USDA catches fire for organic certification changes

USDA catches fire for organic certification changes

National Organic Coalition outraged at reduction in reimbursement rates for organic certification costs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced Monday that it will be reducing reimbursement rates for the organic certification cost-share program, which provides reimbursement to organic farms and handling operations -- a move called out by organic groups.

The Federal Register notice stated that FSA is “revising the reimbursement amount to 50% of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope.”

USDA said, “Due to expected participation levels and the limited funds available, FSA revised the reimbursement amount available through fiscal year 2023.”

However, organic groups said the 2018 farm bill clearly set reimbursement rates at 75% of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope.

The Organic Certification Cost Share Program provides cost-share assistance to producers and handlers of agricultural products for the costs of obtaining or maintaining organic certification under USDA’s National Organic Program. Eligible producers include any certified producers or handlers who have paid organic certification fees to a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Eligible expenses for cost-share reimbursement include application fees, inspection costs, fees related to equivalency agreement and arrangement requirements, travel expenses for inspectors, user fees, sales assessments and postage.

“For producers producing food with organic certification, this program helps cover a portion of those certification costs,” FSA administrator Richard Fordyce said.

Abby Youngblood, executive director at the National Organic Coalition (NOC), said the coalition “is outraged that USDA’s Farm Service Agency has chosen to reduce reimbursements to organic producers in the midst of a pandemic. Producers and other organic operations need this support now more than ever because they are faced with loss of markets due to COVID-19 and increasing costs as they modify their operations to keep workers and customers safe and implement new sanitation and staffing procedures.”

"The Organic Certification Cost-Share Program is especially important for small and midsize organic farms,” said Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Assn. (OFA). “If the USDA wants organic farms and our regional economies to survive and thrive, they should be making it easier to get certification cost share and covering the whole cost of certification. Instead, they are doing the opposite."

The organic groups said USDA's action is “unwarranted and completely unacceptable” because the 2018 farm bill provided new funding for the program and also directed USDA to use the program’s carryover balances from previous years to fund the program for fiscal years 2019 through 2023.

“Given these sources of funding, there should be plenty of funds available for the program’s operation in fiscal year 2020,” the organic groups said. “Either USDA’s accounting for this program is flawed, or the agency has decided to disregard the congressional funding directives in the 2018 farm bill. In addition, the FSA has done a huge disservice to the organic community in this time of crisis by delaying the release of funds by many months while organic operations struggle to stay in business as they weather a pandemic and loss of markets.”

They added that organic, direct-market and diversified operations have largely been excluded from existing USDA pandemic relief programs, including the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, while the top 1% of recipients got more than 20% of the money, totaling $1.2 billion.

Since early May, NOC and OFA have advocated strongly for USDA and Congress to reimburse organic certification agencies directly for certification fees as an emergency measure during the pandemic and to increase the reimbursement rate to 100% to provide producers with support during this time of crisis.

NOC and OFA are currently working with allies in Congress and members of the House and Senate agriculture committees to ask for assistance to rectify this “egregious disregard” by FSA for the funds Congress allocated to the certification cost-share program.

NOC is asking that organic community members take action and voice their concern to senators and representatives at https://www.nationalorganiccoalition.org/action-alerts.

Operations have until Nov. 2, 2020, to apply for funding. FSA has stated that “if additional funding is authorized at a later time, FSA may provide additional assistance to certified operations that have applied” for the organic certification cost-share program.

TAGS: Policy
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