Pesticide-free? Nurtured with organic fertilizer? No antibiotics?
Ask any shopper, and you're bound to find mixed answers for what an organic label means.
Now, an association is trying to draw funding from something called a "checkoff" to pay for consumer advertising and research. For a checkoff to work, each farmer pays a small amount. For example, a penny-per-bushel of wheat or a dollar per cow would generate millions of dollars in pooled funding that could pay for splashy ad campaigns.
For the proposed organic checkoff, farmers who bring in more than $250,000 a year would be assessed one-tenth of one percent of their gross revenue annually, minus the cost of certified organic goods, such as seed. If an organic farmer makes $1 million in net organic revenue, they could be assessed upwards of $1,000.
"There's lots of confusion in the marketplace about what exactly organic means," Missy Hughes says. Hughes is the board president for the Organic Trade Association, the loudest voice for the organic industry in Washington, D.C. It focuses on policy and lobbying, and counts some of the largest food companies in the country among its members.
"We need the consumer to understand what that means when they are making that purchase and so that they are willing to make that purchase," says Hughes.
But unlike checkoff funded projects like the "Incredible Edible Egg," organic checkoffs are a little broader. The organic food industry spans many products, so unifying the diversity of the food and the diversity of the farmers into one plan is tough.
"It sounds kind of bad and I hate to say it this way but it's not my job to make sure that there's organic across the country," says Jason Condon, a farmer in Lafayette, Colo. He and his wife grow certified organic vegetables, and while their Isabelle Farm is a success, their profits are still tight. If checkoff funding moves forward, the Condons could have to pay upwards of $1,000 per year into the pool, and all for messages they aren't sure they support.
Some farmers have even argued that checkoffs are unconstitutional, saying that a mandatory payment for advertising infringes on free speech. In 2005, Supreme Court justices upheld the controversial beef checkoff program, which helped fund the "Beef It's What's for Dinner" campaign.
Condon says he prefers marketing to his neighbors, nearby restaurants and grocery stores. "This checkoff thing feels very contrary to that," he says. "This sort of, 'No, no, you're not doing it good enough. Let's take your money and give it to some high-paid Washington folks who could really do some good.' "
The OTA says they will be ready to submit a formal proposal for checkoff funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the next couple of months. More than two-thirds of the nation's 18,000 certified organic producers will have to vote in favor for checkoff funding to go into effect.
Luke Runyon reports from Colorado for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Most consumers do know the taglines for beef - it's what's for dinner - and pork - the other white meat. Now there's an effort to better market organic food. The largest Organic Trade Association wants growers to pay to come up with snappy mottos. And the idea is splitting farmers, processers and marketers into factions. From member station KUNC in Colorado, Luke Runyon reports.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: I'm standing outside a sprouts market here in Greeley, Colo. People are walking out with carts and groceries, and some of that food sports a little seal for USDA Organic. And more shoppers are looking for that logo. Organic food sales jumped to $35 billion in 2013. But what are people seeing when they see that logo?
JENNIFER RONSPIES: It just means that it's not grown with pesticides or any sort of hormone ever.
PAM HALVERSON: And I know it's misleading, and it doesn't mean there's no pesticides or no preservatives.
DONNA DARLING: But it doesn't have pesticides or - is that right?
RUNYON: That's Jennifer Ronspies, Pam Halverson and Donna Darling. Ask a shopper about the organic seal, and you're bound to get an array of answers.
MISSY HUGHES: There's lots of confusion in the marketplace about what exactly organic means.
RUNYON: Missy Hughes is board president of the Organic Trade Association, the nation's most influential organic group. She says the USDA Organic seal is trusted, but still shrouded in mystery.
HUGHES: We need the consumer to understand what that means when they are making that purchase and so that they are willing to make that purchase.
RUNYON: To clear up the confusion, the Organic Trade Association wants to borrow an idea used for decades by other agricultural groups. It wants to set up an industry-wide fund for marketing and research called a checkoff.
And here's how a checkoff works. Each farmer is required to pay a small amount into a fund. It could be a penny on a bushel of wheat or a dollar per cow. Pool that money together and you have millions to develop splashy promotional campaigns, like...
(SOUNDBITE OF MILK AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Got milk?
(SOUNDBITE OF EGG AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) The incredible, edible egg.
RUNYON: An organic checkoff could bring a catchy tagline to the country's more than 18,000 certified-organic producers - think organic.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: It's what's for dinner.
DAVE CARTER: That's the challenge, is organic is such a rich, broad message.
RUNYON: Dave Carter is a former member of the group that creates the USDA standards for organic agriculture.
CARTER: That's where we're kind of losing the debate right is it encompasses so many things.
RUNYON: There's a schism between billion-dollar organic companies and small farmers, who, if they make a certain amount of money, would be forced to pay into the fund. Some worry about Big Organic, with a capital B.
JASON CONDON: It'll be a little muddy out here, but we...
RUNYON: Jason Condon and his wife, Natalie, grow certified-organic vegetables in Lafayette, Colo., near Denver. Mid-size operations like theirs have been the toughest sell.
CONDON: It sounds kind of bad, and I hate to say it this way, but it's not my job to make sure that there's organic across the country.
RUNYON: If the checkoff becomes reality, Condon could be required to pay upwards of $1,000 a year into the fund. He got his start selling at the farmers' market.
CONDON: This checkoff thing just feels very contrary to that sort of no, no, you're not doing it good enough. Let's take your money and give it to some high-paid Washington folks that can really do some good.
RUNYON: The checkoff's advocates are still trying to convince farmers like Condon that it's a good idea. Eventually, more than two-thirds of organic producers would have to vote in favor for it to go into effect. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colo.
MONTAGNE: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.