Robo-Calls Bother Organic Farmers During Spring Planting:
Latest Push for Check-off by Powerful Organic Lobby Group, OTA
The OTA (http://www.ota.com/
"What many industry observers found objectionable and disingenuous in the OTA’s lobby effort on Capitol Hill was the fact that, after holding ‘Townhall’
Farmers and farmer organizations have indeed been skeptical, if not downright hostile, towards the OTA's check-off scheme, which has been one of OTA's top priorities for the past three years. Reactions from farmers to the robo-calls in May, on the email list-serve operated by the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA, http://www.nodpa.com/
"This is nothing but a gigantic rip-off," said one farmer. Another farmer added: "I wish these guys would just go away and leave us alone. If any farmers really wanted this crap to happen it would have by now!!!!!" A third farmer observed that "dairy farmers are easy cash-cows for 2 simple reasons – they have high gross organic sales, and they sell primarily to a single buyer who can be required by law to collect/remit the money."
The colorful brochure mailed by OTA to all organic farmers in the U.S. boldly asserts that a check-off "will help secure our future." It lists various marketing and research plans that they suggest would benefit organic stakeholders, with a description of how the check-off would be implemented. The brochure also highlights several quotes of support – all coming from OTA members and insiders, although none are identified as such.
To build credibility for promotion and research check-off the OTA’s brochure included the Got Milk? promotional campaign.
"I wish I was making this up," said Cornucopia’s Kastel. "The brochure states that the campaign, in the early ’90s, received a ‘91% awareness rating’ and resulted in increased advertising expenditures of $37.9 million, but they fail to mention the precipitous drop in fluid milk consumption in the U.S. subsequent to the launch of the campaign."
Ed Maltby, NODPA's executive director, calls OTA's outreach a "one sided propaganda campaign." He notes that it fails to ask "the basic question of whether we want or need a federal government program to promote the organic label and assist with funding of organic research." Maltby adds: "There are many half-truths and sound bites now being used by OTA to describe the benefits of a USDA Organic Check-off program that are misleading at best."
One of the potentially troublesome areas concerns organic food marketing and promotion. Other commodity campaigns, such as those employed for dairy, beef or pork, have used generic advertising as way to try and boost consumer consumption. However, crafting an organic-specific message could prove very difficult. The standard to which messaging is held to is: Would the Secretary of Agriculture say this? And in the eyes of the federal government, organic agriculture and food is a process claim – not a content, food safety or food quality claim.
"You can also be assured," explains Richard Matthews, "that the USDA will not allow any promotional or information program, project, or activity that can be viewed as disparaging to conventionally produced products …. So those who think they are going to be able to sing the praises of organic as compared to conventional had better begin rethinking their position." Matthews, now retired after a career at the USDA, spent more than eleven years providing oversight to similar check-off programs for other food commodities.
One unusual feature of OTA's proposal is the cross-commodity impact. All other check-off programs have been limited to a specific commodity (almonds, eggs, raisins, dairy, etc.). But this plan would cover everyone with an organic certificate. So vegetable growers and other farmers never covered by any check-off program could face an assessment based on their gross sales. Furthermore, processors, handlers and retailers could be taxed as well.
In what is being billed as a magnanimous gesture, part of the plan the OTA is floating would exempt the smallest certified organic farmers in the country. Some observers suggest that removing a large percentage of grassroots farmers out of the debate and voting process, shrinking the electorate, would make it more likely that a referendum could pass.
"The OTA's efforts for a mandatory organic research and promotion check-off are misguided," says Oren Holle, president of the organic farm commodity marketer OFARM and a diversified organic grain and livestock farmer in Kansas. Holle adds that existing check-off programs are "heavily weighted towards special interests and lack the opportunity for viable policy changing input from the producers that fund it."
OFARM and NODPA have previously coordinated a letter of opposition to the organic check-off that was sent to members of Congress. NODPA also continues to push an online petition at its website opposing the proposal.
Perhaps to cover the criticism it has been taking from farmers over the check-off proposal, the OTA recently established its own Farmer Advisory Council. "This is just like corporations coming up with 'worker councils' as a way to fight workers having the right to form unions," further observes Kastel.
Read the entire release at http://www.cornucopia.org/