The Organic Trade Association has petitioned the USDA for a national checkoff program, which would raise an estimated $30 million a year for research and promotion.
The proposal is three years in the making, led by OTA, which has 8,500 members, and a core committee of stakeholders focused on research to support organic production, grow the industry and communicate the value of organic agriculture to consumers.
Widespread support exists for much-needed research, both in plant breeding and addressing pests and disease, but many organic producers mistrust government-run checkoff programs and some question the need for promotion.
Organic sales in the U.S. have grown from $10 billion in 2003 to $39.1 billion in 2014, and the number of certified operations — producers, handlers and processors — has grown from about 8,000 to nearly 19,500 in the same period.
Organic demand is booming, production isn’t keeping pace, research is lacking, and consumers are confused about the meaning of the USDA organic seal, said OTA CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha.
“The organic industry in America is thriving and maturing, but it is at a critical juncture,” she said.
An organic checkoff would give stakeholders the opportunity to collectively invest in addressing those challenges and advancing the entire industry, she said.
Organic consultant Dave Carter of Westminster, Colo., served on the National Organics Standards Board and supports the checkoff, saying it is needed if the industry is going to increase production.
Research is critically needed to bring more acres into production, increase profitability and ease the transition period for new growers. Education and promotion are also needed to communicate the health and environmental benefits of organic and clear up the confusion between organic, non-genetically modified foods and “natural,” he said.
Funding for research is particularly important because public funding for research often has to be matched. Educating the public on organic agriculture and organic production is going to take effort and investment because organic is such a rich, complex issue it’s hard to get out the message in sound bites, he said.
Doug Crabtree, who with wife, Anna, farms 4,700 dryland acres of small grains, pulses and oil seeds south of the Canadian border in Havre, Mont., serves on OTA’s farmer advisory council.
“I just think it’s common sense. We all benefit from organic markets, and we need a way to collect funds and give them back for research and promotion of our own industry,” he said.
The organic industry is in a good place, positioned to grow demand, but it needs research aimed at soil health, pests and seeds. Having checkoff funding to leverage USDA funding for research can only benefit organic agriculture, he said.
“I just think it’s really important we reinvest some of our own funds to benefit our community, our industry. We can’t wait for government to do it for us,” he said.
Longtime organic grower Nate Jones of King Hill, Idaho, said he likes the idea of funding for research but doesn’t think he’s in favor of the checkoff at this point.
“I have mixed emotions. I want to know who’s going to administer it. The promotional part is a little suspect. Our industry seems to be growing on its own with its own momentum,” he said.
“My gut feeling is it would favor the larger conglomerates,” he said.
Paying to get more people to grow production is also a bit counterintuitive, he said.
“Those of us in it maybe want to keep the golden goose as long as possible,” he said.
Fred Brossy, who with wife, Judy, has farmed organically for more than 20 years, said he isn’t sure where he stands on the checkoff.
OTA will be the driver of the money if the checkoff goes through, he said, and he’s concerned the organization “represents the big end of organic not the little end, of which I am.”
It would be another mandatory fee, which may or may not be going for what smaller organic farmers stand for, and administrative costs are an issue with all checkoffs, he said.
“I’m not sure big organic needs to be represented by all of us. They have deep pockets, let them do their own,” Brossy said.
A checkoff to grow production would put more organic products on the shelf for consumers, but organic speaks for itself pretty well already, he said.
Carter said he gets nervous when so much of the debate gets tied up in size.
“Being organic is being true to organic standards,” he said.
Small producers should be able to benefit by default from additional product sales, and research will give them better tools, he said.
Crabtree said he had some of the same concerns as Jones and Brossy and suggests organic producers read the proposal and become informed. The proposal was changed a number of times in response to grower concerns, including his, he said.
“There’s been tremendous responsiveness on the part of OTA,” he said.
Producers would have half the seats on the checkoff board, and growers and handlers with annual gross organic revenue under $250,000 would have the option whether to pay into the program.
Organic Trade Association: www/ota.com