Organic research, promotion assessment proposed by USDA

In the 11th hour of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed a nationwide research and promotion order for the organic industry.

The program has been a priority of the Organic Trade Association and leaders of the group celebrated the proposal, which was published after the Jan. 13 departure of Obama's Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and before president-elect Donald Trump named his sucessor.

The formal name of the proposed organic program is the Organic Research, Promotion, and Information Order. It would promote all organic products, from clothing to processed and fresh foods.

"We applaud USDA moving forward on this proposal that was authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill with strong bipartisan support," Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA, said in the release. "This organic check-off will provide research and key tools to encourage more farmers to go organic and help all organic farmers be more successful."

The 149-page proposal, with a 60-day comment period that ends March 20, would establish an industry-funded promotion, research and information program for certified organic products.

Depending on comments received, the USDA will set a date for a referendum on the program. The process could take more than a year.

The United Fresh Produce Association indicated last year it would take no position on the organic program and produce industry companies have given it mixed reviews in the last couple of years.

The OTA said the research and promotion order could raise more than $30 million a year for research, technical services, consumer education and promotion of the organic brand. The group submitted an application to USDA in May 2015 for the program after measuring support for the idea for about three years, according to a news release.

The OTA said its survey of organic certificate holders showed that twice as many certified operators supported the organic check-off program as opposed it.

So far, the OTA said nearly 1,400 organic stakeholders publicly support the organic check-off, with 75% of those organic certificate holders being growers and ranchers.

"Organic is done being an awkward teenager. Its place at the table is now, and it deserves our efforts to preserve and advance the hard work of the last half-century," Todd Linsky, former vice president of organic sales for Bolthouse Farms and now head of Todd Linsky Consulting, said in the release.

Luis Acuña, president and CEO of Viva Tierra Organic Inc., Sedro-Woolley, Wash., said in the release he believes all growers will benefit from the research and promotion made possible by the program.

Features of the proposed program:

  • The program's board would be made up of 50% producers and 50% handlers;
  • Producers covered by another federal marketing order - such as avocadoes - could decide whether to support the organic order or the Hass Avocado Board.
  • It would treat all organic products like a commodity instead of a singular product or category like dairy, tomatoes or grain;

  • Producers will select regional representatives through direct balloting;
  • Everyone assessed will have a direct vote - there is no bloc voting;
  • Assessments would be made throughout the value chain: producers, handlers, processors, retailers;
  • Growers and handlers with gross organic revenue below $250,000 are exempt;

  • Half to 75% of the funds would go to research;
  • One-quarter of the assessment from producers would be required to be used for local and regional research;

  • All of the research, inventions and innovations would remain in the public domain; and
  • A referendum is required every seven years to decide whether to continue the program.