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Organic industry gearing up for checkoff program

Move over Got Milk? and Beef: It's What's for Dinner. The organic industry is laying plans for it's own industry-funded research and promotion program thanks to legislative changes in the 2014 farm bill. 

Since scoring several legislative victories with the passage of the 2014 farm bill last month, the organic industry has wasted no time in getting to work on one of those wins: the newly authorized ability to establish an industry-funded research and marketing "checkoff" program. Still giddy from organic’s farm bill successes, Organic Trade Association CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha and four other organic stakeholders presented plans for what's technically termed an Organic Research and Promotion Order on Friday at Natural Products Expo West.

“We changed the game, and we got it done,” Batcha said. “Now we’re here to say we’ve got a choice.”

The choice Batcha referred to is the option to go forward with a proposed order, which would create and authorize a board to collect mandatory fees from the industry that could be put toward anything from national television advertisements to regional research about citrus greening or fire blight of apples. 

"Hopefully gone will be the days when we have to do fundraisers for separate areas of industry and meet in hotel rooms and at dinners to raise funds," said Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations for United Natural Foods. 

The current proposal offers different options for how fees would be assessed, which include basing the number on a percentage of gross profits or calculating a percentage of the total cost of organic ingredients used. Every certificate holder along the organic supply chain would pay into the pot with the goal of keeping the program “really shallow and really broad,” said Marty Mesh executive director of Florida Organic Growers. In other words, while lots of people would pay into the program, nobody would pay an extraordinary amount. Such a model ensures that everyone, in every stage of production, distribution and sales has skin in the game and a voice in how the program’s dollars are spent, Batcha said. Imported organic products would also be assessed the fees. 

The amount of money the program could potentially raise is nothing to scoff at. The Organic Trade Association’s initial estimates based on number of organic certificate holders puts the number at around $30 million annually. That certainly rivals the $250 million the newest farm bill allocates specifically to the organic industry over five years. The Organic Trade Association, by the way, would not be allowed to receive money from the checkoff program because it is a lobbying organization. 

The proposal is now open for comment and can be found at the United For More Organic website. Once a proposal is finalized, it will go to a vote and will only move forward with the approval of two thirds of industry stakeholders, which in this case would be organic certificate holders. If the support is there and all else goes as planned, the program could be up and ready to go in 18 to 24 months, Batcha said. 

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