Organic farmers reap broader exemption from crop fees

Organic produce is displayed at Wedge Natural Food Co-Op in Minneapolis on May 8, 2014.
Organic produce is displayed at Wedge Natural Food Co-Op in Minneapolis on May 8, 2014. MCT

Some organic farmers have harvested another victory, with a new Agriculture Department decision allowing more growers to avoid paying fees into the mainstream promotion programs that support crops ranging from cotton to pork.

The decision reinforces the organic farmers’ efforts to distinguish their products, and underscores their growing political clout. Once ignored or merely patted on the head, the organic farming sector is now a muscular force that’s learning to flex grass-roots power.

“These are important gains for organic farmers and the organic industry, and will help the organic sector invest in its future,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement Monday.

But underscoring the enduring divisions within the industry, longtime organic almond producer and consultant Cindy Lashbrook, from California’s Merced County, countered in an interview Monday that broadening the exemption “makes it too easy for the big guys” to get an advantage.

The Agriculture Department has estimated that U.S. sales of organic products reached $28.4 billion in 2012. As of last April, officials counted a record 19,474 certified organic operations in the United States.

The new Agriculture Department rule, which takes effect Feb. 29, expands the ability of these organic growers to opt out of 22 federal research and promotion programs and 23 marketing orders.

We are pleased that the organic sector will be able to invest in its unique needs for organic research and promotion that are so critical to the future success of organic.

Organic Trade Association CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha

Until now, only growers who exclusively produce certified organic products have been permitted to avoid paying the promotion and marketing program fees. The new rule, formally published last Thursday, expands this exemption to growers that produce both organic and non-organic crops.

Research and promotion programs, run by organizations such as the Cotton Board and the National Watermelon Promotion Board, and marketing orders, overseen by the likes of the Modesto-based Almond Board of California and the Fresno, California-based Raisin Administrative Committee, differ in some respects but are all funded by industry fees.

The money, in part, supports advertising campaigns. The problem, some organic farmers believe, is that generic ads don’t promote their unique product, which often sells at premium prices.

“Organic farmers don’t need to advertise,” Palmdale, California, resident Max Pierson advised the Agriculture Department. “Their customers find them no matter what, because they value health. They should not have to support advertising for all that quasi-food from the rest of the industry.”

Pierson’s was one of 731 public comments responding to the proposed rule change, 550 of which were in support while only 10 voiced opposition. Many comments amounted to form letters, while others opined generally about the merits of organic produce.

“Organic farmers are sustainable practitioners and will help this planet,” Apex, North Carolina, resident Linda Maynard wrote, adding that genetically modified organisms and “factory farming only destroy this earth.”

For the mainstream promotion and marketing programs, the broader organic exemption first authorized by Congress in 2014 poses the prospect of diminished income.

Emiliano Escobedo, executive director of the Mission Viejo, California-based Hass Avocado Board, cautioned in public comments that “loss of revenue due to the expanded exemption will impact funding streams for the very programs this rule seeks to promote.” The California Almond Board expects a reduction of $298,000 and the Raisin Administrative Committee expects a reduction of $180,000, among other changes cited by federal officials.

“These boards and committees will have to adjust programs and reduce budgeted expenses accordingly,” the Agriculture Department noted.

All told, the Agriculture Department estimates the new exemptions will reduce payments to existing promotion and marketing order programs by some $13.6 million.

Separately, the department is still mulling an Organic Trade Association-backed proposal to establish an industry-funded promotion program for organic crops. Among organic farmers, the idea has incited mixed opinions.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10