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Woodbury County axes organic fund

By Staff | Feb 28, 2015

David Geisler Woodbury County Rural Economic Development director.

SIOUX CITY – The path to successful organic agriculture production, as targeted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s focus on aiding producers interested in organic programs, has in instances been a contentious one.

Action taken Feb. 17 by the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors brought an end to a 10-year-old organic conversion policy granting up to $50,000 in property tax rebates for farms converting from conventional to organic farming in compliance with the USDA’s Natural Organic Program.

“It was a good idea at the time,” said Mark Munson, board chairman, “and the county was initially supportive of the plan. And while we were supportive of the opportunities we had just one person ask for the assistance.”

Munson said the balance of $12,261 of the original $15,000 budgeted for the organic tax rebates has been put into a revolving loan program in the rural development department

The policy had, he explained, been part of the efforts by Rob Marqusee, the former rural development director ,who saw agriculture as a major player in rural development planning to be tied in with marketing organic crops to local restaurants, retail outlets and county-related food programs.

Mark Munson, Chairman, Woodbury County supervisors

Woodbury County’s recent action, he said, was based on the board’s opinion that the policy funds could be spent more effectively on local future retail and service businesses as rural development.

David Gleiser, current rural development director, agrees.

“The only person to get the rebates quit in his third year after failing to obtain the necessary federal certified organic designation for his program,” said Gleiser, who’s been in the post since 2013.

“While I can understand the logic behind Rob’s program and that it can be a viable tool for producers,” Gleiser said, “I also realize the decision to go organic is up to the individual doing the work.

“In this case the individual felt his cost to participate outweighed the tax benefits received and returned what he had initially received.

THIS CHART shows the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s support for developing organic farming from $20 million in the 2002 farm bill, to $102 million in 2008 farm bill, to more than $160 million in the 2014 farm bill.

“It’s not that I’m not open to helping someone start an organic operation, and I want them to know other resources are available from state and federal government agencies to allow these individuals to access financial assistance.”

He said his current low-interest loan program has requests of about $800,000 from county agencies and businesses interested in various economic development planning.

The marketing arm of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is among state level agencies to suggest programs and possible options for Iowa producers considering organic certification under the direction of Maury Wills, bureau chief, IDALS ag division/marketing development.

Willis, whose family operates Willis Family Orchard, in Adel, a certified organic orchard, said USDA has programs available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to assist those interested in organic production.

“Each of the various agriculture cropping systems has its own challenges – be it corn, beans, fruit and vegetables, eggs, poultry and dairy,” Willis said. “Once a producer or grower finds a niche within his range of funding, he or she can work with NRCS staff to determine application assistance programs to meet his or her needs.

“This can aid greatly in the would-be producer feeling overwhelmed by the table work and regulations through the simplifying of regulations,” he said. “The opportunity is there, too, to determine the acreage the producer wants to transition to an organic program perhaps starting on a small scale rather than say attempting to organically certify 1,000 acres all at once.”

However, Christina Evans, Woodbury County district conservationist, said no applications for organic production transition through the service’s EQIP program had been received as of Feb. 23 for 2015. She said records indicate a similar lack of interest for 2014.

Jim Lahn, Plymouth County district conservationist, in Le Mars, also reported no current applications.

This year’s deadline is April 17 with NRCS ranking deadline set for May 29.

Willis said the NRCS organic assistance options as spelled out in the 2014 Farm Bill to implement applicable conservation practices to support the environmental sustainability of organic operations are limited to a maximum of $20,000 per fiscal year. In addition, assistance is capped at $80,000 over a rolling farm bill for all NRCS-approved contacts and requires the meeting of all other EQIP eligibility.

Non-organic certified producers, or those exempt from certification, must also agree to work toward implementation of an Organic System Plan through USDA.

Included program options are those for developing a conservation plan, establishing buffer zones, planning and installing pollinator habitat, improving soil quality and organic matter while minimizing erosion, developing a grazing plan and supportive livestock practices, improving irrigation efficiency and enhancing cropping rotations and nutrient management.

More specific information on each of the programs is available at the producer’s nearest NRCS office.

“In each instance,” Willis said, “the producer transitioning into this way of farming is realizing he or she is biologically paying attention to the pest cycles, soil micronutrients, soil biology and water and air quality within his or her farming operation.

“It’s a great way to farm to not only protect the environment, but to benefit by being rewarded in the market place with a premium for what is produced.”

A media release distributed earlier this winter by Krysta Harden, deputy USDA secretary, cited an increased organic product sales growth by U.S. farms and ranches of 83 percent between 2007 and 2012.

She said this indicates continued support of producers and consumers and businesses in sustaining the growth of what is a $35 billion U.S. retail market.

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