The U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that organic farmers and handlers are exempt from paying into conventional commodity check-off programs, saying that it is an important step that recognizes the organic industry’s unique needs and lets the industry decide where the dollars are best spent.
“OTA has worked very hard to get this exemption on the books, and we are optimistic that this important regulation will now soon take effect,” Laura Batch, executive director and chief executive officer of the Organic Trade Association, the leading organization of the organic industry, said in a statement. “The organic sector is a fast-growing, distinct industry with its own unique demands for research and promotion. We’re pleased USDA is moving swiftly to allow the industry to use its money to grow and develop its own sector.”
National commodity research and promotion check-off programs, funded by producers of the specific commodity, have been a part of American agriculture for almost 50 years. There are now 22 national check-off programs in place, ranging from the oldest check-off program begun in 1966 for cotton, to one of the newest that promotes American-grown mangos. The iconic “Got Milk” and “The Incredible Edible Egg” campaigns are examples of promotion and education programs paid for by successful producer-funded check-offs.
The proposed exemption, which was expanded by Congress in the farm bill of 2014, would extend the exemption for organic farmers, handlers, marketers or importers from just the 100 percent organic label to the primary organic label (95 percent organic) and pertain not exclusively to farmers or handlers who work solely with organic products, but also to those who produce, process, handle and import both organic and conventional products.
The exemption from conventional commodity check-off program assessments is very significant for certified organic operations. The USDA estimates that not having to contribute to conventional check-offs will free up an extra $ 13.6 million for organic stakeholders to invest back into the organic industry.
“These additional savings that will be available as a result of this exemption can be used by organic farmers, ranchers and handlers to address everyday problems and to tackle issues that will help advance their businesses and the organic sector,” Batcha added in the statement.
The USDA proposed rule will also exempt eligible operations from paying into the portion of the assessment in federal marketing order programs designated for market promotion activities. There are 23 marketing order programs with market promotion authority.
The USDA published the notice of the proposed changes Dec. 16 in the Federal Register, with a 30-day public comment period.
“OTA is heartened by USDA’s quick action to get this provision implemented and to allow for a concise 30-day comment period,” Marni Karlin, vice president of government affairs for OTA, added in the statement. “It is the result of the clear and unambiguous farm bill language passed with strong bipartisan support and signed into law by the president. These important gains for organic farmers and the organic industry were achieved through lots of hard work by organic stakeholders.”
The 2014 Farm Bill also authorizes USDA to consider and hold a vote on an organic research and promotion check-off program if the organic sector submits to the agency an official proposal for an organic check-off. OTA has been gathering input from organic stakeholders for the past three years on how best to shape a check-off program that could effectively serve the industry.
The organic industry is experiencing booming times, with organic sales hitting a new record of over $ 35 billion in 2013. More than 80 percent of families in the U.S. now buy organic products.
“The successes in the organic industry have been enormous,” Batcha added. “However, there is still much that needs to be done in the way of educating consumers about organic, devoting more research dollars to organic agriculture, and helping farmers to convert to organic. Giving the industry more ability to invest in its future is very significant.”