Opinion: The time is right and the need is great for an organic check-off

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Opinion: The time is right and the need is great for an organic check-off

By Organic Trade Association executive director and CEO Laura Batch

Laura Batcha has done all things organic—raising organic crops, selling at famers’ markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, having her own small organic business, working for a multinational organization, and now the head of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the leading organic trade group in the U.S. Under Laura’s leadership OTA is spearheading the push for an Organic Research and Promotion Check-off Program.

My organic roots are deep and go back to when I was fresh out of college and went to work on a certified organic farm in Santa Cruz, California. It was one of the first organic farms in the area—about 20 acres of vegetables. I worked in the fields along with a dozen other young adults from all over the world. Every day I’d sit down for lunch with the other farm workers and we’d talk about the emerging organic movement. From that point on, I’ve worked in the organic industry in one way or another.

I’ve seen incredible changes in organic. When I started in organic, the industry was developing the federal regulations that now guide the sector. Organic is today a $40 billion-plus industry. Sales of organic food and organic non-food products hit new records every year. Consumers in the United States – and around the world – are buying more organic products than ever before.

This is an exciting time for all of us in the organic industry, and we have tremendous opportunity ahead. But organic is facing critical challenges. Consumers are often confused by all the different labels in the store and aren’t aware of everything that the USDA organic seal stands for, and of all the benefits organic offers. Our domestic supply of organic crops, in many cases, is barely keeping up with the robust demand, both at home and abroad.

The United States, one of the largest agricultural producers in the world, has to import foreign-grown organic crops to meet the organic feed grain needs of our organic dairy, livestock and poultry sectors. Our imports of organic corn doubled from 2015 to 2016, and we grow only 20 percent of the organic soybeans needed by our organic operations.

Our organic exports of fresh produce, in the meantime, have accelerated, and the U.S. rightly claims the position of global supplier for fresh organic produce. Organic apple exports alone have jumped by 40 percent in recent years. Consumers everywhere are turning to the U.S. for their organic produce, from apples and strawberries to spinach and lettuce.  

Consumers love organic produce. Organic produce accounts for more than a third of all organic food sales in the United States. Almost 15 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetable sales in this country are organic. But less than one percent of our farmland is organic. We need more organic farmers, and more organic production in this country. Our farmers are losing out on markets both at home and outside the U.S. because we aren’t growing enough organic.

That’s why OTA has spearheaded the now almost 4-year drive for an organic research and promotion check-off program. The Department of Agriculture last month published its official proposal for an organic check-off and is now taking public comments. The next steps will be publication of the final proposal by USDA and a vote by organic stakeholders on the program.

An organic check-off will be funded by the entire organic supply chain: farmers, distributors, processors, retailers. Everyone pays in a little, and everyone reaps the benefits. We estimate the program will raise at least $30 million a year -- $30 million to expand research for organic agriculture, to disseminate that research to farmers, to help combat pests and invasive species, and to educate consumers about organic and to promote the organic brand.

This reform-oriented check-off earmarks at least 50 to 75 percent of the funds specifically for research, or for activities that work hand-in-hand with research, like technical assistance and widespread dissemination of research findings. The check-off requires 25% of producer assessments to go to local and regional research. Organic produce faces very real and imminent threats from invasive species and other types of pests. Weed control is a critical issue. Currently, there is not enough research being directed to meet the needs of the organic produce sector. Tackling unmet research needs, such as alternatives for weed control and agricultural inputs, could translate to everyday solutions for organic specialty crop growers.

Certified organic exports would not be subject to a check-off assessment, but organic imports that are certified by a USDA accredited certifier or qualify for import into the U.S. through an organic equivalency arrangement would be assessed. Organic importers with gross organic revenue of greater than $250,000 will pay an Organic Check-off assessment based on the transaction value reported. If the imported organic goods are put into a finished product, an assessment would be made on one-tenth of one-percent of net organic sales of that finished product (minus the cost of the initial transaction value). There is one seat reserved for assessed importers on the Check-off Board.

Growers who are already paying into a check-off program will get to choose which program they want to put their money into. Nobody will be double-billed! For marketing orders administered at the state level, those producers will qualify for rebate of the state fees of up to 25 percent. And smaller-scale producers with revenue of under $250,000 can choose to pay into the fund and then have full voting rights. For a producer with an annual revenue of say, $100,000, the annual assessment would be around $100.

I’ve stayed in organic all my working life because of the can-do attitude and the vision of the organic movement. We’ve created this incredibly successful and healthy system largely on our own, and we need to again take control of our future and invest back in our movement. The future of organic depends on it.


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