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USDA lowers hurdle for transitioning to organic

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USDA is accepting applications from organic certifying agents for the first round of a new transitional program through Feb. 28.

Transitioning from conventional farming to organic production is no easy feat, but it might have just gotten a little easier with a new national certification program for those making the switch.

Using standards developed by the Organic Trade Association, USDA is launching the National Certified Transition Program that will provide oversight for accredited agents offering transitional certification to producers.

The new program is expected to ease the three-year transition process, allow farmers to sell their products at a premium and help encourage more organic production.

“We view it as another tool to support producers who want to go into organic,” said Nate Lewis, OTA farm policy director.

There are significant obstacles to getting into organic production, but the biggest challenge is the financial hurdle of the transition period. Transitioning producers experience lower yields and aren’t yet able to benefit from organic price premiums, he said.

The new program “is a tool to help producers get over that hump,” he said.

A couple of years ago, OTA was approached by some members looking for a way to harmonize transitional certification programs. About a dozen certifying agencies, which were operating certification programs before the National Organic Program came into existence, still offer those programs, but their standards vary, he said.

OTA set up a task force to create one set of standards with the benefit of government oversight and to build the foundations for a potential market for transitional products. Such a market could offer some type of premium and lower the financial barriers of transitioning.

Some companies relying on organic production are offering economic incentives to transitioning producers to secure a supply once those growers are certified organic, he said.

“We hope this will foster more of those types of arrangements,” he said.

California Certified Organic Farmers offers transitional certification and it participated in the efforts to establish a transitional certification program under the National Organic Program, said Cathy Calfo, CCOF executive director.

“It will provide at least a uniform standard across all certifying agencies,” she said.

There may be demand for transitional products from some retailers who want to scale up supply, but it’s not a consumer market; it’s more of a behind-the-scenes market, she said.

It’s clear why producers want to go into organic, but the market for transitional production is unclear. The transitional certification will help the industry figure that out. If people are willing to pay a premium or partial premium, it might help with the financial barriers, she said.

But there are many barriers to farming in general and even more for transitioning to organic, including the price of land, high property taxes, regulation, labor issues and water shortages, she said.

“We need solutions across the board if we are going to scale up organic production to meet demand,” she said.

The number of acres farmed organically is still small, only about 0.5 percent of all U.S. cropland. It’s going to take a lot of investment, both private and public, to increase production, she said.

USDA’s latest numbers showed nearly 151,000 acres in transition on 1,530 farms in 2015.

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