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Organic checkoff program proposed, animal management rules finalized

Progressive Dairyman Editor Dave Natzke Published on 24 January 2017

Separate proposals to create a national organic research and promotion program and provide consistency to federal organic livestock production standards have been introduced.

Organic checkoff program proposed

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposal to create a new industry-funded, organic research, promotion and information order would cover most certified organic agricultural products. Like other national research and promotion programs, the program would establish a framework to develop and strengthen markets and conduct research and promotion activities.

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Under the proposal, producers and handlers with gross organic sales greater than $250,000 for the prior marketing year would pay one tenth of one percent of net organic sales. Organic importers declaring a transaction value greater than $250,000 for the prior marketing year would also pay one tenth of one percent on the declared transaction value.

Exempt from the assessment are U.S. producers, handlers and handlers with gross organic sales or transaction values of $250,000 or less during the prior marketing year, as well as any organic products produced domestically and exported from the United States. Exempt producers, handlers and importers have the option to voluntarily pay the assessment and participate in the program.

Published in the Federal Register on Jan. 18, the proposal creates a 17-member administration board with members appointed by the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

A 60-day public comment period ends March 20.

Organic Valley leadership supports order

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George Siemon, chief executive officer of Organic Valley, the nation's largest cooperative of organic family farmers, welcomed the research and promotion order proposal. He pointed out its features are unique compared to other checkoff programs.

"This promotion order will support a variety of organic commodities – not just one, like milk or pork,” Siemon said. “And it will be funded not just by farmers but by everyone in the value chain."

"As a farmer, I've seen the ways education changes people's relationship with their food,” said Steve Pierson, an organic dairy farmer from St. Paul, Oregon. “When people understand what the organic label means, they understand it means a lot."

“This checkoff brings everyone in the organic movement together to protect and promote our markets,” said Pierson, who milks 350 cows and serves on Organic Valley’s board of directors.

Organic coalition opposed

A coalition of small organic organizations oppose the checkoff program, charging that other national commodity promotion and research programs have created heavily bureaucratic systems that do little to represent farmer priorities.

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The No Organic Checkoff Coalition believes organic farmers are already burdened by certification paperwork and fees and would be better served to hold onto their marketing money and invest it into their own businesses.

In a press release, the coalition charged the proposal failed to address many concerns of organic farmer organizations and could unfairly promote large organic processors’ needs over those of family farmers.

“This is a disappointment for the organic sector – checkoff programs are not a good match for independent organic farmers,” said Kate Mendenhall, a spokesperson for the coalition.

According to the coalition, the USDA proposal eliminates 60 percent of organic farmers from having a referendum vote unless they voluntarily pay the assessment to the program.

While the proposal provides assessment exemptions to organic producers, handlers and importers below the $250,000 threshold, it also restricts voting in the referendum. Among smaller producers, handlers and importers, only those who agree to voluntarily contribute to the order would be allowed to vote.

Based on USDA estimates, of the current 11,139 organic producers, 8,327 handlers and 2,135 importers, about 2,691 producers, 5,015 handlers and 326 importers would be expected to pay assessments and thus be eligible to vote in the referendum.

The coalition was also critical of the proposed makeup of the 17-person administration board, saying less than half (eight) positions are reserved for small- to mid-size grassroots organic farmers.

The No Organic Checkoff coalition is made up of over 27 not-for-profit organic farmer-member organizations and organic businesses, including the Cornucopia Institute, Family Farm Defenders, Food and Water Watch, National Family Farm Coalition, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association, Northeast Organic Farming Associations of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island and the Western Organic Dairy Producers Association.

Organic livestock standards

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) also announced a final rule clarifying production requirements for organic livestock and poultry to qualify for use of the National Organic Program’s certified organic seal on marketing labels.

Based on multiple recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board and public comments, the amendments seek to establish enforceable standards for organic animals. The rule clarifies how producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and well-being throughout life, including transport and slaughter. It covers stocking density and handling of non-ambulatory animals, and also clarifies food safety and biosecurity options.

The final rule was published in the Jan. 19 Federal Register and can be viewed on the AMS website. It becomes effective on March 20.

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy organization, said USDA’s organic livestock practice standards are too little, too late to protect small organic producers. While most of Kastel’s criticism was heaped on poultry and egg standards, he said USDA did listen to widespread criticism of the draft rule and removed requirements that cows have enough space to be able to turn laterally in their stalls. The new rule does prohibit dairy cattle tail docking.

In a statement released regarding the proposal, Organic Valley said it strongly supported the final rule on animal care standards.

“We have lived with inconsistencies in organic livestock and poultry production methods that cannot be tolerated, and the rule rectifies those inconsistencies,” it said. “Doing nothing to clarify livestock and poultry practices would damage the USDA Certified Organic brand, and that would be a true hardship faced by the entire organic industry if consumers lose confidence in the organic seal.”

U.S. House Agriculture Committee chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) took issue with the timing of the proposal.

"I am disappointed to see yet another controversial rule pushed through during the final hours of the Obama administration,” he said. “I hope the incoming administration will immediately withdraw this rule, but stand ready with my colleagues on the Hill to roll back the regulation if necessary."  end mark

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