by Will Fantle, Codirector

Credit: Capricorn78

The recent passage of the Farm Bill contains a provision allowing the USDA Secretary to propose establishment of an organic check-off program that, in a first, would be spread across all organic commodities.  The scheme has long been a darling of the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

The OTA, an industry lobby group historically dominated by the large corporate agribusiness (Dean Foods/WhiteWave, General Mills, Smuckers, Whole Foods, etc.), the biggest players in organics, is already calling on the organic sector to discuss the program’s future.  At an early March OTA-sponsored panel at the annual food conference, Natural Products Expo West, the OTA urged participants to “become a part of the collective voice … united for MORE organic.”

That collective voice has thus far not included most farmers.  Organizations representing organic producers have uniformly condemned the establishment of the check-off program.  Such groups, coordinated by the Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers and the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), had previously coordinated a joint letter to Congress detailing their opposition to the OTA effort, calling it “not ready for prime time.”  Yet the OTA’s message, purporting widespread support for the program, steamrolled through Congress.

“They don’t hear us farmers, or they don’t simply care,” noted Mary-Howell Martens.  “It is so incredibly insulting/demeaning.” Martens, an organic grain producer from New York state, shared her observations on an email list-serve maintained by the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

To establish an organic check-off, organic industry stakeholders would have to cast a formal yes vote.  What remains unclear are specifics concerning the program’s governance, what type of research would be funded, what kind of public messaging for the marketing of organics would be permitted, and, perhaps most importantly, how a check-off would be funded.

The OTA has estimated that a check-off would raise $30 million a year.  A board appointed by the USDA would approve the program’s budget, research activities, a marketing plan and its execution, and any public relations efforts.

The OTA has repeatedly asserted the need for funds to help market and promote organic products.  However, crafting an organic-specific message could prove very difficult.  The standard to which messaging is held to is:  Would the Secretary of Agriculture say this?  And in the eyes of the federal government, organic agriculture and food is a process claim, not a content, food safety or food quality claim.

“You can also be assured,” explains Richard Mathews, “that the USDA will not allow any promotional or information program, project, or activity that can be viewed as disparaging to conventionally produced products …. So those who think they are going to be able to sing the praises of organic as compared to conventional had better begin rethinking their position.”  Matthews spent more than eleven years as a USDA employee providing USDA oversight to similar check-off programs for other food commodities.

In another break with precedent, unlike the existing research and promotional programs, the OTA proposal would tax processors, marketers, retailers and farmers and see a governing board comprised of representatives from all these stakeholders — some of which have conflicting priorities.

Against the backdrop of excitement exuding from the OTA, stands recent news that the well-known “Got Milk?” ad campaign – spanning more than two decades – has been put out to pasture.  The milk marketing effort was funded by a similar check-off program.

“It didn’t raise pay prices, didn’t save any farmers,” explains Jim Goodman, a Wonewoc, WI organic dairy producer.  “The best argument the supporters of the check-off could come up with was, ‘just think how bad things would be if we didn’t have the check-off.'”

While the “Got Milk?” ads failed to raise the nation’s dairy consumption, they certainly succeeded in stuffing the pockets of the campaign’s promoters.  The top eight executives heading the national dairy promotion entity, DMI, were making (as reported in The Milkweed) between $400,000 and $750,000 per year.

As the organic check-off discussion heats up, “farmers need to hold onto their wallets,” says Mark Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute’s Senior Farm Policy Analyst and an organic industry watchdog.  “Farmers need to make clear that they don’t want to get roped into another Robin Hood-in-reverse program.”

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