Organic Check-Off Program: Protect Our Healthy Food Future

How to make organic food more affordable

Today’s post is going to differ slightly from my health and wellness articles, but it’s a topic that could affect all of us who are worried about the food supply and availability of organic foods for our families.

There’s a big new initiative on the horizon, and it affects a subject near and dear to my heart (and to many of yours as well, I’d wager):

How to get good food, and more of it, for less!

It’s called the GRO Organic Check-off Program, and it’s the next big thing in the organic food industry. In fact, this idea has been years in the making. This program means that organic food producers will work together to make organic food more widely available than ever before. It would mean lower prices for organic food while still ensuring that our organic farmers are being given the best tools to stay profitable, successful, and keep growing organic, while also driving down prices for consumers!

Sounds great, right? But organic farmers and the OTA (Organic Trade Association) need your support to make this plan a reality.

What’s a Check-off Program, Anyway?

Check-off programs in general are not exactly new. Does the phrase “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” sound familiar? Or maybe you’ve heard of the “The Incredible Edible Egg”? Check-off programs brought us these now famous advertising campaigns and very popular slogans.

The term “check-off” just means that producers of a certain type of food group (for example, all the beef producers) would check off a box indicating they wanted to participate in the program. They would then pay a fee toward the check-off fund. (Some check-off programs are in fact mandatory, which is controversial.)

These programs don’t promote one brand over another but the food commodity as a whole (eggs, beef, dairy, and now organics!).

An elected board puts the funds to work in a variety of ways. The check-off program handles education, marketing, advertising, strategic expansion into new markets, and so on. It’s worked wonders for many sectors of the food industry.

And it’s about to do the same for organic food, but only with our help!

Organic Check-off Program: Why The Time Is Now

American consumers clearly want organic food in their grocery stores. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) reports that this sector of the food industry has grown by double digits almost every year since the 1990s. Recent years are no exception, with a 10. 8% growth rate and a record $4.2 billion in sales in 2015. (Compare this to the overall food industry which grew at a rate of about 3% that year.)

While the demand is great, the supply is not. The same report tells us that as of 2014 only 1% of America’s farmland produced organic food. If you’ve dabbled in economics, you know that high demand and low supply drives up prices … as we all know too well when we’re trying to decide between conventional or organic at the grocery store.

Up until now, the organic food industry hasn’t had an official national check-off program. The OTA describes exactly why the industry should band together now at this critical point:

“We can either leave consumers guessing about what organic is, or we can come together to educate the public about what the organic seal really means. We can be solely dependent on others for research dollars to help solve industry challenges, or we can generate a pool of funds to help ourselves. We can struggle to meet the growing demand for organic, or we can work together to grow domestic acres and encourage more farmers to transition.”

In short, there’s no time like the present to make organically grown food more available and cost effective than ever and to make sure the farmers that grow our organic foods have all the resources available to stay in business and to expand!

What An Organic Check-Off Program Would Do for You

The GRO Organic Check-Off Program has 3 main goals:

  1. Encourage more farmers to enter the organic food sector
  2. Help all organic farmers be more successful and profitable
  3. Increase consumer confidence by educating about what the organic seal really means

It’s estimated that the program would raise $30 million dollars per year to use toward these goals. More specifically, a nationwide organic check-off program would raise money for the organic industry to:

  • Distinguish organic from lesser claims and unregulated seals like “natural”
  • Confirm the science behind the environmental and public health benefits of organic
  • Undertake research to solve problems such as invasive pests and weed control
  • Bring new farmers into organic production through information and technical assistance
  • Reduce the supply crunch by transitioning farmland to organic production across the U.S.

Small organic growers would no longer have to struggle alone but would have the support of a coordinated, nationwide organization with their best interests in mind. (Importantly, small growers would be able to opt out of the program if it were not in their financial best interests.)

And all of this means we get to feel better about our choices in the grocery store.

How to Get Involved Today

For the next two months, the USDA is asking for public comments in the Federal Register on the proposal for the GRO Organic Check-Off Program. Anyone—consumers, business owners, or organic food producers—can comment to show public support for this initiative that promises to make organic foods better understood, more accessible, and less costly.

The comment is already provided for you if you wish, so it’s as simple as providing your name and address and clicking submit.

Still have questions about how the program would work? Check out these helpful FAQs with all you could ever want to know about the GRO initiative!

Ready to vote for a better food future? The USDA wants to hear your opinion! Between January 18, 2017, and March 20, 2017, you can influence this decision by entering your comment of support at www.groorganic.net. Use your power as a consumer and let your voice be heard!

How an organic check off program saves you money

Do you think an organic check-off program is a good idea? If you do, be sure to register your comment and ask others to do the same!

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Reader Comments

  1. Katie, I checked the FAQS but didn’t see an answer to this: How will this affect the Local Small Farmers? For instance, I can buy organic lettuce at HEB (Texas) for about 2/3 the price of the farmers market, but I don’t know the farmer who grew it in California,and it being shipped only decreases the nutrition and it doesn’t help the local farmers either.
    Any thoughts?

      • Hi,

        I am a small scale, biodynamic farmer in southern California, and I oppose this in every way! I grow diversified vegetables, fruits, and raise hens for eggs.

        For the Wellness Mama regular readers, the most eyebrow-raising aspect of this proposal is that organic advertisements funded by this measure will not be allowed to compare organic produce to conventional/commodity produce in any way. Essentially, there will be no discussion of health benefits, environmental benefits, community benefits of organic agriculture, or greenwashing (think “natural” products and other dubious labels), because these comments could be seen as “disparaging” to commodity producers. . If that were not concerning enough, there is also the fact that the advertisements will not be allowed to support American farmers as a group, because that could “disparage” international commodity growers (who are a big part of this regulatory effort). Furthermore, this is totally suffocating for small growers, who do not stand to benefit from this at all. Think of the “Incredible, edible egg” slogan. Did that benefit small-scale and local growers? Not exactly. Sure, all egg producers benefit when eggs become more popular, but this is not the type of slogan that boot-strap local farms can afford to fund, because yes this requires annual funding from growers small and large. Under this new proposal, small growers will be REQUIRED to submit annual income statements, and pay fees, to support these programs (that, again, will not benefit them, discuss the many health benefits of local & organic, or even prioritize American farms). If you still aren’t convinced, fewer than half of the members on the checkoff board, the governing body of this proposed tax, are farmers. That means that more than half of the members of this board are lobbyists, or corporate interests. Do you want your local farmers to be subject to their collective will? Or do you want your local farmer to have the support of other small-scale growers in opposing this regulation? Farms belong to their individual communities, not federal regulatory boards. Support your farms and support their autonomy!

        Cornucopia.org is an organic watchdog organization with a lot of integrity. Wellness Mama readers will enjoy their website. They have some great information comparing various organic yogurt, for example, assessing for animal welfare, sugar content, and farm-standards. Highly endorse.

        • Thank you for this information and point of view;it will help people like myself (home gardener and consumer of organics) understand..

  2. It’s funny–I’ve heard of the organic checkoff before and didn’t really have an opinion on it, but this weekend I just attended the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s Winter Conference, and one of the big messages I got was that organic farmers, at least in the northern plains, absolutely do NOT support the checkoff. In fact, the only voice for it at the whole conference was from a sales rep from Annie’s (aka General Mills). The gist of their arguments against it was that it would increase their financial and bureaucratic burden while offering limited benefits, as the checkoff would not be able to distinguish between domestically-grown organics and imported organics. (The issue of fraudulent organic grains and legumes being imported at an increasing rate and undercutting domestic farmers was another big topic.) It might be worth looking into their side of the argument as well.

  3. Being an organic farmer I am not a huge supporter of the Organic check off. We already have tons of paperwork to be certified and have to PAY to become certified. I do not mind having to do this because we are paying for the label but I personally don’t want part of every paycheck that we receive to be taken away for the government to play with. I would rather take that money and continue to improve our farm so we Can continue to raise organic food.

    • Can you elaborate? I’m interested in your perspective.

      • Check offs are supposed to be used for advertising and education. In some ways I think they are a nice idea but a lot of check offs don’t give you an option of whether you want to participate or not and every single pay check gets a portion taken to fund this program. As organic farmers we already follow very strict rules for raising and selling our crops, it is all managed by the government and we have to pay to be certified so we can label our products as organic. Most organic farms are not huge operations making millions of dollars most are smaller farms working hard to raise a safe and healthy product for consumers. I personally would much rather see that money that the farmer worked hard for to go back to the farmer so he can continue to improve and continue to provide a good product instead of be put into the hands of the government to do who knows what with.

        • Very interesting perspective and I can completely understand why you would say that. My question being that in the post it sounded more like it was a group of organic farmers that the money would go to, not the government. Am I wrong in that then?

        • Thanks for explaining,Carla;
          I really wanted to check the comments to further form my opinion,but was pretty sure I wuoldn’t find any useful,so glad you wrote!
          I suspect any “nice” initiative from governments are in fact just another new way for them to get more money;and by the way,didn’t I read lately that many big corporation (Monsanto,Bayer…) are buying firms or brands of organic foods,because,as we consumers become more conscious about what we eat,this is becoming a potentially big money machine…
          So,should we blindly buy Organic (from China,as well as many other countries,far far away…) ,or must we try as hard as we can to support locally grown,organic if possible,but also people who can’t afford the organic certification,or don’t believe in it,but who still grow their crops organically,for local market?…
          Would love to read your opinion,everybody!

  4. I think the check off program is a great idea as long as it is not mandatory. Is it optional for the farmers? Is there a way for the public to donate and help, if they want to ? If in fact, the Check Off Program, is there to help the farmers sell more, be and get supported, and for consumers learn, I would be willing to donate, for the greater good., Maybe there should be a way to round up our bill to donate to the organic check off program when you buy organic produce, like at the Co op.for example. There are a lot of people out there that need education on organic food. I think this would help them make the decision to purchase if they don’t already do so. 🙂

    • Great ideas! and I think that it would be optional for farmers. I’ll work on checking on that, but from what I understand, all those details would be hammered out if it gets approved.

  5. Katie, I read the FAQS snd didn’t see an answer to this question. This sounds a little sketchy to me. I would like to support my local organic sustainable farmers, I already know that I can get lettuce at the local grocery store for two thirds to half the price of my local farmer, but 1) I am not supporting the local small farmers, 2) I don’t know the farmers who grew that lettuce and 3) it probably got shipped from California which by the time it gets to Texas has already drastically decreased is nutrition. Can you explain on how this would affect local small farmers trying to grow sustainablly rather than just gain the organic label and be available in supermarkets? I am a much bigger proponent of local, sustainable farming than government certified organic.

    • Just approved and answered your other comment about this but I’m working on getting clarification on this to update and let you know.

  6. This sounds very interesting. Is there something like this going on in Australia that you know of?

  7. I have posted this question twice, but it never shows up, I am trying again. I checked the frequently asked questions and didn’t see an answer to this, and Carla has partially answered. But how will this affect our local small farmers? I’d so much rather support local sustainable farming rather than just getting organic food for less money or more easily. Convenience has so many times had terrible consequences on our health and wellness, from a holistic view. Will this plan just put more burden on the local sustainable farmers?

  8. The government realizes that the consumer wants Organic, therefore it plans on getting a chunk of that potential money/investment by telling farmers that they need to label it Organic and they need to give the government a cut. That is exactly how the FDA works. Quality and Healthy is not at all the top priority for the FDA or the organic certifications. To prove my point, products on the shelf are allowed to say they are organic if one product in the whole ingredient list is organic. So if the “flavoring” is Organic and the rest of the ingredients are chemicals, then voila the box is labeled organic. That is how much the certification matters. The FDA classifies frozen French fries as a healthy vegetable and has approved “pink slime” beef to be fed in the school districts for our children. But life saving medical procedures that Europe successfully uses to diagnose breast cancer, the FDA will no approve it. Even though they approved a similar procedure for the heart! It is all a money scam. So I went to the website through the link provided in the article to sign up because at the end of the day it does help more farmers start to thinking in changing to more organic methods… I wanted to support that idea even if the motivation is a sham, hopefully the outcome works out. So as I was signing up my name it says to write a comment (“have your voice heard” they say) so after adding my info I could not see where I could write my comments. So I clicked Preview comment and sure enough they had inserted their version of what I should say!!!!!!! In other words ” my voice” is their voice ! with my name! Check it out… so pathetic.

  9. I am a farmer and I think this is a bad idea. My research suggests that it will encourage more imports of inexpensive organic food from a broad and not push people to buy from small local farmers. It also could give farmers more fees and paperwork.

  10. That’s what I suspected…

  11. My husband and I own 5 acres . We grow much of our food, veggies, meat, milk and some fruit. We would like to get into selling food to local people. I WILL NEVER BE CERTIFIED ORGANIC. The cost, the oversight, the out of control corrupt government making the rules. I buy organic and still believe it’s better than not but that is fast changing. If I do not know where that organic item came from, what is the point? And organic from China? Really? I realize there is some quality from China but as a whole it’s laughable. We, on our land, go a step farther than organic. It’s called healing our land and making the soil alive! I follow permaculture, no pesticides, no herbicides ( which by the way ARE allowed on organics and some are nasty also), non gmo. I detest the label “ALL NATURAL” as I believe Tyson has that on their chicken packages in the store. We need to buy and source local as best as we can. Eat food in season which very few do. Yes. I drink coffee, eat chocolate and use coconut items but I have cut way down because they aren’t local. I source fair trade, sustainable, no child labor also. My opinion, get the government and labels out of it and force people to know who they are dealing with and research. Food is available to many even in my small town. Those on government assistance here though prefer new phones, computers, etc. I have been in the middle of seeing it firsthand before I get ripped for that comment. Frankly, I’m tired of the excuses. Many could do better but don’t. The rest, I’d be first in line to help.

    • I’m totally with you…
      We’re starting a food forest on our piece of land,and if we ever have surplus fruit,we’ll sell it to neighbors,but,although we have apretty big property,I would really rather not go through all the trouble of being certified…

  12. I was suspicious of this too. It sounds great in the surface, but someone correct me if I’m wrong, I think the beef industry takes the “Where’s The Beef” cut when ranchers sell at the stock years. You don’t get to check. I’ll have to ask my husband or father in law. When I was a teenager (90s) and raised calves in OK that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t an option to check either. I’m pretty sure all the cattle my in laws sell here in WA state have to pay it.

  13. We are a family farm consisting of my in-laws, my husband, young daughters and myself. We have one part time employee who we just hired to help in our organic free range egg barn.
    We raise corn, and have a deduction on our payment for the “corn check-off.” We raise soybeans and pay the “soybean check-off.” Beef sold at the auction? “Beef check off.” We pay a “wool check-off” for the sheep we sell at auction, even though we raise heritage Katahdin hair sheep which don’t even have wool. Despite all these check offs, the price for these commodities, except the sheep, are below the cost of production.
    It takes an immense (sometimes 24/7) amount of work to farm full time, pay the farm bills and still have enough for our family to live on. We love it (most of the time!), and that’s why we do it.
    The market for organic foods does not need to be created, it is already there. And unfortunately, it is a double edge sword. Organic costs more to produce and the farmer receives a premium over conventional commodities, so it costs more to buy. But that is one of the many reasons farmers grow organic. If the profit isn’t there, we can’t afford produce the food, no matter how much we want or love to. We farmers aren’t padding our pockets with the higher prices, I assure you.
    Please let the private sector & supply and demand do its job and not add more work to our already full days with paperwork and the extra work to pay for the check off. There just isn’t room in our pockets for any more hands.

  14. Seems like most of the organic farmers weighing in are firmly against this idea. I’ll be checking with my meat farmer but at this point I can guess the answer, since he’s got the highest welfare standards in the entire state and still isn’t organic certified for reasons matching some of the ones mentioned here. The USDA is getting weaker, especially with this administration, and I certainly don’t want money being taken from the farmers to line the pockets of politicians.

  15. They require my cell phone number so I won’t sign up. Bad idea. Sounds like another special interest group that will steal from us to bribe politicians at our expense, No thanks.

  16. I am reading more about this issue and I have yet to see a clear, concise explanation of exactly what it entails. From what I have read, it appears to me that this is not beneficial to the smaller farms in any way. Organic certification is only one component. There is now food safety that must be in compliance to be able to sell to any larger market. That is now 2 certifications, which aren’t cheap. I see this as an open door to more required certifications which will drive small farms out of the market. It seems much to wide open to really make sense. For example, how is research money justified for known issues? How is this regulated? Too many variables for it to really benefit the smaller farms. I’d like to know where to find a clear cut layout of this plan so I am educated fully. This affects my business as well as the farms and people I work closely with.

  17. This sounds like another instance of the USDA using their power to do NO good. Let’s support our small farmers and local organic farms, and leave the government out of it. The US government does not care one iota about our health, so I’ll make my own choices without influence from the government.

  18. Hi Katie!
    Just wondering how things are making out,this turned out to be very interesting…

    • The USDA is not the friend of small farmers – organic or otherwise. Our farm is organic and has seen the difference between independent certifiers and the government controlling certification. (It’s basically good so that corporations can’t define organic in any way they want, but has certainly meant more paperwork, headaches, and a lot of energy to resist corporate pressure to ‘relax’ various standards.) The main problem is that the 99% of the USDA’s programs are put together with corporate farms benefitting most, often actually hurting small farmers. I have no doubt that the checkoff dollars would go to research and marketing that 90% of small organic farmers couldn’t use/wouldn’t benefit from. For example, small farmers need small, local distribution networks set up. I do not believe that the ‘marketing’ research this money will pay for would even consider that as a worthy use of money. If distribution was on their agenda, it would be about national distribution and benefit only corporate farms. (Small farmers generally have the ‘old-fashioned’ idea that the definition of organic includes ‘locally produced.’ Or, another example, one program that would increase the number of small organic farms is some kind of financial assistance in making the (expensive) three-year transition from conventional to organic. If this checkoff even considered it, the form of assistance and bulk of the money would go to corporate farms. This is why so many of the small farmer organic certifiers and other groups that are trying to keep organic really organic have gotten together to oppose this checkoff. The comment period has been extended to April 19. You can get details on the ‘noorganiccheckoff.com’ website. And thank you to anyone who has the time to make a comment!

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