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Organic growers feel left out

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When the Organic Trade Association releases 2012 data this spring, it expects to report higher sales of organic fruits and vegetables, based on anecdotes and early data from growers, including Watsonville, Calif.-based Lakeside Organic Gardens, which saw its sales grow 30% from 2011 to 2012, according to The Packer.

In June, the U.S. Agriculture Department entered into an agreement with the EU to allow products certified as organic in Europe to be sold in the U.S. and vice versa, a move cheered by organic producers and food companies eager to expand international trade. For U.S. producers, exports of select organic products to Europe jumped dramatically between 2011 and 2012, including organic grapefruit which jumped from zero to 25,783 metric tons, The Packer reported.

That agreement supports growth of organic farming, but in the waning hours of 2012, Congress made a decision that’s not going over nearly as well. Frantically working to stave off a dramatic rise in milk and dairy prices, Congress voted to extend the 2008 farm bill through September, with some key changes. With the move, lawmakers postponed passage of a new five-year bill, but the extension drops several programs from the 2008 measure, including funding for farmers markets and organic research programs, according to media outlets including the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Unfortunately, what passed Congress wasn’t a simple extension of the farm bill,” said David DeGennaro, a legislative and policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group. “They dropped all the funding for organic programs. It’s really a big disappointment.”

Among the programs cut were cost-sharing programs to help producers become certified as organic and an organic data collection system similar to one that’s still in place for conventional growers and provides data to help determine crop insurance premiums, Food Safety News reported.

“The cuts are severe. It will impact farmers who use safer practices and could discourage some farmers because of the loss of cost-share for certification,” said OTA spokeswoman Barbara Haumann. A fact sheet from the organization says the U.S. organic food industry has grown to $29 billion, with 14,500 family farms across the country making a living from growing organic food.

The group also worries that the loss of federal funding for Cooperative Extension programs could land a major blow to organic producers, who depend on the programs for research-based information to plan and properly cultivate their crops, Haumann told Food Safety News.

“It wasn’t that long ago, that there was no funding for organics. We don’t want to lose ground.”

Should the federal government be supporting organic growers? Share your thoughts in the comments.