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Frontline Farming at Organic Week 2023: Conference Summary and Insights

Prepared by JaSon Auguste
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I recently had the privilege of attending the Organic Week 2023 conference from May 9th to 11th, hosted by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in Washington DC on behalf of Frontline Farming. The event was an invaluable opportunity to understand the broader vision and focus of the organic industry and identify potential avenues to help Frontline Farming secure organic certification. It also afforded me the opportunity to make national connections in the organic industry as well as other BIPOC Organic Producers, persons working inside of the industry. As part of a grant the OTA received, I was among 27 BIPOC organizations, groups, and individuals invited to the conference.



Notable Resources

One of the key highlights of the conference was the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Commitment This program represents the OTA's ongoing commitment to champion diversity within its membership, Board, and staff.


Of notable interest was the OTA's Diversity and Entrepreneurship Program,:, which provides a platform for Minority-Owned and Disadvantage-Owned businesses and farmers looking to transition to organic production. The program grants financial assistance for organic certification-related costs, grants scholarships to industry events, and offers exclusive access to consultants through webinar series. The initiative, now involving 67 unique companies, is demonstrating its impact by generating an estimated $2.7M in organic product sales.


Furthermore, the Diversity Resource Library, OTA’s Diversity Council-and OTA’s Diversity Fellowship signify a consolidated effort to embed diversity and inclusion across all organizational activities. Their partnership with the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association- is a testament to their commitment to diverse perspectives within the organic sector.


Black Farmers Index- partnership is particularly significant, housing the largest directory of Black farmers in the U.S. and contributing to the diversity of the organic supply chain.

  • The Index currently houses the largest directory, more than 1200, of Black farmers in the U.S.

  • The Index is partnering with The Organic Center on some consumer marketing, via their Vittles Box campaign

  • The Index has brought 17 new farmers into OTA’s Diversity and Entrepreneurship program, since June 2022


The Sessions

The Organic Confluences conference sessions, in partnership with The Organic Center, were insightful, focusing on reducing plastics along the entire organic supply chain. The sessions spanned across two days, fostering a dialogue between scientists, farmers, and industry experts on the pressing issue of plastic use and mitigation in organic farming.


Day 1

The first day of the Organic Confluences started with a comprehensive analysis of how plastic moves through our food system and environment. The discussion also addressed the detrimental impacts of plastic pollution, including the unequal burden of plastic waste and manufacturing on marginalized communities.


Another pivotal session was "Use of Plastics in Organic", which highlighted the challenges organic stakeholders face that are currently addressed with plastic-based tools. The discussion amplified the need for bio-based alternatives and addressed the consumer demand for reduced plastic in the organic supply chain.


The final noteworthy session was "Organic Regulations and Plastics: Policies, Pathways, and Challenges". It explored the history of plastic in rulemaking for the National Organic Program (NOP), updates from NOP regulators on the current status of plastic regulation, and the complexities of regulating plastic use in organic production.


Day 2

On the Second day Following the initial sessions, the conference presented a compelling segment on "The Future of Non-Input Synthetics, Recycling, and Plastic-Alternatives in Organic." This session explored the need for a comprehensive framework for discussions about non-input synthetics, recycling, and plastic alternatives in organic farming. It emphasized the importance of engaging diverse stakeholders, including artists and the general public, in efforts to shift towards more sustainable alternatives to plastic.


"Innovations in Plastic Alternatives: Lightning Session" showcased how various stakeholders across the organic supply chain have been creatively reducing plastic use. Presentations highlighted case studies of novel alternatives to plastic and offered promising solutions for future plastic reduction.


The Keynote Address delivered by the Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary, United States Department of Agriculture, was enlightening. Secretary Vilsack shared his perspective and priorities for the next Farm Bill and provided an update on the historic initiatives USDA has put in place for organic, from its unprecedented Organic Transition Initiative to its comprehensive new regulations to combat fraud in the organic supply chain.


Following Secretary Vilsack's address, USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, Robert Bonnie, provided his perspective and introductory remarks on innovative organic projects funded by the USDA's Climate-Smart Commodities Grant program.


In a panel discussion titled "Shoring up the Demand Side – Pinpointed Market Development to Support Transitioning Farmers," experts explored the significance of demand-side work in the success of the Organic Transition Initiative (OTI). The panelists discussed ways to create links between growers and buyers, increase processing capacity for organic commodities, and foster international trade opportunities for organic crops.


The final panel discussion, "For the Long Haul: Supporting Diverse Business Partners Beyond the Certification Process," proposed tangible steps that businesses can take to increase BIPOC diversity in their supply chains. The discussion highlighted post-certification barriers that often prevent producers/processors who are marginalized from understanding how to navigate the larger organic supply chain. This session was impactful and uplifting and demonstrated the support that OTA has provided to BIPOC and farms and businesses.


PAC FUNDRAISER

The Organic Political Action Committee (PAC) fundraiser, held on Wednesday evening at was a highlight of Organic Week 2023. From 5:30 to 7:30 pm, Organic PAC supporters convened not just to raise funds but also to actively engage in stimulating discussions around organic farming and policy advocacy. This event offered a crucial networking opportunity, enabling attendees to interact with diverse professionals and stakeholders in the organic sector within a relaxed atmosphere that sparked deep, meaningful connections. A palpable energy surged through the crowd, echoing a shared commitment to propel the cause of organic farming forward. This unforgettable night, reverberating with unity, purpose, and collective determination, was a testament to the strength of the organic community and its resolute dedication to advance organic farming and policy advocacy.


Day 3

The third day of the conference was Advocacy Day, a critical time for discussing the 2023 organic policy priorities with the Farm Bill on the Congressional agenda. Attendees were divided into small teams for hundreds of pre-scheduled meetings across Capitol Hill.


The day began with breakfast served in the pre-function hallway, followed by breakfast remarks by Jennifer Tucker, PhD, USDA Deputy Administrator for the National Organic Program. This was an informal opportunity to discuss current NOP initiatives and ask questions.


After breakfast, the Senior Director of Government Affairs, Peter Mihalick, sent off the attendees for a productive day of advocating for organic on Capitol Hill.


In Conclusion

Overall, the Organic Week 2023 Conference served as a catalyst, fostering connections, and sparking action in the organic sector. It was an event that synergized learning, networking, and advocacy, providing me opportunity to engage with a diverse set of stakeholders within the organic industry.


The sessions provided a wealth of knowledge and insights, from comprehending the organic industry's broader vision to learning about the challenges and potential alternatives to plastic use in the organic supply chain. The discussions also illuminated the path towards achieving organic certification and understanding the policy landscape that governs it.


Moreover, the conference reaffirmed the significance of diversity and inclusivity in the organic sector, underscoring the need to prioritize these values in our practices. The presentations on the OTA's JEDI Commitment and Diversity and Entrepreneurship Program were particularly inspiring, demonstrating the positive impact these initiatives are already making.


From the experience, it became evident that our journey towards securing organic certification goes beyond adhering to a set of regulations. It is about embodying a commitment to sustainability, diversity, and equity - values that align strongly with Frontline’s mission.


The knowledge and insights gained from the Organic Week 2023 Conference will be instrumental in shaping our future endeavors at Frontline Farming. I am optimistic about applying what I have learned to our practices, further strengthening our commitment to organic farming, and actively contributing to the broader conversation within the organic sector.


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