cows in field

From the NODPA Desk January/February 2021

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

The last issue of NODPA News fell victim to the ‘quirkiness’ of the US Mail, especially around the holiday season, and took longer to reach all of you. We use the cheaper non-profit rate so I assume the NODPA News fell to the bottom of the pile, literally. Hopefully this issue will move more quickly through the system, especially for those of you that don’t have the ability to view this material electronically. Many thanks to those of you that responded to our request for an annual contribution to support the work of NODPA. In these difficult times it is wonderful that so many of you took the time to respond to the letter we sent out. We run a very efficient and slim organization and you can be sure that all the money is put to good use. For those of you that have not had the time to respond yet, we are always open for contributions of any size at any time of the year. Please also support our sponsors and advertisers whose financial contributions help us to keep communicating and getting the messages out for organic dairy producers.

With the New Year we have a new administration, and USDA headed by some familiar faces. Tom Vilsack who served as the 30th United States Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 until 2017, returns to head up the USDA under President Biden. Vilsack became the safe, comfortable choice for Biden after competition for the USDA job set off a battle between two wings of the Democratic Party. Traditional farm lobby groups had rallied behind former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, while reformers, who want the USDA to spend its money fighting hunger and climate change, pushed for Rep. Marcia Fudge from Cleveland. My personal choice would have been Kathleen Merrigan who did such great work as Deputy Secretary, shepherding the Pasture Rule through to completion among a great many other achievements. She, like me, also likes Joe’s Pizza and Spaghetti House in Northampton MA. We will, as my friend Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign as Georgia state director of Rural Development for the USDA, said in a recent MSNBC interview, “Give him (Vilsack) a chance.” He does understand Dairy as a commodity; however, we will need to continue educating him and the Under Secretaries about protecting the integrity of organic dairy. We have a newly appointed Deputy Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Mae Wu. Wu previously served as a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, helping to lead the organization’s health and food work.

The Origin of Livestock letter that was sent to the USDA on January 28 accrued support from 118 organizations and 249 farmers across the country. Thank you to all those organizations and farms that signed on in support. It is only with grassroots action, backed by the Organic Farmers Association and the National Organic Coalition that we can make our voices heard in Congress and the Administration. There will be no immediate action on the Origin of Livestock, or anything else, because the new administration has set a moratorium on all regulatory action. The regulatory freeze, announced by White House chief of staff Ron Klain, halts work by federal agencies on new rules and suggests a 60-day postponement in implementing rules that have not yet taken effect.

Interestingly, with the wave of Executive Orders there was one that addressed Modernizing Regulatory Review which is an integral part of the regulatory process. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been charged by presidents of both parties with reviewing significant executive branch regulatory actions. Usually, it’s process is slow and sometimes the results are disconnected from the reality of the real world and subject to undue partisan interpretations of regulations. In calling for recommendations to improve and modernize the process, the Executive Order asks for suggestions that “promote public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity, and the interests of future generations.” Hopefully, these instructions will help with the backlog of regulations that need to be published to address issues important to organic farmers and organic integrity.

The President’s Executive Order for tackling the climate made it plain that the “climate crisis” will be at the center of the administration’s national security and foreign policy plans. Similarly, the USDA has been tasked to recommend a climate strategy for agriculture and forestry within 150 days, beginning with 60 days of consultation with landowners, farmers, conservation groups, and other interested parties on how to encourage voluntary adoption of ‘climate-smart practices.’ On January 6, 2021, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan)—the incoming chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee—announced that she would make the establishment of a federal agricultural carbon market a “top priority.” Will carbon stored in soil become its own commodity crop, and how will that affect organic dairy producers? Should measuring carbon, data collection and profiting be left to the marketplace, and inevitable consolidation, or is there a significant role for the Federal government to play in incentivizing different practices and expanding its conservation payments to include ‘climate smart practices’? Organic production is one of those practices, perhaps the most significant. As the organic marketplace quickly reduces any opportunity to get paid for the costs of producing organic milk, perhaps the financial recognition of the importance of scale appropriate organic production for the environment, for the climate crises and for the economy of rural communities can provide income to producers as part of true cost accounting. Plenty of opportunity for 2021.