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GRO Organic Voluntary Research, Promotion, and Education Program

The Organic Trade Association, via a diverse Steering Committee, coordinated the effort to advance a voluntary industry-invested organic research, promotion and education check-off-like program, referred to as “GRO Organic” (shorthand for Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic). This is a private-sector initiative that will be collaboratively designed and implemented by organic stakeholders. 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 successfully 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.”

PROJECTS INCLUDE:

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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.

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 raised over $1 million in financing, launched in fall 2019 and extends to multiple mediums with a heavy emphasis on social media. A supporting paid media campaign across digital platforms targeted “fringe” consumers who know about organic but are not regular purchasers of organic products. Campaign measurements occurred daily across tactics, channels, and audience targeting to ensure that the campaign is efficiently reaching and targeting the right people. Donors to the campaign received a toolkit with the creative concepts and ways for individuals, companies, and brands to plug in to the campaign.

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.

Technical Assistance Project - Organic Agronomy Training Series

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.

Background Details

The Organic Trade Association submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in May 2015 to consider implementing a federally mandated organic check-off program. USDA in January 2017 officially proposed a nationwide organic check-off program, opening the process for public comments. In May 2018, over one year after the comment period closed, USDA terminated the rulemaking process without bringing the check-off vote to an industry referendum.

Over the summer of 2018, the organic industry pivoted quickly to set up GRO Organic as a voluntary program to do the work that the federal program might have done. There are now four prototype programs currently underway while the work to establish a voluntary program begins.

While a voluntary program does not have to be bound by the same constructs and prohibitions of the original USDA proposal, you can refer back to the details of the federal proposal in the posted resources if it useful to you.


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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.”

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

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