Organic farmers free from check-offs

WASHINGTON – A last-minute change to the 2002 farm bill will exempt farmers who produce only organic products from paying into promotion programs.

The previously mandatory check-offs required farmers to give a portion of their profit to fund research and promotions.

“If you are 100 percent certified organic and sell your product as organic, you are exempt from those marketing orders,” said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Although this exemption will not initially have a large fiscal impact, Scowcroft predicts there will be a political impact. Check-offs are already under challenge, and since organic producers are now exempt, Scowcroft predicts other constituencies will not want to continue paying the assessment.

Although many producers will not see a significant financial difference, some farmers, particularly in the dairy industry, may save $250 to $500 a month, Scowcroft said.

Marketing money. The organic sector has been upset about the mandatory assessments because the money has not been going toward organic marketing research and promotion, Scowcroft said.

The key to the exemption is that the producer must be 100 percent certified organic and sell his or her products as organic. If a family dairy also has a garden with vegetables sold at a farm market, both the dairy and garden must be 100 percent organic to be exempt, Scowcroft said.

How to handle. The Secretary of State has one year to make decisions regarding how the exemptions will be handled.

For example, producers may be able to send in a certificate with the reasoning on why he or she is not paying the check-off, or producers may be able to send in the money and then get a rebate, Scowcroft said.

An earlier proposal in the farm bill would have allowed organic farmers to opt out of assessments and instead pay into a general organic marketing program, said Don Burgett, information service coordinator at the research foundation.

With the new change, the original proposal was dropped.

More changes. Other last-minute changes to the organic provisions include securing $5 million for a national organic certification cost-share program.

The amount of money allocated for marketing value-added products, including organic products, was also increased from $75 million to $240 million. Language regarding money set aside specifically for marketing organic products was removed.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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