U.S. introduces program to certify more organic farmers

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In response to the growing demand for organic food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently created a program that makes it easier for farmers to sell organic goods. 

The number of organic food operations increased 12 percent last year, continuing a trend of significant growth, according to the USDA. Their latest report said there are now 21,781 total certified organic food operations in the country and even more worldwide. 

The USDA National Organic Program defines organic as “… produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”

The new program by the USDA allows farmers to market their food as organic during the transitional process of converting their soil to organic. This is a 3–4 year process that ensures naturally fertile soil is free of unnatural chemicals like pesticides. 

According to the Organic Trade Association website, this program will enable farmers to sell organic food at higher prices in order to make up for the costly process of becoming organically certified. The program aims to make this process less expensive and time-consuming for farmers and in turn “lead to better success rates and higher performance of transitioned operations,” said the Organic Trade Association website.

The program will only award transitional certificates to farmers that are at least a year into the process of converting their soil to organic. 

Benjamin Till, a farmer from Rockne, Texas, who farms both organic and non-organic foods, said any crop can be made organic, but it takes lots of time and manpower to do so. 

“People will grow on ground previously sprayed with herbicides and think they’re growing organic, but they’re not. The soil testing is why (the process of transitioning) takes so long,” Till said.

The USDA told The Balance that obtaining a first-time certification costs from $700–1,200 per operation. Additionally, farmers are expected to educate themselves on new organic techniques, put more time into their crops and often grow at smaller scales. UT’s Microfarm, a small-scale uncertified organic farm, faces its own challenges maintaining organic practices. 

“The UT Microfarm isn’t a certified organic farm because that takes a lot of time and money but it continues to promote the organic movement,” said James Collins, Campus Environmental Center co-ambassador and prior Microfarm leader. “(In organic farming) there’s a degree of re-education and an experience curve … you have to do your research to find solutions.”

UT nutrition professor Jaimie Davis said she predicts the growing demand for organic food is due to increased awareness of the food-making process, not because of the possible nutritional benefit of organic foods. She said there is no proven link between organic foods and increased nutrition. 

“There is also a lot more attention put on food sources and allergens, and people in general want to know more about the food (and) beverages that they are ingesting.” Davis said. “If you can afford it, then I would recommend buying organic food.”

Nate Lewis, Farm policy director for the Organic Trade Association, told the Duluth News Tribune that grain and wheat farmers will benefit most from the program because they work in a sector of organic farming in which demand is greater than supply. The increase in demand for grains results from the need to feed livestock and make organic bread products.

The OTA reported that their next steps include discussing labeling of “transitional foods” with the food industry. “Transitional foods” are those grown under the transitional period of becoming organic. 

“I think the organic market is going to continue to grow, especially in Austin over time if the economy starts to come back,” Till said. “You got those people near Hippy Hollow … all over really … that don’t want genetically modified crops and pesticides in their food. It’s a movement.”