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Organics Hope For A Boost With USDA Check-Off Program

Check-off programs pool money from organic food producers and handlers, and distribute the funds for organic food promotion, education, and research.

Organic sales are higher than ever, but U.S. organic food supply can’t keep up with demand. The proposed check-off program will encourage both consumers and farmers to invest in organic to increase both supply and demand.

Are you a consumer who wants more organic food at lower prices? Or a farmer thinking about transitioning to organic? The USDA has a new check-off program that appeals to both.

The federal agency released a proposal called Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic that aims to encourage consumers to purchase more organic food and convince conventional farmers to make the switch to growing organic – with the hope that it will ultimately drive up both demand and supply, and drive down costs for all.

Here’s how it works: organic producers and handlers pay into the program, run by a board of directors of agricultural peers. That money, an estimated $30 million a year, goes to promotion, consumer education, and organic food research and production.

Part of where that money goes is a new certification program for farmers and their land that are in the process of switching to organic. Switching to organic production isn’t simple or easy, and currently there’s not much economic incentive to do so.

But under the GRPOO, transitioning farmers will be allowed to sell their products for higher prices than conventional products to offset the costs of switching to organic.

The proposal was authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill and is more than two years in the making, with the Organic Trade Association at the helm. Organic sales are higher than ever, but U.S. organic food supply can’t keep up with demand.

“This organic check-off will provide research and key tools to encourage more farmers to go organic and help all organic farmers be more successful,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, in a statement.

“It will educate consumers in a positive way about what that organic seal really means,” Batcha continued. “For the benefit of all of us, this proactive program will further the success of organic agriculture for the long term.”

Opponents of the GRPOO check-off are weary of a campaign that involves the federal government.

“You can be more flexible with your messaging and even more efficient with the dollars if you’re not tied to the government,” said Harriet Behar, senior organic specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service to Civil Eats.

The check-off program does not provide standards for labeling the food grown on farms that are in the process of transitioning to organic, but the OTA says it expects to work with the food industry on guidelines for labeling.

The proposal is open for public comment for the next 60 days and, if passed, will be voted on by organic farmers and processors for final approval and implementation.

Read More:

  • Organic Checkoff Program Advances (Civil Eats)
  • U.S. takes step to boost organic food production (AgWeek)
Taylor Killough

Taylor Killough has degrees anthropology and journalism. She has worked with the oral history project StoryCorps. A nomad at heart, she recently returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where's she's excited to have her own kitchen and garden again.

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