Federal Help for Organic Ag, Local Food

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It’s been a good couple of weeks if you’re a farmer looking for federal programs that help integrate conservation measures on an organic operation or get involved in a “value chain” that makes your production more lucrative before it leaves the land. The USDA just announced two such initiatives. The downside is the application window is ridiculously tight for these programs, so don’t blink.

EQIP Organics Initiative
The closest deadline (May 29) is for the National Organic Initiative, which is being offered through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). EQIP has been criticized for devoting an inordinate amount of resources to helping large-scale factory livestock operations put in environmentally dangerous manure storage facilities. However, the National Organic Initiative could be a nice way for EQIP’s government handlers to partially atone for past sins. USDA is making available $50 million nationwide for organic farmers and those who are transitioning to organic. The funds can be used to plan and install conservation measures and the program focuses on six core practices:

  1. Conservation crop rotations
  2. Cover crops
  3. Nutrient management
  4. Pest management
  5. Prescribed grazing
  6. Harvest management

As mentioned before, the deadline for the National Organic Initiative is just two weeks off, so farmers need to get up to speed quickly. The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service’s website has some good background information, and your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office is the place to start the application process.

Value Added Producer Grants
Another exciting USDA initiative that is now accepting applications is the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) Program. This is a fancy way of describing an initiative that will provide funds ($18 million nationwide) to farmers or groups of farmers who want to add value to their products prior to going to market.

Such an initiative could go a long ways toward priming the pump for processing and packaging local produce, meat and dairy products, for example. It’s the practical shot in the farm many local foods enterprises have been looking for. It also sends an important message to rural America that the government sees real economic opportunity in something other than raw commodity crop production.

USDA’s announcement outlined VAPG guidelines for both planning grants (maximum of $100,000) and working capital grants (maximum of $300,000). This initiative will provide set-aside provisions for beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers, as well as “mid-tier value chains” projects. Ten percent of total funding is available for applications submitted by beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers. Another 10 percent is set-aside for mid-tier value chain projects.

The fact that funds are set aside for these two purposes is a major breakthrough in federal farm policy; it was backed by LSP and supported by U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson during the debate on the 2008 Farm Bill.

“Mid-tier value chains” sounds jargony, but it’s a phrase well worth becoming familiar with. These kinds of “chains” are aimed at building supply networks that link independent producers with businesses and cooperatives in a way that strengthens profitability of small- and medium-sized farms and ranches. Such systems include strong farmer engagement in the value chain’s marketing strategy.

In a mid-tier value chain, the farmer is not an anonymous, lowest-price input supplier, but is engaged in the process from farm-to-fork. This mid-tier set-aside is a new provision in the program which expands who producers can engage in their projects. That’s important—there’s strength in numbers.

But again, time is of the essence. The VAPG application deadline is July 6 for most funding, and June 22 for applications that target mid-tier value chains and which serve beginning farmers and ranchers, as well as socially disadvantaged farmers.

To get started, visit the USDA’s Rural Development web page. In Minnesota, the USDA’s point man on this is David Gaffaney; he can be reached at 651-602-7814.

If you have general questions about these initiatives, e-mail LSP’s Adam Warthesen at adamw@landstewardshipproject.org, or call 612-722-6377.

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