Programs that help farmers with the costs and expertise to preserve farmland and become certified for organic crops are threatened in the 2018 federal farm bill. Credit: Julia Bayly

When the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass the massive $867 billion 2018 farm bill last week, that was good news for Maine’s small family farms and organic growers according to those who work closely with them.

But there remains concern that language in the Senate’s unreleased version could still spell disaster for Maine’s organic and small growers.

Organic farmers under threat

“We are happy and relieved the House version failed last week,” said Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “We have so many concerns with the bill and clearly the big ones for us are threats to very important programs that support organic farmers and small scale family farms in general.”

Reviewed and renewed every five years, the farm bill includes funding and policy language on federal trade, commodity programs, rural development, conservation, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs and marketing.

Those in the state’s agricultural offices are keeping an eye on the farm bill’s progress but said there is still a long way to go before a final bill is signed.

“We are of course concerned about all farmers in Maine — large and small,” said Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Funding for a lot of programs is in play [and] much of the bill is about food, and everyone has to eat.”

Of particular concern to Spalding and her colleagues at MOFGA were proposed funding cuts to — and outright elimination of — programs that assist organic farmers in Maine.

“We have over 500 MOFGA certified farmers in Maine who work incredibly hard to comply with the stringent organic farming guidelines,” Spalding said. “These growers are very committed to this ideal of ecologically sound farming.”

But that commitment, Spalding said, comes at a cost to the farmers.

Depending on the size of the operation, to keep up their certification organic farmers in Maine pay annual fees ranging from $425 to $2,650.

Under the farm bill set to expire in September, a cost share program reimbursed the farmers 75 percent of that annual fee. The 2018 farm bill eliminated the cost share.

“These are farmers who are working really hard and these fees can be significant,” Spalding said. “They are not making a huge profit to begin with.”

Despite the hard work and low profit margin of organic farming, Spalding said the numbers of organic farmers in Maine continues to rise.

“Last year we had 536 [MOFGA] certified operations in Maine, representing 90,000 acres of farmland,” she said. “The trajectory is increasing steadily and we saw 76 percent growth of organic farms in Maine in the last five years [and] this is a really bright spot on Maine’s agriculture.”

An erosion of trust

Consumers, Spalding said, need to have confidence in the organic certification process and she fears language included in the House version of the farm bill will erode that confidence if it passes in the Senate.

“We are very worried about threats to the National Organic Standards Board,” she said. “They are the heart and soul of the national organic movement.”

Part of the United States Department of Agriculture, The National Organic Standards Board is a federal advisory board of 15 volunteers representing the organic community.

The board considers and recommends policy to the USDA on a wide range of issues including production, handling and processing of organic products.

“There is potential language in the Senate version [of the farm bill] that would limit the authority of that board,” Spalding said. “There is also a threat the composition of that board could change with greater representation of industrial farms and less representation of smaller, family farmers.”

If the board does become skewed in favor of larger industrial farmers, Spalding said, its decisions could potentially override the needs and concerns of smaller organic operations and undermine the trust consumer has in organic certification.

“People are paying attention to the success of organic farming and food in the market place,” Spalding said. “Weakening those standards could allow businesses to come in and take advantage of the market with food and goods that do not meet the current standards of organic.”

Whitcomb agreed the integrity of the The National Organic Standards Board should be maintained for the good of organic growers not just in Maine, but nationwide.

“It’s difficult to grow organic crops,” he said. “Support and verification must be in place for them.”

Protecting Maine’s farmland

“Overall there were a lot of problematic cuts [in the failed House bill] to working lands conservation,” said Ellen Griswold, policy and research director with Maine Farmland Trust. “The bill [would have] eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program, and reduced funding for The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other sources of funding for farmers who want to address natural resources on their land and implement practices to manage their land in environmentally friendly manners.”

In Maine, according to Griswold, that meant more than $13 million in federal funds in 2017 for farmers in the state implementing those conservation strategies.

“Some of what we do at the Farmland Trust is help make farming economically viable,” Griswold said. “These conservation programs help farmers compete in the food economy and not having those programs funded is going to be a problem.”

“These land stewardship programs are very important to farms in Maine,” Whitcomb agreed. “It pays for environmental projects on their land that might otherwise not get done.”

Spalding said she and her MOFGA colleagues are more than aware of the importance of federally funded programs for land conservation in addition to funding outreach programs to train the next generation of farmers.

“Nationwide the farming demographic is aging,” Spalding said. “But in Maine that has turned around and MOFGA has an important role in that.”

Helping the next generation

Last year MOFGA received around $250,000 from the USDA for the certification reimbursement and to provide stipends and other support to mentors participating in programs aimed at teaching newcomers to farmers the ins and outs of farming.

“These programs include everything from soil science to tractor maintenance to marketing,” Spalding said. “We match new farmers up with mentors so they can be successful.”

So far, she said, about 300 people have gone through the two-year program and most have gone on to be successful farmers on their own.

But now, under the proposed 2018 farm bill, those funds are in danger.

“That program has been supported with the significant funding from the USDA,” Spalding said. “It is essential for the future of agriculture and farm families in Maine.”

The House version of the bill eliminated the funding and Spalding said there is no word yet if it would be reinstated in the Senate version.

Two of Maine’s top crops — potatoes and blueberries — reap $600,000 worth of benefits every year thanks to funding in the current farm bill, according to Whitcomb.

Despite being common in Maine, those crops are considered “specialty crops” on the national level and are thus eligible for the federal Specialty Crop Block Grant money.

“That money is used to fund research and programs for those two crops,” Whitcomb said. “The bulk of it goes to the Maine Blueberry Commission and the Maine Potato Board with some also going to the University of Maine.”

On to the Senate

“We anticipate [the Senate’s bill] will be ready before the end of the month,” Spalding said. “We are very hopeful it will preserve the farm bill in its current state.”

Assuming the Senate does approve the bill, the House must still again take up and act on its next version of the farm bill.

“Our feeling right now is, after its defeat on the House floor, [the farm bill] should go back to committee and they should start the process again,” Griswold said. “We would like to see a bipartisan process and a bill that doesn’t contain the drastic cuts that the version just defeated contained.”

According to Whitcomb, if the bill does make it through Congress and is signed into law before the Sept. 30 deadline, he’d be surprised.

“This whole process is a real ‘push and shove’ contest as people work to get what they want in the bill,” he said. “We never know what it’s going to look like until it’s over.”

Saying it’s been “decades” since a farm bill was passed on time, Whitcomb said it will be business as usual as agricultural agencies and departments operate under the current farm bill’s language.

“They could get it done by Sept. 30,” he said. “But the sky will not fall if it does not pass by then.”

As it wends its way through the legislative process, the bill will be under constant scrutiny by Spalding, who is not shy about what it could mean for Maine’s farmers.

“We will do all we can to defend farmers and farming and help consumers navigate the marketplace,” Spalding said. “But if these cuts to programs and threats to the [Organic Safety Board] go through, it could be the end of organic farming as we know it.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.