Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Bill would aid organic transition

Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, has proposed aiding farmers in the effort to transition to organic production and marketing.

The bill would create a state fund, with separate accounts for each county, from which the Secretary of Agriculture would dispense aid to growers transitioning to organic markets.

The question of where the funds would get their money has yet to be worked out, said Nick Hardeman, spokesman for Ma. Foundations or individuals might donate, or the state and federal money, including aid dispensed through the federal farm bill last year, might feed the funds. Last year's farm bill offers more organic aid than any previous farm bill.

Hardeman stressed that no money would be sought that hasn't already been set aside for organic aid.

"It's not our intention to take away from or use any existing money that's not already going to organic," Hardeman said.

The public investment required by Ma's proposal is also unclear, Hardeman said. The agriculture secretary's office would administer the funds, along with the grant programs by which aid would be distributed.

Ma's district is made up mostly of the San Francisco area. The market for organic agriculture there is strong, with chain grocery stories offering extensive organic sections, Hardeman said.

"There are farmers out there that are willing to try it on at least a portion of their crops," Hardeman said. "The market is appealing, but it's an expensive thing to do."

Judith Redmond, a co-owner with Full Belly Farm, a diversified, 250-acre organic operation in Guinda, says there may be resistance within the industry for the proposed subsidy. But in the bigger picture, Redmond says, growth in organics is good for everyone.

"Sometimes I get the impression that the large farms, especially in the organic sector, may not feel like their interest would be in reducing the barriers" to entering markets, Redmond said. "People in organic are happy about having figured out how to get organic certification."

Small farmers, including immigrants who run low-income operations, might find success in organic production, but the regulatory hurdles are high and the investment is large, Redmond says.

"So there's I think potentially an argument that some public-sector support for that transition is justified," she said.

"I feel there's a need for all of us, for farms of any size, to streamline these barriers," Redmond said. "There is still huge room for the market to expand."