Transitioning a farm to organic production can be a daunting task, as Jenny Lester Moffitt, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), knows from personal experience. Her father made the switch to organic farming on their walnut farm in California when she was a child. However, he soon realized that the process of certification was only the first step. He faced the challenge of finding processors and a market for his organic walnuts. Moffitt shared her story during a press conference on May 12 in western Pennsylvania, where she announced the launch of the $75 million Organic Market Development Grant Program.
Drawing from her own family's journey, Moffitt emphasized the need for essential steps between the farm field and the end consumer in organic agriculture. She highlighted how her father had to rent outdated processing equipment for a few years until they could afford to purchase their own. This struggle to find a market is one that many organic farmers face when attempting to bring their products to consumers.
To address this issue, the Organic Market Development Grant Program has been established. It offers up to $75 million in competitive grants to fund projects aimed at expanding and improving markets for domestically-produced organic goods. While all markets are eligible for funding, the program has a specific focus on projects that support organic grains and livestock feed, rotational crops, fibers, dairy, legumes, and ingredients.
One example of a project supported by the grant program would be the development of alternative uses and markets for field crops other than the commonly used corn and soybeans in organic rotations. Lack of market options for these crops can hinder farmers from entering organic production. Additionally, sourcing domestic organic grain poses a significant challenge for livestock farmers in need of feed and for manufacturers of processed goods that require organic ingredients.
Applications for the grant program are open until July 11, providing farmers and organizations with an opportunity to secure funding for their projects.
The press conference announcing the grant program took place at Chatham University's Eden Hall Campus, formerly a vacation farm for the Heinz family and now a 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. During the visit, Moffitt, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, and other university partners toured various agricultural facilities on the campus, such as a year-round solar greenhouse and an aquaculture lab.
Chatham University's farm operations, which include an apiary, maple syrup production, and mushroom cultivation, are certified organic. The food produced at the student-led farms is utilized in the campus's dining hall and distributed to students, staff, and faculty.
The Organic Market Development Grant Program is the third phase of the USDA's plan to support farmers transitioning to organic production. The initial phase, the Organic Transition Initiative, allocated $300 million for providing farmers with direct financial and technical assistance, connecting them with local mentors and additional resources, and promoting market development.
The demand for organically produced goods has been steadily increasing, with consumer spending surpassing $67 billion in 2022, according to the USDA. Pennsylvania has witnessed significant organic sales growth in recent years, with farms in the state generating $1.09 billion in organic commodities in 2021, up from $742 million in 2019. Pennsylvania ranks third in terms of the value of organic sales, trailing only California and Washington. Notably, organic poultry sales contributed significantly to this growth.