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USDA Announces Transitional Certification

USDA announced a new certification designed to make the transition from conventional to organic production easier for farmers. This National Certified Transitional Program will further enable U.S. farmers to meet the growing demand for organic products.

USDA will oversee accredited organic certifying agents, who will be authorized to offer transitional certification to producers. This is expected to help those transitioning to organic, lead to expanded certified organic acreage in the United States, and create consistency in documentation of operations’ adherence to organic regulations on land in transition to organic. It will ultimately support the continued growth of organic agriculture in the United States.

As it stands, farmers must undergo a rigorous transition period of three years before they can become certified organic and market their products as such. The new program will harmonize existing transitional certification programs currently operated by accredited certifying agents, and provide a mechanism for additional certifiers to offer this service. This can help farmers overcome barriers such as decreased yields during transition, as well as qualify them for federal grants previously out of reach.

Farmers will need to prove their land has been free of prohibited substances for at least a year, and must follow all other organic production standards, in order to achieve transitional certification. These standards include crop rotation, fostering and conserving biodiversity, and avoiding the use of genetic engineering. Once land is eligible for organic certification, it can only enter the transitional program once more – ensuring that transitional certification acts as an on-ramp to organic production, rather than a mechanism to create an “organic-light” label.

The new program does not include certification of products labeled as transitional – and is limited only to producers working toward organic certification. This dovetails with USDA’s announcement that it would expand the reach of the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program to include transitional certification fees.

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Final Rule on Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (Animal Welfare) Published

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service published its animal welfare standards for organic products in the final days of the Obama Administration, but Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan), ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich), and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Tex) have all stated they have concerns, and intend to seek changes in the coming months.

The organic sector generally supports these rules, which represent over a decade of work, input from thousands of stakeholders, and recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board. The rules provide consumers and producers with clarity on what it means to buy organic meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs. But opponents worry that the cost of complying with requirements for more space and outdoor access could put some organic producers out of business; and that expanded outdoor access could lead to another avian flu outbreak.

The rules cover many aspects of animal welfare for organic livestock and poultry, but the biggest impact is likely to be felt in the organic egg industry. The regulation requires that producers provide outdoor access for organic poultry, and codifies biosecurity practices that guard against disease spread by wild birds. Organic egg producers were always required to let their hens go outside, but the new rule defines exactly what that means. The new rules will require farmers to provide at least one square foot of outdoor space for each 2.25 pounds of poultry in their flock, or about two square feet per egg-laying hen, or about an acre for a flock of 20,000.

The rule includes a five-year transition period for current organic egg production that doesn’t meet the new standard. After that five-year period, if egg producers do not comply with the rule, they will not be able to be certify their production as organic.

The regulations also ensure that organic livestock and poultry have sufficient space; require living conditions to meet certain ventilation and light requirements; and prohibit beak removal and cattle docking.

The rules are designed to help organic producers meet consumer expectations and ensure the integrity of the USDA organic seal. They are intended to strengthen consumer confidence in the USDA organic seal, and ensure that organic agriculture continues to provide economic opportunities for farmers, ranchers, and businesses across the country.

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Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue nominated to be next Secretary of Agriculture

Governor Perdue grew up on a farm in central Georgia and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia. He served two terms as Georgia governor, from 2003-2011, and owns agribusinesses worth about $2.8 million. Prior to serving as governor, he was a Georgia state senator. He collected more than $278,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2004, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

This decision will place a southerner in control of the Department of Agriculture for the first time in more than twenty years.

However, Tom Colicchio, co-founder of Food Policy Action, noted that Perdue’s record on food policy is weak on oversight and “in the pocket of Big Ag”. It is unclear what this could mean for organic and sustainable agriculture – areas in which Perdue has not historically been strong.

 

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USDA Publishes Organic Checkoff Proposal; Time to Comment is Now

During the last week of the Obama Administration, USDA announced that it is seeking public comments on a proposal for a nationwide organic research and promotion (checkoff) program. This would allow the organic sector to pool its money together to engage in sector-wide research, advertising, and consumer education. (The public knows checkoff programs best by their promotional taglines, such as “Got Milk?” or “The Incredible Edible Egg”.) The Department of Agriculture is currently accepting comments from stakeholders.

The proposal would require certified organic producers and handlers, and importers of certified organic products to pay one-tenth of 1 percent of their net organic sales. Operations with gross organic sales under $250,000 can choose whether to opt in to the program and voluntarily participate.

An organic checkoff program could raise over $30 million per year for organic research, technical services, and consumer education and promotion. Those monies could provide research and key tools to encourage more farmers to transition to organic and to make all organic farmers more successful. They could educate consumers about what organic means.

The comment period on this proposed rule runs until March 20. After a final rule is published, all certified organic stakeholders who would be assessed by the program would have to vote in a referendum, and a majority of those voting would have to approve the proposal for it to be implemented.

Comments must be posted on www.regulations.gov or mailed to Promotion and Economics Division, SCP, AMS, USDA Room 1406, Stop 0244, 1400 Independence Avenue SW Washington, DC 20250-0244. If you have any questions, or would like to retain Karlin Strategic Consulting for assistance in crafting a comment, please contact us!

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Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) application deadline approaching

Interested farmers and ranchers must submit their initial applications to the USDA Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) by February 3, 2017 to be considered for assistance this year. Applicants must fill out a simple form with information on land ownership, type of production, and contact information.

With 70 million acres of land enrolled, CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program. It is built to encourage enhancements to natural resource and environmental protections, while continued production of food, fiber, and energy economically. Farmers enrolled in CSP can earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities such as cover crops, rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips, and the transition to organic farming, while still keeping land in active production.

USDA recently announced some changes to CSP designed to make it more transparent, flexible, and farmer-friendly. These include revising the list of conservation activities for 2017 to include 223 individual conservation enhancements, 74 conservation practices, and 32 bundles of enhancements that are eligible for CSP.  Several conservation bundles are focused specifically on organic agriculture, such as those that focus on bolstering soil health, reducing wind erosion, and preventing water erosion. Additionally, there are organic conservation bundles for pasture and rangeland.

This year, ten million new acres can be enrolled in CSP, and up to 12.8 million acres whose five-year conservation contracts are set to expire are eligible for renewal. Interested farmers and ranchers must submit their initial applications to the USDA Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) by February 3, 2017 to be considered for assistance this year. Applicants must fill out a simple form with information on land ownership, type of production, and contact information.

 

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USDA to Require Import Certificates for Organic Products from Mexico

Beginning January 16, 2017, all organic products entering the United States from Mexico will require a USDA National Organic Program import certificate.  Mexico will implement a similar requirement for organic products entering Mexico from the United States in early 2017.  These certificate requirements will increase transparency and strengthen monitoring and enforcement controls for organic products traded between the United States and Mexico.  In turn, this will improve consumer confidence in imported organic products from Mexico, and protect the integrity of the organic trade.

 

NOP import certificates are used to verify that products shipped to the United States comply with USDA organic regulations, and must be issued by an accredited certifying agent.  They are already required for organic imports coming from European Union member states, Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland.
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Certification Cost Share Expansion Coming Soon

Yesterday, USDA announced important changes to the National Organic Cost-Share Certification Program and Agricultural Management Assistance Organic Certification Cost Share Program, that will become effective March 20, 2017.

 

First, producers and handlers will for the first time be able to apply for cost-share funds for their transitional certification and state organic program fees.  This is great news for those who want to transition to organic – allowing for certification cost-share reimbursement during the three-year transition period, which can be very costly.  It’s also great news for consumers whose demand for organic products continues to grow – as it will remove a barrier to farmers transitioning to meet that demand.

 

Second, organic producers and handlers will be able to visit over 2,100 USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices around the country to apply for federal cost-share reimbursement to help them with the cost of receiving and maintaining organic or transitional certification.

 

These cost-share programs offer opportunities for certified producers and handlers to receive reimbursement for up to 75 percent of certification costs each year up to a maximum of $750 per scope – crops, livestock, wild crops, handling, transitional certification, and state organic program fees.
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National Organic Program Updates

As 2016 winds down, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) is not slowing down!

  • On December 6, NOP published draft guidance on “Calculating the Percentage of Organic Ingredients in Multi-Ingredient Products”.  Although the existing USDA organic regulations establish labeling categories for organic products based on the percentage of organic ingredients in the product, certifying agents have interpreted the requirements for calculating the percent of organic ingredients differently.
    The draft guidance clarifies the standards for calculating organic percentages for finished products, including multi-ingredient products that contain ingredients that are actually composed of more than one ingredient.  The draft guidance, which will help farms, businesses, certifiers and other stakeholders implement the USDA organic standards consistently, supersedes “NOP Policy Memo 11-9,” dated October 31, 2011, which is now obsolete.
    The public comment period on this draft guidance will close on February 6, 2017.  Feel free to contact me if you’d like assistance in drafting and submitting comments.
  • The National Agricultural Statistics Service’s (NASS) Agricultural Statistics Board released the results of the 2014 and 2015 Organic Certifier Survey.  NASS collected data on acreage and livestock data for years 2014 and 2015 from USDA-accredited organic certifying agents in the United States.  Published information includes the number of certified organic operations along with the number of acres certified for various crops, and the reported livestock and poultry certified as organic.  The report is available at: 2014 and 2015 Organic Certifier Survey.
  • The USDA Organic Integrity Database has moved to a new server with a new web address, leading to speedier searches and data uploads.  Check out the list of USDA certified organic farms and businesses today and update your bookmark to the new address: https://organic.ams.usda.gov/integrity.
  • The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Dairy Market News recently published the Dairy Organic report.  Published bi-weekly, this report provides organic price information for dairy products and highlights market trends.  The report also includes highlights on organic milk sales for Federal Milk Orders and insights for U.S. and international markets.  For more information on organic dairy product markets, view the Biweekly Dairy Organic Report.
  • The AMS Specialty Crops Market News recently published the National Specialty Crops Organic Summary.  Published daily, this report provides organic price information at terminal markets, shipping points, and retail advertised prices throughout the U.S.  The report highlights prices for 133 organic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other specialty crops as well as movement data including domestic shipment volumes and import information.  For more information on market trends for organic specialty crops, view the National Specialty Crops Organic Summary.
  • The NOP conducted a review of the California State Organic Program (CA SOP) and approved its continued operation as a State Organic Program.  State Organic Programs provide the opportunity for a state to oversee organic production and handling operations within its state, and California has the only approved State Organic Program.  The CA SOP is authorized under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the USDA organic regulations, and the California Organic Products Act of 2003.  You can access the memorandum authorizing the CA SOP to continue operating as a State Organic Program and read more about the program on the AMS website.
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Fall 2016 NOSB Update

Greetings from the Fall 2016 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meetings, held in St. Louis, Missouri! As is the case every time it meets, the Board considers a number of standards issues important to the organic sector, and hears public testimony on those issues.

A few highlights from the week:

  • Five Board members will reach the end of their terms at the end of the year, and served their final meeting this week. The organic community owes gratitude to Tracy Favre, Jean Richardson, Zea Sonnebend, Carmela Beck, and Harold Austin – each of whom devoted tireless hours of volunteer service to continued development of strong organic standards.
  • The new NOSB members whose term will begin in January were announced. They are Joelle Mosso (Olam International), Sue Baird (Missouri Organic Association), Asa Bradman (University of California at Berkeley), Steve Ela (Ela Family Farms), and David Mortensen (Pennsylvania State University). We look forward to working with each of them!
  • The Board elected its officers for the next term. Congratulations to Tom Chapman (Chair), Ashley Swaffar (Vice Chair), and Jesse Buie (Secretary).
  • Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP) Miles McEvoy gave an update on the work of the NOP and what we can hope to see from the Program in the remaining weeks of the Obama Administration.
    • The rules on Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices and Organic Aquaculture are both in clearance at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and are expected to be finalized before the end of the administration.
    • The proposed rules on Organic Apiculture and Organic Pet Food have been written and are in clearance.
    • Other rules in progress include rules on Origin of Livestock, Sodium Nitrate, and Compost.
    • The Program is continuing its work on improving oversight and control of organic trade, import requirements, classification of materials, and calculation of organic materials.
  • The Board heard public comments from approximately 150 stakeholders in person in St. Louis. Most of the comments focused on three main topics – the use of carrageenan in organic products; the use of certain materials in poultry production; and whether hydroponic, aquaponic, or container production can continue to be certified organic.
  • The Missouri Organic Association, in conjunction with the Organic Trade Association, hosted an evening reception with organic snacks and wines. In attendance were representatives from the Missouri Department of Agriculture, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt’s office, and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill’s office.

The results of the Board’s deliberations on the proposals and petitions before it are as follows:

  • Changes to the National List:
    • Carrageenan and ivermectin were removed from the National List.
    • The remaining substances set to sunset were retained on the National List.
    • No petitions for additions to the National List were successful.
    • Sodium chlorite and tocopherols were referred back to the Handling Subcommittee for further work.
  • Proposals/Reports:
    • The Board adopted the Materials Subcommittee’s proposal on NOSB Research Priorities.
    • The Board adopted the Materials Subcommittee’s proposal on excluded methods, after removing the reference to Dupont seed technology.
    • The Board accepted the Materials Subcommittee’s report to the Secretary of Agriculture on progress to prevent incursion of GMOs into organic.
    • The Board referred the proposal on hydroponics, bioponics and aquaponics back to the Crops Subcommittee for further work. (Work will also continue on the question of standards for container production in organic, which was reviewed as a discussion document, rather than a full proposal to be voted on.)
    • The Board adopted a resolution stating that it intends to continue to consider innovations in agriculture that may or may not be compatible with organic production; and the current Board’s intention would be to prohibit systems that have an entirely water-based substrate.
    • The Board passed the Policy Development Subcommittee’s revisions to the Policy and Procedures Manual and reorganization of sunset review.

We can look forward to a full docket, including continued work on standards for innovative organic agricultural practices, at the April 2017 meeting, which is scheduled to be held April 19-21 in Denver, Colorado.