“An Organic Check-Off program would strengthen the voice of the organic sector and allow us to get our message to the American consumer in a clear, transparent way. It would enable the entire sector to benefit from promotion and research programs that provide consumer education, on-farm and regional research solutions, and ultimately, increase the number of organic farmers. It would be a game changer for organic, for our children and our planet.”
Gary Hirshberg, Chairman, Stonyfield Farm & Just Label
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is seeking public comments on the GRO Organic Check-off proposal for a nationwide research and promotion program for the organic sector. The complete text of the proposal is available for review on the Federal Register, or you can find a summary of the program and an excerpt of the proposed regulation here.
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 the organic seal really means. The organic check-off, referred to as GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), could raise over $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.
Organic producers and handlers would pay one-tenth of one percent of Net Organic Sales. The assessment would be based on total gross sales minus the cost of certified organic goods. For example, there would be a $100 assessment at $100,000 Net Organic Sales and a $1,000 assessment at $1,000,000 Net Organic Sales.
An industry-governed board, appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture with input from the organic sector, would direct an Organic Check-Off program. This board would be responsible for allocating funds and approving organic research, promotion plans and programs. The composition of the board would reflect the diversity of sectors paying into the check-off, in addition to having balanced regional participation and strong producer representation. Producers would hold at least 50 percent of the seats on the board and directly choose their regional representatives. Producers will directly select their regional representatives through a simple nomination and balloting process.
An organic check-off would be unlike any other check-off program in American agriculture. Nothing like it has ever been tried, so the idea has understandably raised some questions. OTA has talked to lots of organic stakeholders over the past three years, and has found there’s a core group of concerns that keep coming up. We’ve also found that most of these concerns are based on perceptions of older check-offs, and we’ve addressed these issues. Here’s how:
Concern: Producers won’t be adequately represented and will get overshadowed by large corporate interests.
Solution: The composition of the check-off board has been designed with the key objective to give producers a strong voice. Organic producers will hold least half of the voting seats on the check-off board. Those producers will represent different regions, and will be directly elected by producers in their region. Producers are the backbone of the organic industry, and their needs and interests will not be overlooked or diminished.
Concern: Smaller-scale producers and handlers wouldn’t have a say in the program.
Solution: The check-off has been crafted so that producers and handlers with revenue under $250,000 could choose to be assessed. If they chose to participate and pay into the program, they’d have full voting rights.
Concern: It would be too expensive for the smaller operations.
The assessment rate is broad and shallow; everybody pays a little into the program and everyone benefits. The assessment rate would be 1/10 of 1 percent of Net Organic Sales. Only those organic farmers and businesses with sales over $250,000 would be mandated to contribute.
Concern: Not enough of the check-off funds would go into research.
Solution: An absolutely paramount objective of the GRO Organic program is to increase research for organic in order to help organic farmers deal with everyday problems, accelerate the adoption of organic practices and boost organic production. At least 50 to 75 percent of the check-off funds have been earmarked specifically for research or for activities that work hand-in-hand with research, such as technical assistance and widespread information dissemination of research findings. Also, because organic producers have identified local and regional research as a critical need, a board sub-committee of regional producer seat holders would be established to recommend to the full board just how those research funds should be spent.
Concern: Too much of the check-off money would be spent on salaries and administrative costs, and other questionable activities.
Solution: A number of common-sense prohibitions are written into the check-off: First, a tight maximum cap of 15 percent of assessments has been established for administrative expenses; second, no check-off dollars could be used for lobbying; third, no check-off dollars could be used to promote individual brands.
Concern: Once this is in place, it won’t be able to be terminated.
Solution: A referendum is required every seven years to decide whether or not to continue the program. The organic check-off has been crafted to be accountable and transparent. If organic stakeholders are not satisfied with the program, they can vote to end it.