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OTA applauds proposed rule exempting organics from check-off programs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that organic farmers and handlers are exempt from paying into conventional commodity check-off programs, saying that it is an important step that recognizes the organic industry’s unique needs and lets the industry decide where the dollars are best spent.

“OTA has worked very hard to get this exemption on the books, and we are optimistic that this important regulation will now soon take effect,” Laura Batch, executive director and chief executive officer of the Organic Trade Association, the leading organization of the organic industry, said in a statement. “The organic sector is a fast-growing, distinct industry with its own unique demands for research and promotion. We’re pleased USDA is moving swiftly to allow the industry to use its money to grow and develop its own sector.”

National commodity research and promotion check-off programs, funded by producers of the specific commodity, have been a part of American agriculture for almost 50 years. There are now 22 national check-off programs in place, ranging from the oldest check-off program begun in 1966 for cotton, to one of the newest that promotes American-grown mangos. The iconic “Got Milk” and “The Incredible Edible Egg” campaigns are examples of promotion and education programs paid for by successful producer-funded check-offs.

The proposed exemption, which was expanded by Congress in the farm bill of 2014, would extend the exemption for organic farmers, handlers, marketers or importers from just the 100 percent organic label to the primary organic label (95 percent organic) and pertain not exclusively to farmers or handlers who work solely with organic products, but also to those who produce, process, handle and import both organic and conventional products.

The exemption from conventional commodity check-off program assessments is very significant for certified organic operations. The USDA estimates that not having to contribute to conventional check-offs will free up an extra $13.6 million for organic stakeholders to invest back into the organic industry.

“These additional savings that will be available as a result of this exemption can be used by organic farmers, ranchers and handlers to address everyday problems and to tackle issues that will help advance their businesses and the organic sector,” Batcha added in the statement.

The USDA proposed rule will also exempt eligible operations from paying into the portion of the assessment in federal marketing order programs designated for market promotion activities. There are 23 marketing order programs with market promotion authority.

The USDA published the notice of the proposed changes Dec. 16 in the Federal Register, with a 30-day public comment period.

“OTA is heartened by USDA’s quick action to get this provision implemented and to allow for a concise 30-day comment period,” Marni Karlin, vice president of government affairs for OTA, added in the statement. “It is the result of the clear and unambiguous farm bill language passed with strong bipartisan support and signed into law by the president. These important gains for organic farmers and the organic industry were achieved through lots of hard work by organic stakeholders.”

The 2014 Farm Bill also authorizes USDA to consider and hold a vote on an organic research and promotion check-off program if the organic sector submits to the agency an official proposal for an organic check-off. OTA has been gathering input from organic stakeholders for the past three years on how best to shape a check-off program that could effectively serve the industry.

The organic industry is experiencing booming times, with organic sales hitting a new record of over $35 billion in 2013. More than 80 percent of families in the U.S. now buy organic products.

“The successes in the organic industry have been enormous,” Batcha added. “However, there is still much that needs to be done in the way of educating consumers about organic, devoting more research dollars to organic agriculture, and helping farmers to convert to organic. Giving the industry more ability to invest in its future is very significant.”

School lunch compromise good news to fresh fruit, vegetable suppliers

WASHINGTON -- Fruit and vegetable companies will continue to sell to schools that must meet improved nutrition standards thanks to a deal cut in the FY 2015 omnibus spending bill signed Dec. 16 by President Obama.

The appropriations bill that funds U.S. Department of Agriculture programs hit a roadblock when an amendment passed that would have allowed schools struggling to meet the strict standards to be granted a waiver. 

“Although well-intended, some of USDA’s rules went too far, too fast, and ended up driving students away from healthy school meals while unnecessarily driving up costs for schools,” said School Nutrition Association CEO Patricia Montague, who backed the waiver.

A coalition of groups, including the United Fresh Produce Association, urged Congress not to allow schools to opt out of all the new provisions, and this month lawmakers agreed to a compromise that allowed schools flexibility in meeting the whole grain and sodium standards.

“Congress agreed that rolling back the very modest requirement that kids get one-half cup of fruits and vegetables in their lunch would not be good policy and would have been detrimental to achieving our shared public health goal, which is to help children learn to make half-their-plate fruits and vegetables,” said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh. “The modest half-a-cup requirement is one step toward a lifetime of better health for today’s kids, and lower long-term healthcare costs for our country.”

The agreement also sets the stage for next year’s reauthorization of child nutrition programs, which expire in 2015.

“Schools need help in modernizing and streamlining procurement processes, updating refrigeration and cafeteria equipment, and financial resources to support healthy meals,” Stenzel said. “The solution contained in the omnibus passed today resolves a past debate, and sets all of us on a positive course where we can work together to serve our nation’s children.”

On a related note, a draft report from the committee developing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reported this week the U.S. population has made few dietary changes from 2001-2010, with fruit intake low but stable and vegetable intake declining.

The committee, which recommends changes to the guidelines every five years, is set to recommend U.S. consumers follow a diet high in vegetable, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts, and low in red and processed meat, added sugars and refined grains.

Weather conditions in Chile have been favorable for this season’s crops

Apart from some recent rains that affected cherry volumes, weather conditions have been favorable for this season. “We expect to see volume increases across all commodities, even cherries,” said Karen Brux, managing director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, North America, based in San Carlos, CA.

The news is especially good because Chile saw large volume decreases in 2013-14 due to severe frosts in the country.Karen-BruxKaren Brux

Looking specifically at the blueberry category, Brux noted that there is a huge increase over 2013-14.  Exports of Chilean blueberries are expected to increase by 30 percent over last season, with volume exceeding 200 million pounds.

“Roughly 70 percent of exports come to North America, so that's great news for our market,” added Brux.

She also noted a few promotion tips for retailers. Many shoppers still associate certain commodities, like blueberries or stone fruit, with a specific season, but Brux said, “Retailers should let their customers know that they can continue enjoying their favorite summer fruits during the winter, thanks to Chile.

“It goes without saying that retailers should communicate the key selling points of whatever product they're carrying to their shoppers,” she continued. “For example, a large retail chain is flying in all of their Chilean stone fruit to offer what they believe are the freshest, best-tasting fruits for their shoppers. We’re helping them develop point-of-sale materials that communicates this. Another large retail chain brings in Muscat grapes from Chile and builds beautiful displays with information that highlights the unique taste of this grape.”

This also brings attention to the broader grape category. Brux said retailers see sales increases across all varieties. The CFFA works with them to develop targeted promotions.

“It’s additionally helpful to give consumers season-appropriate usage ideas and wellness messages,” Brux pointed out. “Consumers are familiar with summer usage ideas for items like cherries, blueberries, grapes and stone fruit, but what about during the cold winter months? We worked with one retail chain to introduce our roasted Brussels sprouts and Chilean grapes recipe via a video that was sent out to a database of more than 300,000 customers. The CFFA also has numerous usage ideas and corresponding images for everything from a cherry, wild rice and quinoa salad to cherry chocolate chip muffins to smoked salmon with blueberry compote or a festive green grape salsa for St. Patrick’s Day.”

For people committing to a healthier lifestyle in the New Year, the CFFA also has commodity-specific health messages available. It is, for example, currently working with a registered dietitian from a large retail chain in the Northeast to supply short sound bites on all of the Chilean fruits.

North Bay Produce partners with the Produce Mom

The Produce Mom announced the addition of North Bay Produce Inc. to her family of trusted partners. North Bay offers its customers a year-round supply of a variety of fresh produce, thanks to its network of domestic and Latin American growers.The-Produce-Mom-North-Bay-Produce-Infographic

“There’s so much culture represented in this company,” Lori Taylor, The Produce Mom, said in a press release. “Together we will raise consumer confidence and understanding of import produce.”

“Fresh from the Farm, Year Around” is more than a slogan to North Bay. The company currently offers customers a year-round supply of apples, asparagus, blackberries, snow peas, sugar snap peas and blueberries, one of North Bay’s signature items.

The company’s ready-to-eat blueberry snack packs were featured during one of The Produce Mom’s Indy Style segments this summer. North Bay supplies customers with blueberries from its domestic growers spring through fall, then imports fresh blueberries from its Latin American growers during the winter months. Raspberries are offered seasonally, September through June.

“North Bay Produce is committed to providing the world with an uninterrupted supply of high-quality produce,” Sharon Robb, national marketing manager for North Bay, said in the press release. “Partnering with The Produce Mom will allow us to better educate consumers on the year-round freshness, availability and safety of produce.”

The “Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools” initiative, a public health campaign to increase salad bars in schools across the country, is another common goal for the two companies. Mark Girardin, President of North Bay Produce, is a Midwest campaign co-chair for the initiative and serves as a captain for the state of Michigan. Taylor takes every opportunity to promote the initiative, whether it’s on her Indy Style morning show segment, her blog or at a speaking engagement such as The Indiana School Nutrition Association Conference.

J&J Family of Farms hires new president

J&J Family of Farms has hired industry veteran Chris Coffman to serve as its president and chief operating officer. In this new position Coffman will be leading the day-to-day operations for the company.

Coffman, who has 24 years of experience in the produce industry, will be responsible for overseeing all J&J operation locations in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.Chris-CoffmanChris Coffman Additionally, he will be responsible for executing the organizational vision to continue to grow and expand J&J Family of Farms as a premier grower-shipper of peppers, cucumbers, squash and a variety of mixed vegetables for foodservice and retail operators nationwide.

“We have reached a critical time in the growth of organization that required regular operational oversight and we are excited to have Chris on board,” Chris Erneston, chief executive officer of J&J Family of Farms, said in a press release. “Chris’ previous experience helps him understand the challenges and opportunities of our business model and with him at the helm, I can focus my energies on business development and the continued strategic relationship building that will propel our farming operations.”

Coffman previously served as the president of Los Angeles-based Harvest Sensations. Earlier in his career he held positions at Del Monte and Apio Inc.

“I am humbled by the opportunity to lead the team at J&J Family of Farms," Coffman said in the release. "The Erneston family has assembled some of the best professionals in the industry and they are committed to growing a business rooted in their values of integrity, quality and service. It is those values that drew me to this company and will set the pace for our future success that will be a measure of greatness beyond that of the industry standard.”