Lawmakers fear new regulatory burdens on organic farmers

Though the USDA as a whole requested about 6 percent less money for 2014 than in 2013, the marketing and regulatory programs want to increase their budgets by about 6 percent.

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"We definitely are operating under very tight budget constraints," said Ed Avalos, the USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

"We've done several things over the past few years that truly are across the board," added Kevin Shea, acting administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Shea noted that the regulatory office had saved $3 million through combining cellphone contracts, had implemented a hiring freeze and were also reducing the number of supervisors. 

"We truly can save money by re-doing contracts, reducing administrative positions and things just of that nature," he said.

Not everyone on the panel supports the spending reductions. 

"I worry that we are now past the point of doing more with less and instead doing less with less, a direct consequence of sequestration and lower spending," said Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).

"The impact of our spending reductions are going to be felt in communities across the country," she continued.

Of particular interest to multiple members on the subcommittee were the department's organic certification quality levels. The USDA sets a series of standards for farms and harvesting operations that want to be certified organic, but legislators complained that the rules could be overly burdensome, especially for smaller, independent farmers.

"I think the concern here is how do the smaller growers, who may not have the resources to pay the cost and do all the background information that's necessary for certification -- the regulatory process is growing exponentially in terms of cost," said Rep. Sam Farr (Calif.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee.

"I own an organic farm myself, so I know all too well what you pay, and what you go through to be sure you're certified and why you can't screw up," said Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who has owned an organic farm on Maine's North Haven Island since the 1970s.

The department's 2014 budget request proposed to fund increased organic certification enforcement by eliminating a food-borne pathogen monitoring program and the Pesticide Record-Keeping Program. The budget also proposed an additional $1.3 billion to support organic farmers, bioenergy and similar targeted programs. 

The USDA is also responsible for controlling and eradicating agricultural pests, and members on the panel expressed their concern about scourges like feral swine and light brown apple moth. The animals contribute to a pest problem that Farr noted was "very problematic" for farmers.

While some pests persist, the administrators argued, the agency has made strides in eliminating other invasive species. "The boll weevil is a a success story," said Avalos. "We have pretty much eradicated the boll weevil in this country."