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Organically Certified Operations Exemption from
Paying into Conventional Check-offs

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

Added March 28, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced at the end of 2015 that they will extend the organic farmer exemption from conventional commodity checkoffs to ALL organic farmers, effective February 29, 2016. Organic farmers are no longer required to pay into conventional checkoff promotion programs that promote conventional products directly competing with their organic products.

The process is relatively simple, especially compared to the certification process. If you have managed the paperwork involved to become certified, the time and work needed to claim the taxes that you have paid into the conventional checkoff program are straightforward. We have heard directly from the USDA AMS program that the work on the Organic Trade Association’s organic checkoff proposal is slowly proceeding and it could well be over a year before any final decisions are made, so now is the time to claim back the money that has been arbitrarily taken from you to promote products that directly compete with organic products.

Who qualifies for the exemption?

Commodities covered by the new exemption: beef, cotton, dairy, eggs, fluid milk, Hass avocados, mushrooms, popcorn, pork, potatoes, soybeans, watermelons, blueberries, Christmas trees, honey, lamb, mangos, paper and paper-based products, peanuts, processed raspberries, softwood lumber, and sorghum.

Commodities not covered by this regulation: state based check-off programs like corn and wheat.

You are eligible to apply for the exemption if the legal entity you operate under (whether it is as an individual, group of individuals, corporation, association, cooperative, or other business entity) is assessed under the qualified check-off programs and maintains a valid organic certificate. All certified organic commodities covered by this regulation are exempt; this applies to you if you run a split-operation and also sell conventional products.

How to apply for your exemption

If you are already exempt because you only market 100% certified organic you need to do nothing. You are already in the program and the new regulation is an extension of the existing regulation.

If you are not currently exempt you need to do the following:

Obtain the AMS-15 Organic Exemption Request Form from the USDA. The form is specific for each commodity board so you cannot use a form from another commodity (the link to this form is below).

The form will require:

  1. Your full name, company name, address, telephone and fax numbers, and email address;
  2. Details of the certified organic products you sell and possibly the annual volume or weight of the products depending on how the check-off is assessed on the product.
  3. A copy of your certificate of organic operation issued by a USDA accredited certifying agent under the NOP that lists all certified organic products and the date of validation
  4. Your signature that that all information provided by you is true; and
  5. “Such other information as may be required by the Board, with the approval of the Secretary.” Until we see all the forms we do not know what else is required.

The completed form has to be submitted to the commodity Board and they have 30 days to either accept and issue a Certificate of Exemption or refuse the exemption. You must give a copy of this Certificate of Exemption to every buyer, each time you sell your qualifying commodity or they must have a current Certificate of Exemption on file if you sell product to them multiple times.

All certified entities must reapply for this exemption every year. For some commodities, renewal is the beginning of the crop year and for others it has to be ‘on or before July 1st.’

The exemption forms for the various commodities can be found at:

https://www.ams.usda.gov/resources/rp-organic-exemption

Research and Promotion Programs:
Website: www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/research-promotion
Phone: (202) 720-5115
Emails:
Specialty Crops: Heather.Pichelman@ams.usda.gov
Cotton: Shethir.Riva@ams.usda.gov
Livestock, Poultry and Seed: Kenneth.Payne@ams.usda.gov
Dairy: Whitney.Rick@ams.usda.gov