Organic Solutions

While the Obama administration says it wants to support organic and local food systems and encourage healthy eating, the government still doles out most of its money to big, conventional farms. Almost all of the $15 billion in subsidies the government gave out in 2009 went to just 10 percent of farms. The vast majority of that money went to commodity crops used in producing the sugars for processed foods and feed for conventionally raised livestock -- making those foods artificially cheap.

If President Barack Obama really wants to change the way Americans eat, his administration needs to do more to help the organic farmers who sell their food directly to local consumers. That means shifting funding from big conventional farms to smaller farms whose owners are struggling financially despite the higher produce prices they can command. Those high prices, in turn, keep organic food from reaching the lower-income communities that would benefit from better foods.

Here's how the administration can start easing the financial burdens on unconventional farmers and, in turn, lowering the price of local, organic food. -- Monica Potts

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Labor costs for organic farmers can be up to 30 percent higher. Because pest and weed control must be managed by hand rather than with chemicals, organic farmers face higher worker's compensation, tax, and salary costs than conventional farmers do. They also tend to put in more hours, which limits their potential to earn off-farm supplemental income. Sixty percent of organic farmers list farming as their primary occupation, compared to 45 percent of all farmers. This translates to higher prices and makes it harder for organic farmers to compete with imports from countries with lower labor costs.

How to help: More cash assistance for local and organic farmers, along with subsidies or tax cuts for hiring employees, would help defray labor expenses.

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Conventional farmers who want to go organic face high transition costs. They need as many as three years before their soils are pesticide-free, which means during that time they incur the higher costs of organic farming without being able to charge higher prices for their products. There is already a direct-loan program in place to help new organic farmers, but it leaves out farmers who switch from conventional methods and those who inherit their land.

How to help: In his 2011 budget, Obama defunded a $5 million grant program for universities and organizations to help farmers better transition to organic. Another organic-transition loan program was created in the 2008 Farm Act, but those loans are limited to $20,000 a year or $80,000 over six years. The administration could help more farmers successfully transition to organic by refunding the research program and expanding the transition grant program.

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Sustainable livestock farmers require more land for each animal because they pasture their animals rather than use cheap corn and soy-based feeds. And farmland in some states, like Maryland, can cost thousands of dollars an acre. While the USDA provides loans for land acquisition, those loans are usually for new farmers. The USDA's Organic Initiative, funded at $50 million for 2010, allows farmers who want to expand their existing organic pasture and cropland to apply for loans for new land acquisition.

How to help: The problem is that these loans are still subject to the same caps as the organic-transition loans. The funding -- which breaks down to about $3,400 per existing farm and would amount to even less if new farmers were also eligible -- needs to be increased if organic products are going to account for more than 4 percent of all food sales.

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Small, rural farmers lack infrastructure. Eighty-four percent of small organic farmers operate in or near counties with metropolitan centers, where more farmers markets take place; demand for fresh, local produce is higher; and customers are willing to pay more. But rural organic farmers are less likely to enjoy those advantages.

How to help: One way to reach more consumers is to allow local farmers to expand to nearby school districts. Both the School Lunch Act and the Childhood Nutrition Act were amended in 2008 to encourage buying local produce, but only about 14 percent of school districts participated in 2009 -- most school systems still rely heavily on cheap, processed foods. Programs that encourage healthy eating for children at home and at school will work better if the administration de-incentivizes the use of processed foods instead of merely giving schools money to buy locally.

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