An important part of NOFA-NY’s policy work has been participating as an active member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC). Liana and Liz take part in NOC’s monthly calls and in the annual meeting and lobbying in DC. With the fly-in being on-line, we could afford to involve more NOFA-NY policy committee members.  Claire Barbato, Bhavani Jaroff, Kathie Arnold and Ben Hoyer joined Liana, Liz and Interstate NOFA Policy Coordinator Steve Gilman in the lobbying of NY congressional representatives and NOC meetings.

NOC focuses on influencing and improving the National Organic Program (NOP) of USDA. NOC is “a national alliance of organizations and companies that advances organic food and agriculture and serves as a united voice for the integrity of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic program. We were founded in 2002 and have 14 member organizations from across the U.S. Our coalition is diverse and we have a cross-sector approach – that is one of our biggest strengths. We represent a full spectrum of organic stakeholder groups, including farmer organizations, consumer and environmental groups, organic companies, retailers, and organic certification agencies.”  NOC makes decisions by consensus, a process the members take very seriously. NOC works in close alliance with OFA and NSAC, and when possible with OTA.

NOC’s work includes presenting regular updates on national organic policy that are open to all, advocating and lobbying for positions with members of Congress, meeting with USDA and NOP staff to influence their behavior and policies, developing and presenting comments for the bi-annual hearings of the National Organic Standards Board, holding a big tent gathering of organic people of all kinds on the eve of each of those hearings.  All the NOFA chapters contribute to our annual dues to NOC – a very modest investment considering the brain trust that NOC makes available to work on the thorny issues of organic agriculture, federal standards and integrity. On our own, NOFA-NY or even all the NOFA chapters together, would not have the resources for this level of work.

The 2020 fly-in began with a briefing on how to lobby and what the main issues are for NOC this year.  On Friday, May15, NOC Executive Director Abby Youngblood and NOC Policy Director Steve Etka did an excellent job with the training. In advance, they had shared a detailed template power point that everyone could use for their lobbying interviews. (Please see attached!) Our NY group was able to make appointments with both senators, House representatives Brindisi, Delgado, Stefanik, Katko, Zeldin and Lowey. We were pleased that Brindisi and Delgado themselves (they are both on the House Ag. Committee), took the time to meet with us.  It was important to have Kathie Arnold as part of our delegation since she speaks with such knowledge and authority about the dairy issues. And it was great to have such a diversity of voices – a young farmer/college student, an important consumer educator, and a farm owner with financial savvy. We pushed hard for on-line SNAP payments directly to farmers. Our Senators are friendly to our issues.  Katko seems to have a milk concern about fraud, but refused to join the organic caucus.

In all, NOC members conducted 38 visits, including Senators Gillibrand, Schumer, Collins, Leahy, Schrier, Sanders, Grassley, Portman, Ernst, Brown, Tester, Pocan, Stabenow, Warren and Markey.

The top priority policy areas:

  • Covid-19 response that provides funding for organic and family-scale farms and more funding for frontline workers for PPE etc. The House Bill has some of that. We were able to explain to the NY reps the particular needs of organic farmers. We asked that the organic cost share funding be provided right away either to the farmers or their certifiers, not at the end of the season.
  • Importance of implementing the organic regulations that have been postponed or neglected: Strengthening Enforcement in the Organic Sector (fraud prevention)
  • Restoring Fairness to Organic Dairy: implementing the Origin of Livestock Rule, and enforcing the Pasture Rule to reduce the undercutting in the market of NY dairy farms by milk from mega-farms farther west.
  • Emphasizing the important role that organic farming systems can play in mitigating climate change
  • The importance of soil health to organic farming – NOC is pushing for increasing the requirements for soil health practices in the national standards, and opposes the organic certification of hydroponics.
  • NOC priorities for 2021 appropriations: more funds for the NOP so it can do a better job of enforcement; more funds for SARE and ATTRA, for organic data, for public plant and animal breeding, for organic transitions, for food safety outreach, and for the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach that provides funding for under-resourced farmers (people of color and women).

At the NOC Annual Meeting on May 22, everyone reported back on the responses they heard from the lobbying and Steve Etka will follow up in DC.

On May 21, we held a two hour meeting with Jennifer Tucker and other NOP staffers, and spent a good chunk of time debriefing at the annual meeting. We were pleased to hear that NOP now has 55 staff people and is hiring a few more.  There is better coverage of enforcement and fraud prevention including coordination with the border patrol agency. The answers on dairy enforcement were less satisfactory – NOP seems to have a very narrow paperwork-heavy focus on what it means for an organic dairy to comply with organic standards. Tucker seems to welcome our pressure to get the rule on Strengthening Organic Enforcement out of OMB. NOC continues to emphasize that NOP must listen to the National Organic Standards Board recommendations and do even-handed accreditation. We were concerned that the NOP may put pressure on the certifiers that refuse to certify hydroponics.

The annual meeting also included substantial discussions of what to include in demands for pandemic funding, how the CFAP payments affect organic farmers since there is a lack of data on organic prices. For direct sales farmers, the price is not the issue, but rather the increased costs of packing and delivering. We also discussed what to include in our demands to the Senate for the HEROES Act. Steve Etka depends on NOC members to provide him with information on how federal programs work on the ground.

Another area of discussion was about incentivizing the transition to organic by creating a mentoring program. Several NOC members, MOFGA in particular, have mentoring programs for beginning farmers and all the farming association members would welcome additional funding. For the transition to organic, the program would not just be for beginning farmers. In line with NOC’s concern about race and equity, Abby suggested targeting funding to farmers of color.  Congressman Ryan from Ohio has a draft bill and NSAC has championed mentoring in the past.  As our next step, we agreed to work closely with NSAC and to discuss this with other organic allies like OFA.

The concluding section of the annual meeting was devoted to the Executive Director’s report on the state of NOC funding (in good shape) and how to continue expanding the circle of organizations that are NOC affiliates. The budget for 2020 included $2500 to pay expenses for farmers to NOSB meetings.  Since there is no travel, we agreed to reallocate that money to support organizations of farmers of color.

The level of preparation and thought that goes into the NOC meetings is truly impressive.

We welcome your questions and comments.