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A Conversation with USDA Leader Elanor Starmer

Posted by Mallory Feeney, USDA Office of Communications in Food and Nutrition Trade
Jul 15, 2016
Elanor Starmer, Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service
Elanor Starmer, Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service, is proud that her agency creates opportunities and provides tools for American organic producers to sell their products at home and abroad.

Elanor Starmer is the Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which facilitates the strategic marketing of agricultural products in the U.S. and internationally. Prior to becoming AMS Administrator, Starmer was a Senior Advisor to Secretary Tom Vilsack and has been with the department since 2011. This interview focused on AMS’s National Organic Program.

“The USDA isn’t one or the other, it’s all of the above. We serve organic producers, non-organic producers and everyone else as well as we possibly can.” – Elanor Starmer

What steps has the USDA taken to incorporate American organic products in the international market?

We know that the international market for organics is enormous. Global sales of organic food reached $80 billion in 2014 and that is only expected to grow over the next five to ten years. So the question then for us at USDA is – what can we do to help our producers access that growing market? I would categorize our efforts in three ways: first, we’ve supported U.S. organic operations that want to scale up and access the tools to market their products internationally. Second, we’re looking at how to open new markets internationally for organics through equivalency arrangements. And the third thing we’re doing is focusing on ensuring that the organic seal is as strong and as transparent and as reputable as it can be because the value of organic is in that seal.

How have USDA equivalency agreements shaped the international market and how has streamlining organic trade made it easier for producers?

Here’s how it works – the United States and another country agree that their organic standards are equivalent. That means organic farmers and businesses can have access to international markets without having to obtain multiple certifications. Without the agreements, organic farmers and businesses may need to fill out two sets of paperwork, have multiple inspections and frankly that’s a lot of work; so that’s why these agreements are important to the producer.

In the course of the last seven years, we’ve established equivalency agreements with the E.U., Japan, Switzerland, Korea, and Canada. These markets are huge opportunities for our producers and in facilitating the process, we’re helping them to sell into those markets without having to jump through extra hoops.

Is the USDA in the process of implementing additional equivalency agreements in other countries?

Right now, we’re talking to Mexico about establishing an agreement. We’re not there yet but we are getting closer and things are looking really positive. This would be a very exciting opportunity because it is so close to the United States. We’re also looking at other countries that might have interest in establishing equivalency arrangements in the future.

Why the demand for organic?

Consumers are more interested than ever in understanding where their food is coming from, how it’s being grown and the different things being used in the course of growing that food or raising that animal. It’s a growing trend we’re seeing in the marketplace and it’s creating a lot of opportunities for everything from organic to grass-fed beef to locally grown.

Can you explain the Sound and Sensible project and how it benefits organic farmers and producers?

One thing that we’re seeing is that there is a huge consumer demand for organic products and there is not enough supply even to meet domestic demand here in the U.S. We’re also seeing a lot of companies interested in selling organic products that are having trouble finding farmers to supply them. And that to us is a signal that there is a real opportunity here for American farmers and we want to make sure they have the tools to take advantage of it.

The Sound and Sensible initiative is one effort AMS has made to help support farmers who are interested in getting into organic production. We provided funding to organizations that then did outreach to farmers to talk about things like what does it takes to become certified organic, what the process looks like, what are the tools you can access to help you understand how to farm organically. This has helped demystify the process and provides a better understanding of the needs of the farming community.

The project did farmer training sessions and created producer networks especially in communities that we haven’t always reached, like non-English speaking communities and Amish and Mennonite communities. All of the tools from these trainings, like tip sheets, videos, and curriculum, are available on our website – which is great, because now others can use them for free to host their own trainings.

All of that creates more of a supply and then taps into that growing organic demand. It’s exciting to see new farmers get into this and established farmers try out some organic production. And the USDA is here to provide assistance.

For more information on the USDA’s organic equivalency agreements or organic certification, visit

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition Trade