OFRF at the May OTA Policy Conference, Washington DC

Brise Tencer's picture

Recently, I attended the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) Policy Conference in my new role as OFRF’s Executive Director. The conference brought together many organic industry leaders who heard from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. A significant number of farmers also attended as part of the newly formed OTA Farmers Advisory Council.

           It is always gratifying to attend a “gathering of the organic tribes”, where the community gathers to strategize and create a shared vision for moving the organic sector ahead. For me, it was particularly rewarding to be joined by three members of our Board of Directors to share news of our leadership transition and vision for moving the organization forward.  I was able to renew long-standing friendships and contacts and forge some new connections as well.

          I was honored to be a panelist for a breakout session titled Organic Research Priorities with Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center, Jane Dever of Texas A&M University, and Mathieu Ngouajio of the National Institute of Food & Agriculture. There was much to celebrate concerning the Farm Bill and increased federal funding for organic research. The panelists focused on emerging research needs. I talked about real world implications of the changes in USDA research programs, such as increased attention to organic research needs, the increased focus on competitive grants, and the new push for grantees to provide matching funds.

          I also talked about the challenges and opportunities of being a small grants program. For example, on one hand OFRF’s grants are more accessible to farmers and new researchers, while some larger Universities find our policy of not funding overhead a deterrent. Attendees also seemed interested to learn that nearly 100% of OFRF funded research is conducted on certified organic land, which is not always possible at Universities that may use land in transition. It was gratifying to hear from attendees that OFRF’s grant program continues to play a critical role in research in part because of the meaningful farmer involvement.

          At the morning session, Senator Stabenow reiterated her support for organic agriculture by remarking that organic farmers should “continue to count me in” as a champion of organic-friendly policies. As chair of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Stabenow spearheaded important increases in organic program funding in the Farm Bill, which passed earlier this year.

             

          Secretary Vilsack spoke about the opportunities for organic farmers in the Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill granted the organic sector the ability to apply to the USDA for an organic research and promotion order. Secretary Vilsack urged organic farmers to take advantage of this new rule. Secretary Vilsack also said he wants to increase coverage options for organic producers under the federal crop insurance program provided by USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) and announced a new pilot program to offer insurance coverage for organic, specialty crop, and diversified farms. We are excited to see how this program works for organic farms.

          On the second day, I joined other OTA members in meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill to advance the policy needs of the organic sector.  We requested increased funding for key USDA programs in the agriculture appropriations bills, urged Congress to communicate to FDA about the need for clear voluntary labeling guidelines for non-GMO products, and we asked the USDA NOP and Federal Trade Commission to work together to create stronger enforcement of the term “organic” on non-agricultural products.

          As OFRF hones its research, education and advocacy programs for the coming year, we are excited to be working with so many strong partners to further our mission of fostering the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming practices. It’s been said that if you want to travel fast, go alone but if you want to travel far, go together. Together we can grow the organic sector. I look forward to continuing to connect with OFRF’s partners, supporters, farmer and researchers.

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