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Proposed budget cuts make organic farmers wary

Jennifer Pittman, Santa Cruz Sentinel

WATSONVILLE -- For Jennifer Robinson, the new owner of a seven-acre pinot noir vineyard in Watsonville, federal budget proposals to make steep cuts to conservation efforts and organic agriculture would have a direct impact on her dreams to transition eventually to an organic farm.

"I have lots of reactions to what's going on in Washington," Robinson said last week after hearing that the latest federal budget proposals would cut numerous programs supporting the organic and sustainable agriculture industry, as well as national conservation efforts. "It makes me feel a little sick. I just think it's shortsighted."

Robinson is one of 13 agriculture businesses in Santa Cruz County to apply for federal conservation funds this year to offset costs of infrastructure projects through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The program subsidizes growers, ranchers and vineyard owners. The program funds about 40 projects such as crop covering, pest management, mulching, irrigation and water management, fencing and hedgerow plantings.

Six of the applicants are expected to get funded this year, according to Rich Casale, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for Santa Cruz County. Of those applicants, four are for organic farms or farms that are transitioning to organic.

"Obviously, we're as concerned as the farmers are," Casale said.

Robinson is hoping to receive about $20,000 of the $150,000 available to county residents to help pay for a new irrigation system, erosion problems and a problem fungus on some of the vines. Transitioning to organic practices would start in a few years if all goes as planned.

"Although, the way budget axes are being thrown around, I worry about whether the opportunity will be there when I am ready for it," Robinson said.

Ariane Lotti, policy director for the Santa Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, says House of Representatives budget bill HR 1 unfairly cuts small organic programs disproportionately.

"The House-passed bill for agriculture targets small, important programs that serve primarily underserved sectors of agriculture and leaves funding for larger programs untouched," Lotti said. "The larger programs "are less focused and their service to rural communities is questionable, whereas organic farms on average are more profitable than conventional farms."

The bill would have a big impact on organic agriculture in California, which is the nation's leading state in organic agriculture and sales. In 2009, the Natural Resources Conservation Service provided about $3.06 million in Environmental Quality Incentives Program money to 158 California farmers who were organic or transitioning to organic. Last year, 92 California farmers received $2.42 million from the same fund, including a $4,712 grant that went to a farmer in Santa Cruz County.

California agricultural producers who are certified organic or transitioning to organic production were invited to apply for $2.4 million in technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Recipients can receive up to $20,000 per year or $80,000 over six years through the program. The Capitola district office had received just two applications, but was expecting more before Friday's deadline.

Another small program that could lose funding is the Ag Water Enhancement Program. The Capitola office has received five applications for that, all of which are organic or transitioning to organic.

Organic farmers also could lose access to free conservation planning and technical assistance under current budget proposals, said Anita Brown, Sacramento-based public affairs director of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"They are targeting some decreases in EQIP. I don't know exactly how this is going to shake out," Brown said.

"The organic farming movement is one of fastest growing segments of agriculture," Lotti said. "It requires strong information, research and resources to continue to grow. Essentially this cut would slow the information to farmers and slow the growth of organic agriculture."

"The situation would be fairer if cuts were made proportionately across programs," said Lotti, who urged organic farming supporters to call representatives and get involved. "We understand that we're in a very tight fiscal environment, but leaving other programs untouched is unfair."

Proposed Organic Ag and Conservation Cuts

The most recent House of Representatives Bill (HR 1), which proposes about $60 billion in cuts, 5.2 billion of which are agriculturally related, threatens a slew of small programs including:

-Organic Transitions Integrated Research Program

-National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

-USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach and the Office of Tribal Relations

-Farm Service Conservation Loans

-Resource Conservation and Development Program

-Environmental Quality Incentives Program

-Conservation Stewardship Program

President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 hits conservation programs harder than organic agriculture programs and keeps organic research at the same levels as 2010. It would increase the National Organic Program to $10 million.
A number of rural development and research programs, including the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program would be increased while conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program would be decreased. Part of the proposal would also reform farm subsidy programs, reducing the per-farm cap on direct payments.
SOURCE: Organic Farming Research Foundation

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