Marketing bill threatens organic producers

09/11/2013

Marin Organic has worked tirelessly for more than a decade to protect, nurture and expand small-scale farming in our county with help from partners like Marin Agricultural Land Trust. Much of the character and beauty of Marin can be traced to the diversity, care and good stewardship shown by our farmers and the community that supports them. Although at times we might feel we are living in a world away, in fact we are a small piece of a very large and complex national and global puzzle. What happens in Washington with the Farm Bill can have great repercussions in West Marin.

An effort is underway by the Organic Trade Association to fast track a United States Department of Agriculture mandated Organic Check-off Program for all organic crops grown in America. Although OTA’s name suggests a group you might expect Marin Organic to support, in reality OTA is an industry lobby group dominated by large food processors, marketers and retailers. 

The proposed OTA program would create a U.S.D.A. market order to assess participants in the organic industry for promotion, marketing campaigns and research projects. It would apply across multiple commodities—from chicken to chicken feed to squash—something current federal law does not allow. Each of the 18 established programs covers a single type of food, such as beef, dairy, pork, eggs or watermelons. Turning “organic” into its own commodity is neither wise nor consistent with the past. 

The program would tax all organic farmers, even our small to medium-sized West Marin farmers, every time they sell an organic crop. This money would be put into a generic marketing fund, the distribution of which will be determined by a U.S.D.A.-appointed board that we believe would be composed of twice as many food processors, retailers and wholesalers as organic farmers. 

Organic farmers would therefore have virtually no say in where their money is spent, and on what crops, and even if the promotions are for U.S.-grown organic crops. Local farmers would be forced to pay for advertising and promotion that has nothing to do with their crops, but instead will likely be focused on promoting big food processors and retailers. All while our farmers are paying the bill.

The group estimates the program would raise $30 million, but the murky math detailing how the money would be raised and spent, and how producers would be represented on the governing board and assessed, has many farmers and organizations concerned.

In 2012, OTA hired the Podesta Group, a high-powered Washington, D.C. lobbyist, to lobby for inclusion of the check-off program in the Farm Bill. The effort is dominated by food processors, retailers and wholesalers of organic foods, many with deep interests in foreign-produced (i.e. cheaper) organic foods. 

Corporate interests are pushing this hard, and farmers know that other commodity check-offs have all too often been little more than economic subsidies for the big guys who need it least. History indicates that many of the current market orders and their marketing campaigns—like the “milk mustache” and the “other white meat”—have not been proven to benefit the farmers who are footing the bill.

We at Marin Organic are hesitant to support the creation of any new organic-related bureaucracy by the U.S.D.A. It takes a lot of money to support the bureaucracy itself, and those with money and political influence easily manipulate the appointment process. Fortunately, there are some large organic farmer groups, such as the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association, who have seen through OTA’s effort and are organizing much-needed opposition. Marin Organic urges you to get to know the issue and speak up against this misguided and expensive taking of your farmers’ money. 

Failure to derail this bad idea will cost our small local farmers money forever, giving even more power and money to the processors and large corporations that are attempting to take over the organic foods industry.

 

Jeffrey Westman, a Sebastopol resident and the executive director of Marin Organic, has over 30 years of entrepreneurial, managerial and philanthropic experience.