The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expanding number of growers and shippers who can claim exemptions to assessments for commodity programs and marketing orders based on organic certification.

Previously only those entities that exclusively produced and handled 100% organic certified products could claim the exemption from the assessments. The USDA issued the new rule Dec. 30 with plans for it to be published in the Federal Register on Dec. 31, according to a news release. It goes into effect Feb. 29.

More than 700 people submitted comments to USDA regarding expanding the exemption. The vast majority were from consumers voicing general support for the organic industry.

Fresh produce companies and associations also submitted comments, some of them linking the exemption expansion to recent discussions of a national organic checkoff program, a campaign spearheaded by the Organic Trade Association.

Robert Keatley, chairman of the board of directors for the Wisconsin Organic Marketing Alliance Cooperative, said in his comments that he and the organization want all organic commodities to be exempt from all federally mandated checkoff programs.

“As organic farmers we feel it is unfair for us to continue to be forced to fund programs we philosophically disagree with,” Keatley wrote. “There is no need for any type of checkoff program assessed against organic farmers now or into the future. The overwhelming majority of organic farmers oppose all checkoff programs.”

Roger Pepperl, senior marketing director for Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, Wash., also expressed concern about possible undercurrents related to the exemption. Stemilt grows and ships both conventional and organic apples, pears, cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines. The family-owned operation has been in the organic deal for 25 years.

“Creating an exemption and flowing the money into a generic checkoff program will not work,” Pepperl wrote. “Retailers are advertising organic aggressively and they need no help in pushing organic. ... We also don’t believe that we should fund the start up of new businesses to grow organics. The marketplace will create jobs and has.

“Organizations like the Organic Trade Association mean well but in reality they want to provide a service that they have no business doing,” Pepperl’s comments continued. “They do not represent our company at all in their thoughts. We have many peers who feel the same way.”

Emiliano Escobedo, executive director of the Hass Avocado Board, wrote in opposition to the exemption, but had very different reasons.

“Any policy that limits promotion activities limits benefits to producers and consumers and inhibits job creation and economic growth,” Escobedo wrote.

“Simply put, loss of revenue due to the expanded exemption will impact funding streams for the very programs this rule seeks to promote. ... The proposed rule raises additional concerns related to potential fraudulent declaration of ‘organic’ product solely to avoid assessment.”

As described by the USDA, “the exemption from assessments is now available for all ‘organic’ and ‘100 percent organic’ products, regardless of whether the entity requesting an exemption also produces non-organic products.”

There are 22 national research and promotion programs and 23 marketing order programs that have market promotion authority, according to USDA. The marketing orders that will provide exemptions are for:

  • Florida citrus;
  • Texas citrus;
  • Florida avocados;
  • Washington apricots;
  • Washington sweet cherries;
  • Southeastern California grapes;
  • Oregon/Washington pears, cranberries and tart cherries;
  • California olives;
  • Colorado potatoes;
  • Georgia Vidalia onions
  • Washington/Oregon Walla Walla onions;
  • Idaho/Eastern Oregon onions;
  • Texas onions;
  • Florida tomatoes;
  • California almonds;
  • Oregon/Washington hazelnuts;
  • California walnuts;
  • Far West spearmint oil;
  • California dates;
  • California raisins; and
  • California dried prunes.