The Organic Trade Association (OTA) announced that it was working on a plan to establish a voluntary organic checkoff program for organic producers and industry stakeholders last week. Previously, the organization had applied to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement an organic check-off program.
In January of 2017, the USDA proposed a national organic checkoff program, but in May of 2018, the agency halted the rulemaking process for that checkoff.
Establishing a type of checkoff program has been a multi-year priority for the OTA’s board of directors, said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director with OTA. The program was of interest because there is an acknowledged need for the organic industry to develop a mechanism to coordinate investment in areas including education, research and promotion.
“That’s been the problem that we’ve been trying to solve for four years now as our top priority,” she told FeedNavigator. “There really is no disagreement amongst stakeholders around the need for figuring out how the industry can invest in itself.”
Additionally, industry has increasingly been looking to find private sector solutions to challenges, she said. “Government’s business is increasingly becoming how to prevent solutions from happening,” she added.
“The administration terminated our checkoff proposal, but at this point, our assessment is that we’re not willing to try to continue to work through the process with the government on the program,” she said. “We believe we will be more successful spearheading a private sector solution, at least for the time being… we’re not willing to wait any longer.”
Checkoff plan overview
The trade association has already established a steering committee to coordinate the project along with forming governance and immediate programing subcommittees, the OTA said. Committee members will address governance questions and seek to consolidate multiple private efforts to improve organic research and promotion.
The association is immediately starting a suite of initiatives to address needs regarding research, education and promotion, said Batcha. “While we’re doing that in the short term, we have another committee that is simultaneously working on long-term, what does the structure for the voluntary program look like,” she added.
This autumn the OTA is going to have a comment period regarding a series of strategic question for industry stakeholders, she said. “What we’re looking for from people is not a reaction to a strawman proposal but we’re looking for people to provide substantive input to us about what they think is essential in a voluntary program,” she added.
The questions posed during that process are anticipated to cover areas like how governance is established, how decisions are made, who decides how checkoff dollars are spent, is there an established or voluntary rate regarding participating in the voluntary program or what can be done to “maximize participation,” she said.
“We’ll take that substantive input and we’ll put that up against the work that’s already been done on the federal program and then we’ll see where we are and what we need to do,” she said.
Research and feed
In addition to the longer-term work on establishing the voluntary checkoff and its governance system, the OTA also is investing in a series of research and outreach programs, said Batcha. The association also is working to raise money to support additional organic specialists in the extension program with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“We have a suite of research projects designed to look at soil health and carbon sequestration,” she said. “Soil health for farmers and organic in its role of mitigating climate change are the two thrusts of the research portfolio that were going right out of the gate on.”
“From the perspective of feed producers, the work from the specialists in the field is relevant, the work on research related to organic farming practices and soil health is relevant as well and everyone benefits from the consumer education and promotion,” she added.
Part of the research effort is set to include a survey of “science-based, best management practices” for organic producers, said Batcha. The research is being managed by the research nonprofit The Organic Center.
There needs to be support to develop additional organic acres, she said. “We’re taking a little different approach again thereby establishing specialists who have deep knowledge in organic production that is regionally focused,” she added.
“On the consumer side, we’re doing some consumer research to inform further activities,” she said. “We’re also partnering with Organic Voices on a campaign they’re putting together under the banner of, ‘It’s not complicated,’ which is an education-rich promotion program for consumers.”
Work on several of the short-term projects has already started, she said. “We’re bringing them together in a portfolio to increase investment in the short-term while we work out the governance aspects of the program,” she added.