As USDA Ponders Checkoff Program, More Americans Are Buying Organics

More than 82 percent of American households bought certified organic foods in 2016, an increase of 3.4 percent from the previous year, according to a survey conducted by Nielsen and released by the Organic Trade Association.

The March survey examined the spending habits of 100,000 households, showing a slight uptick in purchases of organic foods, with the strongest growth coming from North Dakota, with a 14.2 percent increase, and Rhode Island, with a 12.3 percent jump compared to 2015 levels.

Graphic courtesy of the Organic Trade Association


Consumption of organic foods is growing, and those numbers track with past studies conducted by OTA, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing organic farmers, distributors and retailers. A May 2016 study by the organization found that organic sales hit a record $43.3 billion in 2015, an 11 increase from the previous year.

That growth comes as the Agriculture Department figures out whether to move forward with its proposed program to collect funds for the research and promotion of organic products.

In January, the USDA released plans to create an industry-funded program to promote organic foods, known as a checkoff program. If the department’s proposed rules are finalized, the organic industry would join 22 other groups—such as cotton, honey and pork—with similar programs.  

Commodity checkoff programs are funded through a small fee on each sale made by producers and are administered by the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service. A provision in the 2014 farm bill allows for the creation of an organic checkoff program, which the OTA said could generate as much as $30 million in funding for promotion and research.  

But the proposed rules were written during the Obama era, and the Trump administration hasn’t given much indication on its plans for the program. Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the USDA, hasn’t said publically whether he’ll proceed with the rulemaking process. 

Public comments on the rule were originally due March 20, but the USDA extended the deadline until April 19. 

Checkoff programs have come under criticism from some because of the mandatory payments required from producers, which they describe as a government overreach that hurts smaller farms.

More than 3,000 comments on the proposed rule have been submitted to so far, with many coming from correspondents saying they are small, organic farmers unwilling to pay into a promotion system they believe won’t provide enough return. 

“This check off will burden us with too much time and expense for little if any benefit,” said commenter Suzanne Wechsler, who identified themselves as an organic dairy farmer. “We already have to spend an inordinate amount of time to comply with our organic certification on top of our state dairy assessment and national dairy board.”