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Coalition urges rejecting national organic checkoff

More than 6,000 organic farmers say voluntary state or regional checkoffs could better meet industry needs.

A coalition representing more than 6,000 organic farmers from the western, midwestern and eastern U.S. has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reject the Organic Trade Assn.'s (OTA) proposal to establish a national organic checkoff program.

The 2014 farm bill included language that would allow USDA to institute a multi-commodity organic checkoff program, if desired by the industry. However, members of the No Organic Checkoff Coalition, representing 755 signatories, including 25 organic farmer organizations and businesses, said OTA has largely misrepresented organic industry support.

In 2016, OTA has called thousands of certified organic farmers asking them to sign on in support of an organic checkoff. However, during those calls, farmers have not been given the option to register their opposition to the checkoff. Coalition members who have contacted OTA representatives in an effort to record their “no” vote have been strongly persuaded to support the checkoff or have been told that their vote would be recorded as a “maybe,” regardless of their consistent opposition. Thus, OTA data submitted to USDA on behalf of the organic industry support are inaccurate.

“We have not seen any convincing evidence that such a program would support increased domestic organic production, which is one of our major concerns,” a letter from the coalition said. “While our members believe in the importance of organic research and promotion in helping to secure a stable and vibrant future for organic agriculture in the U.S., a USDA Generic Research & Promotion Order for Organic is not our vehicle of choice. There are other strategies that have been proposed and ignored.”

The coalition said one successful alternative strategy to achieve the same outcomes could be voluntary state or regional checkoffs to raise money for on-farm research based on the direct needs of farmers in a given geographic area. Apparently, pistachio growers have been pleased with this approach, the coalition noted.

The coalition letter delineates issues in the OTA proposal where there is widespread disagreement within the wider organic community that would create conflict if implemented and that has led to a substantial lack of support for a mandatory checkoff proposal.

Specifically, the coalition noted that "organic" is not a commodity but a system of production, different from all of the other current checkoff programs. This could create issues as the farmers who pay into the checkoff also would be paying for research of a different crop, such as a dairy farmer paying to fund research and promotion for blueberries. Furthermore, it noted that reclassifying organic as a commodity could have unintended consequences of focusing on the end products rather than the systems of production.

The letter also laid out how the proposed checkoff assessments are burdensome for farmers and small businesses. It automatically excludes 60% of all organic farmers from General Research & Promotion Order Organic Program decisions, referendums and leadership. OTA’s proposal outlines that qualifying organic certificate holders would be assessed based on net profit; however, this would be complex for small and midsize diverse farming businesses, which typically produce all of their own farm inputs. For example, many organic dairies are grass based and do not purchase any feed. They have limited inputs but may have to pay a mortgage or rent to manage the land necessary to meet organic certification requirements. The coalition asked how this cost would be factored in to make the program fair to all farmers.

While U.S. certified organic farmers are mixed in their support of and opposition to the proposed national organic checkoff, the great majority of producers agree that there is a need for more organic agricultural producer-focused research. “The proposed OTA research dollars for production agricultural research are much too low and fail to recognize this need and priority in the organic industry,” the letter stated. The proposal to allocate 12.6% as the minimum starting point for all checkoff dollars to support agricultural research does not reflect this unanimous priority among organic farmers. The coalition said OTA’s research allocation is much less than the 25% that would be allocated to the amorphous “discretionary funds,” which seriously undercuts the needs of the organic farming community and allows a quarter of the industry-generated funds to be spent on undisclosed expenses and in a non-transparent manner.

The coalition also said despite the success of small to midsize grassroots organic farmers in building the U.S. organic label and market, they would hold only six (37%) seats on the board of 16 members.

They suggested that USDA should require that all certified operations should receive a ballot, even if they haven’t requested a ballot to participate.

The checkoff may also increase imports of organic products as it would promote and expand the organic market. Recently, three bulk loads of organic grain were shipped into U.S. ports in one week. This has caused the pay price offered to U.S. organic farmers to drop under this foreign competition. “While the OTA checkoff proposal states that it would help support thousands of U.S. acres to transition to organic production, if farmers' organic pay price drops because of an onslaught of cheap foreign organic imports, U.S. farmers would be unwilling and unable to financially afford to transition to organic,” the letter said.

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