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Farmers, Trade Association Debate Merits Of Organic Marketing Fund

Jason and Natalie Condon own Isabelle Farm, an organic operation in Lafayette, Colo. If organic checkoff funding moves forward, the Condons could have to pay more than $1,000 per year for it.

Pesticide-free? Nurtured with organic fertilizer? No antibiotics?

Ask any shopper, and you're bound to find mixed answers for what an organic label means.

Now, an association is trying to draw funding from something called a "checkoff" to pay for consumer advertising and research. For a checkoff to work, each farmer pays a small amount. For example, a penny-per-bushel of wheat or a dollar per cow would generate millions of dollars in pooled funding that could pay for splashy ad campaigns.

Think "Pork: The Other White Meat" and "Got milk?" — both of those projects were funded by checkoff funding.

For the proposed organic checkoff, farmers who bring in more than $250,000 a year would be assessed one-tenth of one percent of their gross revenue annually, minus the cost of certified organic goods, such as seed. If an organic farmer makes $1 million in net organic revenue, they could be assessed upwards of $1,000.

"There's lots of confusion in the marketplace about what exactly organic means," Missy Hughes says. Hughes is the board president for the Organic Trade Association, the loudest voice for the organic industry in Washington, D.C. It focuses on policy and lobbying, and counts some of the largest food companies in the country among its members.

"We need the consumer to understand what that means when they are making that purchase and so that they are willing to make that purchase," says Hughes.

But unlike checkoff funded projects like the "Incredible Edible Egg," organic checkoffs are a little broader. The organic food industry spans many products, so unifying the diversity of the food and the diversity of the farmers into one plan is tough.

"It sounds kind of bad and I hate to say it this way but it's not my job to make sure that there's organic across the country," says Jason Condon, a farmer in Lafayette, Colo. He and his wife grow certified organic vegetables, and while their Isabelle Farm is a success, their profits are still tight. If checkoff funding moves forward, the Condons could have to pay upwards of $1,000 per year into the pool, and all for messages they aren't sure they support.

Some farmers have even argued that checkoffs are unconstitutional, saying that a mandatory payment for advertising infringes on free speech. In 2005, Supreme Court justices upheld the controversial beef checkoff program, which helped fund the "Beef It's What's for Dinner" campaign.

Condon says he prefers marketing to his neighbors, nearby restaurants and grocery stores. "This checkoff thing feels very contrary to that," he says. "This sort of, 'No, no, you're not doing it good enough. Let's take your money and give it to some high-paid Washington folks who could really do some good.' "

The OTA says they will be ready to submit a formal proposal for checkoff funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the next couple of months. More than two-thirds of the nation's 18,000 certified organic producers will have to vote in favor for checkoff funding to go into effect.

Luke Runyon reports from Colorado for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.

Copyright 2015 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://kunc.org.

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