By Julian Hattem - 05/14/13 09:02 PM EDT
"Organics to me is about preservation of a value system," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the trade group. "It's about creating opportunity, particularly for small-sized operations, because it's a high-value added proposition, and it's about the opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation to be able to prosper in rural communities."
The group heard from government officials on Tuesday, and planned to trek to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
The USDA is responsible for certifying organic products by imposing standards on the more than 17,000 organic farms and businesses in the United States.
"Organic certification verifies organic claims," said Miles McEvoy, the deputy administrator of the USDA's organic program. "It protects farmers and handlers and it ensures consumers that products that contain the USDA organic label have value and integrity. It is critically important that we retain a rigorous certification and accreditation system."
He added, "The organic label must be protected by an oversight system that is rigorous from farm to market. The system is strong and works well but vigilance and continual improvement are needed to keep the system working."
According to the association, organic sales in 2012 reached $35 billion, a growth of more than ten percent from the previous year, and as many as 81 percent of American families are buying organic products
"You know how many industries would like to be growing at ten percent in this economy? That's saying something right there," said Matt McLean, the association's board president and head of the fruit and juice company Uncle Matt's Organic.
"We are mainstream," added Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who used to own an organic farm and now is the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee's subcommittee that oversees organic agriculture. "This is not a hippie movement."
Rep. Schrader pledged to push for an industry-funded USDA research and promotion program, known as commodity check-off, to push organic foods.
"We did 'Got milk?' and 'Beef for dinner'; we ought to have a chance to do the organic check-off at the same time," he told the industry representatives.
"We want to make sure that organic is on the same playing field as anybody else," added Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), who supports the program.
On Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a version of the farm bill that cuts $23 billion from the deficit over the next decade.
Vilsack said that the bill included a "strong commitment to organic."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the committee's chairwoman, said that "the great news for me personally is that in this farm bill we aren't fighting" about including provisions for organics and other specialty crops.
The House begins marking up its version of the bill on Wednesday.
Members of the trade group expressed concern that small farmers were abandoning the organic label and marketing their products instead as local foods.
"That's some of the inquiry that needs to be done," said McEvoy with the USDA. "Because we don't want to lose the small farmers to the local and regional market. It's very important to the future of organic."
Legislators have previously expressed concern about the regulatory burdens on small and organic farmers.
Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) told the House Appropriations Committee's Agriculture subcommittee in April that he was concerned about "the smaller growers, who may not have the resources to pay the cost and do all the background information that's necessary for certification" as organic.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Organic Trade Association spent over $369,000 on lobbying in 2012.