FSA lowers reimbursements for organic certification

The USDA Farm Service Agency is reducing payments to assist organic producers with their annual certification costs through fiscal year 2023.

Under the Organic Certification Cost Share Program, farmers may be partially reimbursed for organic certification in four main production areas, or “scopes,” including crops, livestock, post-harvest handling and wild crops — things that grow in the wild, as opposed to cultivation.

On Aug. 10, the FSA announced payment rates will be lowered from 75% or up to $750 per scope, to 50% or up to $500 per scope.

While the agency says the decision was “due to expected participation levels and the limited funds available,” organic farming groups and certifiers say they are dubious.

Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, said the change caught him by surprise. Based in Corvallis, Ore., Oregon Tilth certifies organic operations in 49 states.

In Oregon, the Organic Certification Cost Share Program is administered jointly by the FSA and state Department of Agriculture. Figures from ODA show Oregon received $284,000 from the USDA last year and paid out $177,679 to 239 applications.

Leftover funds are supposed to roll over to future years, as required by the 2018 Farm Bill. According to a notice in the Federal Register, the program had approximately $4 million in national funding available from previous years to use in 2020.

However, the USDA stated in 2019 that it had $16.4 million in carryover to use for future years. Schreiner said that disparity has left him scratching his head.

“Where did those dollars go? I think that is the question on most people’s minds,” he said. “What’s the accounting here?”

USDA spokeswoman Amanda Heitkamp said the $16.4 million in carryover funding for 2019 did not take into account money that still needed to be disbursed to state departments of agriculture for the previous fiscal year. She said the agency going forward will only announce the amount of funding for “new” program applications, hence the difference.

Heitkamp said carryover funds vary from year to year, depending on the number of approved applications. Between local FSA offices and state departments of agriculture, the USDA received 12,700 applications in fiscal year 2017, 15,600 in fiscal year 2018 and 13,600 in fiscal year 2019.

Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association, also questioned USDA’s accounting. She said the program should have enough money to maintain payments at the 75% rate, if not provide additional support for organic producers reeling financially from the COVID-19 crisis.

Organic farmers were largely excluded from other USDA pandemic relief programs including the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, Mendenhall said. The Organic Farmers Association and National Organic Coalition have advocated increasing the organic certification cost share to 100% as a means of providing some stimulus.

Instead, Mendenhall said regulators are doing the opposite.

“I think all (organic) farmers are feeling unsupported by the USDA,” she said. “These are farmers that feed our communities. We do a good job to steward our clean earth, water and air, and we need better support from our USDA.”

The USDA Census of Agriculture shows the number of organic farms increased from 14,326 to 18,166 nationwide between 2012 and 2017, and product sales more than doubled from roughly $3.1 billion to $7.2 billion.

In Oregon, the number of organic operations rose from 554 to 567, while sales jumped from $1.9 million to $2.7 million.

Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition, said the group is outraged about reducing payments for certification in the midst of a pandemic.

”Producers and their 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,” Youngblood said.

Changes in the payment calculation will allow more certified organic operations to receive assistance, the USDA stated, adding that reimbursements could return to 75% if Congress authorizes additional funding.

Schreiner said it is not certain that will happen, and even if it does, it may be too little too late for some farms.

”Unfortunately, it’s going to have a disproportionate impact on those operations that could use the help the most,” Schreiner said. “Everyone is trying to weather this storm, but those dollars stretch longer for those small to mid-size operations.”

USDA starts team to help beginning farmers, ranchers

USDA is starting a new team to better serve beginning farmers and ranchers.

The 2018 Farm Bill directed the agency to name national and state coordinators to help new producers navigate existing programs more easily. Goals include training staff at the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency and at USDA Rural Development to help new producers conveniently access the agencies’ offerings.

USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinators include Sarah Campbell, national; Denise Adkins, Idaho; Kathy Ferge, Oregon; and Cara McNab, Washington.

“We have been focused on helping new farmers and ranchers, and a lot of things are word-of-mouth,” Adkins, with the NRCS Idaho state office in Boise, said in an interview. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher program aims to “give a broader understanding of what each agency does and how it can help.”

For example, a farmer interested in an NRCS grant program that can help pay for an efficiency upgrade such as a new sprinkler setup could find out about it while interacting with another USDA agency, whether at a state or field office.

“Training is going to drive a lot of that,” Adkins said. In-house instruction is gaining momentum after being slowed by COVID-19.

NRCS Idaho spokeswoman Mindi Rambo said public outreach will follow, including preparation of educational materials available to people interacting with USDA, or participating in university extension courses or other agriculture events.

Need for a coordinated approach is driven in part by demographics, as the average age of a U.S. farmer increased by 1.2 years to 57.5 between 2012 and 2017, according to the latest Census of Agriculture, which also said 27% of farmers had less than 10 years of experience.

FSA in Idaho also is involved in Beginning Farmer and Rancher training and outreach.

“There are almost 25,000 farm operations in Idaho, and of that, the number of producers age 45 and below is about 5,000,” FSA Idaho State Executive Director Tom Dayley said.

He said the state’s young-producer headcount rose nearly 13.7%, from 4,106 as of the 2012 Census of Ag to 4,668 in 2017.

“We are moving in the right direction clearly, but it still shows that we need to figure out a way to make it (farming) attractive, but once it is attractive to a younger person as a career choice, facilitate them to be able to make that choice,” Dayley said.

Adkins said NRCS in fiscal 2019 funded 166 contracts in Idaho to beginning farmers and ranchers, for about $5.3 million on 15,000 acres combined.

The group accounted for 45% of all NRCS Idaho contracts in 2019 and has generated 39% of applications so far in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Adkins, who has worked for NRCS since 2004, is joined on the Idaho Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordination team by Susan Smith, farm loan specialist with FSA; Anastasia Griffin, risk-management specialist with RMA, and Dale Lish, area director with USDA Rural Development.

Each state coordinator will develop beginning-farmer outreach plans, help employees to better reach and serve beginning producers, and be available themselves to assist in navigating programs.

Dayley said USDA in the new program wants to make sure personnel at the various agencies, working together, also can help young farmers and ranchers operate successfully after first accessing programs.

Honey bee colonies up in winter, down in spring

A new report from USDA signals a little sweet news for honey bees.

January 2020, the number of colonies nationwide was up 8% from January 2019, an increase from 2.67 million to 2.88 million colonies.

Winter, experts say, is usually the season with the most hive loss. But honey bees this year had a better-than-usual winter.

“A lot of bees normally die in the winter. It’s cold. They’re stuck in their house. That’s when a lot of winter diseases can happen. Varroa mites can cause problems in the winter if they haven’t been treated properly in the fall. If it’s too cold, bees can freeze, and if it’s too hot, they’re active and eat through their honey. Maybe we just hit a perfect winter,” said Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture.

This spring and summer have been harder on bees. January through March, this year’s hive losses of 14% were similar to last year’s losses. And beekeepers lost 8% of hives April through June.

These numbers aren’t shocking or historic, entomologists say, but seeing similar losses year after year can be disheartening.

USDA lists varroa mites, which carry a deadly illness called the deformed wing virus, as the No. 1 stressor.

Buckley of WSDA said this year’s losses may be attributable to the usual suspects — including weather, diseases and parasites.

Some states have fared better than others.

Adam Peters, USDA honey bee statistician, said Washington state reported less than 3% hive loss, the lowest ever for the state since the agency started keeping track.

Despite losses, beekeepers are celebrating the small victories.

The 8% colony increase, statisticians say, means the industry is doing comparatively OK. At the very least, it means good propagation of bees is still happening.

Peters of USDA said those “added hives” mean beekeepers this year not only replaced, but exceeded, the number of lost hives with new ones. When a beekeeper loses hives, he said, they will often create new ones, either by purchasing starter kits from breeders or by “splitting” hives into smaller ones.

Buckley of WSDA said splitting hives is also necessary to prevent bees from swarming.

USDA’s data contrast with recent survey results from the Informed Bee Partnership, which reported that April 2019 through April 2020, U.S. beekeepers lost an estimated 44% of colonies.

USDA statisticians say the Bee Informed Partnership is a respectable source, but the organization likely uses a smaller sample size, different methodology and different survey questions than USDA.

Even USDA will be updating its numbers for the past two quarters later this year.

Peters, the statistician, said beekeepers typically give more detailed survey answers during their “down time,” while their replies are often more generalized during their busiest times of the year.

But even if the numbers change, he said, they’re likely to show the bee industry had a good winter and an average spring and summer.

“I see that as a good thing, but that’s because I’m the honey bee stat guy,” he said.

Small Farm School goes online

Registration for Oregon State University’s Small Farm School opens Aug. 18.

This year offered as an online event because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is a collaboration of OSU, Clackamas Community College, Clackamas Soil and Water District, Rogue Farm Corps and Friends of Family Farmers.

Small Farm School 2020 will be a series of online sessions running Tuesday and Thursday evenings from Sept. 15 through Nov. 19. The sessions will be presented from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Classes will include: Poultry for Beginning Farmers, Field to Market Food Safety from Farm to Kitchen, Racism in Oregon Agriculture, Equitable Food Access: Hear from Farmers in the Field, Pasture Management, How to start a farm business, Developing a Brand Identity, Dry Farming: Vegetable Crops in the Maritime Pacific Northwest, Sustainable Hemp Production Growing Hemp Responsibly,
Data Tracking on your farm, Equitable Food Access: How to contribute to Oregon’s Food Sovereignty Network, CSA in a pandemic, Cut Flowers, Weed control, Winter vegetables in the PNW growing and marketing, Bookkeeping Practices, Regenerative Ag/ Soil Ecology, and Farming while black: Documentary and discussion w/FOFF.

For more information, go the the event’s website.

Here’s a course for small farmers and ranchers

Washington State University Extension is taking registration for a 12-week online course from small-scale farmers and ranchers.

Sustainable Small-Acreage Farming and Ranching will be presented via Zoom on Tuesday evenings from Sept. 22 through Dec. 8. The course is for small- and medium-sized producers, or those who plan to start farming.

“Sponsored by WSU Snohomish County Extension, Snohomish Conservation District, and King Conservation District, the course gives participants a broad overview of production and marketing options for today’s small farm,” according to the event website.  “Whether you are just exploring the opportunities available or already have an existing operation, you’ll learn what it takes to create, sustain, and grow a viable small farm enterprise.”

“Weekly presentations include local growers, organizations, and university specialists with expertise in direct marketing, value-added processing, production planning, agronomy, livestock production, and more. In addition to a wealth of resources on a broad variety of ag-related topics, students will also receive a copy of Market Farm Success by Lynn Byczynski”

The instructors are Kate Ryan, a grower and Agriculture Program Coordinator for WSU Snohomish County Extension, and Bobbi Lindemulder, a cattle rancher and District Operations Program Manager for the Snohomish Conservation District.

Class size is limited, and participants must pre-pay a $200 per family registration fee. To register, and to get more information, go to the event website.