WASHINGTON — When Sarah Smith’s Grassland Organic Farm in Skowhegan needed help to create pastures where cows could graze even in a summer drought, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program chipped in $1,300 and priceless expert advice.

That and other programs that boost organic farmers could be cut as lawmakers struggle with spending priorities, with the focus on reducing the federal deficit and national debt.

So when Smith, 29, arrived on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby for the Organic Trade Association and Organic Farming Research Foundation, she made the case for why the relatively modest programs that aid organic farmers nationwide are a sound fiscal investment, creating jobs and protecting the environment.

Nationally, the organic products industry has flourished in the past few years, growing to a $29 billion industry in 2010, up from $3.6 billion in 1997, according to the organic farming organizations. Also, 96 percent of the 14,540 organic farms and ranches nationwide plan to maintain or increase employment this year, they say.

In Maine, there are 383 certified organic farms on 41,000 acres, generating $36.6 million in sales and supporting 1,600 jobs, Smith said.

The Grassland Organic Farm, which she runs with her husband, Garin, sells certified organic milk, vegetables and culinary herbs, certified organic beef and “rose” veal, and naturally pastured hens and broiler chickens.

She considers herself a job creator; the farm recently added its first year-round, full-time employee. The Smiths also have two seasonal employees and hope to add two more.

“These are legitimate farm businesses we are talking about, not a bunch of hobby farmers,” Smith said.

Organic farming is still economically modest, relative to the multibillion-dollar agribusiness industry that uses conventional farming methods, Smith said.

Likewise, programs aiding organic farming make up less than 1 percent of the $134 billion Department of Agriculture budget, which itself is less than 4 percent of the federal budget, said Ariane Lotti, policy director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

However, the Obama administration and some members of Congress are considering cutting aid aimed at organic farmers.

The administration has proposed cutting general farming conservation stewardship and environmental quality incentive programs in its 2012 budget, some of which aids organic farmers.

House Republicans’ proposed budget for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, slashed several programs that specifically aid organic farmers, including a $5 million research-and-information program, according to Lotti’s lobbying group.

“We’re actually pretty concerned,” said Lotti, who accompanied Smith on Wednesday to visits with Maine’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Smith said she came away encouraged by the support that Pingree and Collins expressed.

Collins said in a statement after her meeting with Smith, “We both agree that USDA should focus more on helping to grow organic farming instead of funding large, corporate farming operations with taxpayer subsidies and continuing to spend billions of dollars to subsidize corn-based ethanol.”

Pingree, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, serves on a subcommittee that oversees organic food. She also owns a farm with her fiance on the island of North Haven.

She said in an interview after meeting with Smith that she remains optimistic that organic-farming advocates can make a case for why a relatively modest amount of federal spending can bring major returns.

Talking to groups about the value of organic farming prompts widespread, bipartisan nods of support, Pingree said.

“People in Maine are thrilled to see small farms coming back,” she said.

Smith was to leave Washington this morning, but another advocate of organic farming is scheduled to meet today with U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Federal organic farming programs have “achieved a great deal of good, especially in states like Maine,” Snowe said in a prepared statement. “At the same time, given the current budget climate and burgeoning deficits and debt, when it comes to the federal budget, we face a huge challenge.”

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

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