Washington, D.C. – From a state that typically gets more federal farm subsidies than any other state, it was an unusual message – the economic director of Woodbury County, Ia., told lawmakers Wednesday that current federal subsidies are doing little to preserve rural communities.

Small-scale organic operations run by young farmers could make a difference, said Robert Marqusee, but federal help is needed to get them started.

“Without modification of federal farm policy, the picture of rural America will be bleaker and beyond repair in the very near future,” Marqusee told a new House agriculture subcommittee that is focusing on organic farming.

Woodbury County is trying to draw organic farmers to the area by offering property tax rebates and establishing local markets for their food. A program enacted last year requires the county to purchase locally grown, organic food where available.

But so far, there’s little food available. About 3,000 acres of the county’s 440,000 acres of agricultural land are used for organic crops.

The Woodbury County project won’t necessarily pay for itself. An Iowa State University study concluded that the economic impact of new organic farms was unlikely to be sufficient to pay for the county’s property tax abatements. The county’s $50,000 program could support conversion of 3,541 acres, the study said.

The county has several other prospects for additional farms, but it is hard to persuade older, established farmers to convert to organic agriculture when they are dependent on federal subsidies, Marqusee said.

“The demand is there. Organic food is the only growing segment of the food industry, yet federal policy does not promote on equal footing the organic food industry,” he said.

A nearby county, Cherokee, has since implemented a similar tax incentive.

But Marqusee acknowledged in a written statement that there is “no one silver bullet policy” to make rural communities thrive.

The organic industry wants Congress to add money to the 2007 farm bill to pay for organic agriculture research and to aid farmers in converting their farms to organic practices.

Farms must be free of pesticides and other synthetic chemicals for three years before they can be certified as organic, but their crops can’t be sold as organic during that period.

Federal crop insurance for organic crops also is inadequate, Marqusee said. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture lacks sufficient personnel to regulate the industry, industry representatives told the lawmakers.

Republicans warned that money is scarce for additional programs, including organic agriculture. Texas Rep. Randy Neugebauer, the subcommittee’s senior Republican, said he was “cautious about increasing the role of USDA in the organic marketplace and in producers’ decisions whether or not to engage in organic agriculture.”

With Democrats in control of the House and Senate, the industry has a better chance of getting funding out of Congress than it has had in the past. That the House Agriculture Committee would devote a hearing – and a subcommittee – to organic agriculture is unusual in and of itself.

Organic foods now represent 2.5 percent of total retail food sales, said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who is chairman of the subcommittee.

He said he was concerned that imported foods from China and elsewhere were being sold as organic in the United States without meeting basic standards of organic agriculture.

“The first and perhaps foremost challenge is ensuring the continued integrity of the USDA organic seal,” Cardoza said.