The USDA’s decision earlier this week to abandon stricter animal welfare standards has drawn widespread criticism and support.

But the agency’s decision could benefit small farmers by giving them a chance to stand out in what is an increasingly crowded organic market.

The proposed standards would have required producers to give their livestock enough space to lie down, turn around, stand up and fully stretch.

Matt Bershadker, CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said in an Associated Press article Tuesday that “Millions of animals will continue to suffer each year because of the USDA’s abdication of its duty to enforce meaningful organic animal welfare standards.”

Kevin Kester, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said the rule would have “vilified conventionally raised livestock without recognizing our commitment to raise all cattle humanely.”

Supporters claim that current organic animal regulations are too vague, but there is also big money at stake.

Much of the organic milk, eggs and other products sold in some of the nation’s largest stores is produced on only a handful of farms.

Organic groups have long questioned whether large organic farms such as the 15,000-cow Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado and Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Michigan are adhering to pasture requirements set by the National Organic Program, and they want more uniform standards across the board.

Farm policy research group Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint last year against Aurora, which supplies organic milk for Walmart, Costco and Target, for failing to adhere to organic standards.

The government closed its investigation in September after finding no violations of organic standards.

Even though the USDA has abandoned stricter organic animal welfare standards, that doesn’t mean individual farmers have to do so.

Numerous third-party auditors — the USDA even has some listed on its website — are available for farmers who want a “humanely raised” certification, or something similar.

These certifications can add value to what organic farmers sell and provide an alternative to buying organic foods in the grocery store.

Francis Thicke, who runs an organic dairy and grows crops in southeastern Iowa, told the AP that a group of organic farmers has created its own label, the Real Organic Project, and hopes to have pilot farms certified this summer.

There is no question consumers want more information on how their food is raised, organically or not. But they also want to know who their farmers are and to see the animals for themselves.

In that sense, our region’s organic farmers already have an advantage over larger farms in the West because they are close to large population centers.

So if you’re a small, organic farmer, get that third-party animal welfare certification and also get to know your buyers.