USDA axes organic checkoff proposal

USDA has terminated a proposed rule to establish a national research and promotion program for organic products, citing a “split within the industry in terms of support” for a checkoff program.

The action comes following a public comment period on the proposal that closed April 19 in which the agency received nearly 15,000 comments.

“While some comments voiced support for a collective industry program, other comments stated that industry was not aligned in backing the proposal,” USDA stated.

Support for a checkoff was led by the Organic Trade Association, which shaped the proposal over five years and contends it was comprehensive, thoroughly vetted and strongly supported.

“The $50 billion organic sector offers opportunities for U.S. organic farmers and businesses. It makes no sense that the agency is continuing to take steps to cut it off at the knees,” OTA said in a press release following USDA’s announcement.

“USDA unilaterally making the decision on behalf of the 26,000 plus certified organic growers, ranchers, processors, handlers and business owners to not advance the process is stunning,” OTA said.

On the other side, the No Organic Checkoff Coalition spearheaded the opposition, contending a federal mandatory checkoff is not the right solution for the growing domestic industry.

The coalition, representing 6,000 organic farmers across the country, issued a statement on Wednesday saying a checkoff would have served as another tax on farmers, both through direct assessment and processors passing down the cost.

“Existing checkoff programs have a history of corruption and using funds inappropriately, with poor representation of farmer priorities in granting of research dollars,” NOCC said.

Its list of objections also includes restrictions on promoting the benefits of organic, increased organic imports due to the challenges of increasing domestic organic acreage and creating an “unworkable” program that lumps all organic products together as a single commodity.

“Organic farmers together can come up with the solutions to address the needs of the growing organic market” without hurting the very farmers that built the movement, Ed Maltby, executive director of Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, an NOCC member, said.

Jim Gerritsen, president of the Organic Seed and Trade Association — which was an early member of NOCC — said organic farmers have had negative experiences with other commodity checkoff programs.

“I don’t know a single farmer that would voluntarily take part in a checkoff program, especially the half-baked proposal from OTA,” he said.

Checkoffs are an involuntary tax on farmers and don’t work. Any increased sales from checkoff programs don’t trickle down to the farmer, he said.

“If processors want to increase their sales, they should pay for it” and not expect struggling family farmers to pay for it, he said.

The organic industry is developing into two factions — corporate organic and family-scale organic. OTA represents the corporate segment, and it misrepresented support for a checkoff as unified — which couldn’t be farther from the truth, he said.

“A lot of us are sick and tired of OTA,” he said.

Fortunately, USDA acted contrary to OTA’s false claims, he said.

“It’s a relief to see USDA actually standing up for family farmers; it doesn’t happen that often,” he said.

The Organic Farmers Association said the proposed checkoff would have required all certified organic operations, even those exempted from the program, to submit annual gross sales reports, which would have been overly burdensome.

“The proposed program was divisive among the organic community, and checkoff programs must have industry support to be instituted — this proposal did not,” OFA said in a statement.

USDA said it based the termination on a lack of consensus within the industry and divergent views on how to resolve issues in implementing the program.