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The Natural Resources Defense Council works to safeguard the earth – its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.
USDA Photo by Lance Cheung, 2018
The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), along with the Office of the First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, recently released a roadmap for our state’s new and ambitious Farm to School Program (F2S). Central to this program is a priority for school districts to buy more food from California producers that are certified organic, operate smaller farms, and are producers of color. All three have been underserved by publicly funded agriculture programs in California and federally. This is especially the case for producers of color, who have and continue to face overt and implicit discrimination that limits access to land, resources, information, and markets.
In February, Assemblymember Brian Maienschein introduced AB 2499, a bill intended to serve as a step in a different direction. It would create California’s first organic transition program, one that specifically supports underserved producers. Organic certification is an important strategy for farmers to achieve economic stability and to access new markets, yet socially disadvantaged farmers do not have equal access to the resources necessary for organic certification. AB 2499 provides financial and technical resources to help these farmers and ranchers overcome barriers.
The bill proposes to fund grants to farmers that will help offset the uncertainty typical of the three-year organic certification process. This period of time comes with a significant learning curve and financial risk because farmers are required to invest in organic-compliant practices but are not able to market their products as organic. Given that small scale farmers, and especially farmers of color, often operate on thin margins, this bill would serve to level the playing field and empower more producers with essential support that brings organic within closer reach.
The bill also invests in much needed organic-specific technical assistance such as financial and farm planning and peer mentorship programs. Right now, there is a dearth of public funding for organic technical assistance. The 2018 Farm Bill authorized the first-ever baseline funding for organic research and technical assistance. Though California is the largest organic-producing state in the country, only in 2019 did the University of California hire its first Cooperative Extension specialist dedicated to organic agriculture. Technical assistance is the key to a successful adoption of organic practices. This bill will help fill this important need.
According to the 2019 US Department of Agriculture NASS Organic Survey, California is home to over 3200 organic farms. Nearly 60% of those farms are established, having been organic certified for more than 10 years. Yet only 18% of California farms are new entrants into organic farming, having been certified for less than five years. This organic transition program could help many smaller scale and underserved farmers clear otherwise insurmountable hurdles and open the door to organic for many more producers, increasing climate-smart procurement pathways for farmers, schools and other major institutions.
It would also go a long way toward helping BIPOC producers address some of their primary challenges in the organic sector. According to the 2022 National Organic Research Agenda Report, a greater percentage of BIPOC farmers and ranchers report struggling with production costs (80%), weed management (75%), and certification costs (58%) compared to non-BIPOC respondents. The 2017 Census of Agriculture also reports that farmers of color generally receive less government support than their white counterparts. AB 2499 is an opportunity for California to adopt policies that increase equity in organic.
California may be the country’s leading organic state but we have yet to realize our organic potential. Organic farmers are mandated by federal law to rely on practices that improve soil health, reduce reliance on fossil-fuel based inputs like pesticides and fertilizers, foster biodiversity and more. Transitioning more farmers to organic will not only mean healthier food on breakfast and lunch trays at school. It will also protect farmworker communities harmed by pesticide exposure and help the state meet its climate action goals for natural working lands.
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