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Organic aid sought in farm bill

By Michael Doyle - Bee Washington Bureau

Last Updated 12:40 am PST Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Story appeared in BUSINESS section, Page D5


WASHINGTON-Lawmakers largely left organic foods alone the last time they wrote a farm bill. Merced County dairy farmer Tony Azevedo wants to change that.

Azevedo and his allies seek tens of millions of dollars for research. They want help with crop insurance, and they crave protection in case their crops become contaminated.

"Our goal is to give all farms in the United States a chance to become part of organic (farming)," Azevedo said Tuesday.


Azevedo, 55, is a lifelong dairyman who spent his early career as a conventional farmer. For the past 11 years, he has forgone traditional chemicals, put his 700 cows out to pasture and trod his own path as the self-described first organic dairy farmer in the San Joaquin Valley.

This week, he and other organic farmers are hand-sowing their agenda around Capitol Hill. It's an ambitious and politically challenging wish list being shared with the likes of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater.

Their agenda includes:

Creating a $50 million-a-year grant program to assist farmers in adopting organic practices.

Providing $5 million annually to help farmers offset the cost of attaining organic certification.

Establishing a $25 million-a-year organic farming research program.

Federal funding is only part of the game plan.

Organic growers currently pay a 5 percent surcharge on their crop insurance rates. They want that to stop. And, in a challenge to some big corporate players, the growers want to be able to recoup their losses from manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds in the event of crop contamination.

With 4 million acres in the United States now certified as organic, twice the level when Congress wrote the 2002 farm bill, growers undeniably command attention from more lawmakers.

"They are now more receptive," Azevedo said. "Organic farming has become fashionable."

Along with Hilmar almond farmer Glenn Anderson and others, Azevedo is doing the rounds among the congressional offices responsible for writing agricultural legislation. As early as next week, Cardoza could introduce a specialty crop bill with provisions affecting the organic growers.

Then the real juggling begins.

"They may not get the specific language they're asking for," Cardoza said. "I don't think anyone will get everything they want."

Cardoza chairs the House subcommittee responsible for organic agriculture, but the first version of the multibillion-dollar specialty crop bill he introduced last fall did not mention the word "organic" in its 71 pages. The omission was not one of disrespect -- Cardoza said he supports "added attention" to organic farming -- but it does reflect an enduring political challenge.

The organic farmers lobbying Capitol Hill this week are arriving after the draft specialty crop bill already has been shipped to the House's legislative counsel for a final technical scrubbing. It will inevitably change in coming months, but there's always a political advantage to starting on the inside.

Lawmakers are also cautioning that they won't have as much money to spend as they would like, making it harder to designate dollars for certain growers. The organic farmers' recommendations have a hefty five-year price tag of at least $475 million. They also pose some potential conflicts with political powerful entities, such as the processors that the growers' literature refers to as "large corporate buyers."

"The one thing I won't tolerate is pitting one sector of agriculture against another," Cardoza said.

Still, the growers united as the National Organic Coalition insist their time has come. In California, 1,738 certified organic farmers operated on 222,557 acres in 2005, Agriculture Department figures show.

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