As consumers flock to organic foods, lawmakers urge more federal grants for farmers

By: - October 6, 2023 12:00 pm
A close-up of a pair hands, covered in soil, holding a plant.

Katy Rogers, the farm manager at Teter Organic Farm and Retreat Center in Noblesville, Indiana, inspects produce growing in one of the high tunnels at the farm on June 21, 2022. Members of Congress are pushing to expand a USDA program aimed at organic farmers. (NRCS/USDA photo by Brandon O’Connor)

WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are pushing a bill that would boost support for organic farmers amid rising demand for their products.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Angus King of Maine in the Senate, alongside U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree of Maine and Annie Kuster of New Hampshire in the House, introduced the Organic Market Development Act in late September. The bill would codify and increase funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Market Development Grant program, which allows organic farmers and producers to apply for grants to help support their businesses.

The lawmakers are working to include this legislation in the upcoming farm bill.

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The bill is also co-sponsored by Sens. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, and Kristen Gillibrand, a New York Democrat. Rep. Andrea Salinas, an Oregon Democrat, is also a co-sponsor.

Earlier this year, the OMDG program was provided a one-time $75 million allotment through the Commodity Credit Corporation. The program is currently only funded for the 2023 fiscal year, a spokesperson from Pingree’s office said in a written statement.

This bill would maintain that $75 million each year while also investing an additional recurring $25 million in appropriations beginning with the 2024 fiscal year.

“This bicameral bill would formally authorize the Organic Market Development Grant program by Congress to ensure it is a long-lasting, continued program versus a one-time round of funding,” a spokesperson from Pingree’s office said.

Demand for organic food

Organic agriculture sales reached $60 billion last year and are continuing to rise, according to a Baldwin press release.

“We know the demand for organic foods is growing dramatically right now, and so we want to equip our organic farmers with the tools they need to meet that demand,” Baldwin, a Democrat, told States Newsroom.

King, an independent, said the bill would help his state’s growing organic food movement, which he said is “an important part of our agricultural economy.”

“Anything I can do to help support the growth of that business is something I’m very interested in,” King said. “That’s why I introduced the bill. It’s a big deal.”

Potential aid to organic farmers

According to the Baldwin release, the Organic Market Development Grant program “aims to support the development of new and expanded organic markets by building and expanding capacity” for many aspects of the organic agriculture industry, including:

  • Production
  • Aggregation
  • Processing
  • Manufacturing
  • Storing
  • Transporting
  • Wholesaling
  • Distribution
  • Development of consumer markets

Organic farmers and producers can use these funds to upgrade their equipment and facilities, according to the Baldwin release.

Baldwin said the legislation would “build on the success of the Organic Market Development Grant program and allow more producers to access these resources and tools to grow our agriculture economy and ensure Wisconsin remains a leader in the organic food industry.”

Wisconsin had the second-highest number of certified organic farms in the U.S. in 2021 with 1,455, according to a USDA report.

“Wisconsin’s organic farmers and businesses are stepping up to meet the growing demand for organic products, and I’m committed to delivering the support they need to grow their businesses and reach new markets,” Baldwin said in a press release.

Organic food in Maine

King said Maine’s organic farmers “face increasing challenges from changing global markets, climate change,” so they should receive continued support and resources to “evolve with the times.”

“The Organic Market Development Act would codify an existing, and highly in demand, grant program to ensure the continuance of grant funding to Maine’s organic farmers so that they can respond to these challenges and pave the way for the future of the organic food industry,” King said in a press release.

Pingree, a Maine Democrat who is a member of both the House Agriculture Committee and House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, is also a longtime organic farmer.

“As more farmers consider making the transition from conventional to organic farming, we must strengthen organic processing and storage and enhance market opportunities,” Pingree said in a press release.

Pingree is also a co-chair of the House Organic Caucus, and she worked on the previous farm bill.

“The bill also expands grants to cover cold storage, which there is a huge, unmet need for. In Maine, for example, a dairy farmer applied for an Organic Market Development Grant, but wasn’t eligible because it was for cold storage,” a spokesperson from Pingree’s office said. “This bill would ensure the program grants cover cold storage, which is an important aspect of successful, organic farming.”

The OMDG program received approximately 200 applications from across the U.S. While grants have not been awarded yet, Pingree’s spokesperson said it is anticipated that “all the current funds allocated will be used.”

Organic farmers and producers in Maine and across the country have been asking for these resources for years, Pingree’s spokesperson said, and cited a 2020 study that ranked Maine second in the nation for the availability of organic food.

“There’s a strong need in Maine and across the U.S. for more organic processing, storage and new marketing opportunities,” Pingree’s spokesperson said. “This bill would do just that.”

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has shown support for the bill. MOFGA said the bill can help keep more money in Maine’s rural farming communities if producers can add value to their products before they are sold, according to Pingree’s spokesperson.

“MOFGA also noted this could especially benefit our organic dairy community by adding organic dairy processing and cold storage in the state, both of which are currently lacking,” Pingree’s spokesperson said.

Dairy Business Innovation model

Baldwin told States Newsroom that the model for this bill comes from the Dairy Business Innovation Act, which similarly seeks to increase funding for the Dairy Business Innovation Initiatives.

These initiatives “support dairy businesses in the development, production, marketing and distribution” of their products, according to the USDA.

Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a Wisconsin Republican, introduced the Dairy Business Innovation Act in the House in July. Baldwin, alongside Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, introduced the Senate counterpart.

There is approximately $23 million available for Dairy Business Innovation Initiatives. The Dairy Business Innovation Act would allocate an additional $16 million each year to these projects.

“We kind of hope we can do the same in organics, and we’re very excited about it,” Baldwin said.

Will it be included in the farm bill?

King said the logical place for this legislation is in the next farm bill.

“That’s our target,” he said.

The previous farm bill expired at the end of September, and Congress is months away from passing a new one.

A spokesperson from Pingree’s office said the Organic Market Development Act has “strong champions in the House and Senate and we will be pushing for its inclusion in the Farm Bill.”

“Negotiations are ongoing,” a spokesperson from Pingree’s office said.

King said he spoke with Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and John Boozman of Arkansas, who are leading the creation of the next farm bill. He said “it’s hard to tell at this point” whether this legislation will make it in.

“We are hopeful this bicameral legislation can ultimately be realized in the next farm bill,” said Adam Warthesen, the senior director of government and industry affairs for Organic Valley, according to the Baldwin press release. Organic Valley is a brand and cooperative of organic farmers headquartered in La Farge, Wisconsin.

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Samantha Dietel
Samantha Dietel

Samantha Dietel is a reporter intern in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a degree in journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She has previously covered the Missouri legislature in Jefferson City as a reporter for the Columbia Missourian.

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