Discussions about an organic checkoff reached the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry recently when a Pennsylvania Democrat sponsored a related amendment in the farm bill.

The Organic Trade Association has been “exploring” the concept since July 2011 when it spent $50,000 to create its own feasibility plan, according to OTA’s 2012 winter report.

Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, said the OTA approached the NOP about creating an assessment program.

Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., initially wanted an amendment in the Senate committee’s version of the farm bill to establish an assessment. During committee work the amendment was pared down to a sentence fragment requiring a feasibility study. The bill awaits consideration by the full Senate.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., said the company opposes an assessment on organic produce.

“We really believe in organics. We will go 100% organic in our stone fruit soon,” he said. “… Commodity boards have been on the downslide for a while now. Generic promotions help no one.”

Charles Sweat, chief executive officer at Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bastista, Calif., said a checkoff has potential to help, but would need careful consideration.

“It will be important to ensure that it’s designed equitably, responsibly and with results-based accountability built in,” Sweat said May 24.“Earthbound Farm is involved in the exploratory process…”

Organic assessment possibility draws fireThe OTA contends all organic producers would benefit.

“OTA views its role as facilitating the industry to look at the possibility of a program,” said Laura Batcha, executive vice president.

Batcha said OTA plans “town hall” meetings on the topic, and it plans to make a decision by the end of this year on whether to pursue assessments.

The organization is now in Phase 2 of its checkoff work, which includes “grassroots buy-in, legislative development and defining parameters of such an order,” according to an OTA newsletter. “OTA will advocate for removing current barriers by establishing such an order by proposing necessary technical fixes.”

The “fixes” would include significant revisions of federal law. Currently producers can be compelled to pay into only one assessment program. Whether that would be an existing commodity program or a new organic checkoff would have to be defined, among other details.