Organic growers are split over industry-funded ad and promotion proposal

Producers of organic farm goods disagree over a plan to collect fees and tout products in much the same way that other programs promote cotton, beef or eggs.

WASHINGTON — Organic growers in California, Washington and other farm states appear split over an industry promotion proposal that’s blossomed into a heated dispute.

Some growers want a separate program that touts organic products in much the same way that other programs promote cotton, beef or eggs. Others want no part of generic advertising for organics funded by industry “check-off” fees.

More than 11,500 public responses flooded the Agriculture Department before Wednesday’s deadline for commenting. The volume and pace of the organic program commentaries led the “What’s Trending” section of the entire federal regulatory website, and they reflect wildly different perspectives.

On the one hand: “The check-off model provides a tried and true vehicle for the organic sector to invest our own dollars in our collective continued growth at no cost to the taxpayer,” Steven Nichols, a certified organic egg producer in California’s San Bernardino County, stated on April 6.

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On the other: “I have been an organic farmer in California for the past 10 years and the last thing I need is another layer of burdensome, time consuming and costly overhead to my already very busy life,” Fresno County farmer Eldon Thiesen wrote the Agriculture Department on March 23.

Anne Schwartz of Rockport, Skagit County, who owns and operates Blue Heron Farm with her husband, Mike Brondi, is against an organic check-off promotion program. They grow organic berries and vegetables.

“In case after case around the U.S., family farmers, small and mid-size producers do not benefit from check-off programs,” Schwartz said in an email. “They accelerate concentration across the industry in sector after sector…. The chief beneficiaries are large farming corporations, processors, grocery distributors and marketing and advertising firms.”

She would not be required to pay into the system, said Schwartz, but even if she chose to participate, “voices like mine are over-ruled. I have no confidence the organic check-off will be any different than all the other check-off programs that also try to ‘manage’ the growers’ voices.”

Growers and industry leaders have been talking about an organic products promotion program for years, inspired by the work of Agriculture Department-approved organizations like the Cotton Board, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the American Egg Board. The federal agency broadly oversees the industry-run programs.

Once authorized in a referendum among members of the particular industry, these promotion programs collect fees and fund advertising and marketing campaigns that in some cases have reached iconic status with slogans like “Cotton: The Fabric of our Lives.” They have…

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