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GRO Organic shows power of collective effort

Organic Trade Association’s GRO projects on track to achieve solid success in Year 1

Maggie McNeil
(
mmcneil@ota.com
(202) 403-8514
(202) 615-7997
)
Washington , DC
US
 (
September 4, 2019
) — 

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. A little more than a year ago, the organic community realized it needed to take action to ensure the future of the organic sector. That realization resulted in more than 70 organic companies and stakeholders over the past year contributing their dollars, their vision, and their determination to a major collective effort to advance organic food and farming.

That effort – led by the Organic Trade Association -- is officially known as GRO Organic (Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic). Since its inception in 2018, seven enterprising projects have been implemented as prototype working examples for even more ambitious future initiatives.

Agronomists and crop advisers in the Midwest have attended organic training sessions, consumer perceptions of organic have been analyzed, studies on organic’s role in fighting climate change have gotten underway, and a national promotion campaign on organic has been created and is about to be launched. The aim of these diverse and innovative projects: to help farmers go organic and stay organic, to learn what consumers value most about organic, to build a body of work on organic’s potential impact on soil health and climate change, and to reduce the confusion about organic.

The Organic Trade Association is working with Organic Voices, The Organic Center, and organic brands, businesses and leaders across the industry and around the country to put pilot projects into action through GRO Organic. As of now, GRO Organic has under its belt: 

• Over 70 industry investors;
• Nearly $1.5 Million raised for Year 1 programs;
• $.5 Million invested in research + extension;
• $1 Million committed to promotion;
• Four distinct program areas with seven projects in progress.

“GRO Organic is showing real results just halfway through year one, and that’s because of the collective vision and collaborative hard work of organic innovators and industry leaders who are making major investments that will enable organic to continue to flourish,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director for the Organic Trade Association. “Through collaboration across the organic sector, we are developing resources to help organic take control of and shape its future.”

GRO Organic Consumer Messaging Project
The Organic Trade Association is on schedule with the biggest investment in consumer research that organic has ever made. The comprehensive six-phase research project is uncovering what drives a consumer to choose organic, what messages penetrate deeper than others, and what attributes of organic are the most valued by today’s diverse customers.

Reflecting extensive and comprehensive interviews with consumers and industry professionals, a quantitative consumer survey is now complete and results are being analyzed. This fall, the final phase of the work will be wrapped up. Core Committee members will be briefed on the research insights and will participate in a workshop at Natural Products Expo East before an Activation Plan and Activation Tool Kit are finalized. This major piece of work will provide tangible takeaways for the organic stakeholder to strengthen their connection with consumers.

GRO Organic Consumer Education Project
Organic Voices has spearheaded the development of a national campaign that hammers home the enormous numbers of chemicals used in conventional food, personal care and textile production, and the fact that all of these are prohibited under the USDA Organic seal. The key consumer message is “skip the chemicals and just go with organic.”

The campaign, which has raised over $1 million in financing, will launch this fall and will extend to multiple mediums with a heavy emphasis on social media. A supporting paid media campaign across digital platforms will target “fringe” consumers who know about organic but are not regular purchasers of organic products. Campaign measurement will occur daily across tactics, channels, and audience targeting to ensure that the campaign is efficiently reaching and targeting the right people. Donors to the campaign will receive a toolkit with the creative concepts and ways for individuals, companies, and brands to plug in to the campaign.

GRO Organic Climate Change Research Projects
Three GRO Organic research projects have been launched by The Organic Center with focus on climate change mitigation and fostering soil health. These projects build on one another to help facilitate organic solutions to the two critical challenges.

1. Science-based best management practices for healthy soil on organic farms: In collaboration with the University of Maryland, this project reviews the science evaluating organic methods for building soil health. The study is expected to be published within the next six months.
2. Investigating the impacts of organic management on carbon sequestration: In collaboration with the University of Maryland, this study assesses the impacts of different soil-building practices on soil carbon. The study was launched in August 2019.
3. Impacts of organic soil-building strategies on yield: The Organic Center will collaborate with the University of California, Berkeley to launch a study quantifying the interaction between different soil-health management practices on yield. This project will help encourage farmers to adopt soil-friendly strategies by highlighting the benefits those strategies can have on their bottom line. The research portion of the study is set to be completed in January 2020.

These GRO Organic funded research projects will be featured during The Organic Center’s annual Organic Confluences conference. On September 11, prior to Expo East in Baltimore, scientific experts, farmers, policymakers, and organic stakeholders will come together to address the impacts of climate change, best practices within the organic sector for mitigation and adaptation, and methods for encouraging the adoption of strategies for fighting climate change.

GRO Organic Technical Assistance Project
A ground-breaking and far-reaching technical assistance project – the Organic Agronomy Training Series (OATS) -- is being supported by GRO Organic in 2019 to assist growers through transition to organic and beyond. OATS was specifically designed to address the challenge of the lack of a network of agronomists and technical service providers to help organic farmers and those who want to transition to organic. It is a train-the-trainer program for agricultural professionals working with organic or transitioning producers.

Top funders of the OATS project through GRO Organic are General Mills, Clif Bar & Company, Organic Valley, King Arthur Flour Co., and Stonyfield Farm.

In 2019, OATS hosted three pilot trainings focused on organic row crop production across the Midwest. More than a hundred participants, ranging from farmers to agronomists and crop advisors to academics, have taken part. The trainings were developed and implemented by a broad coalition of independent regional non-profits, universities, businesses and farmer networks.

The program is now shifting into Phase 2. In August, the Organic Trade Association became the fiscal sponsor of OATS and announced a National Program Director of the program. Plans for Phase 2 include another three training sessions held in the original regions, along with two additional training sessions in new yet-be-determined regions. A big component of Phase 2 is to develop an accurate way to measure the success of the trainings, and to create an effective system to get the data and the information to farmers. In future years, the aim is to expand the pilot model to different production systems and geographic regions.

Getting Involved in GRO Organic
Ultimately for GRO Organic to be an effective opt-in program that pools resources to collectively address research, promotion, and education needs across the sector, broad participation is a must.

The Organic Trade Association gathered input over a six-month period from organizations and individuals on how best to design a successful program and how best to positively impact organic. GRO Organic Governance Subcommittee members are reviewing the stakeholder responses, and looking to develop a set of guiding principles to support GRO as programming expands into Year 2 and beyond.

“Any of our current GRO Organic projects could serve as bridge programming that would be ready for continued investment if a formal voluntary program rolls out in the future,” said Batcha. “It’s not too late to invest in GRO -- more investments mean more resources to do more good work.”

Updates on the programs will be held at Expo East on Friday September 13. The top results of the consumer research project will be shared, along with plans for the national educational campaign. Also, a workshop on OATS will be held to learn about the 2019 trainings and the plans for 2020.

For more information on how to invest in GRO Organic, contact Cassandra Christine at the Organic Trade Association.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing over 9,500 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA’s Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA's mission is to promote and protect ORGANIC with a unifying voice that serves and engages its diverse members from farm to marketplace.

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