Farm bill is mixed news for organic growersby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
The farm bill is one way the federal government guarantees farmers can make it through hard times. In southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin organic growers have certainly faced those in the last year.
The 2008 farm bill designates more resources to organics than ever. But organic growers won't find relief from one of their thorniest problems: renting land.
Rochester, Minn. — Jack Hedin owns Featherstone Farms, an organic fruit and vegetable producer. He's a well-known name in southeastern Minnesota's organic world.
And today, he is busy.
One of Hedin's workers pulls his pick-up alongside Hedin's and asks him about planting potatoes. The land they've got is wet. Another spot is too close to conventional crops, which will interfere with organic certification.
"Maybe it's better to put them in, Evan," said Hedin. "Call them transitional and sell them to the CSA."
As the worker pulls away Hedin grimaces with frustration. Hedin is in some ways the poster boy for the possibilities and disappointments of small organic farming in the Midwest. He has more customers than he can serve. He has a contract with Whole Foods in Chicago.
But last August flash floods ruined $400,000 worth of crops.
And he's also run afoul of farm bill regulations, as they pertain to this piece of land where his crew is working.
"So we're standing now on the two farms that we were renting in 2007 that caused all the problems with the Farm Service Administration," he said.
He rented land from farmers who grow commodity crops like corn and rice. Under the farm bill they get direct payments, even if they don't plant a thing. But under the rules, if they plant vegetables, then they're penalized.
"The entire 285 acres of this farm fell out of the farm program, because of this little patch we have right here," Hedin said. "Similarly the 70 acre farm behind us fell out, because of this seven acres we're renting. Between the two of them the total bill on that, the penalties for direct payments alone was $8,771 or something like that."
The new farm bill doesn't contain any language to fix this problem. Only 50 percent of organic growers in Minnesota own their own land. That's in part because of high land prices. Frequently, they rent from commodity growers, so maneuvering around farm bill regulations is a struggle.
To farmers like Hedin, there's nothing in the 300 page farm bill that helps him.
"If there is anything in there, I'm not aware of it," he said grimly.
Nonetheless, many advocacy groups say this farm bill is a true success for the growing organic market.
Zach Baker is a policy associate at the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington. He points to an organic research grant program that has grown in this farm bill.
"By enhancing the knowledge base of organic agriculture through increased organic research, I think it really is going to have very important on-the-ground impacts for farmers," he said.
Baker also said the farm bill expands a program to increase reimbursement for organic certification. In the 2002 farm bill organic growers could recoup up to $500 in fees. Baker said fees usually run well beyond that. Baker said the maximum payment is now $750.
While these are big strides, they don't touch the core issues farmers like Hedin are facing.
Congressman Tim Walz, D-Mankato, said he struggled to get a provision into the bill called farm flex that allows 34,000 acres of commodity land in Minnesota to be converted into vegetable land without penalties. But Walz said that's only if the vegetables are grown for processing.
"It could have gone further," Walz said. "Why not go the whole way? Well, that's not how it works in the farm bil,l as we've all seen trying to get reform. This was a pretty darn big step."
Organic growers have developed workarounds to use commodity land for organic crops. An easier approach may not be available until the next farm bill, five years from now.
- Morning Edition, 05/28/2008, 7:25 a.m.