Organic Advertising Fund Creates a Marketing Beef

The Organic Trade Association is backing a proposed check-off program—an advertising and research fund collected from organic producers across the country—but some organic farmers are not on board.

What is “organic,” anyway?

That’s the question the Organic Trade Association wants to answer for consumers who aren’t sure of what constitutes organic when purchasing food products. But the way in which OTA wants to clear up the confusion is not going over well with some organic farmers.

The association—which represents growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers’ associations, distributors, importers, exporters, retailers, and others in the organic industry—wants to implement a “check-off,” a program that would pool funds from organic producers to put toward market research and advertising for the whole industry.

Similar models have been used by the California Milk Processor Board for the iconic “Got Milk?” campaign and the National Livestock and Meat Board for its popular “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” ads.

Under the proposal, certified organic farmers who generate sales of more than $250,000 a year would be required to pay the check-off fee, while producers that generate less could contribute voluntarily, according to OTA. The proposed fee would be equal to one-tenth of 1 percent of a producer’s gross revenue minus the costs of organic goods.

So, for example, a producer who generates $1 million in net organic sales per year would be assessed a maximum of $1,000. OTA estimates that a check-off program could raise at least $30 million to $40 million a year.

Some organic producers don’t like the idea because the industry encompasses such a broad range of goods—unlike, say, the egg industry.

“It sounds kind of bad, and I hate to say it this way, but it’s not my job to make sure that there’s organic across the country,”  Jason Condon, a farmer in Lafayette, Colorado, who grows certified organic vegetables, told KUNC, a Colorado community radio station.

Others are skeptical of check-off programs in general.

“There is no check-off program that has ever increased farm numbers in the United States,” John Bobbe, executive director of Organic Farmer’s Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), told Civil Eats last summer. “Check-offs were supposed to increase demand and that was supposed to be good for farmers, but the money never flows downhill.”

Meanwhile, OTA believes a check-off will help, via promotional activities such as radio and TV spots, magazine ads, and billboard placements, to explain and increase awareness of the USDA organic seal, why organic costs more, and why it’s worth more.

“We need the consumer to understand what that means when they are making that purchase and so that they are willing to make that purchase,” Missy Hughes, OTA board president, told KUNC.

The possibility of an organic check-off became more of a reality last year with the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, which gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorization to consider and vote on such a program for the organic industry.

According to KUNC, OTA plans to submit a formal proposal to the USDA in the coming months.

A simple majority of the country’s voting certified organic stakeholders  will have to vote in favor of the program for it to go into effect.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the correct amount of voting certified organic stakeholders needed for the program to go into effect.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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