The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Tuesday announced it is seeking public comments to a proposal for a nationwide research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) hailed the action as a significant step that will advance the growing organic sector and have important and long-lasting benefits for organic farmers, businesses and consumers alike.
“We applaud USDA moving forward on this proposal that was authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill with strong bipartisan support,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of OTA. “OTA led the drive for this check-off because the organic industry is at a critical point. This organic check-off will provide research and key tools to encourage more farmers to go organic and help all organic farmers be more successful. It will educate consumers in a positive way about what that organic seal really means. For the benefit of all of us, this proactive program will further the success of organic agriculture for the long term.”
Going on public display in the Federal Register on January 17, the organic industry proposal estimates the organic check-off, referred to as GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), could raise over $30 million a year to spend on research to make farmers successful, technical services to accelerate the adoption of organic practices, and consumer education and promotion of the organic brand.
The OTA officially submitted an application to USDA in May 2015 on behalf of the organic industry to consider implementing the program after gathering information over three years throughout the country in town hall meetings, panel discussions, surveys and phone calls. OTA submitted a revised application a year later to reflect alternatives presented to USDA from organic certificate holders.
Early in its process, OTA conducted multiple surveys of ALL organic certificate holders across the nation—some 17,500 stakeholders at that time—to gauge the interest in an organic check-off. In the various surveys, OTA got a response of around 5,000 certificate holders, which showed that twice as many certified operators supported the establishment of an organic check-off program as opposed. To date, nearly 1,400 organic stakeholders publicly support the GRO Organic check-off, with 75 percent of those organic certificate holders being farmers and ranchers.
“The time is right for a research and promotion check-off program designed for the organic sector. It’s time for organic stakeholders to invest back in our movement—to fund research to help organic farmers, to create and initiate projects to nurture new organic farmers. An organic check-off will allow us to speak to the American consumer in a strong and unified voice.” said Melissa Hughes, President of OTA’s Board of Directors and Director of Government Affairs for Organic Valley, the nation’s oldest organic dairy cooperative.
The proposed organic check-off would be progressive and reform-based:
+ The Check-off Board would be made up of 50 percent producers and 50 percent handlers.
+ Producers will select their regional representatives through direct balloting.
+ Every single certificate holder subject to an assessment will have a direct vote—there is no bloc voting.
+ Assessments would be made throughout the value chain: producers, handlers, processors, retailers.
+ Farmers and handlers with gross organic revenue below $250,000 will choose whether or not to pay into the program.
+ At least 50 to 75 percent of the funds would be earmarked specifically for research, or for activities that work hand-in-hand with research, like technical assistance and widespread dissemination of research findings.
+ Twenty-five percent of the assessment from producers would be required to be used for local and regional research. A Board sub-committee of regional seat holders would recommend how those funds would be used.
+ All of the research, inventions and innovations resulting from organic check-off programming would remain in the public domain.
+ A referendum is required every seven years to decide whether or not to continue the program.
Now is the time, say organic stakeholders
Sales of organic food and non-food products in the U.S. are soaring, and the popularity of organic products has never been higher. Total organic product sales in this country hit a new benchmark of $43.3 billion in 2015, up a robust 11 percent from the previous year’s record level and far outstripping the overall food market’s growth rate of 3 percent, according OTA’s 2016 Organic Industry Survey. But tight domestic organic supplies, inadequate funding for organic research, and consumer confusion about organic are major challenges for the sector. Organic stakeholders say the organic community needs to come together to invest back into its future.
“Organic is done being an awkward teenager. Its place at the table is now, and it deserves our efforts to preserve and advance the hard work of the last half-century,” said Todd Linsky, a veteran in the organic produce industry and now head of Todd Linsky Consulting. “I can think of no reason not to support the Organic Check-off–-it just makes common sense for all of our common goals.”
“We know first-hand how confused consumers are about organic in the broad sense. Is natural better? Is GMO-free as good as organic? To have a program from a high level that educates on the benefits of organic is critical,” said Jesse Laflamme, co-owner of Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs based in Monroe, New Hampshire.
“An organic check-off will provide a stable, reliable source of funding to support research into organic production methods and dissemination of new and existing research information to farmers. Check-off funds can support development of support systems necessary to enable expansion and success of organic farmers,” said Doug Crabtree, organic farmer from Montana.
“We as organic brands need to consistently work together to educate consumers in clear and concise ways,” said Shazi Visram, founder and CEO of Happy Family, maker of organic baby and toddler foods. “Strength in numbers and of a broad group of people with the same goals is an exciting prospect. A check-off process will allow for expansion of the organic sector in a logical, impactful way.”
What’s next in the process
USDA established a 60-day public comment period for interested parties to now weigh in on the proposal. Comments on the proposal are due March 20. The final step will be a referendum on the proposed check-off, with all certified organic stakeholders paying into the program eligible to vote. Approval by a majority of the organic stakeholders voting is required for implementation.
More information on the check-off is provided on the GROorganic.net site.