The long-awaited move comes after three years of dialogue among stakeholders across the organic sector to hash out how much money the campaign should collect and from whom, how the funds should be spent and how the check-off should be structured to address the industry’s unique needs while avoiding shortcomings that have plagued previous check-off campaigns.
“This is a big step … and the culmination of a tremendous amount of input from all types of stakeholders in the sector,” including more than 5,000 farmers, producers and manufacturers of products bearing the USDA certified organic seal that participated in OTA surveys and outreach efforts, said Laura Batcha, CEO of OTA.
She explained the proposal “is as unique as the organic sector” and “accommodates all the best ideas that the practitioners of organic have brought to us in the last three years.”
Learning from previous check-offs mistakes
The proposal addresses and incorporates solutions to many historic concerns and problems associated with previous check-off campaigns, Batcha said.
Among the most important features of the program is that the mandatory assessment would be “broad and shallow” across the value chain so no one group feels as if it is footing the bill for the program, Batcha said. She explained that one-tenth of 1% of organic sales would be assessed from all players in the value chain including producers, handlers and processors.
Exceptions would be made, however, for farmers and handlers with gross organic revenue below $250,000 a year, and stakeholders who already pay into an overlapping check-off could choose which one to support rather than pay into both, she said.
Another major difference from other check-off programs is how this one would be governed, Batcha said. She explained that the check-off board would be made up of 50% producers and 50% handlers, and producers would directly vote on their regional representatives to ensure the diversity of crops and individuals are fairly represented.
In addition, every certificate holder who paid an assessment would have a direct vote. There would be no bloc voting, Batcha said.
Finally, unlike most check-off programs, the proposal for the organic industry includes an automatic referendum every seven years to decide whether to continue or dissolve the program, Batcha said. She emphasized the goal is “to make sure the dollars are working in the best interest of the segment as a whole.”
Why a check-off is needed
The check-off proposal comes at a critical juncture for the organic industry, which is growing, but cannot keep up with demand, Batcha said.
Funds from the check-off would be used to help usher more U.S. farmers into organic and would go towards researchers that would improve the efficiency of organic farming, Batcha said.
She noted that most research to improve farming does not fit within the constraints of organic and that industry raised funds could help researchers explore organic pest and weed control and organic seed breeding.
Because group funds would be used to pay for the research, all inventions, innovations and advancements paid for by the organic check-off would remain in the public domain so everyone could benefit.
A portion of the funds also would go towards consumer education to clarify what organic means and to explain its higher value in relation to its higher price point.
She noted that currently many consumers confuse organic, non-GMO and natural and this places organic at a disadvantage because it often is more expensive, which can deter consumers who do not understand how it is produced and that it is non-GMO.
A long road ahead
While submitting the proposal is a significant step, the check-off is far from a done deal.
The USDA still needs to review the proposal and if it meets necessary criteria, details about the campaign will be published in the Federal Register, followed by a public comment period.
The final step will be a referendum on the proposed check-off, with all certified organic stakeholders eligible to vote, according to OTA, which adds a majority approval is necessary for implementation.