Leader of top organic dairy group negotiates delay of check-off proposal deadline

Federal agency gives organic stakeholders until July 20 to submit proposals or partial proposals

by Sustainable Food News
June 3, 2015

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wednesday pushed back the deadline for submitting alternative ideas on creating a new organic industry-funded promotion, research and information order, known as a check-off program.

Last month, the agency’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) had called for additional proposals or partial proposals, just days after the Organic Trade Association (OTA) submitted its proposal for a check-off program, spending more than four years mustering industry support for it.

AMS said 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 [OTA’s] proposal” for a check-off program, setting a June 19 deadline.

But the agency soon received “a number of requests from organic stakeholders” for additional time to send in their proposals. Groups representing the organic dairy sector argued the timeframe was not realistic given the burden of consulting with organic dairy producers during their busiest time of the year.

The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association (NODPA), a vocal opponent of OTA’s check-off program efforts, sent a letter to AMS requesting the deadline be extended 60 days to August 18.

Ed Maltby, executive director of NODPA, the largest U.S. organic dairy producer group with 836 organic dairy producer members, said Wednesday that he spoke with AMS administrator Anne Alonzo last week and negotiated the 30-day extension.

The deadline to submit proposals or partial proposals is now July 20. AMS said it only wants proposals or partial proposals that do not commment on the OTA’s proposal, adding that the public will have a chance to weigh in on the trade group’s proposal when the agency publishes a proposed order.

NODPA said it and other producer groups are expected to submit partial proposals “to address basic issues of transparency, democratic decision making, and use of resources.” The check-off program would be developed under the Commodity Promotion, Research, and Information Act of 1996.

Proposals may be submitted to Organic Promotion, Research, and Information Order; Room 3071-S, STOP 0201; Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA; 1400 Independence Avenue, SW.; Washington, D.C. 20250-0201; telephone number(202) 720-5115.

Opposition to OTA check-off proposal

Maltby said his group opposes OTA’s proposal for several reasons, but chiefly for 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.” He declined to go into specifics on what his group’s partial proposal might contain or how it would differ from OTA’s.

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.”

The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) reported last week that a just-concluded referendum among its members 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.”NODPA said it was concerned that OTA’s organic check-off will favor “large corporate businesses instead of small-scale family farmers and ranchers.”