The USDA announced today, Jan 17, it's seeking public comments on a proposal for a nationwide research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry. Comments are open through March 20.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA), Washington, has hailed this 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. The OTA pegs the total value of all USDA-certified organic food products sold in the U.S. at $35.9 billion in 2014.
Other proponents say the proposed program will help the growing industry as a whole. They claim the fund would be used to benefit the rapidly growing organic sector. Traditional check-off programs promote only a single commodity, rather than an entire industry.
“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 the OTA. “The OTA led the drive for this check-off because the organic industry is at a critical point," she says. "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.”
The organic industry proposal estimates that the organic check-off, referred to as GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), could raise more than $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 Check-off Board would comprise up of 50 percent producers and 50 percent handlers. Producers will select their regional representatives through direct balloting. At least 50 to 75 percent of the funds would be earmarked specifically for research, or activities that work hand-in-hand with research, like technical assistance and widespread dissemination of research findings.
The organization 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. The group then submitted a revised application a year later to reflect alternatives presented to USDA from organic certificate holders.
Nate Lewis, the OTA’s senior crop and livestock specialist, reports the proposal aims to maximize representation of all organic farmers. The check-off program would be led by a 17-member board comprising producers representing seven geographic areas of the country, handlers, processors, importers and a non-voting member representing the public at large. Assessments, he said, would be assessed at one-tenth of 1 percent on net income greater than $250,000.
In its first year of implementation, the OTA expects the check-off would generate $30 million in assessments. The organization is aiming to split its spending evenly between research, promotion, distribution of information on organic products and discretionary projects.
Opposition to the proposal comes mainly from a group called the No Organic Check-Off Coalition, which includes trade and farming organizations like the Cornucopia Institute, the Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council and Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. They object on the basis that the program wouldn’t promote any specific commodity, and that it could be used to the gain of large agribusiness corporations rather than independent farmers.
"The Coalition believes that organic farmers would be well served to hold onto their marketing money and invest it into their farming businesses, not commit it to a new federally mandatory organic checkoff program," said the No Organic Check-Off Coalition in a January 6 press release.
The USDA established a 60-day public comment period for interested parties to weigh in on the proposal. After the March 20 comment period, 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.