USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service implemented a National Organic Program in 2002 as a way to support organic farmers and processors and provide consumer assurance. USDA harmonized the differing standards among dozens of State and private certification organizations that had emerged by the late 1990s, and continues to update rules on organic production and processing.
- USDA requires organic farmers and food handlers to meet a uniform organic standard and makes certification mandatory for operations with organic sales over $5,000. USDA has accredited about 50 U.S. State and private certification programs, and over 30 foreign programs. Certifying agents review applications from farmers and processors for certification eligibility, and qualified inspectors conduct annual onsite inspections of organic operations.
- Congress initiated a National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program in the 2002 Farm Act to assist organic producers and handlers with the cost of organic certification. Under the 2014 Farm Act, mandatory funding for this program expanded to $57.5 million (over the lifespan of the Act). Maximum Federal cost share remains at 75 percent, with a cap of $750/operation.
- The legislative underpinning of the National Organic Program—the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990—did not target improvements in environmental and human health as an explicit objective, but these concerns were embedded in the requirements for organic operations.
- The 2008 Farm Act included a new provision—the Organic Transition Support provision—which continues in the 2014 Farm Act and makes conservation practices related to organic production and transition eligible for Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) payments. Payments to organic and transitional farmers under this provision remain capped at a much lower level than those to other farmers. However, farmers can choose the higher payment limit by enrolling in the regular EQIP program.
- USDA has published an online guide to organic certification as well as information about conservation, crop insurance, and other organic programs and services.
Technical Assistance Expanding
Congress has increased Federal research funding on organic farming in recent years (see the 2014 Farm Act provisions), and U.S. universities and Federal agricultural experiment stations have broadened their organic research and education projects.
According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, 37 States had land-grant institutions with research acres under certified organic management in 2011, up from 18 States in 2003 (see 2012 Land Grand Assessment). Organic farming systems trials—in experiment stations and onfarm settings—seek to answer basic research questions about yields, profitability, and environmental impacts, as well as to address farmer-defined management and production obstacles to adoption of organic production systems. A number of organizations offer technical assistance on organic agriculture:
- USDA Organic Topic Page—provides online tutorials, fact sheets, and articles on organic agriculture and the benefits of organic certification. The site also includes information on USDA’s organic programs and services, including organic regulations, research, crop insurance, production and conservation assistance, and organic trade.
- eOrganic (Land Grant Research and Extension, NGO, and government partners)—publishes online articles and webinars on organic production and marketing, and links to local extension offices.
- National Center for Appropriate Technology—publishes online technical bulletins on organic production and marketing methods, including a report on State-level organic enterprise budgets.
- Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)—offers reports on ecological production methods.
- Rodale Institute—provides organic farming perspectives and research updates, and online planning tools for organic production.