The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is moving toward a “voluntary check-off” program of fee assessments to support organic foods, in the wake of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision not to impose a mandatory one.
The USDA announced in May that it was canceling a proposed rule to establish the program, citing a lack of consensus among industry players, especially farmers. The OTA stepped in, announcing on Sept. 6 its plan to try to get farmers, food processors and others involved in organic products to voluntarily fund a “research, promotion and education check-off program.”
The USDA administers check-off programs to promote and find innovative uses for agricultural commodities. They have a checkered history among farmers, many of whom don’t want to pony up for a program that they see as primarily benefiting processors. That objection came to the forefront during debates about the organic check-off proposal.
“The organic check-off, like all other commodity check-off programs, is a tax imposed by the industry on farmers,” said Tony Schultz, a member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which voted against the organic check-off early this year. “Not only are check-off programs not proven to work, or provide benefits to farmers, they also have a history of corruption and malfeasance.”
But Laura Batcha, CEO of the OTA, says that the organic sector needs the kind of collective boost that a check-off program can furnish.
“There is a critical need to educate consumers about organic, for more technical assistance to help more farmers transition to organic, and to loudly promote the organic brand,” Batcha says.
The OTA has established a steering committee to implement its proposed voluntary check-off. Processors represented on that committee include J.M. Smucker, Organic Valley and Stonyfield.