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National organic leaders gathered in Washington, DC in June, 2014,
to consider a national organic farmer organization

Farmers Voice: Is It Time For An
Organic Farmers Alliance Organization?

By Steve Gilman, Interstate NOFA Policy Coordinator

Added April 1, 2015



Author Steve Gilman
In the arcane world of farm and food policy where self-serving initiatives are put through by special interests in far-off seats of power – who speaks for organic farmers and how are those voices heard?

Although the idea of an organic farmers association has been kicking around since organics’ beginnings in the 1990’s some recent issues have brought a new organizing effort to the forefront starting with a number of nationwide meetings, conference calls and a survey to explore the question.
Organic checkoff?

For starters, it’s instructive to consider a controversial present day example where organic farmers were caught flat-footed without a genuine policy voice of their own.

In a chance meeting with my Congressman at the airport when I was heading to D.C. for Capitol Hill visits a few years ago, Representative Chris Gibson (R, NY) told me he had great news for organic farmers – the House Agriculture Committee, of which he is a member, had just included language for an all-commodity organic checkoff program in the developing 2013 Farm Bill. My jaw dropped but there wasn’t time in the terminal to address this pronouncement until a meeting scheduled the next day at his office. Then the Congressman was surprised to learn that despite what was presented – a significant number of organic farmers actively oppose it. As the word went out into the hinterlands this “great news” proved to be a hugely divisive issue for organic farmer groups around the country.

Federal checkoff programs are administered for a fee by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) but funded and run by agricultural commodity industry groups for research and promotion to develop markets for their products. “Got Milk?” and “Pork, the Other White Meat” are examples of some intensive advertising campaigns funded by these multimillion dollar checkoff programs.

For farmers not only does the checkoff funding come directly out of their pockets via a compulsory tax on their production – but also their relatively powerless position in the industry lineup gives them little representation on the boards that decide how that money is handled and spent. Not surprisingly farmer groups of all stripes have a history of working against checkoff programs after years of being on the receiving end of such levies while witnessing the lion’s share of the benefits going to industry processors.

That’s why the claims of deep farmer support for the newly proposed organic checkoff legislation in the Farm Bill were so extreme. But in the absence of a authentic farmer voice Congress was led to believe the assertions put forth by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) who enlisted the high-powered DC lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, to usher it through both the House and Senate Ag Committees right into the Farm Bill. It wasn’t until the organic checkoff legislation was a done deal that concerted opposition emerged from the unorganized organic farmer groups scattered across the country. As OTA pushed for farmer buy-in after the legislation was accomplished many groups weighed in, including the Interstate NOFA Policy Committee who after discussions voted unanimously to oppose the checkoff.

Organic farmers are still in disarray. The Farm Bill finally passed in 2014 and OTA has been active on many fronts targeting support for a farmer vote to authorize USDA to take on the organic checkoff. One of their strategies has been to exempt small scale farmers from paying into the checkoff – but the tradeoff is that the marginalized grassroots bloc will also lose any say on how such a checkoff is constituted and administered – and how the funds get spent in the name of Organic. A vote by larger scale organic certificate holders and a decision by USDA to take on the organic checkoff is expected sometime in the first part of 2015.

OTA is not the only group to step into the vacuum claiming to be the voice of organic farmers. In the absence of a legitimate farmer organization – so-called watchdog and other organic advocacy groups have not been adverse to stepping into the void with claims that they are speaking for organic farmers on various issues. Such organic farmer issues are spurring discussions about the need to build an effective national organic farmers organization.

Discussion time

A meeting in June 2014 was organized in Washington, DC to explore the possibilities of building an effective political voice for organic farmers and ranchers. Representatives of organic farming and supporting associations from the East, Midwest, Northwest, South, Upper Great Plains and mountain regions stood in for approximately one third of US organic farmers.
As the conversation continues the goal of these early discussions is not to immediately design a program but to reach out to as many organic groups as possible to gather input and work out some general parameters. An early agreement was that an organic farmers alliance should be a Big Tent organization representing certified organic farmers of all scales.

At this point the core group members are reaching out in an open-spirited effort across the country via networking connections and a survey in an attempt to bring in the vast majority of organic farmers and their organizations to the table for input – and if the project gains legitimate support to go forward to then work out the nuts and bolts of such an organization together.

To overcome domination by larger scale entities a balanced regional approach has been proposed where family farmers of the Northeast would have as much voting power as big growers in the Far West or Midwest. The Domestic Fair Trade Association regional model has been put forth – not only because of its exceptional peer-review process and commitment to continual improvement but also because its regional representation parameters have been shown to involve more people in the process.

NOFA deliberations

The NOFA Interstate Policy Committee is currently discussing this issue from many points of view. One criticism of this organizational effort is that a previous attempt in the late 1980’s and early1990’s to found a national organic farmers group called the Organic Farmers Associations Caucus (OFAC) ultimately failed.

This organizing attempt took place during the intense negotiations that produced the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 in Congress, which formed the legal basis for creating the National Organic Program within USDA. But at that early time the organizers were also facing challenging logistics in addition to the legislation – there was no standardized organic certification program and very little linkage between the pioneering organic groups scattered across the country. Also, today’s modern communications technology was in its infancy.

All was not lost in the attempt, however, many good things came out of the process. Longtime organic activist Elizabeth Henderson, who was in the thick of the organizing effort, recalls it this way:

“While the Organic Farmers Associations Caucus (OFAC) was not successful in establishing a national alliance of organic farming groups, we were successful in changing the initial proposal for the National Organic Program so that it would not put certification in the hands of state departments of agriculture. We also were able to add the language on how to evaluate materials for use in organic production. However, spending many, many hours on this legislation distracted us from our intentions of providing capacity building for the organic associations around the country. After 2 years, we threw in our remaining resources with the National Dialogue for Sustainable Agriculture, which eventually became the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. The National Campaign organic committee coordinated the response to the first NOP that turned it around. It was not just grass roots groups each acting on their own.”

Minutemen or Standing Army?

Another viewpoint in the NOFA discussion is that instead of putting energy toward constituting and maintaining yet another organization, organic farmers can be better mobilized if they are organized like the Minutemen during the Revolutionary War days – when they were called from their fields to respond to specific threats – and not enlisted into a standing army.
One response is that back in the day the Minutemen didn’t have the tremendous decentralized organizing and communications capability of the internet, email and conference calls that could make for a more effective organizational strike force. Further, nowadays there are numerous well-established organic groups that are already well linked and have worked together for years – so it’s an easier job to join forces. Just within the National Organic Coalition, for example, there are certified organic farmer constituents in the seven NOFAs, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), the Organically Grown Company, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Rural Advancement Fund International and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Since there’s always multiple food industry machinations requiring continual vigilance and action, a light-on-its-feet alliance could make a real impact – and finally organic farmers would be empowered to speak with their own voice. There’s still a long way to go and talks continue. At the recent MOSES conference there was another meeting of interested organic farmers and farm groups with another meeting planned for June in Washington DC.

Steve Gilman is Policy Coordinator, NOFA Interstate Council and welcomes comments and questions at stevegilman@verizon.net.