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Best Growth Ever: Organic benefits for farmers continue to grow

 

During the sweltering heat of summer blistering down in middle Georgia, you’re likely to find Julia Asherman in the fields of Rag & Frass Farm near Milledgeville, Ga.

Asherman is tough. Like many farmers in Middle Georgia, she fights the good fight miles away from foodies in economic powerhouses like Atlanta, Savannah, Athens, or Columbus.

Each week, Asherman makes the long trek to Atlanta to sell at the Grant Park Farmers Market on Sundays. Until demand grows in her nearby area, this journey will be a part of her work week for the foreseeable future. There aren’t any weekends off for farmers like Asherman.

But that doesn’t mean Asherman is stuck. Far from it.

Rag & Frass Farm is one of the most recent farms to get certified through Georgia Organics’ 200 Organic Farms Campaign, which aims to help Georgia double the number of  Certified Organic farms by 2020. Since getting certified on March 13, 2017, economic opportunities have come to her, rather than the other way around.

“Getting Certified Organic opens us up to sell seed to more farmers, especially Certified Organic farmers who are required to source organic seed if available,” said Asherman. “ This year we are contracted to grow six species for seed companies who are required to source organic seed, or seeking certain varieties that are certified for their catalogs.”

Though noting she was not a big fan of the process, ultimately, Asherman could not resist the opportunity to increase her value and change an industry badly in need of shaking up.

“By having the seed we produce be certified, we are increasing the availability to other growers, meeting a growing demand from seed companies, getting a better price for the work we put into our seed production, and hopefully making change within the industry from the grassroots level,” Asherman said.

This kind of economic benefit falls in line with the findings in a white paper from the Organic Trade Association, “U.S. Organic Hotspots and their Benefit to Local Economies” (2016).

The white paper reviews three other studies and identifies 225 United States counties as “organic hotspots.” These hotspots have high levels of organic agricultural activity as well as neighboring counties with organic operations — and analyzes the economic impacts.

Organic Hotspot counties were found to have $2,094 higher median annual incomes and 1.3% lower poverty rates  compared to non-organic agricultural hotspot counties.

Organic food sales increase by double digits annually, making it the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food industry

Fortunately for growers, the USDA recognized the need for more organic agriculture in a report released in December, 2016, which announced new, unprecedented support for organic farmers.

Organic producers can now visit over 2,100 USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices around the country. FSA offices can assist with apply for federal reimbursement to cover part of the cost of receiving organic certification. Members of Georgia Organics are eligible to receive additional funding, which covers the entire cost.

“Organic [farmers] are getting recognized as important businesses to the local economy and will finally be able to have the same assistance that large farms receive,” said Georgia Organics farm member Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farms. “It feels great to be recognized.”

Previously, a farmer’s Organic Certification cost reimbursement was handled by state agencies like the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which worked with Georgia Organics to provide cost-share reimbursement through our 200 Organic Farms Campaign prior to the announced changes. Unfortunately, according to the USDA, only half of the nation’s organic operations participated in the cost-share program.

Now, farmers will have more access to such resources.

“USDA is committed to helping the organic sector grow and thrive through a wide variety of programs, and part of that commitment is making it easy for stakeholders to access our services,” said FSA Administrator Val Dolcini. “This will provide a more uniform, streamlined process nationwide; and it will give organic producers a chance to learn about other valuable USDA resources, like farm loans and conservation assistance that can help them succeed.”

Right on cue, Georgia Organics tripled down on our commitment to farmer prosperity  by tripling the number of staff in our Farmer Services department (see page 12 for details).

The team quickly scheduled meetings with local FSA officers, as well as the NRCS, to engage them in discussion about the landscape of organic growers in Georgia, inquire about possibilities to gain access to newly available resources, and offer support as farmers begin their transition from conventional to organic.

With the new staff support, Georgia Organics put on it’s most farmer-friendly conference in years, on February 17-18, 2017. We added Fencepost sessions–which granted farmers the opportunity to consult one-on-one with other farmers and experts and we offered farmers-only farm tours  free for farm members.

Find out more information about our 200 Organic Farms campaign here.

The team has also hit the road–a lot.

After going through International Organic Inspectors Association Organic Crop and Livestock Inspection Training training in 2016, Farmer Services Director Michael Wall and Farmer Services Coordinator Tenisio Seanima have put on a slew of workshops and trainings across the state, answering questions about Organic Certification, providing resources, and clearing up common myths.

They’ve also provided on-farm consultations to help growers prepare for Organic Inspection, and they met with several conventional growers at conferences and workshops to discuss the benefits of getting certified.

“We recognize the array of values our farmers have when considering entry into the organic foods market,” said Seanima. “Thus, the 200 Organic Farms Campaign is designed to complement those respective values, providing the individualized comfort each farmer needs when completing the certification process.”

With more Certified Organic farmers standing up to be counted, Georgia Organics and our partners can better make the case for the needed research, education, extension and resources necessary to increase acreage beyond one percent of Georgia farmland.

Farmers who become members of Georgia Organics and participate in our 200 Organic Farms Campaign may be eligible to receive cost share to reimburse the cost of becoming Certified Organic; marketing support; discounted passes to the Georgia Organics Annual Conference, and one-on-one technical assistance and mentoring. Farmers also become eligible to apply to receive a Tiny Farm House, built annually by University of Georgia undergraduate students as part of a Sustainable Design course.

With so much progress, growers no longer have to take our word for the benefits of Organic Certification. The numbers are improving. The stories are genuine. The benefits are tangible.

The movement is growing. Just ask Julia Asherman.

Interested in Organic Certification? Call or email us today to chat about your operation and how we can help you take it to the next level at farmerservices@georgiaorganics.org or 404-481-5000.

 

 

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