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OTA event highlights organic possibilities, challenges

OTA event highlights organic possibilities, challenges
Networking event highlighted challenges facing organic businesses in New England and reinforced the opportunities possible by working together to reach consumers and state and federal governments.

Jesse Laflamme says his family's egg business was saved the first time by going organic, and then rescued again when the operation joined forces with the Organic Trade Association (OTA) to fight a regulation that would have had dire implications for its future. 

Laflamme, co-owner of Pete & Gerry's Organic Eggs based in Monroe, N.H., is now a board member of OTA, and hosted an OTA-sponsored networking event in Brattleboro in Dec. 4. The event highlighted challenges facing organic businesses in New England, and reinforced the opportunities possible by working together through a trade association to create an effective voice to reach consumers, state governments, and officials on the national level. 

Drawing participation by Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, representatives from Vermont lawmakers U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy's and Congressman Peter Welch's offices, regional certification bodies, organic farmers, diverse organic businesses, OTA members and non-members, the "Organic in New England" roundtable discussion looked at the importance of organic farming and trade, and the ways that collaborating with OTA can elevate the local and national issues critical to organic operations.

Laflamme explained to the more than 40 attendees why his family's company is part of OTA. Recounting how the company almost went out of business in the 1990s and was only saved by converting to organic, Laflamme admitted it wasn't until a critical regulatory issue arose—an effort to block outdoor access for poultry on farms—that his company realized the value of OTA. 

"We weren't members until we needed OTA. Don't be like us," he said, urging organic businesses present who aren't yet members to join. An ongoing hurdle is to educate consumers about the differences between the natural and organic labels, and address their lack of understanding about the value of organic. "This will take a unified voice to overcome," he said.

Vermont's Secretary of Agriculture Ross also challenged the organic sector to continue to reach out to members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) to make them aware of the contributions organic farming makes to local, state and national agriculture. Citing how OTA had significant presence by hosting an all-organic breakfast at NASDA's annual conference during 2014, Ross stressed that such engagement gets the attention of his colleagues who need to be aware of the importance of organic farming to state and U.S. agriculture overall. 

"The challenge facing all of agriculture is agricultural literacy. This creates an enormous opportunity, but you have to be engaged," Ross said. He added that organic offers a great investment opportunity, but potential investors need to be part of the conversation to understand its importance. 

Participants also discussed such issues as growing demand, supply challenges, hurdles in recruiting more family farmers, pending food safety regulatory requirements that may prove burdensome particularly for small family operations, challenges concerning non-GMO and organic labeling, and helping organic farmers have their voices heard in Washington. 

Laura Batcha, OTA's CEO and Executive Director, noted that although OTA has always had farmer presence on its Board of Directors, it now has an OTA's Farmers Advisory Council (FAC) to provide even better advocacy for organic producers. "Our Farmers Advisory Council is helping us better understand farmers' issues and in turn, providing a way to facilitate getting information and resources out to them," Batcha said. In addition, she noted, OTA provides scholarships to farmers to attend its annual policy conference held in D.C. This event includes congressional office visits, allowing farmers to have a real presence in the dialog with government officials as part of the trade association's presence in D.C. Following the roundtable, participants continued the conversation over organic food and beverages at a local restaurant. 

This OTA event was held to recognize the importance of New England business involvement in the growing organic sector. Statistics highlighted during the roundtable show that New England is one of the key incubators for the $35.1 billion U.S. organic industry, and Vermont (with 593 certified organic operations) and Maine (with 445 certified organic operations) are among the top 10 states for organic businesses. 

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