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USDA releases organic checkoff rule

The Agriculture Department announced Jan.18 it is seeking public comments on a proposal for a nationwide research and promotion checkoff program for the organic industry.

The Organic Trade Association praised the decision to publish the industry's proposal for a checkoff in the Federal Register, but the proposal has been controversial with organic groups.

In a news release, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees all checkoffs, pointed out:

Producers and handlers with gross organic sales greater than $250,000 for the prior marketing year would pay one-tenth of 1 percent of net organic sales;

“This organic checkoff 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 that organic seal really means. For the benefit of all of us, this proactive program will further the success of organic agriculture for the long term.”

Importers of organic products declaring a transaction value greater than $250,000 for the prior marketing year would pay one-tenth of 1 percent of the declared transaction value of organic products imported into the U.S.

AMS also said the program would provide exemptions for:

Producers and handlers with gross organic sales of $250,000 or less during the prior marketing year;

Importers with $250,000 or less in transaction value of imported organic products during the prior marketing year;

Organic products produced domestically and exported from the U.S.

A 17-member board would be appointed by the secretary of agriculture to administer the program.

"We applaud USDA moving forward on this proposal that was authorized in the 2014 farm bill with strong bipartisan support," said Laura Batcha, the OTA's CEO and executive director.

"OTA led the drive for this checkoff because the organic industry is at a critical point," Batcha said. "This organic checkoff 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 that organic seal really means. For the benefit of all of us, this proactive program will further the success of organic agriculture for the long term."

Batcha said the the organic checkoff, known as the GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), could raise over $30 million a year to spend on research, technical services and consumer education and promotion.

OTA officially submitted an application to USDA in May 2015 on behalf of the organic industry to consider implementing the program after gathering information over three years throughout the country in town hall meetings, panel discussions, surveys and phone calls, Batcha said. OTA submitted a revised application a year later to reflect alternatives presented to USDA from organic certificate holders, she added.

"It's time for organic stakeholders to invest back in our movement — to fund research to help organic farmers, to create and initiate projects to nurture new organic farmers," said Melissa Hughes, president of OTA's board of directors and director of government affairs for Organic Valley, the nation's oldest organic dairy cooperative. "An organic checkoff will allow us to speak to the American consumer in a strong and unified voice."

Some smaller organic groups told Civil Eats they do not support the government-connected checkoff. The No Organic Checkoff coalition, which is made up of over 27 not-for-profit organic farmer-member organizations and organic businesses, said it would oppose the checkoff, because it "could unfairly promote large organic processors' needs over those of family farmers."

But Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook announced today that the group will support it.

"While EWG will continue to call on Congress to make serious investments in organic in the next farm bill, there is a lot that can be accomplished in the interim if the organic community pools its resources, and approves an organic research and promotions program," Cook wrote.

USDA established a 60-day public comment period for interested parties to weigh in on the proposal. Comments are due March 20.

The final step will be a referendum on the proposed checkoff, with all certified organic stakeholders paying into the program eligible to vote. Approval by a majority of the organic stakeholders voting is required for implementation. ❖