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Serious concerns about the proposed organic check-off

MADISON, Minn. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently presented a proposal for an organic commodity checkoff. The comment period regarding this proposal is open for input from farmers until late March of this year. Trust and integrity of commodity checkoffs have been challenged numerous times over the years.

There are several concerns that I have about the proposal. First, the history of all commodity checkoffs has been anything but positive. Misappropriations and litigations regarding the oversight of funds has occurred from time to time, with the most recent incident being embezzlement of more than two million dollars in the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Beef Association.

The checkoff has totally failed to help protect and preserve the medium and smaller size operations regardless of what commodity we are considering. The pork checkoff is perhaps the best example if we look at the ever-decreasing numbers of on farm hog enterprises. Additionally, the pork checkoff referendum approved by a majority of pork producers to terminate the checkoff was completely ignored by USDA, which instead eliminated the sunset clause all together.

And when we look at the positions the organizations overseeing these checkoffs have taken through the years, we also must call into question who it is they are really representing. Consider the Country of Origin Labeling legislation, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. How much time and money did the leadership of these commodity groups spend defeating meaningful GMO labeling legislation, both national and on the state level?

Ultimately, though the "devil is in the details" when it comes to who will really benefit from the organic checkoff. Farms generating less than $250,000 of income can opt out of the organic checkoff but will still be required to pay in a checkoff, if not to the organic funds then once again to the conventional funds. That is because the current conventional checkoff exemption will be terminated if this legislation is enacted.

Beyond that, additional paperwork will be required of these same sub $250,000.00 income farms to annually determine their exemption status. Simply stated, it means everyone will have to continue to pay into the checkoff with only farms whose incomes exceed $250,000 actually having a vote on their dollars.

And finally one needs to more closely examine the protocol in the proposal for how money will be spent, especially regarding the research dollars. OTA claims the organic checkoff will bring $30 million in organic research dollars. That just isn't true.

Please make your voice heard. For more information visit noorganiccheckoff.com and click on the link to submit your comments.

Editor's note: Fernholz is an organic grain farmer from Madison, Minn., and Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing Inc. vice-president.

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