The Organic Trade Association’s Commodity Check-Off Proposal Raises Concerns for Organic Farmers

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Photo By The Cornucopia Institute
 Mark Kastel, the Senior Farm Policy Advisor for The Cornucopia Institute, says that corporate interests are pushing this proposal hard, and farmers know that other commodity check-offs have, all too often, been little more than economic Robin Hood-in-reverse programs.

Reposted with permission from The Cornucopia Institute.

As organic farmers and enthusiasts begin gathering for the nation’s largest organic farming conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a number of questions and concerns are being posed about a proposal to create a federal market order and commodity check-off program for organics. The plan is being pushed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), an industry lobby group dominated by large food processors, marketers and retailers.

The OTA plan would create a USDA market order to assess participants in the organic industry for promotion/marketing campaigns and research projects. The OTA estimates the proposal would raise an estimated $30 million. The allegedly fuzzy math detailing how the money would be raised and spent, and how producers would be represented on a governing board and assessed, has many farmers and organizations concerned.

“I am very skeptical regarding the creation of a USDA-appointed Organic Research and Promotion Board,” says Jim Riddle, a former organic inspector and past chair of the National Organic Standards Board. “I am hesitant to support the creation of any new organic-related bureaucracy by the USDA. It takes a lot of money to support the bureaucracy itself, and the appointment process is easily manipulated by those with money and political influence.”

Farmers are understandably skeptical because some research indicates many of the current market orders, and their marketing campaigns, like that “milk mustache,” and the “other white meat” have not proven to benefit the farmers who are footing the bill.

Last year the OTA hired the Podesta Group, a high-powered Washington, D.C. lobbyist, to push for inclusion of their check-off plan by Congress in the Farm Bill. One major hurdle is that the organic check-off would apply across multiple commodities (from organic chicken to chicken feed to kumquats), something current federal law does not allow. The 18 established programs each cover a single type of food, such as beef, dairy, pork, eggs or watermelons.

OTA’s scheme would likely also cover, in addition to farmers and ranchers, manufacturers, marketers and retailers. That broadening of the scope of a checkoff program would be precedent setting as well. Although the OTA, and their contract lobbyist, are actively soliciting support in Congress the exact details have not been shared fully with stakeholders in the organic industry.

And, the organic check-off would cover farmers, like fresh vegetable producers, who have never been under the purview of any commodity market order in the past (and potentially taxing them accordingly).

“Farmers need to hang onto their wallets,” says Mark Kastel, the Senior Farm Policy Advisor for The Cornucopia Institute – representing more organic farmer members than any other similar national organization. “Corporate interests are pushing this hard, and farmers know that other commodity check-offs have, all too often, been little more than economic Robin Hood-in-reverse programs.”

Similar concerns were raised by John Bobbe, of OFARM, a farmer cooperative marketing organization. “Our members are supportive of research and promotion but want to be assured of greater opportunity for input and control over the assessments,” notes Bobbe, adding that OFARM members “are generally, and adamantly, opposed to extending any authority or promoting avenues that would ultimately lead to a federal, Secretary of Agriculture or other USDA entity mandated, ‘Organic Research and Promotion Order.”

Last year OFARM helped coordinate a joint letter to Congress from a broad collection of farmer and consumer groups urging elected officials to “vote NO on regulation to support the path to establish an Organic Research and Promotion Program.” The letter made clear that the OTA “does not necessarily represent the interest of farmers, growers, producers or ranchers.”

According to Ed Maltby, the Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, the organic check-off plan would not be able to “defend organic as an environmentally sound production system that addresses climate change, excess nitrogen flow and biodiversity loss.”

The proposal, adds Maltby, “would also not be in a position to fund a campaign that highlights the health benefits of organic production or consumption of organic products. The Organic Research and Promotion Order would only be able to fund programs that promoted the organic seal and organic generically from the organic Twinkie, to organic milk (generic not branded) and energy drinks and would not differentiate between imports and US grown.”

A workshop on the check-off plan had been scheduled for Friday at this week’s MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. But the OTA, which had indicated they would be on the panel of presenters, has now pulled out.

“What cowards!” lamented Cornucopia’s Kastel. “Here is a trade/lobby group, controlled by the country’s largest corporate agribusinesses, contracting with a powerful public relations and lobby firm, traveling the country holding a series of dog and pony shows of their own, what they call town hall meetings, and they lack the courage to participate at a farming conference where a panel of speakers will be balanced by informed farming representatives.”

In a representation of what some in the industry of referred to as “sheer arrogance” even though the OTA is now refusing to participate in a moderated panel at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, this week, they have limited space in an upscale hotel, adjacent to the conference facility, to hold their own private presentation to farmers.

Adding more intrigue, at a recent OTA-sponsored town hall meeting in Portland, Oregon, the lobbyists reported to the crowd, erroneously, that The Cornucopia Institute had shifted its policy and was now supporting their check-off proposal. “We want to make this abundantly clear,” said Kastel, who acts as Cornucopia’s Codirector and Senior Farm Policy Analyst, “that none of our concerns, or the concerns of our farmer-members, have been placated to date.”

Rddle, the nationally respected expert on organic policy and longtime OTA member, called this one more lost opportunity for the OTA to gain true grassroots input, as they have suggested is their goal.

“It’s certainly puzzling and disappointing, given the thousands of farmers expected to attend this event, who are a prime audience for the OTA’s message, that the OTA is now unwilling to face those potentially most impacted by their proposal and answer tough questions from the audience and hear the insights of informed panelists,” observed Riddle.

The Organic Trade Association’s current dance with Congress, and lobbying for precedent-setting legislation that would permit an organic research and promotion marketing order, should be familiar territory for the OTA’s current CEO, Christine Bushway. Although Ms. Bushway had no experience in the organic industry prior to coming to OTA, her consulting background included lobbying work for a number of industry and commodity groups, including a stint as chief executive officer, and lead lobbyist, for the American Egg Board (The Incredible Edible Egg Campaign).

NODPA has a page on their website dedicated to the Organic Check-off proposal.

The Cornucopia Institute is engaged in research and educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agricultural and food issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides needed information to family farmers, consumers, stakeholders involved in the good food movement, and the media.