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Organic industry looks for ideas to ‘Gro Organic’

Ideas sought as Organic Trade Assn. works to design and implement a voluntary organic checkoff.

November 5, 2018

4 Min Read
Organic industry looks for ideas to ‘Gro Organic’
USDA

The Organic Trade Assn. (OTA) reached out to organic stakeholders Monday and invited them to send in their biggest and brightest ideas on how best to collaboratively design and implement a voluntary, industry-invested "checkoff like" program for the organic sector.

Announcing the opening of a six-month period for interested parties to answer key questions on the private-sector initiative known as "GRO Organic" (shorthand for Generate Results & Opportunity for Organic), OTA said "this is an important opportunity to weigh in and help shape this voluntary program at the start of the process."

In September, the organic trade group announced an unprecedented plan to move forward with a voluntary, private-sector funded program to promote the organic brand, raise funds for organic research and consumer education and foster more organic agriculture in the U.S. The trade association formed a steering committee to coordinate and lead the efforts. The official invitation for ideas from organic stakeholders is the next step in the two-track effort to develop a voluntary governance approach and also advance initiatives that will deliver immediate big wins for the organic sector.

"We want GRO Organic to be a bold and engaged opt-in program that pools resources from everyone who can contribute so that we can collectively address critical needs across the organic sector," said Laura Batcha, OTA executive director and chief executive officer. "The need for more investment in organic is widely agreed upon; how we solve for it is what we must now work together to determine."

Related:Organic industry moves ahead with voluntary checkoff

"Given today's changing markets and government policies, it is imperative that the organic industry work together to support research, education and awareness of certified organic food. The GRO process gives us the opportunity to provide the additional support our industry needs to help grow our organic certified supply and demand," said Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms and member of the GRO Steering Committee.

The six-month period to submit ideas, modeled loosely on the advanced notice of proposed rule-making format used by government agencies via the Federal Register, officially ends April 30, 2019. Contributors are asked to offer a "Big Idea" on how to develop innovative solutions and raise meaningful funding "to address the organic sector's most pressing needs: bringing new farmers into organic production and making sure existing farmers can stay in organic, increasing organic research and educating the public about the benefits of organic." A set of strategic questions is provided focusing on five specific concerns of a voluntary program: participation, funding, decision-making, programming and general issues. 

"We have a saying at Organic Valley: None of us is as smart as all of us," said Melissa Hughes, chief mission officer and general counsel of Organic Valley who also serves on the GRO Steering Committee. "By putting our heads together and bringing our ideas to the table, the organic industry will continue to be at the center of the good food movement, driving change in agriculture for the health of consumers and the environment."

OTA submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in May 2015 to consider implementing a federally mandated organic checkoff program. USDA officially proposed a nationwide organic checkoff program in January 2017, opening the process for public comments. In May 2018, more than one year after the comment period closed, USDA terminated the rule-making process without bringing the checkoff vote to an industry referendum.

How to submit an idea, and what's next

Contributors are required to file their submissions electronically. Emails should be sent to [email protected] with the submissions embedded or attached. Name, location and business affiliation should be part of a submission. After the period to weigh in closes, all responses shared with [email protected] will be organized and summarized for further conversation.

Big ideas already in the works

Over the summer of 2018, the organic industry pivoted quickly to set up GRO Organic as a voluntary program to do the work that the federal program might have done. Four prototype programs have been identified that will be launched in January to invest in critical needs and serve as proven projects for investment when a formal voluntary program is rolled out.

OTA is joining forces with Organic Voices and the group's "It's Not Complicated" promotional campaign to fund a national message drive to reduce the confusion about organic. The goal for the campaign is to raise a minimum of $1 million for each of the next two years. 

In addition to the It's Not Complicated campaign, other programs identified include: (1) conducting in-depth consumer research on the most effective ways to reinforce the organic brand, (2) advancing a portfolio of soil health and climate change research to fill in knowledge gaps and show the beneficial impacts of organic and (3) providing necessary funding for more organic extension agents across the country.

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