Grower-shippers of organic produce say a little-known provision in the 2002 farm bill will help them better market and promote their products.

At the 11th hour, a U.S. Senate and House of Representatives conference committee added a section that exempts producers of certified organic products from paying mandatory commodity promotion assessments.

“They’ve felt like they haven’t had enough representation by the monies they’ve paid into (the assessments) to this point,” said Maureen Royal, sales director and vice president of board of directors for CF Fresh, Sedro-Woolley, Wash., which markets and ships organic apples and pears.

The provision, which takes effect in October, applies only to agricultural producers who produce exclusively organic products. The provision also may apply only to federal marketing orders, organic producers and commodity boards say.

“We’re not getting much of a bang for our bucks,” said Bob Brody, owner of King Blossom Natural, Wenatchee, Wash., describing the 25-cents for each box of organic apples he has to pay to the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee.

LONG-RUNNING DISCUSSION

Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., said her organization, which represents organic growers, shippers, distributors and retailers, has been discussing the assessments issue with organic growers for many years.

“The market promotion orders have never seemed to be satisfactory to the organic growers,” she said. “Almost none of them have done anything to promote organic-specific products.”

Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, which ships and markets organic and conventional apples and pears, said he doesn’t think Stemilt would move to spin off its organic division to take advantage of the provision.

“I don’t see it changing much,” he said. “We won’t divide our ownership nor form a separate subsidiary. We haven’t discussed it at all.”

IMPACT UNKNOWN

Commodity assessment boards say they are studying the provision.

“We’re still trying to figure out how it will impact marketing orders, said Blair Richardson, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley.

Richardson said he hasn’t heard “of any uprising of organic growers who don’t appreciate what we’re doing for the industry” in generically promoting increasing consumption of peaches, plums and nectarines.

“Our programs are designed to increase stone fruit consumption throughout the market, including organic,” Richardson said.

Tim Youmans, national retail sales manager for Driscoll’s, Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., said he has seen “no movement within our industry to kick the California Strawberry Commission out (of organics) as in other groups.”

WANTS LEGAL OPINION

Washington Apple Commission president Welcome Sauer said he wants to hear an opinion from a federal marketing order.

“We haven’t had a lawyer take a look at it,” Sauer said. “I kind of think the feds don’t have the power to enjoin state taxes.”

Sauer said the commission views organic apples as a growth category in the apple business.

“We see it as a way to increase consumption of apples to consumers who want organics as a choice,” he said.

The commission, based in Wenatchee, has an active organic advisory committee, Sauer said, that consists of organic marketers and shippers, working to promote organic apples.

“The Washington Apple Commission fully intends to help market those apples,” Sauer said.

Pepperl agrees with DiMatteo and Royal that Washington’s apple commission is making improvements in the way it markets organic apples.

“The Washington Apple Commission woke up on the issue a few years ago,” DiMatteo said. “They’re making an honest attempt to really represent organic in a way that will drive some sales.”

Conference committee staff members practically gave the provision to the organic industry, DiMatteo said.

She said staffers were originally planning to allow organic farmers to switch their funding to a national organic promotion board, but became frustrated at the additional wording that would be required to implement such an organization.

DiMatteo said the committee simply asked her what organic producers wanted.

The provision requires the secretary of agriculture to develop regulations concerning exemption eligibility and compliance within one year of the act’s passage.