During the last weeks of the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made several regulatory and programmatic changes for the organic industry. However, the Trump administration has ordered that any regulations or rules published in the Federal Register but not yet effective shall be delayed 60-days to allow time for review and once a new Secretary of Agriculture is at the helm, how newly established programs will be implemented is unknown. Although the future of the recent proposals for the organic industry is unclear, if finalized the new legal standards and programs could have a big impact on organic farmers and farmers transitioning to organic.
One new program for farmers transitioning to organic is USDA’s National Certified Transition Program (“the Program”). Based on standards developed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the Program will oversee agents who will offer transitional certification to producers. Under the current USDA organic certification rules, before a farm can be certified organic it has to be farmed according to organic practices, including but not limited to without the use of synthetic pesticide and fertilizers, for the previous three years.
The three-year transitional period presents a challenge to farmers who must use organic practices to grow their products during that period but sell the products in the conventional marketplace. The Program is expected to ease the transition process by allowing farmers to be certified as transitioning to organic after 12 months of following organic standards. The Program does not include certifying products labeled as "transitional" in the marketplace, but OTA anticipates working with certifiers, food manufacturers, and retailers to develop appropriate market-driven guidelines for proper use of the term "transitional" on consumer packaged goods.
On January 17, 2017, USDA opened a comment period on an organic checkoff program which will pool money from organic farmers, handlers, and processors; the funds would be used to promote the sector, educate consumers, and conduct research on organic production methods. The OTA estimates the program could bring in more than $30 million annually. Supporters of the program say the supply of U.S. organic products fails to meet demand, and that consumers are confused by labeling and organic certification standards. Some organic farmers are opposed to the checkoff program and consider it akin to a tax on their operations.
Days before President Obama left office on January 19, USDA published a final rule (82 FR 7042) amending the organic livestock and poultry management practices. The rule, (not yet in effect) adds animal welfare provisions to the organic standards dictating how farmers must raise livestock and poultry, including during transport and slaughter. The rule requires producers to give livestock enough room to move, lie down, turn around, and extend their limbs and to give birds enough room to move freely and spread their wings. Organic farmers will also be required to provide their animals access to the outdoors, fresh air, and direct sunlight. Lobbying groups such as the National Pork Producers Council were opposed to the rule and have vowed to work with the new administration to prevent it from becoming law.
Given the number of legal changes proposed in weeks before the inauguration, clearly USDA under the leadership of former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack felt it was a priority to shape the future of organic farming before its time in Washington was up. Although many programs and legal changes were set in motion, only time will tell if the current administration feels that these programs are in the best interest of our nation’s farmers.