Organic farmers are fertilizing a proposal to broaden their exemption from paying industry fees that largely support conventional agriculture.
Hundreds of organic growers and their supporters have urged the Agriculture Department to grant the broader fee exemption. The proposal would free more growers from the industry fees used to promote the likes of almonds, beef and raisins, and would potentially cut some conventional agriculture advertising budgets.
USDA officials are now giving all sides more time to comment on the proposed fee exemption.
“The organic producers should be in control of their own money,” Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association, said in an interview Friday. “Organic is distinctive and it has distinctive needs.”
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More than 620 people have commented so far on the proposed broadening of the fee exemption, with many submitting form emails supporting the organic growers. Sacramento, Calif., resident Richard Cuny echoed the views of many when he wrote Jan. 20 that an exemption makes sense because “organic products are substantially different than conventional products.”
The sentiments are not 100 percent unanimous, though, and opposition could grow through the expanded comment period, which now expires Feb. 17.
“As organic products receive the benefit of promotional efforts generated by non-organic assessments, such an exemption would be entirely unfair to those that are being assessed,” Dennis Housepian, a Fresno, Calif.-based raisin industry official, declared in a public comment posted Thursday.
Currently, industry fees fund 23 marketing orders and 22 research-and-promotion programs. The fees support organizations like the National Watermelon Promotion Board, and the money is behind well-known ad pitches like “Got Milk?” and “Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives.”
The most recent farm bill, passed by Congress last year, included several marketing and promotion order provisions sought by organic growers.
One provision authorizes organic growers to propose establishing their own program devoted to promoting organic foods. Proponents are preparing to submit a formal proposal to the USDA in the next several months, setting the stage for an industry referendum for a $40 million-a-year research and promotion program.
“There is a tremendous groundswell of support for more research for organic,” Batcha said. “The research needs are enormous.”
But the industry that now spans more than 18,500 certified organic growers and businesses nationwide is not entirely unified.
“Our organic world is too large and diverse to have an organization work on our behalf,” Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower Roger Pepperl advised the Agriculture Department last month. “We grow organic tree fruit and have nothing in common with organic cotton, organic beef and etc.”
A separate farm bill provision expands the organic grower exemption from current marketing and promotion program fees.
Currently, organic producers are exempt from the fees only if 100 percent of their production was certified organic. The latest farm bill would expand that, once the Agriculture Department writes the rules, to exempt producers for the organically produced portion of their crop, even if another portion is non-organic.
The Agriculture Department notes the Modesto-based Almond Board of California expects a reduction of $298,000 and the Fresno-based California Raisin Administrative Committee a reduction of $180,000 as a result of the expanded eligibility for organic assessment exemptions. The Fresh Pear Committee serving Oregon and Washington state expects a $362,000 cut, the department estimates.
“Should this rule be implemented, these boards and committees would have to adjust programs and reduce budgeted expenses accordingly,” the USDA noted last year.
Batcha, of the Organic Trade Association, said “the law is clear” that the organic fee exemption should be broadened, and she voiced her expectation that federal officials will not backtrack.