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
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
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posting a draft guidance document for another round of public
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
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
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.