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Grading Obama's Commitment to Organic Wine and Agriculture

New labeling regulations for organic wine, and other programs, show the administration's commitment to change

Lynn Alley
Posted: July 17, 2009

It was the organic harvest seen 'round the world. This past month, first lady Michelle Obama and some Washington D.C. elementary school students tromped out to the White House lawn and harvested 73 pounds of lettuce, 12 pounds of snap peas and one cucumber from the Presidential mansion's new certified organic vegetable garden. Their bounty was brought inside, where Obama and the students helped White House chefs prepare lunch.

The White House vegetable garden has been an important symbol for the new administration, signaling first couple's support for local, organic and sustainable agriculture. (It was an important enough symbol that the Mid America CropLife Association, an agribusiness media group, sent the White House a letter asking the first lady to give chemical fertilizers and pesticides a fair try.)

"Now that's a commitment and a statement," said Mark Kastel, codirector of the Cornucopia Institute, a national organic watchdog representing family farmers. Kastel contrasted that to Ronald Reagan's order to remove the solar panels installed by Jimmy Carter on the White House roof when he took office.

But is President Obama taking more than just symbolic steps? Six months into his first term, have his policies shown a real commitment to sustainable and organic farming? And more specifically, are wineries that embrace such methods being helped by the new president?

In Washington, money and appointments speak loudest. When Obama unveiled his budget proposal, he promised to almost double the resources devoted to organic agriculture. According to a USDA spokesman, the president "called for $2.8 million more for the 2010 budget, a 72 percent increase in the National Organic Program budget." While the budget is still working its way through Congress, it looks like the National Organic Program will be allocated $6.7 million, a significant boost from $3.9 million. The organic transition program, which provides funds for various research projects, may get a major increase to $5 million from $1.8 million.

While Obama's Agriculture Secretary, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, has a reputation for being friendly to big agribusiness, he chose a deputy who is considered by many to be a champion of the organic movement, Tufts University professor of nutritional sciences Kathleen Merrigan. And Vilsack has pleasantly surprised organic advocates so far.

"Vilsack ripped up part of the plaza in front of the USDA office and planted a certified organic garden and sent a message to USDA offices around the nation recommending that they do the same," said Kastel. "This is a powerful message that causes us to be optimistic."

For farms and wineries looking for proof of that message, the administration is proposing increased funding for several programs, such as the Organic Certification Cost Share Program, in which federal funds are provided to help defray the sometimes substantial costs of organic certification, the Organic Conversion/Transition Program, which provided $50 million in federal funding for farmers to make the transition to organic farming methods, and the Crop Insurance Reform for Organic Farms, to name a few.

Wineries are already benefiting from Obama's efforts to increase green energy. "Since Obama's election, the tax credits for solar projects have gotten substantially better," said Sasha Kadey, spokesperson for King Estate in Oregon, one of the country's largest organic wineries. "This is one area that we've been directly impacted in a positive way."

But while producers are appreciative of the attention being focused on organic growing and renewable energy, some of the smaller producers are finding it difficult to stay on top of what’s available and how to get a piece of the pie.

When asked about the possibilities of the Organic Conversion Program for his winery, Alex Sokol Blosser, president of Sokol Blosser winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley, said, "I looked at all the paperwork and decided I don't have the time. The two-week window for submitting an application was impractical."

John Schumaker owns Organic Wine Works, California’s first certified organic winery, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Schumaker, a U.C. Davis-trained enologist, was one of the first to try making high-quality wines without benefit of sulfites. Asked if he was aware of federal funding and programs currently available to organic wineries and farms, Schumaker replied that he was too busy running a small business to notice or to take on the paperwork involved.

For Bill Moses, owner of the first certified winery in the Santa Barbara area, Casa Barranca in Ojai, Calif., the story is the same. Casa Barranca is a small winery and Moses was simply unaware of federal funding being offered to small organic farmers.

Meanwhile, organic advocates would like to see stronger steps. Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), said that while the OCA is "happy with the new programs and increases in existing programs for organic farmers," they are not enough to clean up the environment and to reverse climate change. OCA would like to see "organic" integrated into all of the programs conventional farmers are currently using, and organic know-how made available to conventional farmers.

Most of the critics acknowledge that six months is not a long time, and they're hopeful that Obama will continue to hear their cause over the next four years. And they won't remain silent. "We are very aggressively asking them to clean up the mess that they inherited from the Bush administration," said Mark Kastel.


Defining Organic Wine

Perhaps of greatest interest to wine consumers are the administration's newly tightened organic wine-labeling laws, which strengthen the requirements for organic wines while clarifying for consumers just what they are getting in the bottle. In a memorandum of understanding between the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and the federal Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), labeling laws for organic wines were redefined and clarified in June.

In the past, wines labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients" by law had to contain just "some" organic ingredients—70 percent to be precise. Now, producers can only label wines "Made with Organically Grown Grapes" if they are made with 100 percent organically grown grapes. Wines that also contain non-organically grown grapes must now say so clearly on the label, and the percentage of organic and non-organic grapes must be indicated somewhere on the label.

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