Organic Check-off: An Historic Step for Organic

Trailblazing research and promotion program could take sector to new level

Research. Information. Technical assistance. More research.

Research to bring new farmers into organic, to find organic solutions to fight invasive pests and weeds, to breed organic seeds that are so scarce. Regular dissemination of the latest information and technical data to assist organic farmers and keep them up to date on key research findings and other vital facts. 
 
And reform. Reform to create a new kind of check-off program for the organic industry that would be accountable, open to scrutiny, and always reflect the needs and interests of the organic  farmers and processors and organic businesses it would be charged to represent.
 
Those were the major themes resonating from three years of conversation between the Organic Trade Association and the entire swath of the country’s organic stakeholders in the long drive to formulate a check-off research and promotion program for the organic brand and the organic production system.

“The organic check-off is going to be so broad to promote the benefits of organic that is not a small versus big or us versus them. We are promoting organic and we all share that, no matter what size our farm is or what size our company is. There are shared values and shared principles of organic. That is what the organic check-off will promote.”  

— Jesse Laflamme, Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs


OTA listened, analyzed, studied and researched. And on May 12, OTA, in collaboration with the GRO Organic core committee, formally petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to begin steps to conduct a vote on and implement a research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry.

OTA’s action is a ground-breaking move with the potential to have far-reaching and significant impacts for the nation’s organic sector, and marks another benchmark for an industry that has been advancing and evolving and changing the landscape of American agriculture and the food we eat for almost half a century.

More than 40 years ago, the American public began to call for a change in the nation’s food system. People wanted to eat foods grown without the use of toxic chemicals, processed without artificial colors and preservatives, and produced in ways that did not compromise the environment. This desire for a responsible, clean and healthy food system became a nationwide call to action that, in 1990, culminated in Congress authorizing an act leading to current rules for the entire system of certified organic agriculture in the United States.

The authorization of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was transformative for the organic sector. It brought together the hodgepodge of state and private organic certification programs and the many different standards and regulations used by organic farmers and processors around the country into a single set of clear and strict criteria for the organic industry. With a uniform and coherent set of rules to work with, the U.S. organic industry took off.

Now 25 years after that benchmark moment, the organic sector is again poised for another dramatic advancement.


“The organic industry in America is thriving and maturing, but it is at a critical juncture. 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.”

— Laura Batcha, Organic Trade Association


OTA’s action marks the first time in the 49-year history of U.S. agricultural check-off programs that organic would be recognized as a distinct commodity class based on production practices. The organic check-off, referred to as GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic) would be an unprecedented multi-commodity, full supply-chain program in which the common thread is the set of organic production practices and the organic brand.  

“For the first time the organic industry will reach out to consumers with a single voice to educate them about what the organic seal means.  I believe all farmers, large and small, will greatly benefit from the research and promotion made possible by the revenue the organic check-off program will generate,” said Luis Acuña of Viva Tierra Organic, organic produce farm and distributor in the state of Washington. “It will be exciting to see what the future holds for our movement and industry after we reach this new milestone.”

GRO Organic would represent and promote all organic products; it would represent and promote the organic brand and the organic agricultural production system. Organic is different, and so would be the organic check-off.  It is a daring concept, and did not come without a healthy debate and discussion within the organic sector.

Unlike any other check-off program, the proposed organic check-off has been designed to solve what hasn’t worked in other research and promotion programs, emphasizes what has worked, and creates an innovative program tailor-made for today’s organic sector.

“I’m really happy to see organic is growing up,” said organic blueberry grower Donna Miller.

“An organic check-off will help the industry bring the message to consumers of why organic is important and what the difference is between organic and conventional farming,” said Miller, who farms 32 acres of certified organic blueberries in west central Florida. “Consumers need to realize that the difference goes right down to the ground and to what we are putting in our drinking water through our farming practices.”


“For the first time the organic industry will reach out to consumers with a single voice to educate them about what the organic seal means.”

                     — Luis Acuña, Viva Tierra Organic


OTA led the drive to explore the feasibility of an organic check-off, gathering information over three years throughout the country from the organic community—farmers, processors, distributors and other organic businesses. In town hall meetings, panel discussions, surveys and phone calls, the needs and challenges—and how to meet those needs and challenges—of the organic industry were discussed and analyzed. More than 5,000 organic farms and businesses responded to OTA’s extensive surveys, weighing in support of establishing a dedicated organic check-off by a margin of 2 to 1, with little or no difference in the amount of support between the size and types of operations.

It’s estimated that GRO Organic could raise over $30 million a year to move the organic sector forward. Rooted in a strong focus on research to make farmers successful and technical services to accelerate the adoption of organic practices, the proposed program is designed to address organic’s most pressing needs: bringing new farmers into organic production, increasing organic research, and educating consumers about organic and its benefits.

A huge portion of the funds raised by the check-off—50 to 75 percent—will be dedicated to research, information dissemination and technical assistance. Not only is research devoted to organic agriculture sadly in need, but without the rapid dissemination of research findings or the unavailability of resources for technical assistance, organic farmers will continue to be held in check.


HELP WANTED

How to get more farmers into organic is an urgent challenge for the growing organic sector.

Demand for organic products in this country has never been greater. OTA’s most recent survey of the U.S. organic industry showed that organic sales in 2014 reached a new record of $39.1 billion, a jump of 11 percent. Organic food sales totaled $35.9 billion, also up more than 10 percent. Organic food now accounts for almost 5 percent of the huge U.S. food market, and some organic categories like organic produce now command more than a ten percent market share.


“At Organic Valley, we look not only at how to invest in our brand but how to invest in our supply—our farmers. We understand the pinch of tight resources, how and when to balance consumer marketing, and why we must get more farmers in the pipeline and keep them on the land to farm for all our families. This is largely an independent effort, and when we look at issues of organic feed costs, the need for more infrastructure and research, we see that we need a bigger boat. We need all of the organic industry to be supporting these conversations, the allocation of resources for the best priorities.”

— Melissa Hughes, Organic Valley


But organic acreage is still less than 1 percent of the total farm acreage in the United States. The widening disparity between organic supplies and organic demand means that organic milk producers have been forced to turn to foreign-grown organic products for organic feed for their cattle. Organic processors and handlers have also had to look abroad to fulfill their orders. And despite the best efforts to satisfy the growing appetite for organic, many retailers find that running short of organic products on their grocery shelves is not that rare of an occurrence.

 “We have the organic demand here, and we have the ability to grow organic here; what we need to do is increase the organic production,” said Roger Lansink, an organic corn, soybean, and barley grower in northwest Iowa. Lansink and his two sons farm 750 acres of organic crops, and have been certified organic for 20 years. Lansink thinks that now is the time for the organic industry to come together to advance itself, and that the organic check-off could be the way.

“This check-off would greatly enhance organic’s ability to meet the demand. This check-off would allow funds to be spent on bringing new farmers into organic, so that organic supply can grow,” said Lansink. “It would focus on increasing organic production, which would be unlike other check-offs which focus on increasing demand. This is on the right track.”


RESEARCH NEEDS

The lack of funds for organic research—on organic production, on ways to control pests and weeds organically, on organic seed breeding, and more—is a key obstacle in the effort to increase organic production. And the corresponding lack of accurate and up-to-date data about the findings of key organic research and studies, along with an at-best spotty infrastructure to turn to for technical assistance, have kept the organic sector at a disadvantage.

Organic producers throughout the country say that without good research—and good information and adequate technical assistance—to help them deal with everyday problems, they are often fighting an uphill battle in staying ahead of the bugs and invasive weeds and unexpected diseases.

“The money spent on organic research is a fraction of what is spent on conventional research. An organic check-off could help organic farming the most by providing funds for research for organic systems,” said Perry Clutts, organic dairy farmer in Ohio. “Research helps present organic farmers reach higher potential, and it also gives confidence to future organic farmers to transition.”

“The need for a funding mechanism for organic research is huge,” added Doug Crabtree, organic grain and legume farmer in north central Montana. “Organic crops should be grown from organic seeds, but until there is dedicated funding for organic seeds, we are going to fall behind. We need more long-term research on crop rotation and on long-term farm system trials. Organic is starving for research funds, and the check-off could be a way to channel money into the system.”

Florida blueberry grower Miller agreed: “Organic needs more research dollars for the organic problems we’re all fighting with …We could rocket what is available money-wise for organic research if we could provide some funds from an organic check-off.”


CONFUSED CONSUMERS

Consumers all over the country, of all ages, income levels, political leanings and ethnic backgrounds, are buying organic.

Market research released this spring by OTA shows that from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Coast, from Detroit to Houston, sales of organic products are posting double-digit increases. The majority of American households in all regions of the country now make organic a part of their supermarket and retail purchases—from 68 to almost 80 percent of households in southern states, to nearly 90 percent on the West Coast and in New England.

And while the average shopper knows a lot more about organic than in years past, there is still much confusion about what the organic label stands for, and misleading information on what differentiates organic from all the unregulated claims on food that have proliferated in the grocery aisle.


“An organic check-off program offers the organic industry an opportunity to unite and work toward a common goal of growing more organic. While there is increasing demand for organic, there are many more people who still don’t understand what organic is about and how they and the planet can benefit. Furthermore, some organic farmers face challenges that investment in agronomic research and other field-based activities would help overcome. An organic check-off program can help move the entire industry in the right direction to address these challenges, and help us get closer to the future we want to see with more organic available to all.” 

— Shauna Sadowski, Annie’s Inc.


One-third of organic consumers are new to the market and have been buying organic for less than two years, so they’re still learning all the facts. But, even for many people who have been buying organic regularly for some period, there is still a lack of knowledge that there is a huge infrastructure of regulations and standards behind the organic label. 

“People don’t always understand that organic is the highest standard out there. Over the years of interacting with consumers, we know first-hand how confused consumers are about organic in the broad sense,” said Jesse Laflamme, organic egg producer and founder of Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs in New Hampshire.

“To have a program from a high level that educates on the benefits of organic is critical: that farmers are not allowed to use toxic chemicals, that farmers aren’t allowed to use antibiotics, not allowed to use growth hormones, and more; those are very high level virtues of organic that are somewhat unclear and often not differentiated enough from other brands,” said Laflamme.

Vermont organic farmer Abbie Corse shares Laflamme’s concern, and says the organic sector needs to come together through a check-off program to pool funds to tell consumers the value of organic: “There is so much confusion in the marketplace for consumers...We need to let them know that when they buy USDA Organic, they are buying good, for their children, their family, their environment, their world. If we don't put our money where our mouth is, who is going to?”


REFORM FOCUSED

Commodity check-off programs have been a part of American agriculture for almost fifty years, and numerous studies have been done on the effectiveness of those programs during that period. Most studies have found that check-offs have boosted funding for research, increased awareness and demand for the product they are promoting, and have returned a good investment on the dollar.

That said, some of the older research and promotion programs established as “stand-alone” Acts of Congress have been criticized for not always using check-off funds wisely or in the best interests of the sector they represent. The Generic Act, under which the GRO Organic program would be established, resolves many of these issues through new rules on how much of check-off funds can be spent for administrative purposes, identifying production practices as a research area for check-off funds and other new criteria.


“Organic is starving for research funds, and the check-off could be a way to channel money into the system.”

— Doug Crabtree, Vilicus Farms


OTA went even further in the crafting of the check-off proposal, learning from the concerns of farmers and other stakeholders, and creating a program that would represent the best of all the check-off programs.

“This is not your father’s check-off,” said Melissa Hughes, Director of Government Affairs for Organic Valley, the nation’s oldest organic dairy cooperative, and president of  OTA’s Board of Directors. “This check-off is unique as the sector it is representing. It contains meaningful reforms to improve upon older check-offs.”

The key reforms put in place in the organic check-off proposal include:

  • Equal representation on the Check-off Board of producers and handlers.
  • Direct election of producer board members through direct balloting of producers.
  • A full value chain of assessment, with all organic stakeholders paying into the program.
  • A referendum every seven years to decide whether or not to continue the program.
  • The option for farmers and handlers with gross organic revenue below $250,000 to voluntarily pay into the program.
  • The option for organic producers to pay an assessment based on Net Organic Sales or Producer Net Profit.
  • Earmarking up to 75 percent of the check-off funds for research (including regional priorities), for disseminating information on organic research and studies, and for technical assistance.
  • Ensuring that all the research, inventions and innovations resulting from organic check-off programing remain in the public domain.

Will everyone like the organic check-off? No. But Iowa farmer Lansink sums it up: “If we get this passed and it doesn’t work out, we get to come back in seven years and take it back. But right now is the time for the organic industry to come together. “

An organic check-off. Unprecedented. Forward-thinking. Future-oriented. Like the industry it would be representing. //


Perspectives on an Organic Check-off 


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