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OPN Connect Newsletter 333 · August 17, 2023

Organic Produce Association Poised for Growth


After launching in late 2021, determining its scope, and hiring a Washington DC government relations firm in 2022, the Organic Produce Association (OPA) is ready to grow its membership rolls to have a greater impact on public policy.

Theojary Crisantes, COO of Nogales, Arizona-based Wholesum Family Farms, noted that OPA has five founding members of organic producers who came together to create an organization to specifically represent the organic produce sector at the federal level. He said the focus of the organization is on science-based policymaking and the ability to be innovative while respecting the tradition of organics and the integrity of the USDA organic seal.

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Crisantes serves as the first chairman of the OPA Board. Its five founding members are Wholesum Family Farms, NatureSweet Tomatoes, Nature Fresh Farms, Sunset, and Mr. Lucky. He noted that over the years, representatives of the five companies have worked together and discovered similar interests in organic policy, which led to the forming of the organization. 

“We felt the need to create an organization that was specific to organic produce,” Crisantes said.

Theojary Crisantes, Chief Operations Officer, Wholesum Family Farms

Vitalis February 2024

There are many other organizations with a broader spectrum in the policymaking arena, he said, noting the produce industry has a national organization that represents both organic and conventional produce. There are also organizations that represent organic products, but again the focus is much broader than organic produce.

“We felt the need to create an organization that was specific to organic produce.” - Theojary Crisantes

As a result, the five founding members created the Organic Produce Association, discussed their key priorities, and hired The Russell Group, which bills itself as “Washington’s leading bipartisan government and industry relations firm focused exclusively on food and agriculture public policy.”

Fox Packaging January February 2024

Crisantes said OPA’s initial policy efforts revolve around the federal Farm Bill, which is up for renewal this year, as it is about every five years. Through The Russell Group, OPA is advocating for continued funding for organic produce programs but is also interested in adding language to the bill that would create an avenue for an expedited method for adding production into the organic sector.

When the National Organic Program (NOP) was first debated and created by federal legislation, a three-year waiting period to transition land from conventional to organic production was written into the law.  Crisantes said there have been many changes in the organic produce industry since then that potentially make the three-year waiting period unnecessary. He noted that chemical crop protection tools have been created that are far less toxic, and in-ground farmers may not need three years to rid land of those chemicals.

Organic Produce Association recently on Capitol Hill discussing their Farm Bill recommendations with Congressional staff

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In addition, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) has become an accepted farming method for both conventional and organic production. Often, these facilities are built from the ground up and use virgin mediums for growing crops. A three-year waiting period does not seem to make sense if the goal is to rid conventional pesticides from the medium.

Through The Russell Group, OPA is advocating for continued funding for organic produce programs but is also interested in adding language to the bill that would create an avenue for an expedited method for adding production into the organic sector.

Crisantes argues that this proposed new provision has not been written specifically for CEA farming. He said the core idea of OPA is that there are many different ways to produce organic produce, and each should be looked at separately with a scientific focus rather than be subject to an outdated blanket rule.

“We are proposing finding a complementary way of increasing available acreage to grow organically,” he said, adding that if there is a way to use science to prove that a specific farm meets all the organic standards, it should not have to adhere to an arbitrary three-year waiting period.

OPA held its winter meeting in Washington, DC to discuss protecting the integrity of the organic seal and continued innovation with both USDA and Congressional staff

Another priority of OPA is to be a regular contributor at the semiannual meetings of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). “Every six months, the NOSB meets, and there are always topics that are of interest to organic produce that we would like to weigh in on,” he said. “We want to give feedback and present our perspective.”

The overarching concern is that organic produce, which represents the largest organic category covered by NOSB and the USDA’s certified organic seal, does not always get its fair share of consideration.

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The founders of OPA would now like to grow the association and are looking for grower organizations that want to get involved in the policy arena. Crisantes admits that as OPA increases its membership, finding common ground will be more difficult as it is much easier for a narrower group to reach accord. “It will be harder, but I am a firm believer in compromise, and I believe that when we have similar problems that need to be solved, we can work together, whether we have five or 50 members.”

The overarching concern is that organic produce, which represents the largest organic category covered by NOSB and the USDA’s certified organic seal, does not always get its fair share of consideration.

He added that the future structure of the organization will be dictated by its scale. Currently, OPA is board driven, with its five members coming together and determining policy. “Definitely as the organization grows, we will move away from board driven to member driven,” he said, adding that whether a dedicated staff will be hired will also be determined by members.

Skip Hulett, Vice President and General Counsel, NatureSweet

Skip Hulett, who is on OPA’s board and vice president and general counsel of NatureSweet, provided a statement articulating his company’s OPA involvement. “NatureSweet was a founding member of the Organic Produce Association because we saw the need to advocate for the specific needs of the produce sector as consumer demand for organic produce continues to grow. Our goal is to do this in a way that both allows for innovation but maintains the integrity of the organic label. There are areas in which organic regulations no longer reflect the known science, as is the case with the three-year transition period.”

He continued: “Today, many widely utilized production methods, particularly as seen in Controlled Environment Agriculture, inherently have never introduced prohibited substances, yet these operations still must undergo the arbitrary waiting period. Likewise, field-grown operations are subject to the same arbitrary three-year transition period, regardless of whether prohibited substances are present.

“NatureSweet was a founding member of the Organic Produce Association because we saw the need to advocate for the specific needs of the produce sector as consumer demand for organic produce continues to grow.” - Skip Hulett

"OPA supports legislation that would provide the option for all growers to be allowed to apply for and receive an organic certificate with no waiting period if the growers can provide adequate organic soil health certification via an approved soil-testing standard. OPA is advocating changes that we believe will encourage innovation by easing the burden on producers who invest in innovative technology, while still adhering to the purpose of organics.”

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