State residents could see less Wisconsin-produced organic foods on the stands as local farmers begin to see the impact of a January bill the U.S. Congress passed to discontinue a program that subsidized certification costs.
Roughly half of the certified organic farmers in Wisconsin lost a federal subsidy of up to $750 for inspection and certification processes this year. According to the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin is second to California in the number of organic farms.
The bill, which passed the Congress in January, failed to include a continuation of the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, which provided half of the inspection and certification costs for organic farms nationwide. The subsidies had consisted of $22 million nationwide for the past five years, which ended at the beginning of January.
According to DATCP, organic-certified farms and operations must have at least three years with no usage of fertilizers, pesticides or genetically modified organisms; must use organic seeds; must have no sewage sludge; and livestock operations must have mandatory outside access, access to pastures, and no antibiotics or growth hormones, in addition to other requirements.
According to Laura Paine, an organic agriculture specialist with the DATCP, Wisconsin has about 1,100 organic farms and 180 organic businesses, meaning more than half of the state’s organic farms which previously received the subsidies will not receive them for the 2014 harvest.
Wisconsin also leads the nation in organic dairy farms, egg producers, beef farms and cranberry sales and comes in second in organic potato and vegetable farm and ranks in the top five of corn, soybeans and hay production, Paine said.
Wisconsin received $472,030 in 2012 to divide between 574 organic farmers and another $74,541 for 99 different organic processors and handlers, Paine said. On average, each farmer received $823 to offset the cost of regulatory requirements to maintain organic certification status. According to Harriet Behar, an organic specialist from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, the main effect of the bill would be less Wisconsin-produced organic food from the grocery store to local farmers markets.
“There have been people who have let their certification lapse and gone back to conventional farming,” Behar said. “Some are just finding out about it because it’s about the time of year they would begin to apply for certification.”
According to Paine, who oversaw the administration of the cost-share program in Wisconsin, certification costs averaged around $1,600 in 2012 and eligible farmers were able to offset a large portion of the cost by receiving up to two $750 subsidies.
Paine added small-scale farmers interested in becoming certified organic will suffer the most.
“Although $750 is not a large amount compared to some of the other agricultural subsidies, the organic cost share program has been extremely popular among organic farmers, with more than half of certified farms and about 100 companies participating,” Paine said.
Paine said Wisconsin was one of the top three states involved in the cost-share recertification program. In 2012 alone, Wisconsin provided $554,000 for farmers re-certifying their organic farms.
Behar said farmers have already begun to react to the loss of federal funding.
Behar also noted that the federal subsidies could possibly be renewed by subsequent farm bills currently being debated by Congress.
Calls to the Dane County Farmers’ Market were not returned.