For Western North Carolina farmer Holly Whitesides, a U.S. Department of Agriculture cost-share program tipped the balance in favor of going organic. Thanks to the financial assistance she received, Against the Grain, her 20-acre farm near Boone, is now certified as both organic and biodynamic.
“The cost-share program encouraged us to go ahead and get certified,” she says. “It got us over that barrier of cost,” which can be “somewhat intimidating for new farms. Before you know if it’s going to be worth it, before you know if it’s going to improve your bottom line, there is that upfront cost.”
Whitesides got certified last year and was reimbursed for 75 percent of the roughly $800 she paid. Without that help, she says, she wouldn’t have applied for the certification.
Meanwhile, federal officials hope a recent administrative change will make the reimbursements as well as other support services more accessible to farmers. Effective March 20, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency offices have assumed primary responsibility for the popular program, which was previously managed by state departments of agriculture. The cost-share program covers up to $750 of organic certification costs and other services offered by the more than 2,100 FSA offices nationwide. There are 72 offices serving North Carolina’s 100 counties, including those in Marshall, Hendersonville, Waynesville, Franklin, Bryson City, Murphy, Spindale, Spruce Pine and Morganton.
“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,” FSA Administrator Val Dolcini said in a news release.
The change, he explained, “will provide a more uniform, streamlined process nationwide.” In addition, 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.”
Even before the administrative change, interest in the program was growing. Between 2010 and 2015, total reimbursements increased by more than $1 million, and last year, for the first time ever, North Carolina had to ask the federal agency for more money to distribute to deserving applicants, notes marketing specialist Heather Barnes of the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
That may be good news for WNC’s typically smaller farms. Charles Zink and Kelly Springs, both of whom head up local Farm Service Agency offices, say they’ve heard from farmers inquiring about the cost-share program in recent weeks. Zink is executive director of the Madison County FSA, which also serves Buncombe County, and Springs runs the agency’s Henderson County outpost.
“Scaling up and expanding into new markets comes with a lot of risk for small farmers,” notes Molly Nicholie, director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Local Food Campaign. “While a $500 to $800 discount may not seem significant for some, it can be a huge expense on top of all the other costs small farms are trying to manage. While organic certification can help differentiate their products in the marketplace and open up new opportunities for a farm, the support of cost-share programs can sometimes be the deciding factor in getting certified.”
Reimbursements can cover a wide range of items, including application fees, inspection costs, travel or per diem for inspectors, user fees, sales assessments and even postage. Beginning this year, transitional certification is also eligible for reimbursement.
Transition refers to the three-year period that farmland must be free of pesticides and nonorganic fertilizers before it’s eligible for organic certification. During that time, producers must use more expensive organic pesticides and fertilizers but can’t charge the higher prices certified organic produce typically commands.
Farmers can apply for cost-share reimbursement in each of four categories: crops, livestock, wild crops and handling.
Against the Grain, which produces vegetables and pasture-raised, GMO-free, animal-welfare-approved pork, chicken, beef, goat and turkey, was already practicing organic methods, Whitesides explains. She felt the need to get certified to set herself apart from others who claim to use organic practices but don’t necessarily define them the same way.
“For people in the community who already knew us, I don’t feel like it changed that much,” she says. “But for potential new customers, this gives them confidence and assurance that we’re following the practices we say we’re following.”
Originally, notes Whitesides, she was just going for biodynamic certification but found that with the cost-share program, it made sense to do both at once.
Choosing organic certification can be both an ethical and an economic decision for producers, notes longtime organic farmer Tom Elmore. “We’ve been certified for 30 years,” says Elmore, co-owner of the 10-acre Thatchmore Farm in Leicester. “I think it’s worth it. It sets us apart a little bit in the marketplace. Our produce still needs to taste good, but sometimes, all things being equal, people will try organic first and give us a chance to prove that we’ve got the best-quality produce.”
Besides the higher prices they can charge for their produce, farmers who sell at tailgate markets also get an edge in attracting new customers, Elmore points out. “What’s it worth to me to get, oh, three new customers at each market because I’m certified organic? Over the course of the season, that really adds up.”
He also believes it’s important for small growers to make their voices heard within the larger farming community, so it’s not just the big growers who are shaping the organic program’s future. The cost-share assistance helps make that possible, he maintains.
USDA officials, meanwhile, hope that making the program available closer to home will encourage more farmers, large and small, to go organic. The Farm Service Agency also offers a range of other programs, including various types of farm loans and disaster assistance.
Giving farmers options
Still, it’s too soon to say how much impact the administrative change will ultimately have in North Carolina, in part because Tar Heel farmers can also still apply by calling, emailing or visiting Barnes’ office in Raleigh.
Elmore, for example, says that’s worked well for him in the past. “Some people just like to do business face to face, but I know Heather. I see her at meetings from time to time. It’s just an email. I send her a pile of receipts; she sends me a check. It’s worked very smoothly. I don’t see a reason to change.”
Whitesides reports a similar experience working with Barnes via email.
And for her part, Barnes says she’s happy to continue administering the cost-share program alongside the Farm Service Agency, adding that the state Department of Agriculture specifically asked to be able to stay involved.
The cost-share program, she explains, works better in North Carolina than in some other states. “This is one of the things they looked at to help fix that. Instead of doing a state-by-state thing, they just did it across the board. But they gave us the option to keep operating it.”
Helping administer the program, notes Barnes, means she gets to communicate with more farmers, giving her a better handle on what those in the state’s outlying areas might need. One thing farmers often need is money, she continues, and “We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to put that money in their pockets.”
Now, local FSA offices will have the same opportunity.