Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

By Ted Quaday, MOFGA Executive Director

MOFGA's Board of Directors voted unanimously in April to oppose the organic check-off program proposed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The USDA is drafting rules for the check-off, which would, in effect, create a tax on growers and handlers of organic products.

The purpose of the check-off program, officially known as the Organic Research, Promotion, and Information Order, is to generate revenue from the organic industry to help support organic research, marketing of the organic label, distribution of producer information and other so-called "discretionary" purposes.

Similar programs exist for commodities such as eggs, beef and pork. Those check-off programs have produced such slogans as "The incredible edible egg," "Beef. It's what's for dinner" and "Pork. The Other White Meat." Under present production and market conditions, the USDA estimates that the organic check-off program would generate roughly $30 million annually to support promotional activity within the organic sector.

While many organic farmers and handlers (food processors and retailers) likely would agree that the organic industry needs increased research and marketing efforts, opinions diverge significantly regarding the best ways to support that research and marketing. The program now under discussion at USDA has come under fire from many organic farmers and organic advocacy organizations. They believe the rules unfairly favor corporate farming operations and organic food processors.

The proposed rulemaking for the check-off has been under discussion for more than three years, and the USDA has been moving slowly toward issuing a final set of rules to govern the program.

Once the final rules are published, certified organic farmers and handlers will be called upon to vote "Yes" or "No" on the program. Existing rules on commodity check-offs allow only those who would be assessed under the check-off to vote on the program. This would essentially exclude about 60 percent of certified operations – those grossing $250,000 or less – from participating in the vote. Although a vote could still be a year away, the MOFGA board determined that the program falls far short of providing real benefits to Maine's organic farmers, and indicated this by rejecting the current rules.

MOFGA board member Spencer Aitel, a certified organic dairy farmer from South China, called the check-off scheme a form of "reverse Robin Hood" aimed at taking cash resources from small family farmers and diverting them to benefit large corporate entities.

Aroostook County organic potato farmer Jim Gerritsen also opposes the check-off. He praised the board for its vote, saying, "MOFGA has shown great leadership in supporting family farmers by opposing the OTA organic check-off. Commodity production programs (like the check-off) benefit the biggest farmers and unfairly hurt the family farm operations we have here in Maine."

MOFGA has followed the evolution of the check-off proposal over the past three years and has provided formal comments to USDA on a number of occasions. Most recently we pointed out that check-off programs are not a good match for the majority of Maine's 500-plus independent organic farmers and processors. The majority of farms certified through USDA-accredited MOFGA Certification Service LLC (MCS) would be exempt from paying into the check-off. However, the burden of recordkeeping and reporting gross sales for many of these farms would cause them to reject organic certification and amount to a loss of certified organic farms in Maine.

As a member of the No Organic Check-off Coalition, MOFGA has joined with more than 30 other organizations representing nearly half of all the certified organic producers in the country arguing against the check-off program. Nationally among certified organic growers, an obvious lack of support for the check-off exists. A lack of backing is one factor USDA is required to weigh in determining whether to push ahead with a final vote on the plan.

The proposal in its present form hurts family farmers in numerous other ways. It has the potential to increase the demand for organic products that will drive an increase in imported feed and processing ingredients, creating a competitive disadvantage for U.S.-based family farmers. It fails to give organic farmers leadership control over how check-off dollars are allocated. It fails to sufficiently support organic production research. It would also impose a heavy paperwork and documentation burden on farmers forced to participate in the program and on farmers seeking to opt out.

On April 19, the formal USDA comment period on the check-off proposal closed. MOFGA made its case against the plan in comments at that time. We are now waiting for USDA to publish a final rule that takes into account comments from thousands of organic farmers and consumers throughout the country. Unless the agency makes significant corrective changes to the OTA proposal, the MOFGA board will remain opposed to the organic check-off.