The USDA is trying to make it a little easier to transition to certified “organic” and to maintain “organic” status.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently expanded its Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative to cover certification and education expenses for certified organic and transitioning-to-organic agricultural producers. Through its new Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTECP), USDA will make $20 million of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding available to certified and transitional organic producers suffering loss of markets, increased production costs, and labor shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agricultural producers and handlers who are already certified organic, and crop and livestock producers who are transitioning to organic, may apply for OTECP funds to cover eligible expenses paid during the 2020, 2021, and 2022 fiscal years. OTECP will cover 25% of a certified operation’s eligible certification expenses, up to $250 per certification category, and 75% of a transitional operation’s eligible expenses, up to $750 per eligible fiscal year.

Certified organic operations may receive reimbursement for certification application fees, inspection expenses, fees related to equivalency agreement or arrangement requirements, inspectors’ travel-related business expenses per diem, user fees, certifier sales assessments, and postage. Transitional operations may receive reimbursement for fees charged by a certifying agent or consultant for pre-certification inspections and organic system plan development.

For both certified and transitional operations, OTECP may cover 75% of the registration fees, up to $200 per eligible fiscal year, for educational events related to organic production and handling. In addition, the program may cover 75% of soil testing expenses required under the National Organic Program (NOP), up to $100 per eligible fiscal year.

Expenses that are ineligible for reimbursement under the OTECP include inspections necessary to address NOP regulatory violations, expenses related to non-USDA organic certifications or any other labeling program, expenses related to materials, supplies, or equipment, late fees, membership fees, consultant fees (other than those described above for transitional operations), expenses related to educational events other than registration fees, and expenses for tests other than soil testing.

According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s 2020 Impact and Gratitude Report, there are 783 organic producers spanning 159,505 acres of organic farmland in the State of Vermont. For certified organic and transitional operations looking to sign up for 2020 and 2021 OTECP funding, local Farm Service Agency offices will be accepting applications from November 8, 2021, through January 7, 2022. The application period for 2022 OTECP will be announced at a later date.

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