(Dec. 1) Soon, chemicals won’t be the only thing organic fruits and vegetables are free of.

On Dec. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued regulations exempting exclusively organic growers from having to pay assessments to 28 regional marketing order programs. The regulations are mandated under the 2002 farm bill.

Growers of organic Texas citrus, California stone fruit, Washington cherries, Colorado tomatoes, Florida tomatoes and many other commodities will be able to pocket the money they formerly sent to marketing boards for generic advertising. The only catch — they have to grow organic and nothing but organic. Mixed-operation growers will not be exempt.

Growers of and advocates for organic produce say the new regulations will free growers from marketing programs they say did not promote organic enough.

“We’re very pleased that this exemption was included in the farm bill and that the USDA followed through getting the regulations out in under a year,” said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass. “It’s another indication that national farm policy is more inclusive of organics.”

A grower of, say, organic strawberries wants his marketing dollars geared toward “organic.” But in his mind, DiMatteo said, the assessment money he pays to a marketing order is promoting “strawberries” only.

“Organic farmers see marketing orders as a forced tax,” said Brian Leahy, president of California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz. “They haven’t really done much to promote organics.”

When Leahy was an organic farmer, he said he resented being taxed for research on new chemical pesticides, and he said many organic farmers shared that resentment. Now that organic growers are out from under the thumb of existing marketing orders, Leahy supports the creation of an all-organic order.

“Advertising works,” he said. “Our industry has a huge teaching curve ahead of it. I think that the more educated people are about organic fruits and vegetables, the more likely they’ll be to buy it.”

When the Organic Trade Association created the Center for Organic Education and Promotion last year, DiMatteo said one of the center’s tasks would be to create an assessment program for organics. She said then that such a program would be voluntary and would fund generic advertising.

Now, however, differences of opinion over the form such a marketing order would take have pushed the issue to the back burner, she said. Growers could still choose to donate some of their saved assessment money to one of the nonprofit organizations that promotes organic products in general, she added.

This is the first of two expected regulatory exemptions for organic growers, DiMatteo said. In January, USDA rules are expected for exemptions from national marketing orders. In produce, growers of organic hass avocados, mushrooms, potatoes, watermelons and blueberries will be eligible for exemptions.

Assessments on organic produce make up just 1% of the sum of the assessed money earmarked for the promotional budgets of the 28 affected marketing orders. The estimated 84 organic growers who are qualified for the exemption will split about $299,000, or an average of $3,600 each.

Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, a Mission-based marketing board, said that while organic produce may not benefit as much from generic advertising as conventional produce, it does benefit.

“I realize that organic is a little different from nonorganic produce, but I’m not sure whether it deserves to be exempt from assessments,” Prewett said. “We’re seeing some organic in Texas and we expect to see more. And I think organic growers do benefit from promotional programs for citrus, watermelons, cantaloupes, onions — some of the big Texas commodities.”

The following organic commodities are exempted from assessments:

  • California almonds

  • California dates

  • California dried prunes

  • California nectarines

  • California olives

  • California peaches and pears

  • Colorado potatoes

  • California raisins

  • California walnuts

  • Far West spearmint oil

  • Florida avocados

  • Florida tomatoes

  • Georgia Vidalia onions

  • Idaho/eastern Oregon onions

  • Massachusetts, et al., cranberries

  • Michigan, et al., tart cherries

  • Oregon/California potatoes

  • Oregon/Washington bartlett pears

  • Oregon/Washington hazelnuts

  • Oregon/Washington winter pears

  • Southeastern California grapes

  • Texas citrus

  • Texas melons

  • Texas onions

  • Washington apricots

  • Washington sweet cherries

  • Washington/Oregon fresh prunes

  • Washington/Oregon Walla Walla onions