Organics in the News

A meeting with Secretary Johanns
NOSB representatives and the recently appointed USDA chief

By Jim Riddle
Posted April 29, 2005

On March 23, 2005, NOSB vice chair and Horizon Organic/White Wave Foods representative Kevin O’Rell, Steve Etka of the National Organic Coalition and I met with Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns to review some of the challenges and opportunities facing the organic agriculture sector. Sec. Johanns was accompanied by his Chief of Staff, Dale Moore; Ken Clayton, Acting AMS Administrator; and Nancy Bryson and John Golden from the Office of General Counsel.

The meeting lasted for approximately one hour. It was preceded by a ten-minute informal discussion with Ken Clayton and followed by a ten-minute conversation with Dale Moore.

Prior to the meeting I had faxed two letters to the Secretary. The first was an official report on the NOSB meeting in early March. The second was a personal letter, on my own letterhead, containing suggestions for USDA policies to support continued growth of the organic sector. Sec. Johanns and the other USDA officials brought copies of these letters to the meeting.

After some informal preliminaries, we reviewed the general state of the organic sector, with Kevin sharing industry statistics and information about his company’s experiences. The Secretary was aware of the organic industry’s extraordinary growth.

We began substantive discussions by talking about the pasture issue. I let the Secretary know that the NOSB had received more than 8,000 comments in support of the Livestock Committee’s draft clarifying that pasture is required for organic ruminant animals. I informed him that approximately 50 dairy farmers from around the country attended and testified during our meeting, and that the NOSB adopted two recommendations for rule changes to make the current requirements for pasture clearer and more enforceable. I also mentioned that we were posting a draft guidance document for another round of public comments.

Sec. Johanns appeared to be impressed with the range of issues addressed by the NOSB and asked how we set agendas for our meetings. I described how our input is requested by the NOP on some issues, how other items are placed on the agenda in response to petitions from the public, and how the NOSB takes the initiative on other topics, placing them on the agenda in consultation with the NOP.

Sec. Johanns next asked how the staff was performing and if the relationship with the NOP was meeting the needs of the Board. I replied that communication between the NOP and NOSB had improved greatly and that we work together to formulate agendas and resolve issues in a constructive manner. I indicated that post-meeting follow-through still needs to be improved to make sure that petitioned substances, rule changes, and guidance documents recommended by the Board make their way into the Federal Register or onto the NOP website in a timely manner. Ken Clayton informed us that all documents from the recent meeting were now posted.

The Harvey case

Sec. Johanns brought up Harvey v. Veneman. We discussed the impact of losing the 80-20 dairy conversion allowance, and the need to find ways to support conventional dairy farmers who want to convert to organic production. We discussed the possibility of using NRCS intitiatives such as the Grasslands Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or Conservation Security Program (CSP) to help livestock farmers through the transition process.

During that discussion, I mentioned the need for nationwide access to EQIP organic transition incentives based on working models in a few states, including Minn., Mont., and Wis. I also mentioned the need to streamline CSP approval for certified organic producers via official recognition of federally-mandated Organic System Plans within the CSP application process.

The discussion shifted to likely impacts of the Harvey suit on processed organic foods. Kevin described the financial implications of the “no synthetics” ruling and the need for extended implementation periods to allow the industry to adjust to any statutory or regulatory changes. Steve described ongoing discussions in the organic sector to build consensus among various stakeholder groups representing farmers, processors, retailers, certifiers and consumers regarding possible remedies.

We did not go into detail concerning the scope or likely outcomes of the ruling, nor did we speculate on potential remedies. All of the USDA officials present appeared to be encouraged by news that the organic community has discussions underway to reach consensus on strategies and desired outcomes prior to taking the matter to Congress or to the USDA.

Budgeting and staffing

We talked about the relatively small level of funding for organic activities ($11.9 million, or 0.01 percent) within the USDA’s $82 billion total budget. Sec. Johanns described the budget challenges facing the department and encouraged us to focus on the upcoming Farm Bill. Dale Moore described the Farm Bill process and suggested that increases for organic program budgets be pursued within that context. I described the benefits of the organic certification cost share program and the need to extend its funding in either the Farm Bill or budget-setting process.

I asked about appointment of the next AMS Administrator and emphasized the need for the Administrator to understand and support the organic program. Sec. Johanns asked Dale Moore for an update. Dale said his staff will be reviewing the long list of applicants in order to present a short list for consideration by the Secretary. Although there was no indication of the timeline, the importance of the appointment to the organic community was duly noted.

Sec. Johanns asked Ken Clayton for an update on the hiring of an NOSB Executive Director. Ken said that the USDA had received input from the NOSB containing a draft job description and qualifications, and they were working from that input to develop a job posting. They hope to have the posting out by late spring and the position filled by late summer.

Steve asked about the USDA’s written response to the NOSB position papers on the “rescinded directives.” Ken replied that the USDA has had to modify their draft slightly on two of the issues due to the Circuit Court’s rulings. He did not have specifics but indicated that the response should be out within two to four weeks.

I informed the Secretary that the NOSB Executive Committee was finalizing comments on the NOP’s proposed rule for Good Guidance. Ken responded by saying that Barbara Robinson would discuss this with the NOSB during our next conference call.

I also brought up the need for better coordination among USDA agencies that are engaged in organic services in order to maximize impact and efficiency. Everyone agreed on the need for better inter-agency communication and coordination.

Kevin, Steve, and I all expressed our appreciation to the Secretary for meeting with us so early in his term. The meeting established a firm foundation for cooperation and better utilization of advice provided by the NOSB.

Jim Riddle is chair of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and organic policy advisor for NewFarm.org.