The Organic Trade Association (OTA), Washington, D.C., created GRO Organic (Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic), a check-off-like voluntary program to support the U.S. organic sector, reduce the confusion about organic, help farmers go organic and stay organic and 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," says Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of OTA. "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 [also] to help consumers make the best choices and to encourage more organic research," says 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."

OTA partnered with Organic Voices, Washington, D.C.; The Organic Center, Washington, D.C.; and 69 organic brands, businesses and leaders across the industry to implement programs as prototype-working examples that can be expanded into future initiatives.  

The programs focus on four key action plans:

  • Launch a national campaign to reduce consumer confusion about organic;
  • Learn what customers are hearing and how it affects their behavior;
  • Connect technical specialists with transitioning and existing organic farmers in every state;
  • Research how organic is part of the solution to soil health and climate change.

Organic Voices, led by Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Organic, and OTA collaborated to fund a 2-year nationwide campaign and raised $1 million to promote organic.  

Organic Voices has been working for over a year to craft a new messaging and education campaign called "Skip all the chemicals and just go with organic."
"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," says 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."

Meanwhile, the OTA is collaborating in a 6-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.

The ultimate goal of GRO Organic is to connect technical specialists with existing and transitioning organic farmers in every state. That’s why GRO Organic will launch Organic Agronomy Training Series (OATS), a pilot initiative available this spring in the Midwest that will train agricultural professionals working with organic or transitioning farmers. OATS will be available in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, and will test a concept that can be expanded across a variety of organic crop systems nationwide. 

"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," says Anders Gurda, senior manager-agronomy solutions for Pipeline Foods, Minneapolis, which is spearheading a broad coalition to implement the pilot training sessions. 

Also 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 identify programs that can be scaled up to include different regions and crops.  

Supported by GRO Organic, The Organic Center also put together a package of immediate-action research projects for 2019. A research project with the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., is already underway to review the science that evaluates organic methods for building soil health and 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, Berkeley, Calif., 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," says 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."

"We want everyone to know that GRO Organic is live, and it's investing in programs," says 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."