than the homes that often replace them. Tax and other incentives can make preserved farmland available to new farmers.

The GND should also ban speculation on agricultural commodities and farmland since this drives up the price of land and food. Strict regulations should control investors who are not producers or final users.  Food derivatives markets should not be used as investment vehicles by banks and investment funds.

A Just Transition for Farming

Ocasio Cortez calls for a “Just Transition” for all workers.  In agriculture, a just transition would mean providing access to farmland to those from whom it has been unjustly taken, the reparations called for by farmers of color and Native Americans (http://www.soulfirefarm.org/support/reparations/).

Farmworkers should have the opportunity to become farmers. The GND should include training for farmworkers who have been trapped in repetitive, body-taxing jobs so that they can become farm managers themselves.

It should also include retraining for the farmers who now farm thousands of acres using heavy equipment, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to use regenerative practices with a buy-out scheme for CAFOs. Once these farmers give up the heavy use of chemicals, parity pricing and supply management will free them from needing so many acres for the economic viability of their farms.  GND incentives could encourage them to sell excess land to new farmers and to retrained farm workers.  Thousands of acres could become available for smaller scale farms and also for wildlife. Increasing the social diversity of farmers will at the same time promote biodiversity, since they will grow a greater variety of crops and livestock breeds, which also increases sustainability. As La Via Campesina and others note, small farmers cool the planet.[vi]

A Just Transition would provide incentives to farmers to reduce their production of bio-fuels that take land out of food production. Instead, farms could receive payment for other kinds of renewable energy production that makes use of marginal land, sun, wind and the heat of the earth.

With the goals of food, fiber and energy self-sufficiency and the elimination of hunger at the local, regional, or national level, farmers should be weaned from the current focus on an export economy.  Thus, changes in trade policies will also have to accompany the GND.

Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Participate in Creating a Green New Deal

Everyone eats. To “eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation,” as called for in the  draft resolution for the GND, means that everyone will have access to good food, fair food, food they can afford without impoverishing themselves or the world’s farmers. That has to be part of the GND. For the food system to be sustainable, we must balance the interests of farmers and farmworkers while constantly expanding access to local high quality organic foods for more and more people of all income levels, comprehensive domestic fair trade by definition.

When the 17% of all workers who are food workers earn living wages of $15 an hour or more, they will get off food stamps (a savings for tax payers) and be able to afford to buy high quality, locally grown food from their own earnings. The billions of dollars that currently go into subsidizing crop insurance could be reallocated to increase funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs so that low-income people can afford the higher prices that would be needed to fully cover farm production costs for fair, regenerative, ecological practices.

A recent article by Whitney Webb, “Corporations see a Different Kind of “Green” in Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal,” [vii] accuses the newly elected Representative of moving to the right and opening the door for corporate takeover: “Despite its pretty, progressive-sounding banner, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal — in its current form — will continue to perpetuate gross distributive injustice by ensuring that the side with the most “green” keeps winning as the world continues to seek solutions to climate change.” This will only happen if social movements like the sustainable agriculture movement hang back and allow neo-liberalism which is dominant in both mainstream parties, to continue the cheap food policies that have put farms in crisis.

In “The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement?” Eric Holt-Gimenez writes: “Social movements have an opportunity to join together as never before—not just to get behind the Green New Deal—but to form a broad-based, multi-racial, working class movement to build political power. Visionary leaders from these movements are already knitting together strategies for solidarity, education and action…The Green New Deal just might be the fulcrum upon which the farm, food and climate movements can pivot our society towards the just transition we all urgently need and desire.”[viii]

By not merely endorsing the Green New Deal, but insisting on a place at the table when the program is written, the sustainable and organic agriculture movement will open the path to the ecological, equitable and fair food system we dream about. And while we are in visionary mode, funding for the GND could come from taxing polluters.

Original Post at The Prying Mantis.


[i] 12 Reasons Labor Should Demand a Green New Deal by Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein, In These Times. Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, 6:20 pm.

[ii] Kevin Engelbert, “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy” https://www.cornucopia.org/2013/01/a-brief-history-of-parity-pricing-and-the-present-day-ramifications-of-the-abandonment-of-a-par-economy/

[iii] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau, League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN

[iv] P. 8,The Agricultural Adjustment Act, PUBLIC—No. 10—73D CONGRESS, H.R. 3835

[v] Ritchie and Ristau, op. cit., p. 14.

[vi] https://viacampesina.org/en/la-via-campesina-position-paper-small-scale-sustenable-farmers-are-cooling-down-the-earth/

https://fairworldproject.org/get-informed/small-scale-farmers-cool-the-planet/

[vii] The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement? Eric Holt-Gimenez, Food First, 12.17.2018: https://foodfirst.org/the-green-new-deal-fulcrum-for-the-food-justice-movement/

 

Statement of Support for Migrant Justice Lawsuit

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From the Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council

November 20, 2018

Over the past two years, NOFA members have observed with indignation the series of arrests in Vermont and New York of dairy farmworkers who have the courage to take action to improve working and living conditions on farms in these states. NOFA stands in solidarity with Migrant Justice in taking peaceful, legal actions that should be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and the National Immigration Law Center have filed a federal lawsuit claiming that immigration agents are targeting undocumented organizers for their activism in Vermont. The suit accuses Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles of carrying out a multiyear campaign of political retaliation against members of the group Migrant Justice. According to the lawsuit, Migrant Justice was infiltrated by an informant, and its members were repeatedly subjected to electronic surveillance. At least 20 active members of Migrant Justice have been arrested and detained by ICE. The lawsuit seeks an injunction, asking a judge to put an end to ICE’s targeted campaign of retaliation against Migrant Justice and its membership.

Enrique Balcazar, a former dairy farmworker who became an organizer with Migrant Justice, has been a speaker at several NOFA conferences. In filing the suit he stated: “But as we stand up and fight for our rights, we are hunted down and targeted by ICE. And that’s why we are here today, to stand up for our rights and file this lawsuit against ICE and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. In the past two years alone, there have been over 40 community members associated with Migrant Justice who have been arrested by federal immigration authorities. Many of them have since been deported. And in nine of these cases, we have clear evidence that these arrests were retaliatory, targeting people because of their involvement in Migrant Justice. ICE has been persecuting us. They’ve been surveilling Migrant Justice and its membership, with the objective to repress our voice, to keep us quiet, to stop us from organizing for our rights and to take retaliation against us for the way that we express ourselves and when we expose their abuses of power.”

Background on Migrant Justice

Migrant Justice was key to passing a law in Vermont in 2013 allowing for the creation of the driver’s privilege card, a driver’s license available to anybody regardless of immigration status. Most immigrant farm workers in Vermont live in isolation on rural farms with no access to public transportation, and many were spending years at a time on those farms without the freedom to go anywhere because of lack of access to transportation.

In October of 2017, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream signed an agreement with Migrant Justice, becoming the first dairy company to join Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program, a binding commitment that requires their suppliers to uphold a farmworker-authored code of conduct, guaranteeing rights and wages, housing, health and safety, scheduling, and to be able to organize free from retaliation and discrimination. So far, 300 dairy farmworkers on 72 farms are covered under this program. Ben & Jerry’s pays a premium to the farms in order to redistribute profits down the supply chain enabling the farmers to make improvements and pay increased wages to their employees.

2018 Farm Bill Update:

Because our dysfunctional Congress did not pass or extend the Farm Bill by the Sept 30th deadline, the 2014 bill has expired. Most programs will cease to operate sooner or later but the details of each program’s termination depends on how they are funded:

  • The two programs that make up nearly 90% of all farm bill spending – SNAP (food stamps) and Crop Insurance – will not expire because they have permanent budget authorization funded through the separate appropriations process.
  • Most of the core programs with mandatory funding in the 2014 Farm Bill are funded through all of 2018 but without a new farm bill or an extension of the current one many of those programs would cease to operate on December 31st.
  • the discretionary programs without mandatory funding (the so-called orphaned programs) lose their authority to operate­ and terminate immediately unless there’s an extension, a new farm bill is passed or supplemental funding is found via USDA or Congress. These include the expiration of most of our supportive organic and sustainable ag programs. Expiring baseline means conferees will need to find $2.85 billion from farm bill programs to reauthorize those programs important to our members including organic certification cost-share, organic research and extension, collection of organic data, beginning farm programs and necessary updates for National Organic Program (NOP).
  • If the Farm Bill is not passed or extended in 2018 the Commodity title would automatically revert to the original 1938 and 1949 permanent authorization levels when many of the commodities (including soybeans, oilseeds, peanuts, and wool) were not covered and therefore would not receive funding. And because the Dairy Product Price Support Program’s reversion to permanent law would require USDA to buy manufactured dairy products under 1930’s parity pricing formulas at today’s (very expensive) prices these fall back provisions provide a major incentive for Congress to vote for an extension or come up with a new farm bill.

Lame Duck session action expected

The Republican strategy is to ignore an extension and let the orphan programs expire – and take up the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations to authorize future program funding in mid-November, after the elections, during the “lame duck” session when the current Members are still in power (even if a “Blue Wave” of Democrats has been voted into office – starting in 2019).

Meanwhile, there does not seem to be a way forward to come up with the $2.85 billion in supplemental funds from current farm bill programs to reauthorize the 40 orphaned programs that do not have baseline funding – a situation similar to the 2012 farm Bill, which was finally passed in 2014.

With the House on recess until after the Nov 6th Elections and the Senate expected to leave for campaigning soon the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Ag committees and staff are continuing negotiations to get the Farm Bill done before the end of the year. They claim to be close on to agreement on the energy, credit and trade sections of the bill. Great differences remain on farm subsidies and SNAP, as well as other parts of the massive farm bill, which ranges from international food aid to ag research and rural economic development.

>>>Current Strategy (from NSAC)

“With prospects for a short-term extension of the 2014 Farm Bill gone and Congress unlikely to return to Washington, D.C. before the November elections, the focus of advocates must now shift to trying to help pass a good, bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill later this year. To minimize the negative impacts of letting the 2014 Farm Bill expire without an extension and to get the programs farmers, researchers and consumers rely on up and running in the new year, we must keep the pressure on Congress to finalize a bill ASAP – but only if it is a good bill, one based largely on the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate with the most votes for a farm bill in history. Indeed, even a farm bill extension, while depressing, would still be better than adopting a bad bill. Now is the time to rally around adopting a new bill, this year; one that adopts the non-ideological and bipartisan path put forward by the Senate.”

But meantime the House and Senate versions are still not reconciled by the conference committee. Here’s the high (and low) points:

House: Along with major cuts to most organic and soil conservation programs key features also include onerous and expensive SNAP (food stamps) reform; increasing subsidy payments to farmers via making extended family members eligible and unnecessary statutory NOSB “reforms”.

Senate: The Senate bill was a bi-partisan approach from the beginning with many positive features for organic and sustainable agriculture. It has no new SNAP requirements and somewhat reduces farm subsidies. Wins for organic and sustainable agriculture include;

  • Provisions and support for organic trade enforcement
  • a big increase in funding for Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI)– and like the House bill it adds “soil health” as a priority
  • National Organic Certification Cost Share Program is fully funded, with $11.5 million annually in mandatory funding. Cost Share was zeroed out in the House bill.
  • Organic Data Initiative – like the House, includes $5 million in one-time mandatory funding
  • Conservation Program: makes a specific allocation for organic within EQIP but doesn’t fix the lower payment limit discrepancy. Overall it cuts needed funds out of CSP and EQIP to support other programs in the Title.
  • Included is a provision to improve soil health, in a way that helps agriculture and addresses climate change that would establish a pilot project managed by USDA to promote the use of advanced farming practices to capture carbon in soil to improve soil health and crop resilience while lowering the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
  • Combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and theOutreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program to create the new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program (FOTOP) with a permanent baseline funding of $50 million a year. The failed House bill supported FOTOP but did not increase funding and did not establish permanent baseline funding.

Attacks on Organic Integrity. Where Do We Go From Here?

By the Organic Trade Association’s statistics the continuing growth in organic sales is so bright you gotta wear shades. Now over 5% of the food industry, organic has left any purported fad status far behind. While the food industry limps along with annual 0.6 increases, organic continues to post gains over 8% year after year. Carried by Walmart, Target and other Big Box stores total US sales have reached around $50 billion now – and some estimates are putting the organic market at $320 billion by 2025. With sales generated by consumer demand, minor and major companies are fearful not to have a stake in the accelerating market.

But by ignoring the dark, threatening clouds gathering on the horizon are those business-boosters really wearing blinders instead? Led by declines in organic milk and eggs the latest OTA statistics show a significant slowing of the growth rate. Thanks to a spate of negative publicity about watered down standards and fraud in the organic industry consumers are growing wary. The organic label has become a ripe target for co-option by conventional entities looking to acquire a fat piece of the pie, while the list of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) preemptions and enforcement failures is getting longer. And for the first time a Congressionally abetted statutory takeover attempt of the Standards is in the works. It was not always thus, however.

Back in the early days, organic’s primary battles were against conventional forces trying to stamp out or at least severely marginalize the upstart label whose very presence in the marketplace indicates that other food and farming methods are lesser. For farmers, nascent businesses and advocates it was a painful fit housed in USDA, long regarded as a Big Ag lapdog and described by organic stalwarts as “residing in the belly of the beast”.

But that was the trade-off for uniting the 60-some separate certification programs around the country and securing governmental legal protections against fraudulent operations. Adding insult to injury USDA then “owned” the use of the word “organic” in food and farming as producers cannot use the term legally without certification. But then again USDA has to contend with the definitive Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) and a vociferous Movement scrutinizing their every move.

OFPA
Championed by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, OFPA was enacted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, passed by the slim Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate and landing in the Agriculture Marketing Service division of USDA for implementation. Creating comprehensive standards for organic certification, it required the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National Organic Program (NOP) as manager to administer the accreditation of certifiers and govern the use of the official USDA label along with overseeing and enforcing the National List of approved and prohibited substances.

OFPA also mandated the creation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – a Federal Advisory Board with atypical statutory power to determine which materials are allowed on the National List as well as to advise the Secretary on aspects of the NOP. The NOSB, composed of 15 members representing the food processing industry, farmers, consumers, and environmental organizations, was directed to meet twice a year with proceedings fully open to the public.

Passing the OFPA statute was just a first step – but no one supposed that this would turn into a10 year process. Although annual appropriations were authorized to support the program no monies were voted into existence until 1994. And as for the federal comment rule-making phase required to create the program’s regulations, the proposed rule that finally emerged in 1998 had Big Ag’s fingerprints all over it. The regs hit like a brick with the infamous allowance of GMOs, sludge and irradiation along with an additional “64 points of darkness”. NOFA was part of a huge public outcry that raised holy hell to send it back to the drawing board – but it wasn’t until 2000 that the revamped NOP Final Rule was instituted at last.

Tarnishing the Gold Standard
In markets replete with non-regulated claims like “natural” – the transparent and verifiable high standards built into the organic seal became respected as the gold standard of food labels, gathering solid consumer acceptance. Mounting challenges began to cloud its dominion, however. While NOFA’s organic and sustainable agriculture coalition partners have had a good share of policy wins, this current Congress and Administration is fixated on undoing as many as they can.

Several of these interloper incursions have morphed into serious attacks on organic integrity – with repercussions for the authenticity of the label. The short list includes overturning Biotech labeling by Congress; the reversal of Sunset Review regulations governing the National List, restriction of the NOSB work plan, allowance of hydroponics and carrageenan along with failure of certification enforcement for grain, dairy, the pasture rule and origin of livestock by the NOP and ongoing appointments of Big Ag insiders to the NOSB and the overturning of the organic animal welfare law by USDA.

Grave New Threats
But right now there’s a major new threat in the offing – the protective OFPA legal foundation itself is under fire. This being a Farm Bill year Congress is working to authorize farm and food legislation for the next five year period. Pushed by Big Ag lobbyists, the Republican Chairs of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are including language to open up OFPA to make statutory changes that would fundamentally alter the structure and process for NOSB – along with other machinations still to be announced. The House markup (which still needs to be passed on the Floor) already includes provisions to allow corporate employees to fill the owner-operator farmer representative positions and an expedited process for adding synthetic materials to the National List. Threats to “reforming” OFPA by Senate Chair Roberts are even more dire, however – although we won’t see the full extent until the Senate mark-up later this Spring.

From all reports we’re going to need All Hands On Deck to thwart this unconscionable takeover attempt with a national campaign that once again raises holy hell to try and stop it.

“Where Do We Go From Here?”
In response to these diverse attacks on organic integrity “Where Do We Go From Here?” has emerged as a major concern for the Interstate NOFA Policy Committee and charting the course ahead was the main agenda item at the NOFA-IC Retreat in late March.

Although some of these transgressions are being dealt with in a number of ways, including pressure on the NOP and USDA lawsuits, there are further calls by new players on the scene for separate add-on labels to designate authentic organic inputs and practices in the marketplace.

Over the past year two major initiatives have emerged: the Regenerative Agriculture Certification (ROC) put forth by Rodale, Patagonia and Dr Bronners and the Real Organic Project (ROP) that has come via the “Keep the Soil in Organic” movement by grassroots farmers. Initial pilot projects to test the efficacy for both are scheduled for this summer.

Policy Funding Needed!
Interstate NOFA Policy is funded by donor support. Food policy is everyone’s business and our genuine grassroots food and farming voice is now more important than ever!

Tax-deductible donations, made out to NOFA Interstate Council, may be sent to Julie Rawson, IC Treasurer, 411 Sheldon Road, Barre, MA 01005 or via the Donate button at “Support us” under the Advocacy link at www.nofa.org/support.php
Thank you!!

To the Board of the Real Organic Project and to Jeff Moyer, David Bronner and Phil Graves of Regenerative Organic Certification

We, the members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council (NOFA-IC), are writing to you knowing that you share our dedication to organic farming and to the principles of ecology, health, care, and fairness on which it is based. The NOFA-IC has been coordinating the seven state chapters of NOFA since the 1980’s when NOFA expanded from its beginnings in Vermont and New Hampshire in 1971 to encompass seven state chapters with over 5000 members, most of them organic farmers and homesteaders. We are all part of a movement that is concerned for the carrying capacity of our shared and beloved world. We are confronted with these hard moments today because of the attractiveness to the public of what we have to offer: if money can be made, some will try to make it by lowering our high standards. How we respond, that is the means to our ends, is every bit as important as what we say-process and content are inextricably linked. We are grateful to have many partners in these commitments and we believe it is critical to the ultimate success of any labeling initiatives that they be grounded in authentic community processes including diverse stakeholders.

At this critical moment when trust in the organic label in the US is at stake, we think it is important to reaffirm that the National Organic Program, despite its flaws and shortcomings, has allowed many organic farms to stay in business and new ones to be created. Many farmers have adopted the National Organic Program and invested in good faith efforts to comply with its standards. We want to be sure that whatever we do does not harm those efforts. The NOFA Interstate Council supports the use of add-ons to the USDA Organic label — labels such as “100% grass-fed,” “food justice certified,” “soil grown,” “certified humane,” “non-gmo,” etc. — for those individuals who believe in and practice such farming methods and seek market recognition for these practices. But we do not support organizations promoting those add-on labels doing so in ways which disparage the USDA Organic label itself.

Organic agriculture is a living process and we are committed to continually improve both our own practices and the National Organic Program. Continual innovation is essential. In these lively debates, it is vital that we not lose sight of what we are discussing-that is, how our farming and food production practices can become as ecologically sound as possible. Indeed, we celebrate a teeming proliferation of responses to the current crisis regarding the organic label. Living systems are highly diverse and complex-so too can be our responses to the current predicament in which we find ourselves. Our public discourse and democratic institutions must be able to embrace a myriad of perspectives, all taking rooted, place-based, context-dependent stands on what is in the interest of all of us and of life itself.

For these reasons we welcome add-ons to the USDA organic label and urge those engaged in creating such add-ons to move forward with a collaborative, rather than competitive, approach. We want to be sure that whatever we endorse contributes to moving us towards our vision of interconnected healthy and diverse communities living in ecological balance deeply rooted in a sense of place, grounded in organic care of the land.

Signed by the members of the NOFA Interstate Council: Enid Wonnacott, Jack Mastrianni, Andrianna Natsoulas, Bill Duesing, Elizabeth Henderson, Steve Gilman, Julie Rawson, Jack Kittredge, Sarah Laeng-Gilliatt, Maddie Kempner, Al Johnson, Laura Davis, Jeff Cordulack, Louis Battalen, Jan Martin-Trounson, John Martin, Liana Hoodes, Cali Alexander, Adrian Hyde, Jason Valcourt, David Pontius, Mark Hengen

Comments Opposing the Withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule

Founded in 1971, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is one of the oldest organic farming education and advocacy groups in the country. NOFA is a grassroots, regional federation of seven independent state Chapters in NY, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI and NJ. Beyond their work on state initiatives, the Chapters work together regionally, nationally and internationally via the NOFA Interstate Council (NOFA-IC).

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule, which has been under consideration for more than ten years, was approved as a final rulemaking action by the executive branch at the beginning of 2017 with overwhelming support from the expanding organic farm and food movement. So too have NOFA’s 6,000+ farmer and consumer members overwhelmingly supported the OLPP rule from its inception all the way through the final rule-making process.

We are extremely dismayed at the Agricultural Marketing Service’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the rule and we strongly advise the USDA to permit the OLPP rule to become effective immediately. At stake is consumer confidence in the organic seal – which USDA/AMA is mandated by Congress to uphold and further. These new rules are necessary to ensure consistency and uniformity of the organic standards and to advance organic production in the marketplace.

Read more

Organic at a Crossroads

Impacts on Organic Integrity and Departing Comments from Francis Thicke

The integrity of the USDA Organic label has been taking some major hits lately. In November, prompted by farm-state Members of Congress and agrochemical/biotech corporations, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the withdrawal of the GMO labeling rule (as weak as it was) put in place under the Obama Administration. A little later in the month the Department of Agriculture also announced a decision to further delay the implementation of the final rule for the long-awaited standards on animal welfare for organic livestock operations.

And despite rallies around the country and testimony from a national contingent of pioneering organic farmers at the November meeting in Jacksonville, Florida to “keep the soil in organic” — the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to allow hydroponic and aquaponic farming operations to continue to use the organic seal.

Below are comments on recent impacts on organic integrity from departing NOSB member, Francis Thicke, at the end of his 5 year term.

Steve Gilman
Interstate NOFA Policy Coordinator

Farewell Comments by Francis Thicke, NOSB member:
“There are two important things that I have learned during my five years on the NOSB. First, I learned that the NOSB review process for materials petitioned for inclusion on the National List is quite rigorous, with Technical Reviews of petitioned materials and careful scrutiny by both NOSB subcommittees and the full board.

The second thing I learned, over time, is that industry has an outsized and growing influence on USDA-and on the NOSB (including through NOSB appointments)-compared to the influence of organic farmers, who started this organic farming movement. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the growing value of organic sales. As organic is becoming a $50 billion business, the industry not only wants a bigger piece of the pie, they seem to want the whole pie.

We now have “organic” chicken CAFOs with 200,000 birds crammed into a building with no real access to the outdoors, and a chicken industry working behind the scenes to make sure that the animal welfare standards-weak as they were-never see the light of day, just like their chickens. The image consumers have of organic chickens ranging outside has been relegated to pictures on egg cartoons.

We have “organic” dairy CAFOs with 15,000 cows in a feedlot in a desert, with compelling evidence by an investigative reporter that the CAFO is not meeting the grazing rule-by a long shot. But when USDA does its obligatory “investigation,” instead of a surprise visit to the facility, USDA gives them a heads up by making an appointment, so the CAFO can move cows from feedlots to pasture on the day of inspection. This gives a green light to that dairy CAFO owner to move forward with its plans to establish a 30,000-cow facility in the Midwest.

We have large grain shipments coming into the US that are being sold as organic but that lack organic documentation. Some shipments have been proven to be fraudulent. The USDA has been slow to take action to stop this, and organic crop farmers in the US are suffering financially as a result. I spoke with the reporter who broke the story on fraudulent “organic” grain imports. I asked him how he was able to document the fraud of grain shipments when USDA said it was very difficult to do so. He replied “it was easy.”

We have a rapidly growing percentage of the organic fruits and vegetables on grocery store shelves being produced hydroponically, without soil, and mostly in huge industrial-scale facilities. And we have a hydroponics industry that has deceptively renamed “hydroponic” production-even with 100% liquid feeding-as “container” production. With their clever deception they have been able to bamboozle even the majority of NOSB members into complicity with their goal of taking over the organic fruit and vegetable market with their hydroponic products.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find that big business is taking over the USDA organic program because the influence of money is corroding all levels of our government. At this point, I can see only one way to bring the organic label back in line with the original vision of organic farmers and consumers. We need an add-on organic label for organic farmers who are willing to meet the expectations of discerning consumers who are demanding real organic food.

A year ago I wouldn’t have supported the idea of an add-on organic label because I, like many others, had seen the USDA organic label as the gold standard, and had hoped that through our vision of the process of continuous improvement we could really make it into that gold standard. Now I can see that the influence of big business is not going to let that happen. The USDA is increasingly exerting control over the NOSB, and big business is tightening its grip on the USDA and Congress. Recently industry representatives have publicly called on the US Senate to weaken the NOSB and give industry a stronger role in the National Organic Program. And sympathetic Senators promised to do just that.

I now support the establishment of an add-on organic label that will enable real organic farmers and discerning organic consumers to support one another through a label that represents real organic food. I support the creation of a label, such as the proposed Regenerative Organic Certification, that will ensure organic integrity; for example, that animals have real access to the outdoors to be able to express their natural behaviors, and that food is grown in soil. My hopes are that this add-on certification can be seamlessly integrated with the NOP certification, so that a single farm organic system plan and inspection can serve to verify both NOP and the higher level organic certification, by certifiers that are accredited by both certification systems.

I also am pleased that organic farmers have recently organized themselves into the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), to better represent themselves in the arena of public policy. Too often in the past the interests of big business have overruled the interests of organic farmers-and consumers-when organic policies are being established in Washington. I hope this will allow organic farmers to gain equal footing with industry on issues that affect the organic community.

In summary, organic is at a crossroads. Either we can continue to allow industry interests to bend and dilute the organic rules to their benefit, or organic farmers-working with organic consumers–can step up and take action to ensure organic integrity into the future.”

Major Attack on Organic in Congress

At a recent Congressional Farm Bill Hearing, the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, Pat Roberts from Kansas, put forth unprecedented derogatory opening statements and featured testimony that strike at the very core of organic integrity – the National Organic Standards Board. This unique citizen’s review board is a legal entity constituted to ensure that all organic stakeholders have equal access and input into the process for setting and maintaining high organic standards.

However, in concert with agribusiness lobbyists behind the scenes, Senator Roberts declared that the standards board is dysfunctional, fails to represent large scale growers and needs to be altered by opening the formative Organic Food Production Act of 1990 to make statutory changes. Opening the law would subject organic’s tough standards to numerous weakening amendments that would allow industrialized farms to easily qualify for the organic label.

This Hostile Takeover attempt is a BIG DEAL and we need to get All Hands On Deck to help defend and strengthen organic.

Step One is already in gear. Numerous longtime organic organizations, coalitions and businesses from all around the country are participating in a forceful letter of solidarity addressed to the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, speaking in one voice to prevent the gutting of the Law and Standards Board that protects organic integrity.

Coming soon, Step Two is for grassroots groups to orchestrate a HUGE and LOUD retort to our Congressional delegations. Look for Alerts from your state’s NOFA Chapter; get active and help spread the word. All of NOFA Nation’s 14 Senators and 53 Representatives have to hear directly from a large number of constituents that this attempted Takeover is unacceptable – and they need to help support and strengthen organic instead.