Much can happen in a year, as a major collective effort underway by the organic community is proving. Scores of organic companies and stakeholders have enthusiastically stepped up to invest almost $1.5 million in programs to advance organic food and farming — initiatives to promote organic, educate consumers about organic’s benefits, assist organic farmers and foster critical organic research. And this is just the beginning.
Less than a year ago, the Organic Trade Association made the pivotal decision to create an innovative check-off-like voluntary program to support the U.S. organic sector. The effort was aptly named GRO Organic (Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic) and since then specific action plans have been put in place to reduce the confusion about organic, to help farmers go organic and stay organic, and to spur research on ways that organic practices can fight climate change.
“Organic has lots of challenges right now, and I am thrilled and heartened with how the sector has turned these challenges into new opportunities for strategic thinking and real action,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “Organic innovators and industry leaders are investing into their future, and taking proactive steps to ensure that organic continues to flourish.”
“When we reimagined GRO Organic last year, we got to work immediately to develop diverse and forward-looking programs to not only benefit organic farmers and organic businesses, but to help consumers make the best choices and to encourage more organic research,” said Batcha. “We set measurable and tangible goals for the first two years of GRO Organic, and we’re poised to surpass those goals in the first year.”
The Organic Trade Association has partnered with Organic Voices, The Organic Center, and 69 (and counting) organic brands, businesses and leaders across the industry to implement programs as prototype working examples that can be expanded into even more ambitious future initiatives.
The wide-ranging programs focus on four key action plans:
- Launching a national campaign to reduce consumer confusion about organic
- Learning what customers are hearing and how it affects their behavior
- Connecting technical specialists with transitioning and existing organic farmers in every state
- Researching how organic is part of the solution to soil health and climate change
An engaging “fishbowl discussion” is being planned for organic stakeholders at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim on Friday, March 8, to provide an update on program specifics from GRO Organic Core Committee members, and to hear from stakeholders spanning the entire organic supply chain about the latest consumer insights, messaging plans and ideas, potential Governance structures and more.
A national campaign to promote organic
Organic Voices, led by Stonyfield Co-founder Gary Hirshberg, and the Organic Trade Association have collaborated to fund a two-year nationwide campaign to promote organic. To support the cutting-edge campaign, $1 million has already been raised in the first year (and another $1 million is on target for year two of the campaign with the goal to raise more).
Organic Voices has been working for over a year to craft a new organic messaging and education campaign to eliminate consumer confusion about organic. Following a two-day retreat in which 20 leading organic firms compared and debated consumer insights, a core group of organic company chief marketing officers have led a rigorous 12-month effort to devise a 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 all the chemicals and just go with organic.”
The campaign will extend to multiple mediums but with a heavy emphasis on social media. Attendees of Expo West will be briefed on the Organic Voices 2019 campaign in partnership with GRO Organic on Thursday, March 7.
“The Organic Voices messaging effort will help to erase consumer confusion and make clear exactly why organic is one of the very best and most practical steps one can take to promote preventive health,” said Hirshberg. “This campaign comes at a critical time for organic, and all of us in the organic community need to step up and pool our resources to promote organic.”
Learning what motivates today’s organic customer
The American organic sector is now a $50 billion industry, and its growth isn’t showing any signs of stopping. Consumers of all ages, all income levels, and of all demographics are buying organic. And they’re hearing and learning about organic from a wide variety of sources.
The Organic Trade Association is collaborating in a six-phase research project to better understand 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 organic customers.
After interviewing dozens of consumers, industry professionals, and thought leaders, the research project is now entering phase three. Up next is a review and distillation of the information gleaned from the consumer and professional interviews, and the building and shaping of a communications “toolkit” for organic businesses (and available to all) based on findings from the research. Projected date for conclusion of the project: summer 2019.
Helping farmers go organic and stay organic
The hard reality for organic farmers – and farmers who want to go organic – is that the network of agronomists and technical service providers is often just not there to support growers through transition to organic and beyond. The ultimate goal of GRO Organic is to connect technical specialists with existing and transitioning organic farmers in every state, and year one of GRO has made an important first step towards that goal.
With the support of GRO and the generosity of a cornerstone donation from Clif Bar, a “train the trainer” program will be launched this spring in the Midwest. The pilot initiative will train agricultural professionals working with organic or transitioning farmers. Called the Organic Agronomy Training Series (OATS), three OATS regions have been established in nine states: Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. During spring/summer 2019, each region will deliver a training suited to their growers, their environment, and their crop calendar. The pilot program was designed to be relatively narrow in focus the first year to successfully test a concept that can be expanded across a variety of organic crop systems throughout the country.
“The goal of OATS is to create a knowledgeable support network for organic farmers and those transitioning to organic, lowering many of the barriers to organic transition and promoting organic as an opportunity worth exploring,” said Anders Gurda, Senior Manager-Agronomy Solutions for Pipeline Foods, which is spearheading a broad coalition to implement the pilot training sessions.
Also getting underway through GRO is a special assessment of the organic technical assistance field. This will enable GRO to design an informed investment strategy for its technical assistance projects, and to identify programs that can be scaled up to include different regions and crops.
Researching how organic can help fight climate change
The food system is in a dangerous predicament – it’s a significant contributor to one of its own biggest threats – climate change. That’s where organic comes in. Organic farming can be part of the climate change solution because it does not rely on fossil-fuel intensive synthetic inputs, and it uses farming techniques that sequester carbon in the soil.
Supported by GRO Organic, The Organic Center has put together a package of immediate-action research projects for 2019. A research project with the University of Maryland is already underway to review the science that evaluates organic methods for building soil health and to provide farmers with actionable recommendations for best management practices. Another project with the University of Maryland will investigate the impact of organic farming on carbon sequestration. A research study with the University of California, Berkeley, will quantify how environmentally friendly practices can impact a farmer’s economic bottom line.
“Our package of projects combines soil and climate issues with farmer benefits to move the needle toward a more sustainable climate,” said Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center. “We need to act now to fight against climate change, and organic should have a major role in that battle.”
GRO Organic expected to keep GROing
In kicking off GRO Organic, the Organic Trade Association launched a companion effort to develop a voluntary governance approach for long-term sustainability of the GRO effort.
Last November, the Organic Trade Association opened a six-month period for interested parties to weigh in and answer key questions on how GRO Organic should be shaped. The call for Big Ideas is open through April 30.
“We want everyone to know that GRO Organic is live, and it’s investing in programs,” said Organic Trade Association’s Batcha. “These aren’t pie-in-the-sky ideas. Thanks to the support of our organic innovators and leaders, these are now real on-the-ground projects that will make a difference for organic. Through GRO Organic, organic stakeholders can invest in their future and keep organic thriving and moving forward.”
“We thank all of the GRO Organic investors for stepping up and making a real difference. We know the numbers will continue to GRO!” said Batcha.
For more information on how to invest in GRO Organic, contact Cassandra Christine at the Organic Trade Association.