Organic brand leaders appeal for check-off support

Stonyfield Chairman Gary Hirshberg and Organic Valley CEO George Siemon support the proposed organic check-off. Here, they explain why organic certificate holders should as well.

3 Min Read
Organic brand leaders appeal for check-off support

This is a personal appeal to all of our fellow organic processors and manufacturers who have a stake in the future of organic to help make an organic check-off program a reality. 

This is not a financial appeal, but we need a bit of your time and attention. A recent Consumer Reports survey underscored what many of us already know—a large percentage of consumers credit “natural” with the attributes that only come from buying organic:

  • 86 percent of consumers believe that foods labeled as “natural” contain ingredients grown without pesticides.

  • 87 percent believe “natural” foods do not include artificial ingredients.

  • 85 percent believe they do not contain GMOs.

Organic businesses simply can’t afford this confusion.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has now officially published its proposal for an organic check-off and is seeking public comments. After the comment period is closed, USDA will cull through and review the responses, then publish its final proposal. The last step will be a vote by all participating certified organic stakeholders on whether to make the proposal a reality. This will stretch well into 2017.

There is no doubt that we need a large, loud, coordinated plan to clear up consumer misunderstanding about organic. An organic check-off would enable the entire sector to benefit from consumer education, as well as on-farm and regional research solutions that will ultimately increase the number of organic farmers. It would be a game changer for organic.

Related:How (and why) to make a comment on the organic check-off program

To pay for this, the organic check-off will be an industrywide opportunity for all organic stakeholders to join together to build a research and education effort in which all certificate holders—producers, handlers, brand manufacturers, co-packers and even importers—with gross annual sales above $250,000 would contribute to a collective fund. The proposed assessment calls for one-tenth of 1 percent of revenues. So, for example, there would be a maximum $1,000 assessment for every $1 million in gross organic revenue. And all contributing stakeholders will then have a say in how the money is spent.

The proposed organic check-off also creates an exemption for small farmers and businesses that make less than $250,000 per year. However, even these exempt operations could voluntarily choose to contribute to the collective fund at the same assessment level and participate in the program governance. All stakeholders would be assessed at the same rate, so for an organic farm with organic sales of, for example, $90,000 a year, the yearly assessment would be $90. Businesses that already participate in another federal check-off (egg dairy, eggs or soy) would get to choose where to direct their assessment.

This could be a clear win for all of us, but to make it a reality, you need to show your support. Please vote for the check-off when the USDA holds its referendum on the proposal. And please urge fellow organic certificate holders to do the same.

This can be the moment we give organic a beautiful future!

For additional information,visit Or contact Tessa Young at the Organic Trade Association ([email protected]) with specific questions.

About the Author(s)

Gary Hirshberg

Chairman, Stonyfield Farm & Just Label It

Gary Hirshberg is the husband of writer Meg Hirshberg and the father of three yogurt eaters. He is chairman of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s leading organic yogurt producer, and the author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hyperion, 2008). Gary frequently speaks on topics including sustainability, organic agriculture and the profitability of green business.

Gary has overseen Stonyfield’s growth, from its 1983 infancy as a seven-cow organic farming school to its current $360 million in annual sales. Stonyfield has enjoyed a compounded annual growth rate of over 23 percent over 21 years, by consistently producing superior products and using innovative marketing that blends the company’s social, environmental, and financial missions. Stonyfield partnered with Danone in 2001, and Gary is now managing director of Stonyfield Europe, with organic brands in Ireland, and France.

Gary serves on several corporate and non-profit boards including Applegate Farms, Honest Tea, Peak Organic Brewing, Late July, The Full Yield, SweetGreen, RAMp Sports, Glenisk, the Danone Communities Fund and the Danone Livelihoods Fund. He is the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Chelsea’s Table Cafés, a natural and organic fast casual restaurant firm. In 2011, President Obama appointed Gary to serve on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. He is a co-chair of AGree, an agricultural policy initiative formed by the Ford, Gates, Kellogg, Rockefeller, Walton and other leading foundations.

He is chairman and a founding partner of Just Label It, We Have the Right to Know, the national campaign to label genetically engineered foods and is co-author of Label It Now – What You Need to Know About Genetically Engineered Foods (New Word City, 2012). All proceeds from the e-book benefit Just Label It.

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