Good Fruit Grower

May 1

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Organic & Sustainable Ag Organic checkoff DEBATED It's estimated that a multicommodity organic marketing order could raise up to $40 million for research and promotions. by Geraldine Warner T Melody Meyer "Most consumers don't know what organic means." —Melody Meyer he Organic Trade Association has been gathering feedback on the idea of a national checkoff program to fund research and promotions for all organic foods. This would be the first federal marketing order not devoted to a single commodity, points out Gwendolyn Wyard, the Organic Trade Association's regulatory director. She believes that the organic food industry needs a unified marketing voice and the ability to educate consumers about organics. Growers who produce exclusively organic products can be exempted from paying assessments to federal marketing orders, but those who grow both organic and conventional cannot. For example, commercial pear growers in the Pacific Northwest who grow for both the organic and conventional markets are obliged to pay assessments to fund promotions by the Pear Bureau Northwest. The Organic Trade Association estimates that, nationally, organic food producers pay $20 million in assessments to commodity groups for promotions and research that are not specific to organic. "This is essentially taxation without representation," said Melody Meyer, an association board member. "We believe this needs to be fixed, so organic farmers have the option of paying into an organic research and promotion program." The OTA is a trade association with 6,500 members, who are organic farmers, handlers, manufacturers, or distributors. Its annual budget is $2 million, which Meyer said is not enough money to effectively promote organics. As well as serving on the association board, Meyer is vice president of global initiatives at United Natural Foods, Inc., which describes itself as the leading distributor of natural, organic, and specialty foods and related products (including nutritional supplements and personal care items) in the United States. Meyer said the Organic Trade Association would like to see organics promoted in a positive way, avoiding negative or confusing messages. "Most consumers don't know what organic means," she said. She estimates that a federal checkoff program covering all organic foods could raise $30 to $40 million annually through assessments—enough to do television, radio, Internet, and print advertising, and to fund research to help the growing organic industry. Over the past winter, the Organic Trade Association has been holding "town hall" meetings with organic growers around the country to listen to their ideas and concerns. One such meeting took place during the Washington State Horticultural Association's meeting in Yakima, Washington, last December. Wyard said the OTA's role is just to facilitate the discussion. "We understand there are a lot of people who are not in favor of checkoff programs," Wyard told the audience. "Historically, they've not always benefitted the organic producer. We want to take a close look at what's worked and what hasn't worked." Multicommodity One grower asked how a multicommodity organic checkoff program would assess different units of production, such as heads of cattle or boxes of apples. Wyard said the complexity of having multiple commodities is a reason why some people favor a retail assessment of, say 0.1 percent of the value of organics sold. However, though the concept might be simpler, she felt it might be more difficult to get retailers to agree to it. Wyard said any marketing order that is established must not be a burden on organic farmers. The Organic Trade Association would propose that half of the board members be grower representatives so their voice is heard. Like all federal marketing orders, it would be subject to continuation referenda, allowing growers to end it if they did not see a value. Harold Austin, director of orchard administration for Zirkle Fruit Company in Selah, Washington, and a member of the National Organic Standards Board, said the challenge would be to have commodities of various sizes fairly represented. He did not recommend that it emulate the NOSB, whose board members include representatives of all types of stakeholders, from the public, to environmental groups, to organic producers. "If we're going to use that as an example, heaven help us all," he said. A grower at the meeting thought it would be difficult to fund research when so many different commodities have distinct research needs. He suggested that the main focus 18 May 1, 2013 GOOD FRUIT GROWER

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