Producers of organic farm goods disagree over a plan to collect fees and tout products in much the same way that other programs promote cotton, beef or eggs.
WASHINGTON — Organic growers in Washington, California and other farm states appear split over an industry-promotion proposal that’s blossomed into a heated dispute.
Some growers want a separate program that touts organic products in much the same way that other programs promote cotton, beef or eggs. Others want no part of generic advertising for organics funded by industry “checkoff” fees.
More than 11,500 public responses flooded the Agriculture Department before Wednesday’s deadline for commenting. The volume and pace of the organic-program commentaries led the “What’s Trending” section of the entire federal regulatory website, and they reflect wildly different perspectives.
On the one hand: “The checkoff model provides a tried and true vehicle for the organic sector to invest our own dollars in our collective continued growth at no cost to the taxpayer,” Steven Nichols, a certified organic egg producer in California’s San Bernardino County, stated on April 6.
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On the other: “I have been an organic farmer in California for the past 10 years and the last thing I need is another layer of burdensome, time consuming and costly overhead to my already very busy life,” Fresno County farmer Eldon Thiesen wrote the Agriculture Department on March 23.
Anne Schwartz of Rockport, Skagit County, who owns and operates Blue Heron Farm with her husband, Mike Brondi, is against an organic checkoff promotion program. They grow organic berries and vegetables.
“In case after case around the U.S., family farmers, small and mid-size producers do not benefit from checkoff programs,” Schwartz said in an email. “They accelerate concentration across the industry in sector after sector … The chief beneficiaries are large farming corporations, processors, grocery distributors and marketing and advertising firms.”
She would not be required to pay into the system, said Schwartz, but even if she chose to participate, “voices like mine are overruled. I have no confidence the organic checkoff will be any different than all the other checkoff programs that also try to ‘manage’ the growers’ voices.”
Growers and industry leaders have been talking about an organic-products promotion program for years, inspired by the work of Agriculture Department-approved organizations like the Cotton Board, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the American Egg Board. The federal agency broadly oversees the industry-run programs.
Once authorized in a referendum among members of the particular industry, these promotion programs collect fees and fund advertising and marketing campaigns that in some cases have reached iconic status with slogans like “Cotton: The Fabric of our Lives.” They have also sparked legal and political debates over taxation, effectiveness and compulsory speech.
Within California’s San Joaquin Valley, for instance, some tree-fruit producers who objected to paying for unwanted commercials once fought similar assessment programs all the way to the Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote in 1997, the court upheld the California tree-fruit program, and the court in 2005 likewise upheld the beef promotion program.
Schwartz noted that “here in Washington state, dissatisfied apple growers successfully challenged the Apple Commission to stop their taxation and promotion program for domestically marketed apples,”
The Organic Trade Association submitted its promotion program proposal to the Agriculture Department in 2015, after Congress gave a preliminary go-ahead in the 2014 farm bill.
“There’s definitely a lot of interest,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said in an interview Friday. “This is a big idea.”
Organic food sales reached a record $39 billion in 2014, according to the trade association. Nationwide, more than 12,000 organic farms have been certified by authorized organizations like the California Certified Organic Farmers, with California accounting for more than 2,600.
Washington state ranks second in the number of certified organic farms, and its growers seem as divided as those in California.
“I have been an organic farmer in the state of Washington for 26 years,” wrote Seattle-area resident Warren Sponholtz. “I have never needed any help from trade associations or government agencies to market my product (and) I am absolutely against being forced to take part in a checkoff system with other growers who are not capable of marketing their own brands.”
Batcha countered that “there’s a lot of emotionally charged misinformation out there about the program,” including what she characterized as unwarranted concerns about paperwork burdens.
If approved, the organic-promotion program would collect fees from certified producers and handlers with gross sales in excess of $250,000. The fee would amount to one-tenth of 1 percent of their net organic sales. Importers who brought in greater than $250,000 in transaction value of organic products would also pay.
Officials estimate the program would take in roughly $28 million a year, which would be spent on advertising, marketing, research and administration. By contrast, the beef-promotion program collects about $72 million a year.
After the public comments, the Agriculture Department could opt to either proceed with the industry referendum, seek further comments about specific details or stop the proposal in its tracks.
“None of this happens quickly,” Batcha said.