OTA Launches Drive for Organic Check-Off

May 15, 2015 - In a long-anticipated move, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) this week formally petitioned the USDA to begin the process of establishing a research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry. The proposed check-off, dubbed the Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic (GRO Organic), is expected to initially raise $30 million per year to promote the organic industry.

GRO Organic would be the first U.S. agricultural check-off program to promote a production method and not a specific crop such as dairy (“Got Milk?”) or pork (“the other white meat”), and supporters say it could be a game-changer for the entire organic industry. 

“An organic check-off program would give organic stakeholders the opportunity to collectively invest in research, build domestic supply and communicate the value of the organic brand to advance the entire industry to a new level," said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of OTA. 

OFRF sees promise in GRO Organic's support for organic research, and advocates for a significant portion of research funding to be directed toward production-oriented research. 

Despite substantial support, creating a check-off program for organic is not universally popular in the organic community. Critics of the plan raise concerns about the marginalization of small farmers, who make up the majority of organic farms. With domestic demand for organic already outstripping supply, there are concerns that a national marketing campaign could end up spurring organic imports instead of building up domestic capacity.

And the rules of agricultural check-off programs forbid the disparagement of competing products, complicating marketing by essentially banning comparisons with conventionally-grown crops.

GRO Organic would impose a mandatory assessment on all farmers, handlers and producers with annual gross revenues of more than $250,000 from certified  organic sales. It would allow voluntary participation from organic farms and businesses with lower revenues, a category that includes an estimated 50 to 70 percent of U.S. organic farms. Farms and businesses that don’t pay into the program will not be allowed a vote on its future operation, per federal rules.

Under the current proposal, check-off funds would be distributed evenly among research, information sharing, promotion and discretionary funds, and no more than 15 percent of the total may be spent on administration. The funds would be overseen by a 17-member panel made up of 8 organic farmers, 8 industry representative, and one non-voting member of the public.

The USDA will now review GRO Organic to ensure compliance with federal rules, an estimated six-month process. The agency will then release a draft for public review and comment. The final step will be a referendum, with all certified organic stakeholders eligible to vote. Majority approval is required for implementation.

Maria Gaura – OFRF