Twenty years ago, I worked for a small organic produce brokerage company in Moss Landing, California. We were likely the only ones shipping organic produce across the country from the fertile fields of California. At that time the organic industry in America was barely a blip in the food sector. Sales hovered around $1 billion and organic products weren’t easily available for most consumers. My greatest dream was to someday ship a full truckload of organic produce to one customer. My dream ultimately came to fruition, and the industry began to grow.
Fast forward to today. Stoked by increasing consumer demand, U.S. organic sales are expected to have hit a new record of around $40 billion in 2014. While that represents just less than 5% of the country’s total food sales, a survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association in 2014 of more than 1,200 households in the U.S. found that about 81% of American families are purchasing organic food at least some times. Consumers of all ages, all income brackets, of all types of households, are making the link between health and good food. They want to enrich their family’s diets and protect the environment. They are increasingly seeking out the organic label. But today we are still only 1% of all agriculture.
Despite its rising success, the organic industry faces challenges:
- Domestic supplies struggle to keep up with strong organic demand.
- Current research funding is insufficient. The 2014 Farm Bill expanded its organic research budget to $100 million over five years, but that represents only about 8% of the total $1.2 billion allocated by Congress for all federal agricultural research.
- Consumers do not understand what distinguishes organic from competing labels in the grocery aisle.
I am excited about an innovative way to overcome these challenges! The industry is considering an organic research and promotion check-off program. I serve on the board of directors for the OTA, the principle trade group for the organic sector, and we decided to take the lead on efforts to formulate a check-off proposal. It’s been an exhaustive process and it’s taken more than three years to gather input from all stakeholders—growers, handlers, processors, importers, retailers—on how to structure a check-off program that best serves our organic industry. Because we took so much time the proposal includes a variety of great suggestions which resulted in a robust and equitable proposal. The application will soon be submitted to the Agriculture Department for review, and will ultimately be voted on by certified organic stakeholders.
I believe the time is right for a research and promotion check-off program, one that is designed specifically for the organic sector. The organic industry must act collectively to ensure our future. Together we can accomplish more than we can individually. Organic farmers, food companies, handlers, retailers – all organic stakeholders – have to actively promote the organic seal over other labels that aren’t supported by the strict standards that the organic seal represents.
Commodity check-off programs have been a part of American agriculture for almost 50 years. These programs have helped to increase demand for the product they are promoting, returned a good investment on the dollar to the grower, and boosted funding for research.
An organic check-off would be unprecedented. An organic check-off would not promote a specific commodity, but instead a specific agricultural production process; it would represent all organic stakeholders.
The check-off assessments would be broad and shallow; all organic certificate holders would pay into the check-off and all would benefit. The proposed assessment on the gross revenue (minus the cost of organic goods) would equal one-tenth of one percent annually. For a $1 million gross organic revenue, for example, the assessment would be a maximum of $1,000.
It’s estimated a check-off could raise up to $40 million a year! Think what could be done! More money for promotion, research, and consumer education: promoting the benefits of organic to consumers and explaining why organic sometimes costs more and why it is worth more, and research to find everyday solutions for organic farmers and encourage others to transition to organic practices. An organic check-off program would strengthen the voice of the organic industry and allow us to get our message to the American consumer in a clear, transparent way.
My next dream is that the organic industry reaches far beyond the 4% of food expenditures and becomes 10%, 15%, and 25%. This is a way that could make that a reality. It will require that all certified organic operators throughout the U.S. get involved. For more information on the proposed organic check-off, and to learn how you can get involved with the effort, visit www.unitedformoreorganic.com. Let’s make our voices heard. Let’s advance the organic industry to a new level of prosperity and sustainability. Please join me in taking organic to the next level!