fennel etcThe USDA has proposed imposing an Organic Check-off Program in which all organic producers would pay a percentage of their income to a federal program that would fund research and marketing for the industry as a whole. Think “Got Milk” or “The Incredible Edible Egg.” Small farmers are pushing back against this extra cost and layers of paperwork that we feel will favor large scale agriculture over small farms. Indeed, check-offs do not have a good track record for small farms.
For instance, in the first 15 years of the federal mandatory pork checkoff, 70% of family hog farmers went out of business. It may have helped “the pork industry” but it certainly didn’t help the small farmers. There is also a history of corruption in checkoff funds being embezzled or misappropriated. And while it would be great to have help with marketing (farmers want to spend their time farming after all), one has to ask what sort of message the USDA will be willing to put out there, certainly nothing that implies that organic is better than conventional agriculture. How watered down would the message be? How about “Organic, because some people prefer it!” As one northeastern farmer pointed out, organic is a growing method, not a commodity. Below are the comments I dashed off to the Agricultural Marketing Service concerning the proposed rule this morning.

Comment:
We farm about 40 acres organically in California. We sell our produce through a Community Supported Agriculture program, farmstand, and farmers market, plus some sales to restaurants and a local produce market.

We oppose the organic check-off program. We are concerned that this will take money from the small organic farmers and use it to further the goals of corporate big agriculture.

Organic producers do not all have the same marketing needs and messages. The large companies get into organic agriculture when economics push them towards that because they can get a better price for the product. This pressure is a positive force, certainly — this is the way economic pressure should work, and it is good to reduce the use of chemical inputs on large farms. But a lot of big organic ag farms produce fruits and vegetables in ways that are more like conventional agriculture, just substituting organic inputs for chemical ones. It is still very different from the organic production methods used on small farms.

Small scale organic farmers have a different approach entirely and we need to distinguish ourselves. We want a marketing campaign, for instance, that emphasizes superior land stewardship on small, diverse organic family farms. We extensively employ practices like crop rotations, cover crops, native hedgerows, using all organic seed, reducing tillage, preventing erosion, and caring for the land so that it will continue to be fertile for generations to come.

Organic marketing that is supposed to serve the umbrella of all organic agriculture– large and small — cannot possibly be positive for us. This is because when it comes down to it, we are not competing against conventional agriculture. We are competing against big organic ag.

Our customers are people who care about health and the environment. Marketing that convinces these people to buy organic produce from Costco is not helpful to our farm, but harmful. Our efforts at marketing concentrate on convincing people to know their farmer. We want people to shop at farmers markets, CSAs and local grocery outlets that buy their produce from local farms.

What would the organic check-off do for us? If anything, it would most likely siphon customer dollars away from our type of farm. We do not want to pay into that system that will market “organic” agriculture as a monolithic entity. We will need to continue spending our dollars to emphasize the different kinds of “organic” that set our farm apart.

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