Grassroots Farmers Rebuff “Robin Hood in Reverse” Proposal
from Corporate Lobby Group
Wisconsin Farmers Union members overwhelmingly voted no on the proposed organic check-off program at their recent annual convention, held in Eau Claire, Wis. The scheme, being advocated by the industry’s largest lobby group, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), would create a mandatory tax on farmers, food processors, distributors and retailers engaged in organic commerce. Although estimates vary, the $20-$40 million revenue generated would be earmarked for research and promotion related to organics. The Farmers Union rejection is noteworthy because it comes out of the state with the second largest number of organic farmers and the greatest number of organic livestock producers in the country.
If the OTA is successful in convincing the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, that there is widespread support for their proposal, the check-off would be put to a vote of organic stakeholders requiring approval by two-thirds of organic farmers and other industry participants. However, the recent Farmers Union vote, in Wisconsin, casts doubt over whether widespread support truly exists in the farming community.
“The OTA has invested heavily in a national publicity campaign to convince farmers of the merits of their proposal,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “It’s a hard sell because professional agriculturalists have plenty of experience with mandatory check-offs in other commodities where university research has illustrated that when there has been any economic value at all it has accrued to processors rather than farmers.”
Other research and promotional programs, with popular themes such as The Incredible Edible Egg or The Other White Meat, have not proved efficacious in producing increased revenues to farmers.
The proposed organic check-off, which is formally known as the Organic Research and Promotion Program, was developed over the past few years. Many organic farmers believe that the OTA, funded and controlled by major agribusinesses with investments in organics such as General Mills, Smucker’s, Kellogg’s and WhiteWave, do not represent their views, but instead mainly caters to the needs of the organic processed food and marketing sectors.
According to certified organic farmer and Wisconsin Farmers Union member, Tony Schultz, “The organic check-off, like all other commodity check-off programs, is a tax imposed by the industry on farmers.”
That tax, he suggested, is there to benefit food processing interests, rather than farmers. He added that, “Not only are check-off programs not proven to work, or provide benefits to farmers, they also have a history of corruption and malfeasance.”
The 2014 Farm Bill passed by Congress gives the USDA the authorization to consider and hold a vote on the organic check-off, if the OTA submits a proposal. It took congressional action to change the law because, previously, all check-offs applied only to “commodity-specific” programs (promoting, for example, almonds, raisins, cranberries or milk).
“This law passed Congress based on a series of outright lies by the OTA,” said Kastel. “During the run-up to the farm bill, congressional staffers repeatedly told me that OTA lobbyists had represented to them that their proposal had ‘unanimous support in the organic industry.’ The recent vote by Farmers Union delegates, in an organic-rich state, proves the OTA’s representations were patently false.”
The OTA has invested heavily in campaigning for what could be a lucrative revenue stream for promoting organics to consumers. In 2013 they hired the well-connected Washington lobbying and public relations firm, the Podesta Group, to help design a campaign to win support amongst organic industry participants. The OTA has held listening sessions throughout the country on the proposal, mailed multiple times to every organic farmer, and even used telemarketers and robocalls in their efforts — a tactical approach that didn’t play well in rural America.
The Farmers Union vote in late January had to be a disappointment to Organic Valley, a La Farge, Wisconsin-based farmer-owned cooperative that is nearing $1 billion in annual revenue.
Organic Valley’s chief executive, George Siemon, a perennial leader at the OTA, has overtly endorsed their proposal, and the co-op’s chief legal counsel was recently elected chair of the Organic Trade Association’s Board of Directors after serving on the OTA’s check-off promotional committee.
Prior to the vote by Farmers Union delegates a panel discussion took place featuring an Organic Valley policy staffer, Doran Holm, and organic farmer Tony Schultz.
“Although in every one of the OTA’s listening sessions the majority of organic producers have signaled that they are clearly against the check-off, that has not deterred the industry’s preeminent lobby group, and its powerful members, from continuing to push their proposal,” Cornucopia’s Kastel added.
“We are up against some of the most powerful forces in the food industry and while they want to marginalize the voices of family farmers, in their effort to control this industry, they still want us to pay for their promotion efforts,” stated Jim Goodman, a veteran organic dairyman, and board member of Family Farm Defenders, another farmer-led organization that formally opposes the OTA proposal. “They don’t want our voices or our input, they just want us to pay. Farmers have never seen any benefit from commodity check-offs and this one will be no different.”
Goodman continued, “We have our work cut out for us. OTA lobbyists do not represent our interests and we need to prove that to USDA Secretary Vilsack.”
Just before the Farmers Union gathering in Wisconsin, at the Minnesota Organic Conference a similar panel discussion was held. This time Organic Valley was represented by their chief legal counsel, and OTA President, Melissa Hughes. The farmer’s perspective was presented by Family Farm Defenders board member, Jim Goodman, a Wonewoc, Wisconsin certified organic dairy producer and, this time, added to the panel was a “neutral” voice, Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group (a nonprofit that receives funds from Organic Valley, Groupe Danone/Stonyfield, WhiteWave/Earthbound Farms and other corporate members of the OTA).
Based on their lack of success in convincing farmers, and grassroots groups like The Cornucopia Institute, the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Family Farm Defenders, of the merits of their proposal the OTA created their own “Farmers Advisory Council” which has been described as a Trojan Horse by true farm advocates. The Council is a panel largely populated by the owners of corporate agribusiness concerns and farmers affiliated with Organic Valley, WhiteWave, Earthbound Farms and other organizations that actually buy from farmers. The Cornucopia Institute has described the panel as “a phony-baloney attempt, rife with conflicts of interest, to appear to represent the interests of working farmers.”
Experts with other prominent nonprofits representing organic farmers, including the Organic Farmer’s Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), have eloquently questioned how the OTA’s proposed promotional work will be able to overcome the USDA’s restriction that the check-off program cannot compare organics to (“denigrate”) other conventional commodity groups. That is, the promotional program cannot claim organic food is superior to conventional foods produced by the industrial-chemical agricultural model.
Ed Maltby, NODPA’s executive director, has called OTA’s outreach a “one-sided propaganda campaign.” He notes that it fails to ask “the basic question of whether we want or need a federal government program to promote the organic label and assist with funding of organic research.” Maltby added: “There are many half-truths and sound bites now being used by OTA to describe the benefits of a USDA organic check-off program that are misleading at best.”