From the June/July issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.
Today, there are 22 federally mandated commodity check-offs, and they raise some $750 million annually from U.S. farmers and ranchers. In addition to the beef check-off, there are check-off programs for blueberries, Christmas trees, cotton, dairy products, eggs, fluid milk, Hass avocados, lamb, mango, mushrooms, peanuts, popcorn, pork, potatoes, soybeans and watermelons.
And there’s even more than that. The USDA operates another 35 or so federal commodity marketing orders, and many states run additional local commodity check-offs. If you add up all the money collected by all these state and national check-offs, the total is estimated (check-off data is not officially tracked) to reach $1.25 billion per year for commodity promotion and research.
Another check-off might be joining those ranks — this one, for the first time, in support of a process, rather than a commodity. In May, the 8,500-member Organic Trade Association (OTA) formally petitioned the USDA to begin setting up a check-off for the organic industry.
Like other check-offs, this one has already been creating some controversy; a headline on Harvest Public Media reports, “Check-off debate stirs clash within organic food industry.” Some insiders have expressed concerns about a lack of transparency reported in other check-off programs or worries about the ability of the proposed program to truly meet the needs of the organic farmers paying into it. The organic industry includes both multimillion-dollar organic companies and small local farmers; they may have different goals in terms of outreach and research. Even the term “organic industry” seems anathema to some organic growers: the threat of “Big Organic” taking over.
But there’s no denying the value and rapid growth of the organic sector. The organic seal was launched in 2000, an effort to communicate to consumers certain standards and practices. Since then, organic food’s market share has been expanding — it’s been described as the fastest growing consumer food trend in modern history. Food Safety News reports that the organic food industry has seen a 3,400 percent increase in the past two decades. In 2013, organic food sales reached $35 billion, which was an increase of 11 percent over the year before. In 2014, according to a survey from OTA, 83 percent of American consumers bought organic food.
Even so, some in the industry say consumers are confused about what the organic seal means, and part of the purpose of the check-off would be to address that confusion through consumer-directed advertising and research. The money raised would come through a proposed assessment of 0.1 percent of gross organic revenue greater than $250,000 per year. (For example, there would be a $1,000 assessment at $1,000,000 gross organic revenue.) Farmers whose gross organic revenue fell below $250,000 could choose whether or not to pay into the program. It’s estimated the program could collect some $30 million to $40 million per year.
Now that the OTA has submitted its formal proposal to the USDA, that organization will complete a review. Next, an official proposal will be published in the Federal Register. A public comment period will follow and then a referendum voted on by stakeholders. If at least two-thirds of organic producers vote in favor, the check-off will be adopted.