Jun 9, 2021
Ag Secretary Vilsack describes pilot project for organic farm transition
Stephen Kloosterman

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack June 8 spun plans for $5 billion in sweeping programs designed to reform the country’s agriculture and food industries.

Those programs include attention to organic growers, Vilsack said in a call with media. Asked by an Agripulse reporter to describe some of the types of assistance, he briefly described a pilot program to study how much assistance small-to-medium growers needed to transition their farms to organic.

“There are a number of producers who have expressed interest to me, and to the department, a willingness and interest to retain their size, but recognizing that as a small and mid-sized producer, they may have a difficult time generating sufficient profit to maintain their farm,” Vilsack said. “So, they’re looking for a way to increase value. One way of increasing value is to become an organic producer, but of course, to be able to do that, you’ve essentially got to go through a three-year period of time. And during that three-year period, as you’re transitioning your land so you can satisfy the requirements of the organic program, you’re obviously going to see even less income than you were experiencing before. So what we’re looking at doing is taking several hundred million dollars and creating a program that would essentially be a pilot so that we could learn how we could provide a level of transition assistance that would allow folks to make that transition without necessarily sacrificing the capacity or the ability to keep the farm, stay on the land.

“The goal of this of course is to respond to the challenge, if you will, of the supply chain, and the resiliency of our system, based on the fact that we have an aging farming population, and again as I mentioned so many farms currently have generated the majority of income that are farm families,” he added. “At the farmer’s side, we’ll look for ways we can provide new and additional revenue streams. We recently announced an incentive on cover crop insurance We’ll continue to look for ways we can provide additional help and support for farmers.”

The USDA on June 4 announced plans to invest more than $4 billion to strengthen U.S. food supply chains what’s it called the “Build Back Better initiative.” Funding will include a mix of grants, loans, and innovative financing mechanisms in the four categories of food production, food processing, food distribution and aggregation, and markets and consumers, according to the USDA. The $4 billion comes on top of $1 billion announced the previous week to purchase healthy food for “food-insecure” U.S. residents and build food bank capacity – total announced thus far at more than $5 billion.

In the call with news media, Vilsack said he was concerned about recent events disrupting the U.S. food supply, including cyberattacks and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would say this challenge to the supply chain adds to a number of concerns that have arisen about our current ag system, a system where nearly 90% of farms fail to generate a majority of income for those who own and operate the farm, a system that is currently leading to significant productivity gains but at the expense of an alarming rate of topsoil loss and soil health and water quality. A nutrition system that often provides food but can fail to provide adequate nourishment, and a system that has seen rapid consolidation and a lack of competition, and, finally, a system that has lacked equity for socially disadvantaged producers and a fair shot for small, medium-size producers. This leads me to believe that what we really need is a transformational change in order to build back better our food system and our ag system.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition applauded Vilsack’s announcement while looking “forward to learning more details.”

“The pandemic laid bare the significant challenges facing small- and medium-sized producers and processors up and down the supply chain. This significant funding should be used to address the fundamental causes so that the Administration can follow through on their promise to ‘build back better’ and create a more resilient, just, and equitable food system. NSAC members look forward to working with USDA to ensure that they do,” Eric Deeble, NSAC Policy Director, said in a news release. “The priorities in today’s announcement are a step in the right direction to bolster the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic while also helping to create a more resilient and inclusive food system. NSAC believes that USDA’s commitment to a holistic Build Back Better initiative will ensure a more robust food supply is accessible to consumers.”

Above, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at a 2016 event. Photo: Patti Finke/USDA

Stephen Kloosterman is the editor of Organic Grower.

Be sure to check out our other specialty agriculture brands