USDA today announced a special three-week sign-up for farmers in the process of converting to organic farming to receive technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a move applauded by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and its grassroots member organizations across the country.
The organic conversion assistance was provided for by the 2008 Farm Bill but the plan went awry when the Bush Administration issued rules for the EQIP program just before leaving office which baffled state and local offices of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). As a result, in a majority of states organic farmers and transitioning farmers were simply not being served, in contradiction of Congress' intent in the farm bill.
"This was a was a wrong that needed righting, and with today's announcement USDA is not only setting it right, but doing so in an innovative and farmer-friendly manner," said Aimee Witteman, NSAC Executive Director. "We thank NRCS and USDA leadership for listening to the concerns of organic farmers and applaud their new initiative."
Today's announcement sets-aside $50 million out of the $1 billion EQIP program for a special three-week sign-up for farms converting to organic production, farms expanding their organic production, or existing organic farms who desire conservation support to reach even higher levels of environmental performance. The sign-up period begins Monday, May 11 and goes through Friday, May 29. Six core conservation practices (conservation crop rotation, cover cropping, integrated pest management, nutrient management, rotational grazing, and forage harvest management) are being made available to transitioning organic farmers on a nationwide basis. Each state may then also add a variety of "facilitating" conservation practices specific to the type of agriculture in their region.
"Obviously we would wish to have more than a very short three weeks to work with our farmer networks to get the word out and get farmers into local NRCS offices to sign up for this exciting new initiative," said Witteman. "We will work quickly to get the word out far and wide and our member organizations with expertise in organic agriculture will be helping farmers understand their options under the new program terms."
Organic farming has strong environmental benefits for soil and water quality, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity. In recognition of this fact, Congress retooled the EQIP program in the 2008 Farm Bill to provide a general EQIP priority for organic farming in the program overall as well as a specific EQIP subcomponent for farms converting in whole or in part to organic farming.
The new initiative addresses the special "organic conversion assistance" component of EQIP in particular. Funding under the organic conversion section of the farm bill is capped at not more than $20,000 per farm per year, and not more than $80,000 per farm in any 6-year period. Organic farmers may opt to compete in this special pool, with the tighter payment caps, or may opt instead to compete in the regular EQIP pool for which the 6-year cap is $300,000. However, under the terms of the new initiative announced today, farmers will receive higher payments, relative to conventional EQIP rates, for five of the six national core practices for organic conversion option. The higher payment rates reflect the higher management costs associated with the mandatory three-year organic transition period and the higher ongoing management costs associated with organic farming.
"We expect this program to evolve and grow over time," said Witteman. "NRCS has made a good faith effort to address the needs of organic farmers and appears to be willing to make this program even better on an iterative basis in future years. This is a very welcomed new day."