Mr. Collins Goes to Washington

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) hosted their annual Organic Week in Washington D.C. this year, May 14th to 16th. Before I get into the adventure of my week, a few notes on OTA for anyone involved in buying, selling, or manufacturing organic products. I served on the board of OTA from 2015-2018, and saw firsthand how they live their mission: To promote and protect organic with a unifying voice that serves and engages its diverse members from farm to marketplace. We ensure that all parts along the organic value chain have a strong voice with government and the public. It really is a seed to shelf trade association that holds opportunity for everyone in our sector.

While I hadn’t attended the event since before the Covid pandemic, I was a regular participant from 2014 -2019. Organic Week attendees come from all sectors of the industry, including farmers, handlers, distributors, certifiers, manufacturers and retailers. The three-day event is broken down into two days of presentations, panels, and meetings and one day of advocacy, where OTA Members head to Capitol Hill for meetings with congressmen, senators and/or their staff to update them on the state of the organic industry and to ask for support on specific bills. I have to say that walking the halls of Congress and meeting with lawmakers is my favorite part of the week. It is the Organic industry’s opportunity to show up with one unified voice to showcase our success over the last 20+ years and make meaningful connections with lawmakers. This year is particularly important as the Farm Bill is being written.  The farm bill is a package of legislation passed roughly once every five years that has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown. 

As a former board member, I can tell you the work done by the OTA is both necessary and impactful. All OTA members are from the industry but not everyone in the industry is a contributing member of the OTA. The money available to the OTA is a small fraction of the money brought to bear by conventional farming from companies like Bayer AG, Monsanto and Syngenta. Therefore, the OTA has to work harder and smarter, with less staffing and resources; and in my opinion does a great job of representing the Organic Industry and lobbying congress for more support for organic. The support needed is tied to specific funding including evolving the regulations to meet consumer interest in sustainability and enforcement to ensure that companies and consumers are getting what they pay for in the Organic seal. The support is also for research dollars to improve farming methods and measure the positive impact organic farming has on our planet, like sequestering more carbon than conventional farming and demonstrating more resilience in the face of climate change. The money also helps build the infrastructure needed to support organic farming across every state. Conventional farmers have vast networks set up to support them in getting their crops to market. Organic farming is still in the growing pains of developing parallel networks that help farmers solve crop issues and getting goods to market without cross contamination with conventional crops. This all takes money and support. The good news is that organic agriculture continues to grow and this is our best way to ensure being heard in D.C.

During the two days of meetings, the OTA staff updated membership on the status of current initiatives, discussed the status of the Farm Bill and shared their future vision which was put together through member collaboration. There were also a number of guest speakers, including Secretary of the USDA, Tom Vilsack. I am going to share with you a few of the startling statistics he shared with the group. The two largest obstacles for young farmers are capital and land. As you probably already know, it takes three years of organic farming on the land before the crops can be certified USDA Organic. This means farmers will not receive a premium for their organically farmed crops during the first three years of converting a conventional farm to organic. Clearly, this makes the first hurdle of “capital” even more challenging. However, these two obstacles can really be boiled down into the cost of buying farmland. For those of you old enough to remember, the focus in D.C. during the 1980’s was yield, make farming more efficient. You may have heard the statement, “get big or get out” from a former secretary of agriculture in the 1970s. Well, that focus unfortunately yielded success, and a success that has had a negative impact on our multigenerational family farms in this country. Yields have grown tremendously over the last 40 years. However, here are a few of the unintended consequences we are left with in 2024. Since 1981, the U.S. has lost farmland which to put into land mass perspective is the equivalent of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. Since 1981, we also have lost more than 550,000 farms and farm families. As of last year, 85% of farm revenue is held by just 7% of the owners, and 33% of these are Investment Bankers!

As you can see, we in the organic sector have a monumental job before us to reverse these trends created by 40 years of policy. We offer an opportunity to small and medium sized farmers to capture a fair price for farming with standards that give consumers more of what they want from both animal welfare and sustainability perspectives. We know organic farming can improve the life of rural communities, and studies from Penn State have shown that “hot spot” communities with a higher density of organic operations have a better income and standard of living than their conventional counterparts. At times, it appears to be a daunting task. However, we also know organic farming is the choice for businesses and consumers who want a better future for planet, people and communities. The work to turn our more positive vision of the future begins person by person, business by business. It will take all of us to make it happen and I hope you join me, and OTA in that work – including the next time Mr. Collins goes to Washington.

For more information:
General OTA: https://ota.com 
Farm Bill: https://ota.com/advocacy/organic-legislation/organic-trade-association-farm-bill-priorities

About Rick Collins: 

Rick was the EVP of Sales for The Clif Bar Company from 2004 to 2019. He is currently semi-retired and consulting with independent natural brands.