Feds begin review of organic check-off program proposals USDA said it has option to hold public meetings on submitted proposals

by Sustainable Food News http://www.sustainablefoodnews.com/story.php?news_id=22999
July 30, 2015

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the National Organic Program (NOP), has posted a new fact sheet on its website outlining the steps to establish an organic industry-funded promotion, research and information order, known as a check-off program.

With the expiration of the July 20 deadline for proposals, AMS said it is currently engaged in reviewing all submissions against
the requirements for a complete proposal, also known as Step 3 of the process outlined in the fact sheet. Read the fact sheet: “Process for Establishing an Organic Research and Promotion Program.”

During its review of submitted proposals, AMS said it has the option, at any time, to hold public meetings on the proposals. Once it analyzes the proposals, the AMS said it will publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register for public comment.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) had spent nearly four years gauging support for an industry-funded research and promotion order, finally submitting a proposal for the check-off program to the USDA in May.

But, the AMS wasn’t satisfied. Despite meeting a requirement to muster approval from two-thirds of surveyed certified-organic operators before submitting its proposal, AMS staff said at the time it “believes that it is in the best interests of the organic community to solicit a wide range of views before proceeding with the publication of this proposal.”

To that end, the agency announced soon after that it wanted additional proposals or partial proposals on a check-off program.

Sam Jones-Ellard, AMS spokesperson, told Sustainable Food News at the time that the request for additional check-off proposals was “unusual,” but pointed to the precedent set by the avocado industry.

Nearly 15 years ago, the California Avocado Commission (CAC), representing the domestic Hass avocado industry, submittied a full proposal for an industry-funded, Hass avocado check-off program, while partial proposals were submitted by several companies representing Hass avocados grown in other countries. Still, the avocado check-off program was approved by a simple majority and a final rule to implement the program was issued in 2002.

In a statement following the AMS’ request for additional proposals, OTA Executive Director Laura Batcha said her organization “engaged in extensive dialogue with the full chain of organic stakeholders for more than three years as we crafted the check-off proposal, so we recognize how critically important it is to receive and incorporate feedback from all certified-organic operations in this process.”

Opposition to OTA check-off proposal

Opposition to OTA’s efforts to create a check-off program is pervasive among many organic producers and growers. The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) said a referendum among its members that it concluded in the spring showed “not a single vote was cast in favor” of OTA’s check-off proposal.

“The OSGATA membership has spoken loud and clear,” said Maine certified-organic seed farmer Jim Gerritsen, president of OSGATA. “Organic farmers and seed growers resoundingly reject the OTA’s organic check-off proposal and our membership believes it’s important that organic farmers work together to defeat the industry’s mandatory tax on our livelihoods.”

The trade group, representing organic farmers and seed companies, said it was concerned that OTA’s organic check-off will favor “large corporate businesses instead of small-scale family farmers and ranchers.”

Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association (NODPA), and a longtime opponent of the OTA’s plan for a check-off program, said a big point of contention is how check-off dollars would fund organic research given that OTA’s proposal puts a majority of organic processors, not producers, on the check-off board.

“History tells us that when that happens, the money will be misspent,” Maltby said. “Farmers on the ground need to be a part of that decision making, or make sure that [organic] producers have a strong voice as to how those dollars are spent.”

Maltby’s sentiment was echoed by National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson, who voiced concerns over OTA’s check-off application, also citing issues with the amount of money appropriated to agricultural research and composition of the board.

“Commodity research and promotion programs are and always have been intended to support the efforts of producers of agricultural commodities,” Johnson said in a statement. “An organic checkoff must fill the gap in agricultural research and prioritize addressing the production research needs of the industry.”