A colony of organic apple growers in Washington state is going to court to protect its first amendment rights, and it's challenging the state's Apple Commission regarding what it said amounts to taxation without representation.
The organic group, lead by Harold Ostenson and Ray Fuller, is a battling to opt out of the mandatory commodity commission. Apple growers, whether organic or not, pay 25 cents per box to the commission for cooperative marketing efforts, and Ostenson said the organization does little to promote organics.
"We don't get much of anything," Ostenson said. "They don't even track organic." He estimates Washington organic orchards produced 2 million boxes last season, meaning at least $500,000 in commission contributions. Overall apple production for the state was 80 million boxes.
Ostenson and Fuller propose a state organic commission that would promote all organic crops from Washington. In addition to their legal battle, they are also working with state legislators to create such a board.
The Washington Apple Commission is actually the plaintiff in the case, which at press time was to be heard March 12 in western Washington's U.S. Federal District Court. The commission seeks to reinforce its position as a mandatory organization and keep organic orchards in the fold.
Commodity commissions throughout the United States are challenged right now by a Supreme Court opinion on a mushroom board released last June, which said that mandatory participation inhibited the First Amendment right to free speech, or right to not speak.
Welcome Sauer, executive director of the Washington Apple Commission, said the organization promotes organic apples wherever appropriate. He said the group facilitated 120 retail promotions last year and spent $70,000 to market organic apples in England.
Sauer said Washington not only grows the finest apples on earth, but the finest organic apples. But when it comes to promoting that produce, he said: "We market apples."
Ostenson has farmed organically for almost 20 years, and he believes the commission treats its organic minority like a skeleton in the closet. "They think, 'how do you make organic distinctive if it's not at the expense of conventional?' and then they get all nervous and don't want to do anything."
Sauer said not all organic apple growers want out of the commission. But Ostenson said those that still want to be included only grow organic on a portion of their land. "For them, [organics is] just a way to squeeze out a few more bucks."
Ostenson and Fuller's first attempt to get out from under the apple board was a state legislative effort to create an organic commodity commission. Lobbyists from conventional agriculture circles killed the bill in committee, Ostenson said, but it was attached to another piece of legislation as an amendment, so it's still a possibility.
The courts were their next option. And if that arena doesn't prove helpful, they plan to work with national industry associations to create support for a national organic commission.
"If these commissions were doing such a good job, organic farmers would have no problem putting into the pot to promote their product," Ostenson said. "But they're not, and they have a mandatory obligation, and that's the problem."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 13