Potential organic check-off program moves forward

by Jeff Gelski
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The program would educate consumers about the U.S.D.A.’s organic seal and how it distinguishes organic claims from other claims such as “natural."

WASHINGTON — A national check-off program for organics could raise more than $30 million a year to advance the industry, according to the Organic Trade Association. The National Farmers Union, however, has concerns over how the money will be spent.

The O.T.A., in collaboration with the GRO Organic Core Committee, on May 12 petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin steps to conduct a vote on and implement a research and promotion check-off program for the organics industry. The program would feature mandatory fees, which is similar to a program already in place in the meat industry and known for the slogan “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.”

“The organic industry in America is thriving and maturing, but it is at a critical juncture,” said Laura Batcha, chief executive officer and executive director of the Washington-based O.T.A. “Many consumers remain unaware of what that organic seal really means.

“Organic production in this country is not keeping pace with the robust demand. An organic check-off program would give organic stakeholders the opportunity to collectively invest in research, build domestic supply and communicate the value of the organic brand to advance the entire industry to a new level.”

The program would educate consumers about the U.S.D.A.’s organic seal and how it distinguishes organic claims from other claims such as “natural,” confirm the science behind organic benefits, fund research to solve problems such as pests and weeds, and bring new farmers into organic production through information and technical assistance.

The GRO (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organics) program proposes an assessment rate of one-tenth of 1% of net organic sales. Organic handlers would be required to pay this rate. Organic producers would have the option of paying one-tenth of 1% of either net organic sales or producer net profit.

Organic producers, handlers and importers with gross organic revenue below $250,000 per year would not be required to pay into the check-off program. If they did so voluntarily, they would be eligible to vote in program referendums.

A referendum would be required every seven years to decide whether or not to continue the program. Every certificate holder subject to the assessment would have a direct vote. A check-off board would be made up of 50% producers and 50% handlers.

The 2014 farm bill passed by Congress gives the U.S.D.A. the authority to consider and hold a vote on the organic check-off program.

Roger Johnson, president of the Washington-based National Farmers Union, on May 13 said he had issues with the O.T.A.’s proposed program.

First, he said producers should make up a majority of the check-off board.

“The proposed board would have considerable oversight of the check-off dollars, including 25% for discretionary purposes,” Mr. Johnson said. “Producers should have a majority of the board seats since they are clearly a majority of all certificate holders.”

Mr. Johnson also said a higher percentage of the funds should focus on agricultural research. The current proposal allocates 25%. He said the administrative cap of 15% of funds is too high and should be lowered to 5%.

“This is the first step toward an organic check-off, and N.F.U. looks forward to working with U.S.D.A. and stakeholders to ensure the check-off adequately addresses the needs of organic family farmers and ranchers,” Mr. Johnson said. “N.F.U. will work throughout this lengthy process to make sure the check-off works for N.F.U. members according to policy enacted by delegates to its convention.”

Not everyone wants an organic check-off program.

“The O.T.A. has invested heavily in a national publicity campaign to convince farmers of the merits of their proposal,” said Mark A. Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, on Feb. 5. “It’s a hard sell because the professional agriculturalists have plenty of experience with  mandatory check-offs in other commodities where university research has illustrated that when there has been any economic value at all, it has accrued to the processors rather than the farmers.”

The Cornucopia Institute, a tax-exempt public interest group based in Cornucopia, Wis., engages in educational activities to support sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agricultural issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides information to consumers, family farmers and the media.

The O.T.A., which represents more than 8,500 organic businesses, said that to explore the feasibility of a check-off program, it gathered information over three years through town hall meetings, panel discussions, surveys and phone calls. More than 5,000 organic farms and businesses responded to surveys, with support for a check-off program leading by a margin of 2 to 1.

“The need for more organic research, and a funding mechanism to finance it, is huge,” said Doug Crabtree, an organic farmer from Montana. “Research of organic seed breeding is starving for funds, as is any long-term organic farming systems research.”

Nicole Dawes, founder and c.e.o. of Late July Organic Snacks, Boston, said, “As an industry we haven’t done a great job explaining to shoppers what it means to be organic and the benefits of organic. As a result, consumers are still confused by the difference between certified organic, all natural and non-G.M.O. products.”

The U.S.D.A. now will review the petition. Then an official proposal for an organic research and promotion check-off program may be published in the Federal Register. A public comment period would follow. Then a referendum would include all certified organic stakeholders eligible to vote. If a majority of organic stakeholders approve it, the check-off program would be implemented, according to the O.T.A.
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