The Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) provides cost share assistance to organic producers and handlers. This partial reimbursement of certification fees is critical for attracting new farmers to organic—and encouraging the continued certification of existing operations. Currently, eligible producers and handlers can receive a reimbursement of 75 percent (up to $750) of their certification costs.
Organic cost share incentivizes participation in voluntary practices that protect our natural resources, build farm resilience, and help to meet the growing demand for organic products. Most importantly, this funding is relied upon by many farmers to support their businesses and provide the organic crops they are so proud of.
What is the Purpose of Cost Share?
Small and mid-sized organic farms are a core part of our organic supply chain, and their continued success is essential to keep up with the increasing demand for organic products. The certification process can be expensive, costing certified operations around $2,800 per year, every year. In an industry where thin margins are all too common, any support is welcomed.
“Growing and selling organic produce is not a high-income occupation,” said Ron and Mary Meyer of Strawberry Hill Farm. “And organic certification is expensive. The cost-share program makes certification more affordable for us. It’s a vital part of our operation.”
When a producer or handler/processor receives organic certification through a USDA-accredited certifying agent, they can also apply to receive reimbursement of their direct certification costs. The cost share reimbursement is available on an annual basis for four eligible certification scopes: crops, wild crops, livestock, and handling. The allowable certification costs include application fees, inspection fees, USDA organic certification costs, user fees, and postage.
Ohio operations have two choices for participating in the organic cost share program. They can apply for the program through a county Farm Service Agency (FSA) or through OEFFA’s Certification Program, which has been authorized by the Ohio Department of Agriculture to administer Ohio’s cost share program. With OEFFA, applications need to be postmarked by December 10. More information can be found here.
A History Fraught with Inconsistencies
Since its development in the 2002 Farm Bill, the organic cost share program has served as critical financial support for America’s organic farmers. Despite its success and consistent utilization, the program’s certainty has been anything but sure.
The organic cost share program was reauthorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, which is when the maximum annual payment was first increased from $500 to $750 per operation. In the 2014 Farm Bill, federal funding for the program doubled to reach $11.5 million annually. Following that, in the 2018 Farm Bill, organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) advocated for continued programmatic funding of $11.5 million. That year, while the funding amount was unfortunately slashed in half, there remained a commitment to provide up to $750 per operation.
What came as a blow to America’s organic producers was a 2020 announcement that the USDA cost share program’s maximum reimbursement amount would be reduced to 50 percent, or $500 per scope. For the producers who often struggle to benefit from USDA programs, this was a huge shock. In response, Kate Mendenhall, Director of the Organic Farmers Association, said “If the USDA wants organic farms and our regional economies to survive and thrive, they should be making it easier to get certification cost share and covering the whole cost of certification. Instead they are doing the opposite.”
As a result of stakeholder feedback, the program reinstated the maximum reimbursement to 75 percent, or $750 per category, in 2023. While this was welcome news for organic producers and the organizations that serve them, there are concerns about the future of the program. The long-standing program is foundational to a thriving organic agriculture community—yet the farm bill hasn’t always treated it as such.
Organic Cost Share Program 2023 and Beyond
When September 30 came and went without a new farm bill, it once again jeopardized the future of the organic certification cost share program. As one of the 2018 Farm Bill’s “stranded programs,” the Organic Certification Cost Share Program may not continue to operate after the fiscal year 2023.
Because it doesn’t have ‘permanent baseline’ funding, the program will expire on December 31, 2023. Without an extension or new farm bill that includes a specific provision funding and re-authorizing the program, thousands of farmers will be left with a huge net increase in their annual certification costs.
As we don’t know an official timeline for the finalization of the 2023 Farm Bill, it is critical that the extension includes funding to support the continuity of the cost share program. Without the confidence that comes with this federal support, farmers will be burdened by an unacceptable level of uncertainties surrounding the availability of this support when applying for certification in the spring.
It’s vital that this program continues without interruption in 2024.
Continued Advocacy for the Critical Program
The promise of a cost share reimbursement lessens the financial barriers for producers like the Meyers, who said, “Growing produce organically is important to us. We care about building the health of the human and natural communities. Organic certification is important to our customers. It’s a guarantee that our produce is clean and healthy.”
Organic certification serves a vital role in consumer trust and the integrity of the movement, and when support systems are in place to broaden and bolster organic agriculture, everyone wins.
“Integrity is supported because certification is within reach of more operations,” said OEFFA Certification Program Manager Sal Pinkham. “When only operations that can afford to pay more are certified, pressure increases on certifiers to retain high-dollar clients. This can—and does—compromise certifiers’ adherence to the standards because they have an incentive to interpret them favorably to the larger clients. This leads to inconsistent interpretations among certifiers and an unlevel playing field for producers. Losing cost share would exacerbate those issues.”
That’s why we are advocating for the continuity of this valuable program in the new farm bill, and the increasingly likely farm bill extension. We’ll provide action opportunities as they become available. Join us in protecting the cost share program and supporting the organic producers in your community!
What is the meaning of cost share to you? Leave a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how the program impacts you as a producer or handler. We’re compiling stories to support our continued advocacy for this critical program.