Understanding the Farm Bill: What's Organic Got to Do With It?

We’ve learned a bit about how Farm Bill programs affect producers of commodity crops, but what about organic farmers? Before we dive into that, let’s review just what “organic” farming really means.

What is Organic?

Though organic food may seem like a recent buzz, the government anticipated the movement with the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. Before 1990, there was no standard definition of “organic” agriculture or products; different states and private entities used their own definitions. The Act established the National Organic Program within the USDA in order to codify a set of standards for organic food growers and processors, which went into effect in 2002. Producers who wish to be certified as organic may not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, but instead choose from a list of allowable alternatives. Farmers may sell their crops as “organic” and processors may display the “USDA Organic” seal on packaging and advertising only if they are certified by an accredited certification agency, which can be a state, nonprofit, or private entity that monitors and inspects organic farms and processors.

The organic certification rule has been controversial: some feel that it has been more about selling organic product lines than ensuring ecological farming practices. For example, concern that large organic cattle producers weren’t allowing the livestock access to the outdoors, and thus not following the spirit of the organic regulations, led to a new pasture rule implemented last year. Some farmers have opted to forgo the certification process (and thus avoid the associated fees, record-keeping, and inspections) because they know their customers and can assure them in person of their farming practices. Certified Naturally Grown, a competing non-governmental certification, advertises itself as the “grassroots” alternative to organic certification that offers lower cost and less paperwork for direct-to-market farmers. Nevertheless, the National Organic Program’s codification of organic standards means that the “organic” label on a store shelf tells consumers something specific about how the product was grown and processed.

How Big is Organic?

As of 2008, there were 12,941 certified organic producers in the U.S., accounting for 4.6 million acres of cropland, pasture, and range. The amount of certified organic cropland increased 50% between 2005 and 2008, and organic livestock production has increased even more quickly during this period. Consumer demand for organic products has also increased: sales of organic food have risen from $3.6 billion in 1997 to an estimated $25 billion, or 3.5% of the food market share, in 2010.

Despite the increased interest in organic production, organic farmland makes up less than 1% of total U.S. farmland. Much of this is rangeland concentrated in Alaska and cropland in California, though the Midwest and Northeast also have relatively many organic producers (see this map based on 2005 data). By contrast, many other nations are ahead of the U.S. in terms of organic cropland –for example, 11% of Switzerland’s cropland is organic.

How Does the Farm Bill Affect Organic Farmers?

All this brings us to the Farm Bill and what is included in it for organic farmers. In the past, organic and specialty crop farmers had felt entirely left out of the Farm Bill, but the 2008 Bill was the first to acknowledge organic farming with the Horticulture and Organic Agriculture title.

Most mandatory funding for organic agriculture goes to two programs: cost-sharing assistance and the organic research program. The cost to farmers of certifying their land as organic varies based on the certification agency, size, and type of farm, but the average cost of certification is estimated to be $750. The Farm Bill provides funds to pay 75% of the cost of organic certification up to $750; the money allocated to this program increased four-fold to $22 million in the most recent legislation.

Within the Farm Bill’s Research title, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative provides competitive grant funding for universities, state agricultural experiment stations, and private groups. This grant money is designated to study the environmental impact of organic practices and to improve organic seed.

Also new to the 2008 Farm Bill is the transition incentives program within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Recall that CRP take land out of production for a given length of time in exchange for payments to farmers. In the transition incentives program, retiring farmers get two more years of CRP payments if they sell their land to someone who will enroll in conservation programs and implement a conservation plan. The new owner is then allowed to start the process of organic certification one year before the previous landowner’s CRP contract expires.

Overall, spending on programs related to organic agriculture increased five-fold from the 2002 to the 2008 Farm Bill, and organic and sustainable farming advocacy groups count increased funding for cost-sharing and research as great victories. An article in Amber Waves, the newsletter of the USDA’s Economic Research Service, states that “the aim of a public investment in organic agriculture is to facilitate wider adoption of organic farming practices among the Nation’s farmers and to improve consumer access to organic products.” However, funding for National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA), which provides information and technical help to organic farmers, was eliminated in the 2011 federal budget.

Given the current climate of budget cuts, USDA’s commitment to organic will surely continue to be tested.


Ann Butkowski is happy to be back in her native Minnesota after spending the last two years in Boston. She’s learning to bike the streets of Minneapolis and grow tomatoes in her backyard. Ann has a master’s degree in nutrition science, but doesn’t let that stop her from eating ice cream right out of the carton. Ann is Simple, Good, and Tasty's resident Farm Bill expert. Her most recent post for us was Counter-Cyclical Payments, Base Acres, and Other Things Most People Don't Understand.