Groups assess organic research needs

Research needs in the organic industry are numerous and run the gamut from production to marketing, growers and others in the industry say.

To identify the industry’s top priorities, The Organic Center partnered with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to get input from farmers, industry members, researchers, policy-makers and nonprofit organizations.

A gathering last year included panels, listening sessions, breakout discussions and group activities to develop a roadmap for research to move the organic sector forward, Jessica Shade, director of science programs at The Organic Center, said in a webinar on the groups’ findings.

“Our main goal was to find common ground between the research needs of farmers, scientific expertise and then the funding interests of industry members,” she said.

The groups also explored avenues for public-private partnerships to fund research.

“Overall, the organic industry members expressed interest most in funding research that increased the domestic supply of organic food and fiber,” Amber Sciligo, assistant director of science programs at The Organic Center, said.

They were also interested in increasing consumer education and awareness and addressing consumer concerns over climate change and interest in nutrition, she said.

Several research priorities emerged. One is the availability of organic seed varieties.

Some nuances in that research included “regional breeding to accommodate the regional differences in climate and soil, etc., and also selecting for flavor and nutrition as a target for consumer preference,” she said.

Research on soil health was also an area of shared interest.

“A lot of past research has made really significant advances in supporting on-farm soil health,” she said.

But new areas of interest include systems-based research programs that connect the soil health to microbial communities, water quality, food safety, plant productivity and plant nutrition and how that would translate into human health, she said.

Another research priority was agronomic and socioeconomic research.

“The main interest within this research category was really to address the barriers that keep farmers from transitioning to organic or that prevent them from continuing to farm organically,” she said.

That research relates back to increasing domestic supply. There was a desire to focus on farm profitability to ensure organic farmer livelihoods were secure and sustainable, she said.

Climate resiliency was another priority area.

“Climate change mitigation, as well as adaptation to climate change, was identified as an area of interest across all stakeholder groups, and there was a wide range of research questions,” she said.

Those included livestock forage management, water usage and seed breeding for climate change resiliency in various regions and the role of crop diversification in protecting against losses from extreme weather changes, she said.

A lot of people were also interested in agricultural technology, mostly to improve the feasibility of organic operations, she said.

That would include precision technology to make water and nutrient usage more efficient and reduce the burden of labor-intensive tasks such as weeding, as well as making food-safety monitoring more reliable and real-time, she said.

Research on animal health and livestock integration in cropping systems was also a high priority.

The industry needs more knowledge about how organic practices, including pasture-based production, will affect things like animal health, soil health and food safety simultaneously, she said.


Organic survey delves into production, marketing practices

In addition to asking about the number of farms, acreage and sales, USDA’s 2019 Organic Survey also queried farmers about their production and marketing practices, challenges and expenses.

One thing that’s always of interest is how organic commodities are marketed, said Virginia Harris, a survey statistician with National Agricultural Statistics Service.

That could be direct to consumer through such things as farmers markets, farm stands and community supported agriculture, she said during a webinar hosted by the Organic Trade Association.

About 3,000 farms sold direct to consumers in 2019. That was 18% of all organic farms, and they sold about $300 million in organic products. Those direct to consumer sales were highest in the Western U.S., the Northeast and Southeast, she said.

More than 3,000 farms sold direct to retail markets or institutions, with sales of more than $2 billion. More than 1,000 farms sold $727 million of value-added organic products such as wine, jam and cheese.

The survey also collected data on production practices, primarily related to land use, she said.

“The most common organic production practice reported was using buffer strips or border rows to isolate organic from convention crops,” she said.

Of the 16,585 certified organic farms in 2019, almost 11,000 used buffer strips or border rows.

Almost 9,000 organic farms applied animal manure to organic land, and about 8,000 used water-management practices.

A little more than 7,500 farms planted green manures, cover crops that are plowed under to increase soil fertility. About 6,000 used no-till or minimum-till, which can reduce soil erosion. And about 5,700 produced or used organic mulch or compost, she said.

The survey also asked farmers to report economic losses due to the unintentional presence of genetically modified organisms or unapproved pesticides. Relatively few reported those losses, only 125 related to GMOs and 142 related to pesticides.

The survey also polled farmers on some expenses. Farmers reported paying their organic certifiers about $47 million in 2019.

The two largest expenses were for certified organic feed at almost $2 billion and labor at nearly $1.6 billion.

The survey also asked about major challenges.

“The most common challenge reported by the farms was regulatory in nature. One-half of farms said that this was the major production challenge for their farming operation,” she said.


Organic food sales boom during pandemic

PORTLAND — The produce section at New Seasons Market in Portland was bustling on a weekday afternoon. Customers were filling carts and handbaskets with organic produce.

Grocers and industry experts say the pandemic has driven record sales and interest in organic food.

“I think there’s probably a combination of reasons. Certainly there’s the local connection and people want to feel secure and have access to a stable food source. But I also think people are just really tuned into health right now,” said Sarah Brown, education and advocacy director at Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that certifies organic producers.

Brown, herself a farmer, said interest in her organic products has doubled since COVID-19 hit.

According to Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, the trend extends beyond Oregon; organics are experiencing record sales nationwide. Organic food sales skyrocketed during the run on grocery stores in March, but even as markets have settled, sales remain strong.

“Sales of organic fresh produce show no signs of slowing and continue to be a major growth opportunity for retailers across the country,” Matt Seeley, CEO of the Organic Produce Network, said in a statement.

The Organic Trade Association’s report for the third quarter of 2020 shows organic fresh produce sales are 16% higher than the same timeframe last year.

The West is leading in terms of growth rate. This quarter in the western U.S., sales of organic produce are up 20% higher than last year in the same timeframe and region.

Mike Boyle, vice president of sales and sourcing at Organically Grown Co., a wholesale distributor, said many consumers are return customers simply buying larger volumes, but he said the organic movement also picked up new consumers.

Packaged salads, fruits and herbs have generated the highest growth, data show. Berries are the top organic fruit seller, generating more than $217 million in sales, followed by apples and bananas.

Experts say consumers have also purchased larger volumes of organic meat, poultry, eggs and milk during COVID-19.

One farmer told Small Ag Press she spent weeks trying to buy a freezer, but Home Depot, Lowe’s, Jerry’s and other suppliers told her they were sold out and back-ordered for months since more Americans are buying freezers this year to stock up on locally sourced meat.

Organic produce is still a small segment of the overall produce sector, but experts say the numbers of organic farms and acres are growing.

Certifiers say more farms are going organic.

“As a certifier, what I can speak to is that there has been no slowdown in applicants getting certified. You’d think with disruptions in the supply chain, you’d see a slowdown, but farms and companies are as interested as ever in getting certified,” said Brown of Oregon Tilth.

Experts predict consumer interest will remain strong.

“I think that the organic industry is going to continue to grow,” said Boyle of Organically Grown Co.


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.”


Organic dairy farmers urge USDA to finalize ‘origin of livestock’ rule

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Organic dairy farmers are again urging the USDA to clarify its rule for transitioning livestock under the National Organic Program, eliminating a loophole they say puts smaller producers at a severe economic disadvantage.

Regulators first issued the “Origin of Livestock” rule in 2015, allowing dairies to transition cows from conventional to organic over a 12-month period, when the animals are raised using only organic farming practices — such as eating 100% organic feed and managed without antibiotics or added growth hormones.

Kate Mendenhall, director of the national Organic Farmers Association, said the transition is supposed to be a one-time event. Some dairies, however, have a different interpretation of the rule.

Rather than raising calves as organic from birth, Mendenhall said dairies might use cheaper conventional farming practices during their first year before “re-transitioning” livestock in the second year. The result is cows are essentially cycled in and out of organic production, creating an uneven playing field for the rest of the industry.

“We’re asking for clarity within the rules to make it a one-time transition,” Mendenhall said. “Most farms have been held to the standard that they can do it once and it’s done. They can’t leave (organic production) and come back.”

Congress gave the USDA 180 days to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule, though the agency missed its deadline of June 17. In response, 70 organic farming groups including the Organic Farmers Association wrote a letter asking lawmakers to step up the pressure.

“Organic dairy farmers are suffering and continued delays in implementing this rule will prolong the dire economics facing organic dairy farmers, as well as jeopardize consumers’ trust in the organic label,” the groups wrote.

Oregon Tilth, an organization based in Corvallis that certifies organic farms and ranches in 49 states, also signed the letter. Chris Schreiner, the group’s executive director, said he is frustrated with the USDA for dragging its feet on finalizing the Origin of Livestock rule.

“The government is just not keeping pace with what the industry wants,” Schreiner said. “Certainly here in the Northwest, organic dairy has provided an opportunity for family-scale dairy farms to stay economically viable … This will help level the playing field, and will help dairies here in the Northwest for whom the organic marketplace has been a way to maintain economic viability.”

Organic milk makes up 5% of all milk produced in the U.S., according to a 2016 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. California leads the country in the number of certified organic dairy cows by a wide margin with 50,136, followed by Wisconsin, Texas and New York.

Around the Northwest, Oregon had 21,101 registered organic dairy cows in 2016, while Washington had 9,211 and Idaho had 7,434. The total value of sales across the three states topped $9.8 million.

By allowing dairies to inappropriately use the organic transition multiple times, they can grow their herd much more rapidly and at a much lower cost, Mendenhall said. One estimate shows it costs dairies $623 less per animal to raise calves conventionally for one year.

As a few herds continue to grow larger, Mendenhall said farms have flooded the market with organic milk, causing prices to drop. Organic Valley, the largest U.S. organic cooperative, paid out an average price of $35.68 per hundred pounds of organic milk in 2016. That fell to $30.10 in 2017, and $29.52 in 2018.

“All dairy farmers have been in crisis for a number of years now,” said Mendenhall, who has an organic mixed livestock farm in Iowa. “Organic dairy farmers have especially suffered, in part because this rule has allowed inequity to happen. I know a lot of organic dairy farms that have gone out of business across the country.”

Mendenhall said she worries the Origin of Livestock standards will fall by the wayside unless the USDA acts soon, especially heading into an election year.

“We really don’t want that to happen,” she said.


More people buying food directly from farms during virus

ENETA, Ore. — New unemployment claims in Oregon catapulted nearly 1,500% the last week of March, according to the Oregon Employment Department. But for Brandon Huff and his wife, Phaedra, owners of Ambrosia Farm in Veneta, Ore., this is their busiest season yet.

Industry leaders say more people are buying directly from farms to avoid grocery store crowds, shorten the supply chain and secure a reliable food source at a time when store shelves are often empty.

“Everyone’s getting laid off and talking on social media about chillin’,” said Brandon Huff. “And over here, I’m busier than ever. It seems like agriculture is full speed ahead.”

Experts say subscriptions to CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — have spiked the past few weeks. CSA is a partnership between a farmer and customer in which a customer pays for a membership share in exchange for a weekly box of fresh produce, meat or other farm goods.

Ambrosia Farm runs a CSA program. Members pay a share price at the start of the growing season and receive weekly boxes of colorful cabbage, peppers, strawberries, spinach and more. The farm offers both delivery and pickup options.

“We’re seeing a major uptick in CSA memberships,” said Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, or PACSAC.

In the past two weeks, RJ Ewing, operations manager for Deck Family Farm in Junction City, Ore., said the farm’s number of CSA members has leapt from 80 to 125.

Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association and former owner of a 50-member CSA, said people may be seeking farm-direct food for a sense of stability.

“People are feeling a little food insecure,” said Crane. “Having a relationship with a farmer committed to delivering food every week is reassuring.”

Hutchason and Crane said people may also be choosing CSAs to sidestep grocery stores and distribution chains.

“I you’re concerned about how many people are handling your food,” said Crane, “buying direct from the farm is the shortest imaginable supply chain.”

Heidi Noordjik, Oregon State University’s small farms coordinator, said she thinks CSAs are also gaining traction because more people are cooking at home and thinking about how they can support local businesses and producers.

CSA is unfamiliar to many consumers, said Hutchason, but it’s also new to many farms.

Before the virus outbreak, said Hutchason, many small farms relied heavily on restaurant sales. With so many restaurants now closed or limited to take-out and delivery, Hutchason called the change a “huge loss for farmers.”

Many of these farms, she said, have been forced to adapt by expanding or creating CSAs.

Laura Masterson, owner of 47th Avenue Farm in Portland, Ore., has run a CSA for 24 years and also sells to restaurants. Masterson said the farm has about twice as many CSA sign-ups now as this time last year, and after restaurants shut down, over 50 current members signed up for an extra weekly box of vegetables.

Aaron Nichols, co-owner of Stoneboat Farm in Hillsboro, Ore., said about 60% of sales are typically to restaurants—including about 300 pounds per week of salad greens. With restaurants closed, Nichols plans to double the number of available CSA shares. He predicts CSA crops won’t be as profitable as restaurant crops but said he’s “incredibly grateful” for the community support.

“Farms are responding to this crisis really creatively,” said Crane of OFMA. “It’s early enough in the season that they’re trying to shift their models in advance of harvest.”

Crane said across the state, numerous small farms have set up online ordering systems such as Barn2Door and Farmigo, coordinated home and curbside delivery options and created pick-up sites.

Many farms are also strategizing how to make CSA more affordable.

One common criticism of CSA is that payment is often required up-front. For example, a payment for six months of produce may be due this spring to cover farmers’ planting and other expenses.

In the midst of a pandemic, said PACSAC’s Hutchason, more farms are creating payment options, such as smaller shares or payments by the week or month, for consumers who can’t afford to pay up front.

“It’s a huge stretch for farmers not to ask for the capital at the front of the season,” said Hutchason. “It’s a sacrifice. It shows their commitment to feeding their communities.”

PACSAC, said Hutchason, processes SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, so consumers can use SNAP benefits to buy CSA shares and so farmers can focus on farming.

Double Up Food Bucks, a related program, allows farmers to offer up to $200 in matching funds to subscribers who use SNAP to pay their shares.

“It’s a big time of change for CSA,” said Crane. “But small farmers are hustlers. They’ve gotta be. They’re the original gig economists. They’ve always had to be innovative and responsive, so they’re really well-oriented to pivot during a crisis to keep feeding society.”


Oregon farmers’ markets focus on core functions in pandemic

Farmers’ markets are known to cultivate a festive atmosphere that attracts crowds, which is exactly what people are supposed to avoid during the coronavirus outbreak.

At their core, however, such markets are about food distribution, which is why they’re exempt from Oregon’s prohibition on gatherings of more than 25 people.

Now that they must emphasize only food — not fun — Oregon farmers’ markets are preparing to strip their operations down to the essentials during the spring season.

“The social fabric we’ve been weaving for years, we’re rapidly unraveling,” said Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Market Association.

At least for the time being, live music is out, as are chairs, tables, kids’ activities and anything else that would encourage people to congregate, she said.

Vendors will space their booths farther apart, lots of hand-washing stations will be provided and signs will advise visitors to maintain social distance, Crane said.

A couple of Oregon farmers’ markets have even decided against opening as planned this spring, since they didn’t have enough physical space available to spread out their vendors, she said.

Apart from providing an opportunity to buy food in the open air, the state’s farmers’ markets are critical for the 6,700 small businesses that sell about $63 million worth of goods at them each year, Crane said.

Markets that maintain operations year-round have already seen a decline in attendance, but their sales haven’t dropped as sharply, she said. That’s because shoppers are still showing up individually, without their friends and families.

“People are really supportive,” Crane said. “They want these institutions to be around after the pandemic.”

Many local farmers and ranchers will be especially dependent on farmers’ markets this year, as their wholesale restaurant customers have largely been shut down indefinitely, said Trudy Toliver, executive director of the Portland Farmers Market, which is among the largest in the state.

“Direct-to-consumer sales is what will keep them going in this crisis,” Toliver said.

Community support will be especially important for such companies as artisan cheese producers, which can’t easily scale down or suspend their operations, she said. “They still have to feed their animals and milk their animals.”

Grocery stores in Brookings, Ore., have restrictions on the number of certain items people can buy, so residents see the importance of maintaining local sources of food, said Linda Stimson, market manager of the Brookings Harbor Farmers Market.

“If you stop local farms from producing, it’s hard to get them started again,” she said. “You can’t stop egg production or stop stuff from growing, but you can let it go to waste, which is crazy.”

Farm products sold at the market go directly from the grower to the consumer, which contributes to safety, Stimson said. “It’s not like it’s gone through multi-levels of hands.”

The coastal farmers’ market operates year-round and doesn’t attract as many people as big city markets, but visitors are still self-regulating despite the lack of known coronavirus cases in Curry County, Stimson said.

“People come and get their food and leave,” she said. “As far as festivities, I think that’s the last thing on people’s minds.”


Court grants temporary stay in organic lawsuit

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted USDA’s motion to stay summary judgment proceedings in a lawsuit against the agency over its withdrawal of a new organic livestock rule.

USDA asked the court to grant a stay and a voluntary remand of the rule to correct a series of admitted flaws in the cost-and-benefit analysis in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, according to court records.

Federal District Judge Rosemary Collyer granted the motion but set a deadline of 180 days for USDA to publish a final rule explaining its updated analysis to ensure timely action.

“This lawsuit represents the administrative process at its never-ending worst,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

She pointed out that USDA issued the final rule after 10 years of work, delayed implementation three times and then withdrew the rule.

The organic rule, finalized in the last days of the Obama administration in January 2017, included new standards for raising, transporting and slaughtering organic animals.

It was set to go into effect in March 2017, but implementation was delayed by an executive order from President Trump staying all pending regulations. USDA delayed implementation again in May and November of that year and withdrew the rule in March 2018.

At that time, USDA stated the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and could have a negative effect on voluntary participation in the National Organic Program.

The Organic Trade Association challenged the delays in court in September 2017, amending its complaint twice and challenging USDA’s withdrawal of the rule.

OTA filed a motion for summary judgment in October 2019 and, after two extensions, USDA was expected to file an opposition when it suddenly asked for remand, according to court documents.

OTA’s challenges to the withdrawal of the rule involve USDA’s conclusion the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and that the withdrawal rule contained errors in its economic analysis.

OTA urged the court to deny USDA’s motion for a stay and remand and address the fundamental issue of USDA’s authority.

“The court is sympathetic to OTA but rules (and cases) are best decided on a completed record,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

Any interim decision would be negated by USDA’s action in amending its reasoning, or action by USDA could render the issues moot, she said.

OTA said in a statement it welcomes the court-ordered deadline because of USDA’s willingness to drag out the rulemaking process and thwart the will of the organic industry.

The organization said it is confident the rule will be reinstated.

“At the end of the day and despite this delay, we are more confident than ever that our arguments will prevail and that the will of the industry will be served,” OTA stated.


Lawsuit aims to forbid organic certification of hydroponics

A lawsuit against the USDA is seeking to forbid organic certification of hydroponic operations, arguing only soil-grown crops can legally qualify as organic.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group, claims that cultivating plants hydroponically in nutrient solution violates the requirement to “foster soil fertility” of the Organic Foods Production Act, a 1990 statute that governs organic farming.

“That goes against a basic organic principle, and those principles are encoded in law,” said Sylvia Wu, attorney for the Center for Food Safety as well as several other farms and organizations suing the USDA.

Controversies over hydroponic production have been percolating in the organic community for years, but the plaintiffs decided to file a complaint after the USDA rejected their 2019 petition to exclude such operations from organic certification, she said.

Hydroponic crops are grown without soil. Instead, nutrients are mixed with water and go directly to the plants’ roots.

At this point, consumers at grocery stores don’t know whether they’re buying produce from an organic farmer who’s working to improve the soil, Wu said. “That organic tomato could very well be grown in a warehouse in Mexico.”

A spokesperson for the USDA said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In denying the petition, the agency said that “a categorical prohibition to hydroponic production is not justified by the OFPA.”

Provisions in the law referring to improving soil quality or crop rotation only apply to farms that rely on soil but don’t require that “all organic production occur in a soil-based environment,” the USDA said.

Though resources are cycled and conserved differently in hydroponic operations, that doesn’t render them “incompatible with the vision for organic agriculture” in the statute, the USDA said.

“Hydroponic operations produce food in a way that can minimize damage to soil and water, and that can support diverse biological communities,” the agency said.

Organic hydroponic growers are disappointed in the lawsuit and believe its accusations reflect a lack of understanding of their production methods, said Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents such operations.

Hydroponic greenhouses still rely on microbes to break down nutrients into forms that are available to plants and rely on composting green waste, similarly to other farming operations, he said.

Hydroponic systems also greatly reduce the demand for irrigation water while producing crops efficiently, which reduces their environmental footprint, Frankel said.

The OFPA and associated regulations are intended to provide farmers with flexibility, so not every practice mentioned in the statute is required, he said.

“I don’t think the USDA is about prescribing a one-size-fits-all,” Frankel said. “Every grower has their site-specific conditions that dictate how they grow.”

The complaint is motivated by a desire to limit supplies of organic fresh tomatoes grown in greenhouses, which have come to dominate the market, he said. “The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit stated they don’t like that competition and feel like the prices need to be higher.”

The debate over hydroponics in organic farming stretches back more than two decades, with the National Organic Standards Board — which advises USDA — repeatedly reversing itself about whether the practice should be allowed.

Most recently, however, the NOSB voted in favor of continuing to allow organic certification of hydroponic operations in 2017.

The Center for Food Safety considers this decision an “anomaly,” as the broader industry narrative demonstrates the organic community’s resistance to the method, said Wu, the group’s attorney.

“It reflects the difference between corporate organic and family organic farmers.”

The NOSB’s 2017 recommendation won’t likely harm the lawsuit’s chances, as the statute is clear that improving soils is mandatory for organic farms, she said.

“Some requirements are discretionary, but not the soil fertility requirement,” Wu said.


Registration opens soon for OSU’s Small Farms Conference

Registration for Oregon State University’s popular Small Farms Conference will open by Dec. 18.

The day-long event will be held Feb. 22, 2020, at OSU’s Corvallis campus at the LaSells Stewart Center and CH2M Hill Alumni Center.

“The Oregon Small Farms Conference is a daylong event geared toward farmers, agricultural professionals, food policy advocates, students and managers of farmers markets,” according to the event’s website.  “Twenty-seven educational sessions are offered on a variety of topics relevant to the Oregon small farmers. Speakers include farmers, OSU Extension faculty, agribusiness, and more.”

Those who register through Jan. 20 will be charged $60. Registration from Jan. 21 through Feb. 7 is $85. Registration is not available at the door.

In addition to three seminar sessions, the conference includes a networking session, “Think With a Drink,” which will allow attendees to confer with other small farmers over beer, wine or cider.

For more information, go to the conference website.

The conference is sponsored by Northwest Farm Credit Services.