GIBSONIA, Pa. — Jenny Lester Moffitt knows better than most how challenging it can be to transition a farm to organic production. Her father went organic with their walnut farm in California when she was a child.
“He converted to organic … by the time he got certified, he realized, ‘There’s no one to process my walnuts and I don’t have a market to bring my product to,’” Moffitt said, at a press conference May 12 in western Pennsylvania to announce the opening of the $75 million Organic Market Development Grant Program.
Moffitt is the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but before that, she ran the family farm with her father for a decade. There’s a growing demand for organic agricultural products, but there are crucial steps missing between the farm field and the customer, she said.
Moffit said her father rented older processing equipment for a few years before he could afford to buy the equipment to process their organic walnuts. He had to take on these steps on his own, but he isn’t alone in this journey. It’s one many organic farmers take when finding a pathway to market their products, Moffitt said.
“They first get into organic because they’re passionate about it,” she said. “They’re learning about the production practices and then realizing, ‘I need a market because we can’t sustain our operations if we don’t have a market for that.’”
That’s what the Organic Market Development Grant Program aims to fix. Up to $75 million competitive grants are open to fund projects to expand and improve markets for domestically-produced organic goods.
All markets are eligible, but Moffitt said they are focusing in particular on projects that support organic grains and livestock feed, rotational crops, fibers, dairy, legumes and ingredients.
An example of a project could be developing a use and market for field crops other than corn and soybeans that are commonly used in organic rotations. That’s a barrier for some farmers to get into organic production, is rotating through a crop for which there isn’t a strong market.
Sourcing domestic organic grain is a major challenge not only for livestock farmers who need feed for their animals, but also for makers of processed goods that need organic ingredients.
Applications for the program are open through July 11.
The backdrop for the press conference was Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus, a former vacation farm for the Heinz family turned satellite campus for the Pittsburgh-based college.
The campus is home to the Falk School of Sustainability and Environment and the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food and Transformation program.
Moffitt, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and other university partners toured some of the Eden Hall agricultural facilities, including a year-round solar greenhouse and the aquaculture lab, during their visit May 12.
The university’s farm operations — which includes an apiary, maple syrup production and mushroom cultivation — are certified organic. Food produced at the student-led farms goes to the campus’s dining hall and is given to students, staff and faculty.
The market development program is the third phase of USDA’s plan to support farmers transitioning to organic production. The Organic Transition Initiative put $300 million towards providing farmers direct financial and technical assistance, connecting farmers with local mentors and other resources and market development.
According to a USDA release, consumer demand for organically produced goods surpassed $67 billion in 2022.
Pennsylvania, in particular, has seen significant growth in organic sales in the past several years, with Pennsylvania farms producing and selling $1.09 billion in organic commodities in 2021. That’s up from $742 million in organic sales in 2019. That puts Pennsylvania behind only California and Washington in value of organic sales. Most of that growth came from organic poultry sales.
The number of certified organic farms across the country has consistently grown since the USDA began conducting the Certified Organic Survey in 2008. At that time there were 10,903 organic farms nationwide. Now, there are 17,445. The sale of organic commodities hit $11.2 billion in 2021, an increase of 13% from $9.9 billion in 2019. The top commodities were milk, broiler chickens, eggs, apples and corn for grain.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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