WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 - The organic sector got a boost from the Obama administration Tuesday as the Department of Agriculture took a step forward in creating an organic checkoff program.
The department’s Agriculture Marketing Service is publishing documents outlining its proposal for the checkoff in the Federal Register Wednesday, triggering a 60-day comment period on an organic research, promotion, and information order. The announcement is the latest installment in a saga that began with an amendment in what became the 2014 farm bill authorizing USDA to look into an organic checkoff.
“We’ve heard from folks about what they had for concerns around existing checkoff programs, created some reforms to address those concerns, and really created a program that is as unique as the organic production system,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, told reporters Tuesday.
The broad portfolio of organic production made for a challenging ask in combining all facets of the sector into a single checkoff program. Batcha made that point several times in remarks as she trumpeted a progressive, reform-minded checkoff.
For starters, the checkoff – shorthanded as GRO Organic, or the Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic – will be optional for producers and handlers with less than $250,000 in organic revenue. Producers transitioning to organic will not be subject to an assessment.
The assessment – one tenth of 1 percent of net organic sales – could raise as much as $30 million per year. Producers already subject to another commodity-based research and promotion fund will have the option to choose which program will draw their participation.
“Just like organic is a marketplace built on consumer choice, we built a lot of choice for the producers to think about what is in their best interests in terms of investment,” Batcha said.
A 17-member board – with 16 voting members – appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture will govern the checkoff, but producers will also have a say in the makeup of the panel. Half of the seats will be occupied by elected regional representatives; the other half will be filled by organic handlers nominated by individuals and industry groups.
The proposed checkoff also contains a clause calling for a referendum on its continuance every seven years.
Batcha drew a preemptive line in the sand when it comes to OTA’s participation in the collection, distribution, or use of checkoff funds: she said it won’t happen. While it is common practice – and required by law – for industry groups to stay out of the way on checkoff governance, many such groups contract to checkoff bodies for research, promotion, or education initiatives. Batcha said OTA is primarily a policy organization, so it won’t be contracting to the checkoff for any purpose.
The final approval of the checkoff, following the 60-day comment period, will be up to the Trump administration sometime after March. While organic production has some bipartisan support, it has traditionally been more popular among Democrats.
Case in point: the 2014 farm bill amendment that started this process. The original amendment that allowed for an organic checkoff was introduced by a Democrat – Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, himself a former organic producer – and was passed in a bipartisan 29-17 vote. However, only eight Republicans voted in favor, and all 17 votes against the measure came from Republicans, including current House Ag Committee chair Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas, who chaired the committee during debate of the last farm bill, said at the markup that he was “uncomfortable with the language” of the amendment and had issues with a checkoff based on a production process rather than the product itself.
After the comment period and administration approval, the final step before full implementation would be a referendum on the proposed checkoff among certified organic stakeholders. The program would need a simple majority to take effect.
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