OPN Connect: The deadline for submitting comments to USDA has been moved from March 20 to April 19. Do you think it might be moved back again?
Laura Batcha: As far as we are aware, the date of April 19 remains the deadline as published. Even so, I won’t be surprised if it is shifted back. They’re not signaling that they’ll have more time to file comments. Still, it’s a complicated rule and open to executive order.
OPN Connect: Can you tell our readers a bit more about the Listening Sessions mentioned on OTA’s website?
Laura Batcha: Before we submitted the proposal, there were a number of years’ worth of these listening sessions which were held to collect information from stakeholders. We also gave written versions of the proposal to stakeholders for review and comment as well. There were educational sessions and surveys throughout. Afterwards the proposal was revised and submitted to USDA. We are in the public comment stage now, continuing public outreach and open to ideas and tweaks.
OPN Connect: Were these sessions held with the organic fresh produce community. Can you give specifics?
Laura Batcha: We definitely engaged with the organic produce industry. There were a number of sessions targeted to the produce community. We held two or three at EcoFarm over the years, three at CCOF annual meetings and one in Chicago at United Fresh as well direct briefings with industry representatives.
OPN Connect: Laura, how long has OTA been working on this?
Laura Batcha: We submitted the application in 2015. The proposed assessment was legislative into the 2014 Farm Bill. We probably started preliminary discussions as early as 2012.
OPN Connect: Can you give OPN an idea of the timeline? When do you expect a vote on the referendum if it proceeds?
Laura Batcha: We don’t really know. There is no statutory requirement to move this through in a certain number of days. For example, the process for the Christmas tree checkoff from application to having a seated board was ten years, but that proposal was most likely in need of more revisions than GRO Organic. Typically, it takes two years to hold the referendum and seating the board takes another two years. USDA has to close comments, analyze them all and write the final rule, then publish through Federal Register. No one would be surprised if that alone took a year. We might expect a referendum in 2018.
OPN Connect: On the GRO Organic and USDA websites, there are opportunities for consumers to share comments. USDA told OPN that this is part of the normal process for proposed assessments. Can you tell me if the consumer comments are given equal weight to those from growers and processors who would actually pay?
Laura Batcha: It’s not done on the basis of a numbers count. Substantive comments from those impacted by an assessment will mean the most. While certainly the consumers’ comments are considered, those who will be assessed are the ones who will vote on the referendum. Back to my example of the Christmas tree checkoff, there were some rumblings from the public who misinterpreted this as tax on Christmas.
OPN Connect: What groups, if any, are in opposition?
Laura Batcha: Since our very early first polling, there is a solid 17 to 20 percent of certified operations opposed to GRO Organic. These are non-persuadable. They are generally anti-government and many from the livestock industry are skeptical of all checkoffs because of past allegations of abuse by conventional checkoffs. There are lots of people in the middle and about 35 to 40% are enthusiastic supporters.
OPN Connect: What do you feel the chances of successfully passing the resolution are at this point in time?
Laura Batcha: I don’t have a crystal ball, but our data is pretty consistent and shows that if brought to referendum, more than 50 percent of the industry will vote yes and it should pass.
OPN Connect: Do you think that the new administration could have an impact?
Laura Batcha: No, these are private dollars, not tax funds. This will promote growth and jobs and checkoffs are tried & true tools for agriculture. There shouldn’t be a reason for the new administration to not support this.
OPN Connect: How will the money be spent? What will the representation on the board be from organic fresh produce industry representatives?
Laura Batcha: Initial priorities had to be flexible and balance what was originally articulated with the ability to be responsive to the future. The breakdown of spending is 25 percent for promotion and consumer education, 25 percent for research, 25 percent for information services (which is designed to translate research into actionable results for the industry) and the remaining 25 percent left to the discretion of the board.
OPN Connect: What is your vision for how organics generically will be marketed? What images will be used?
Laura Batcha: Honestly, I found that question confounding. The USDA Certified Organic Seal is a BRAND. Brands need to be supported and built. The government can’t invest in promoting the brand. The easiest thing to promote generically IS the brand. We promote the topline commonalities of all things organic. There is minimal reliance on pesticides and no synthetic fertilizers are used. Organic builds the soil. On the farm and in manufacturing, all products are inspected and certified. As far as images, experts will make those decisions. As an example, consider a shot of consumers sharing a plate of organic food.
OPN Connect: GRO Organic proposes that producers who are currently exempt from existing federal marketing orders (i.e. Beef, pork) will be able to choose to support either the existing commodity assessment (conventional and organic) or to support GRO Organic. Growers who currently are assessed for state/regional research and promotional marketing orders (ie., CA Strawberries) will be allowed to offset up to a 25 percent credit owed to the new GRO Organic program of what they currently pay to the state program.
Laura Batcha: They still owe the state program and 75% of what they are mandated to pay to the GRO Program. The credit is up to 25 percent of the organic assessment and is deducted from GRO.
OPN Connect: If a grower owes $100 per head to the beef checkoff and only 1/10 of one percent for GRO if all of his cattle are organic, if they choose to pay GRO Organic because it’s less, would they owe the beef checkoff the difference.
Laura Batcha: No. The organic assessment is cheaper than all the other checkoffs and no difference would be owed to the assessment not chosen.
OPN Connect: What segment of organics—produce, meat, dairy, grain, etc.—will be responsible for the largest share of funds for GRO Organic?
Laura Batcha: While produce is the largest segment, 15 percent of the assessment will come from farmers and 85 percent will come from handlers and processors. The assessment is a net assessment. Organic costs are deducted from what’s owed, this means the farmer who also processes won’t be double-assessed.
OPN Connect: On the current OTA Board, there is no organic produce grower. What will be the makeup of the GRO Organic board be?
Laura Batcha: OTA’s board had a produce grower representative until that person left the company. Board seats will be regionally distributed and determined by direct elections where the top two vote getters are brought forward to USDA for a final decision. This way, no one market segment or company is unfairly represented. California and West Coast produce will have healthy representation as seats will be designated by production value.
OPN Connect: In the produce world, as well as some other commodities, the trend is toward promoting one’s own brand, rather than generic commodity. This began with Frank Perdue’s chickens. Generic multi-commodity promotion seems opposed to this natural progression. How do you respond to those who question this direction?
Laura Batcha: All commodities are still in the organic marketplace. With increased and enhanced public education and information on organics, your marketing dollars can be focused on your own brand.
OPN Connect: If producers will hold 50% of the board seats, who will hold the remaining 50%?
Laura Batcha: Handlers and processors. There will also be one at-large non-voting seat, so it will be up to the board. Possibly that seat will go to a researcher who can provide expertise and a science perspective on grants and grant-making programs.
OPN Connect: Will organic produce get its fair share of research funds?
Laura Batcha: Absolutely. It’s the largest part of the production base and the GRO Organic Board will reflect this.
OPN Connect seriously doubts there are many other CEOs in Washington, D.C. like Laura Batcha. Fresh from the University of Wisconsin (Madison) with a degree in Asian studies, a few agriculture classes and a period spent in Nepal, Laura’s organic career began at a 20-acre vegetable farm, one of the first to be certified organic in the Santa Cruz, CA, area. After moving to Vermont where she had family ties, Batcha ran a small certified organic herb botanical farm, Green Mountain Herbs. She became an expert in medicinal herbal extracts, processing products at the farm, thus obtaining both organic producer and processor certificates. Her business grew from local markets to local stores, and she writes about running “a heart-centered business on the national level.” In 1999, she sold the business to Tom’s of Maine. She worked for Tom’s while continuing to farm before joining the Organic Trade Association in 2008.