Amalie Lipstreu commentary: Lawmakers hostile to public’s plea for better labeling on food

 
It is time for members of Congress to represent the interests of their constituents.
 
Recently, leaders of the House Agriculture Committee issued antagonistic statements about food labels overwhelmingly supported by the public. Those statements flagrantly disregard American food buyers’ opinions. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and whether it contains genetically engineered ingredients. Instead, lawmakers are working to limit access to this information.

Country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, was included in the 2002 Farm Bill, but consistent implementation of COOL labels has been hampered by attacks from the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers and other trade associations. Yet, most consumer and farm organizations believe imported food should be labeled. Polling shows that between 82 percent and 95 percent of consumers support country-of-origin labeling.

Despite court challenges and appeals to the World Trade Organization from Canada and Mexico, COOL has been upheld. The WTO requested that the U.S. provide clear requirements for labeling meat, which may be raised in one country, processed in another, and combined with meat from several different countries. A ruling is expected in May.

However, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican, in a statement said, “COOL has been a failed experiment from the start.” Given widespread public support and the upcoming ruling, this indictment is premature and calls into question whether our public officials are truly working to represent the public interest.

Majorities in Congress appear to be forsaking public calls for labeling genetically engineered food, too. National polls consistently show that consumers overwhelmingly support such labeling. Recently, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association released results of a poll that found 87 percent of Ohio voters support labels for genetically engineered food.

The Ohio poll also found strong nonpartisan support: 89 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of independents say they have a right to information about what they eat and feed their families.

In his opening statement at the committee hearing on costs and impacts of labeling, Conaway indicated regulations would make it harder to feed the world. Independent review clearly shows that genetic-engineering technology has not lived up to the claim that it would feed the world; instead, investments in traditional crop or seed hybridization could lead to the same or greater ability to meet the demands of a growing population.

The public is told to relax, because we have a scientifically sound federal regulatory process. Yet, an independent analysis found that when the Food and Drug Administration requested additional information, industry did not comply half of the time and data errors were not identified. Moreover, the FDA did not generate its own safety assessments but rather merely summarized the company’s food-safety analysis for the public.

Biotechnology companies and their proponents characterize attempts to bring to light these inadequacies or to discuss the negative environmental and economic implications of genetic engineering as misinformed and unfounded.

How many times in our history has the America public been told that products or technologies are safe, only to find many years later that there was real harm? We have earned the right to be cautious, and we expect our elected officials to represent our interests.

Conaway’s neglect of public opinion about labeling food for country of origin and for genetic engineering is emblematic of why the public feels apathetic about the political process. Despite a clear mandate, politicians are serving the interests of businesses that will profit from the public being kept in the dark.

Labeling is complicated and does cost money, but the reality is that labels are changed on a regular basis. If the public wants more information about their food, our leaders should make sure industry gives them that information.

Amalie Lipstreu is policy program coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.

OEFFA Comments: National Organic Standards Board Spring 2015 Meeting

April 7, 2015

National Organic Standards Board
USDA – AMS
1400 Independence Ave, SW
Washington, DC 20250
RE: AMS–NOP–15–0002

National Organic Standards Board members:

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) is a grassroots coalition of nearly 3,400 farmers, gardeners, consumers, retailers, educators, and others who since 1979 have worked to build a healthy food system that brings prosperity to family farmers, safeguards the environment, and provides safe, local food to consumers.  OEFFA employs education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote local and organic foods, helping farmers and consumers connect to build a sustainable food system.  OEFFA’s Certification program has been in operation since 1981.  OEFFA certifies 838 organic producers and food processors, ensuring that these operations meet the high standards established for organic products.  Of these operations, 300 are dairies, 175 are mixed vegetable operations, and 72 raise poultry.

While there are many issues being discussed at this spring’s NOSB meeting, OEFFA’s comments focus on three materials of particular interest: Copper, Methionine, and Zinc Sulfate.  We gathered input from our certified producers through surveys and conference calls.  We were heartened by the response and interest from our clients and their desire to participate in this unique democratic process.  We at OEFFA are thankful for the process that so many have worked to create and maintain, and respectfully offer the following comments.

Copper
OEFFA strongly supports the continued listing of fixed coppers and copper sulfate on the National List for organic crop production.

OEFFA producers utilize many cultural practices to support plant health and prevent diseases, including pruning, wider spacing between plants, crop rotation, variety selection, nutrient management, and mulches.  They also employ products containing hydrogen peroxide, as well as several other remedies including milk, oils, and microbial inputs to manage diseases.  While these practices and products are helpful, they are insufficient to manage disease problems such as phytopthera in tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cucurbits.

OEFFA producers work to make sure that copper does not accumulate in the soil by using specially designed sprayers and spraying techniques, as well crop rotations and soil testing.  Some report success in managing disease by alternating between hydrogen peroxide and copper applications, further reducing the use of copper.

Copper is a controversial input in organic production and, due to the negative effects it can have on soil, aquatic ecosystems, and farmworker health, its use is included in critiques of organic production systems.  For these reasons, we want to encourage further research into other viable disease management tools for use in organic production.  However, copper remains a necessary tool in growing organic produce.  Our producers maintain that copper is an essential part of their disease management programs and there is currently no comparable substitute available.

Methionine
OEFFA supports the Livestock Committee proposal to change the listing of DL-methionine on the National List.

OEFFA producers are primarily raising birds in poultry barns with access to soil and pasture.  No major health issues have been observed at the current methionine ration, though some producers noticed minor pecking issues with some flocks.  Despite this fact, nutritionists working with our clients are recommending additional methionine beyond the amount currently allowed in the rule.  As a result, producers are adding more soybean meal to organic rations, which can lead to wet litter, reduced indoor air quality, and ultimately decreased flock health.

OEFFA producers choose soybean meal over other nonsynthetic forms of methionine such as earthworms and soldier flies for various reasons.  Some are concerned that they will be unable to procure a consistent supply, or that inputs may be contaminated with pathogenic organisms or cause diseases.  Other nonsynthetic protein sources are prohibited by NOP rules.

OEFFA producers indicate they could continue to produce organic poultry using the current methionine restriction, but they would prefer to calculate and record methionine use per ton of feed as an average over the life of the flock, per the NOSB Livestock Subcommittee’s recommendation.  As proposed, OEFFA producers think this modified ration would allow them to increase protein earlier in the birds’ lives leading up to peak production, without the negative effects, and then taper it off as the flock requires less.  Producers also feel confident that they could keep records demonstrating compliance with the “average over the life” ration.  As a certifier, OEFFA is concerned about how the verification of such records would play out on the ground.  Such a change would require clear guidelines and ACA cooperation to ensure consistency across the industry.

OEFFA eagerly anticipates improved poultry standards as part of the forthcoming proposed rule on animal welfare and hopes that the link between synthetic methionine demand and access to pasture is considered in these changes.  We emphasize the need for continued research for viable natural methionine alternatives and we are committed, as is stated in the Livestock Committee recommendation, to see a phase out of synthetic methionine in organic rations over time.  While these alternatives are being developed and field-tested, we hope to see the Livestock Subcommittee’s proposal adopted to support the health and productivity of organic poultry operations.

Zinc Sulfate
OEFFA supports the addition of Zinc Sulfate to the National List.

OEFFA clients are already utilizing several cultural practices to support hoof and foot health in their organic management systems, including rotational grazing, maintaining dry housing and laneways, confining animals in very wet conditions, and conducting hoof trimming as needed.  Despite these practices, foot and hoof issues such as foot rot, heel warts, and hairy warts arise from time to time.  OEFFA producers are generally seeing these issues in one to three animals at a time, not in the entire herd.  More issues seem to arise in those herds engaged in comparatively less grazing, while still meeting the organic grazing requirements.

Currently, OEFFA producers are using varied remedies to treat foot issues, including copper sulfate, hydrogen peroxide, and various home remedies including sulfur and garlic powder, a sugar/molasses paste, and dietary supplements including salt.  Producers find the pastes difficult to administer because of the need to isolate the afflicted animal (a stressful process for the animal), clean the foot, apply the paste, and wrap the foot.  There are also concerns that wrapping the affected foot could hold in moisture and potentially foster additional foot problems.

Because foot issues generally occur in only a few animals, OEFFA producers indicated both a need and a strong preference to use zinc sulfate directly on the affected hooves rather than as a footbath.  An individual, spray-on treatment can be applied in an efficient, stress-free manner in the milking parlor without the need to wrap the affected hoof.  We recognize that use as a topical application is not specifically requested in the petition, but topical use provides the needed benefits to farmers and affected animals.  As an additional environmental benefit, the individual topical application does not require the disposal of footbath wastewater.

Should a footbath be allowed, our clients noted that the footbath wastewater would be mixed with manure and applied to fields.  Although the zinc sulfate would compose a relatively small portion of the manure applied, it should be disposed of in a manner that minimizes accumulation of zinc in the soil, which could be monitored through soil testing.

In keeping with OFPA, we recognize the responsibility that comes with requesting this synthetic material be added to the National List.  We hope that, as the process dictates, research for effective alternatives will continue.

Idea Regarding NOSB Material Review Process
This is the first time OEFFA has participated in the NOSB comment process.  We are struck by the sheer volume of materials for review and the tremendous amount of work undertaken on behalf of the organic industry.  As we experience this process for the first time, and in the spirit of continuous improvement, we offer the following question: Would it be possible to stagger the sunset materials review work over multiple meetings?  In other words, perhaps rather than having one meeting in which all sunset 2017 materials are discussed, consider dividing the 2017 sunset materials in such a way that they can be discussed over the course of several meetings, timed in such a way to permit the vote at the appropriate (sunset date) time.  This might improve the quality of the dialogue we have with producers, and the quality of information received, while not overwhelming everyone from NOSB members to producers in the process.

In closing, we would like to sincerely thank the Board for your service and for considering our comments.   We appreciate the good work you do to maintain integrity and transparency in the organic industry.

Sincerely,
Carol Goland, Ph.D.
Executive Director

OEFFA Joins Groups to Challenge Major USDA Change to Organic Rule

Washington, DC, April 8, 2015 – Organic stakeholders have filed a lawsuit in federal court, maintaining that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the federal rulemaking process when it changed established procedures for reviewing the potential hazards and need for allowed synthetic and prohibited natural substances used in producing organic food. A coalition of 15 organic food producers and farmer, consumer, environmental, and certification groups asked the court to require USDA to reconsider its decision on the rule change and reinstitute the agency’s customary public hearing and comment process.

When it comes to organic food production, consumers and producers expect a high level of scrutiny and are willing to pay a premium with the knowledge that a third-party certifier is evaluating compliance with organic standards. The burgeoning $35+ billion organic market relies heavily on a system of public review and input regarding decisions that affect organic production systems and the organic label. The multi-stakeholder National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)[1], appointed to a 5-year term by the Secretary of Agriculture, holds semi-annual meetings to solicit public input and to write recommendations to the Secretary on organic policy matters, including the allowance of synthetic and non-organic agricultural materials and ingredients.

The unilateral agency action taken to adopt major policy change without a public process, the plaintiffs maintain, violates one of the foundational principles and practices of OFPA —public participation in organic policy-making. In adopting the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), Congress created standards for organic certification and established the NOSB to oversee the allowance of synthetic materials based on a determination that they do not cause harm to human health and the environment and are necessary in organic food production and processing, given a lack of alternatives. Under the law, a review of these materials takes place on a five year cycle, with a procedure for relisting if consistent with OFPA criteria. Plaintiffs in this case maintain that the USDA organic rule establishes a public process that creates public trust in the USDA organic label, which has resulted in exponential growth in organic sales over the last two decades.

At issue in the lawsuit is a rule that implements the organic law’s “sunset provision,” which since its origins has been interpreted to require all listed materials to cycle off the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances every five years unless the NOSB votes by a two-thirds majority to relist them. In making its decision, the NOSB is charged with considering public input, new science, and new information on available alternatives.

In September, 2013, in a complete reversal of accepted process, USDA announced a definitive change in the rule it had been operating under since the inception of the organic program without any public input. Now, materials can remain on the National List in perpetuity unless the NOSB takes initiative to vote it off the List.

In a joint statement, the plaintiffs, representing a broad cross-section of interests in organic, said:

We are filing this lawsuit today because we are deeply concerned that the organic decision making process is being undermined by USDA. The complaint challenges the unilateral agency action on the sunset procedure for synthetic materials review, which represents a dramatic departure from the organic community’s commitment to an open and fair decision making process, subject to public input. Legally, the agency’s decision represents a rule change and therefore must be subject to public comment. But equally important, it is a departure from the public process that we have built as a community. This process has created a unique opportunity within government for a community of stakeholders to come together, hear all points of view, and chart a course for the future of organic. It is a process that continually strengthens organic, supports its rapid growth, and builds the integrity of the USDA certified label in the marketplace.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by counsel from Center for Food Safety, include: Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Equal Exchange, Food and Water Watch, Frey Vineyards, La Montanita Co-op, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, New Natives, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Northeast Organic Farmers Association Massachusetts, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Organic Consumers Association, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, PCC Natural Markets, and The Cornucopia Institute.

[1] The NOSB is a 15 member Board comprised of farmers, consumers, environmentalists, retailers, certifiers and food producers who advise the Secretary of Agriculture and the National Organic Program on all matters related to organic food and agriculture policy.

Ohio Business Owner: Fracking Stifling Local Food Movement

Ohio Public News Service 4/6/15

By Mary Kuhlman

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sustainably produced foods are becoming more popular among consumers, but some Ohioans say the fracking boom is stifling the growth of the local food movement.

According to the EPA, dozens of chemicals are used in hydraulic fracturing, which some growers say puts air, water and soil at risk for contamination. The Village Bakery and Café in Athens specializes in locally grown and organic foods, and owner Christine Hughes says some area farmers were unaware of the risks when they agreed to allow oil and gas companies onto their land.

“Landowners were told, ‘Oh no, we don’t use chemicals, it’s all safe,’ so I don’t blame those people for signing up,” says Hughes. “But it has put all these sustainable farms at risk, and the conventional farms as well. The sustainable farmers are more aware of the damage it will do to their reputation.”

According to Hughes, soil and watershed resilience are likely to worsen as drilling continues to expand. A recent study found nearly 11 percent of the more than 19,000 organic farms in the U.S. share a watershed with oil and gas activity, and 30 percent of organic farms will be in the vicinity of a fracking site or injection well in the next decade.

Hughes says many of her restaurant’s suppliers are based in Ohio’s fracking hotbed. The farm that sourced her flour was directly impacted by fracking after an old injection well was re-activated near the land.

“They started bringing in truckloads of radioactive frack waste from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio,” she says. “So they had to shut down their farm and ended up having to sell off their farm and move away and take jobs from their farm.”

Hughes says many other business owners in her community are concerned about the impacts of fracking, and it’s not the answer to the country’s economic, energy and climactic challenges.

“The horse was out of the gate long before the regulations or the science could be shown how dangerous it is,” says Hughes. “At this point a moratorium is really the only responsible thing that we could do.”

Hughes is a member of the Ohio chapter of the American Sustainable Business Council, which is among organizations calling for mandatory, enforceable national standards that will apply to both new and existing gas and oil development.

If it’s Safe for the Table, Put it on the Label?

By Mary Kuhlman, Ohio Public News Service, 3/17/15

COLUMBUS, Ohio – While the scientific “jury” is still out on the safety of genetically engineered (GE) foods, a new poll indicates most Ohioans want to know when they are eating GE foods.

The survey from the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association found 61 percent of those polled disapprove of GE foods. The majority of those polled, at 87 percent, also support GE labeling.

Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, says GE foods are also a non-partisan issue, with 89 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Independents in favor in GE labeling.

“The public is skeptical,” she says. “The public has earned the right to be cautious. If it’s safe for the table, put it on the label. It’s the responsible thing to do.”

Supporters of GE technology say it increases production, saves costs, and reduces the use of chemicals. But Lipstreu says genetic engineering has done little to improve crop yields, and the evidence is insufficient on health and environmental impacts. Its estimated more than 70 percent of foods sold in the U.S. contain GE ingredients.

According to Lipstreu, genetic engineering is also the concern of many farmers, who worry that pollen drift from GE crops can contaminate adjacent fields.

“There’s also concerns about patenting of seeds and ownership of nature,” she says. “A recent concern is about a lot of weeds that have evolved to be resistant to the herbicides that are used along with genetically engineered crops.”

Lipstreu says consumers have a basic right to know. She notes consumers have previously been mislead to believe things were safe that actually were not.

“Things like DDT, the use of asbestos, “she says. “Later on, we found out many of these things are very damaging to health and to the environment.”

Lipstreu says the poll findings support the need for GE labeling policies at the state and federal level. Over 60 countries require disclosure of GE ingredients on food labels.

Poll Shows Bi-Partisan Support for GE Labeling in Ohio

For Immediate Release: March 12, 2015

Contact: 
Amalie Lipstreu, Policy Program Coordinator, (614) 421-2022 Ext. 208, amalie@oeffa.org 
Lauren Ketcham, Communications Coordinator, (614) 421-2022 Ext. 203, lauren@oeffa.org

Columbus, Ohio- A poll of Ohio voters conducted this February illustrates overwhelming support for labeling food that contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.

“There can be no doubt that Ohio voters want the right to know what they eat and feed their families,” said Amalie Lipstreu, Policy Program Coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). “The results clearly show voters—regardless of political party—support GE labeling and disapprove of GE food.

OEFFA contracted with Public Policy Polling for an independent poll of 520 registered Ohio voters on February 4-5, 2015. Key findings include:

  • 87% of Ohio voters want GE foods labeled and 61% disapprove of GE food;
  • 70% of women—the primary food purchaser in most households—disapprove of GE food and 92% of the women polled want those products labeled;
  • Support for GE labeling is a non-partisan issue: 89% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats, and 85% of Independents support GE labeling.
According to OEFFA member and clinical nurse Lynne Genter, “This poll clearly illustrates that Ohioans are knowledgeable about genetically engineered foods and want to know when foods contain GE ingredients. Ohioans have raised their concerns in a unified voice and our legislators should pass a GE labeling bill.”

Despite widespread use, consumers and non-GE farmers have expressed serious concerns about the technology, including drift of GE pollen contaminating other plants, the patenting of seed and ownership of nature, the increased use of synthetic chemicals that has led to herbicide resistant “superweeds,” and other potential environmental and human health impacts.

These concerns are often the subject of much debate, particularly given the lack of independent scientific review and oversight. “It’s clear from this survey that Ohioans want the right to choose,” said Lipstreu. “Just as consumers can choose whether to buy juice from concentrate, labeling foods produced with GE ingredients can provide them with information they are asking for in a clear and cost effective way.”

A two page issue brief and infographic summarizing the poll results can be found at http://policy.oeffa.org/gepoll.

Farm trend watcher has high hopes for Ohio farmers in the new food movement

By Vivian Goodman, WKSU, 2/20/15

One of the nation’s leading agricultural journalists is sounding a hopeful note for Ohio’s small family farmers.

Alan Guebert’s syndicated column, The Farm and Food File appears in 70 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.

For more than two decades he’s covered the rise of factory farms, the growth of the organic sector, and the push and pull between industrial and sustainable agriculture.

The first foodies
Guebert grew up on an Illinois dairy farm in the 1960’s.

“While we did not know it then, we were the original foodies. These younger people you know how they want to eat? They want to eat today like we used to, because we ate from our farm to our table. We just did it right there on the farm. And we were locavores before anybody invented the word. And my point is: for generations, for centuries we’ve eaten this way. We got away from it just this past generation. All I really do is watch things. I got a good set of eyes and I just watch those trends like that. And we’re just going back to where I was 50 years ago. And I can’t wait.”

Guebert delivered an upbeat keynote address at this past weekend’s annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. His audience was mostly small farmers committed to sustainable agriculture. They use organic methods and sell directly to consumers from their farms or at farmer’s markets.

Sales growth
Sales of organic produce increased more than 11 percent nationwide to $35.1 billion in 2013, the fastest growth in five years. The organic sector is still just 4% of the overall food market, but Guebert sees it continuing to grow.

“I think it’s the sky’s the limit.”

Why? Because, he says, we’re living in revolutionary times.  Fast food empires are fading, and more Americans are asking for good, safe, healthy food.

“There’s going to be more and more effort on the part of people who seek out good food who will pay more for good food. We do it now. Look at the growth of farmers’ markets. And if you’ve ever shopped at a farmers’ market, you can buy food cheaper elsewhere. If you’ve ever gone to a farm to fork table restaurant. You can buy stuff a lot cheaper than that. But you can’t buy it any better. You can’t buy it any healthier. You can’t buy it and have more satisfaction. And I think that’s what the new food movement is about.”

Last year about 80 percent of U.S. consumers bought organic at least sometimes.  And there’s been explosive growth in the number of farmers’ markets.

But Guebert says conventional farmers try to downplay it.

“I read just this past week how organic farmers markets must be worried because they only grew 8 % last year where in the past they’ve averaged 12, and 16 years ago there was 16% growth. Wouldn’t the corn and soy bean farmers love the fact that their markets grew 8% last year? Of course they would. So that’s big Ag’s message to counteract the great story that we see in farmers’ markets and in the growth of organic sales.”

“We’re just going back to goodness. Good, easy, straight-forward, uncomplicated delicious food. “

Where Big Ag comes in
But is anybody holding us back from going back? What about Big Ag, what about Big Food.

“Well, they would like to have a real impact on current food trends. And in fact they’re really trying. Big Ag would like to see those choices limited. And by that I mean they don’t want labeling. They don’t really want GMO labeling for sure because they say it will work against them. Well prove it! Prove it. Until then I think giving consumers the right to know what they’re eating is important.”

Guebert’s been watching the trends for a long time. He’s been writing his column for about 22 years now. When did he see the light bulb go off in people’s heads? When did this happen, this food revolution?

“I think we’ve worked very hard, my generation, your generation, to be sure that our children are very well educated. And we raised them to be independent. Well, what we raised were smart kids. We raised them in a manner that they were curious and questioning, and that they sought out what they thought was good options and made informed choices. That’s all they’re making. They’re making informed choices. They’re looking at food and they’re going, ‘Well I think I’ll have green beans tonight and I’ll go to the farmers’ market.”

He’s seen it in his own family. His daughter lived in D.C. and shopped at the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.

“It was on her way home so she could always stop and pick up something for supper that was fresh. And in fact that’s how they still do it in all of Europe. You go to Europe the refrigerators are about the size of your suitcase. And why? Because they don’t store food like we do. They go to the store for food. They don’t store it.”

Changes in the way Americans shop for and think about food, and the growth of sustainable agriculture fuel Guebert’s optimism about the future of the food system, but he still worries about the power of Big Ag to influence government policy.

“If you’re going to have a subsidized system, yeah the small farmer, the sustainable farmer out here is going to have one hell of a bad time. But if they can just get people to eat their food, they’ll have a customer, they’ll have a friend, and they’ll probably have a salesman for the rest of their lives. So I think that’s what sustainable people rightly focus on, where food and people meet, where they interface, where they can taste tomorrow.”

And the way farm writer Alan Guebert sees it, tomorrow is yesterday.

OEFFA workshops help promote farmer skills

By Chris Kick, Farm and Dairy, 2/17/15

GRANVILLE, Ohio — If you wanted to learn something new about farming or food production, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference had you covered.

More than 100 educational sessions were presented Feb. 14-15 at the conference in Granville, Ohio, which covered such things as field crops, livestock, specialty crops, business and marketing decisions, and farm policy.

Sessions were led by everyone from small-scale, part-time producers, to full-time farmers and university researchers.

Beginning producers

Ben Jackle, of Mile Creek Farm in New Lebanon, talked about what it takes to get started growing vegetables for profit. He and his wife, Emily, have grown vegetables and flowers in the Dayton area since 2007.

Many decisions must be made when starting a produce farm, but Jackle said, “it all comes back to the soil.”

Good soil means considering the chemical, biological and physical properties, Jackle said.

Biologically, producers need to build soil organisms and organic matter. Chemically, they must balance and supply the necessary mineral nutrients; and for good physical properties, they need to install the right drainage to reduce erosion.

Beyond soil, producers need to learn some of the “farmer skills” that it takes to grow a crop. Jackle and his wife did not grow up on a farm, so they’ve been learning things like painting, welding, drilling and cutting, record keeping, and maintenance.

“Even if these things aren’t things that are necessarily interesting or something you yourself want to learn — you’re going to have to be hiring someone to do these things,” Jackle said, because they need done.

Producers also need to consider whether they want to scale up their production, or stay at the same size and become more efficient.

Raising livestock

Choosing the right scale was one of the key points in a presentation about how to raise and manage livestock.

Jesse Rickard and Chelsea Gandy, assistant managers at Fox Hollow Farm, in Knox County, discussed “practical and innovative methods” for raising livestock.

For Fox Hollow, some animals, like the farm’s 300 sheep and 100 beef cattle, are raised on a “production” level, while other things, like the farm’s two dairy cows raised for milk, are kept on a “homestead” level.

Rickard said farms can have a combination of production and homestead ventures, and even a few experimental ventures, if they so choose.

Fox Hollow Farm is nearly 300 acres and includes 180 acres of managed pasture. The farm also produces chickens and pigs.

Livestock on a grazing operation require less infrastructure and to a great extent, the animals manage on their own, and that includes nutrient recycling.

“Animals are basically employees, if you manage them correctly,” Gandy said. “If you use them right, you can really get them to build your soil fertility, build your organic matter and they just do a fantastic job.”

In addition to deciding what animals to raise, livestock producers need to think about equipment needs, water availability, nutrition, marketing, labor and safety of farm workers.

“These are all things that will make or break your operation,” Gandy said.

Good record keeping is also a must, and so is being profitable.

“Sustainable farming is only sustainable if we can continue doing it,” Gandy said.

Awards

OEFFA presented its stewardship award to Bill Dix and Stacy Hall of the Brick Dairy Farm, of Athens County. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to the sustainable agriculture community.

In 1992, Dix and Hall started Big Rumen Farm, a 300-acre pasture-based dairy farm in Athens County with a small herd of Jersey heifers and a milking parlor.

In the years that followed, they joined a regional network of dairy farmers known as “Prograsstinators,” which, in conjunction with Cornell University, helps producers compare financial information to improve the management and profitability of grass-based dairy operations.

John Sowder, of Franklin County, received the Service Award, which recognizes outstanding service to OEFFA.

Sowder served on OEFFA’s board of trustees from 1992 until 2015, including multiple terms as treasurer.

He lends catering skills to OEFFA by helping to organize farm-to-table events and OEFFA’s conference meals, which are locally sourced and made from scratch.

 

Breakthrough in varieties make organic apples easier to grow in Ohio

By Debbi Snook, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/16/15

GRANVILLE, Ohio — Having trouble finding an organic apple grown in Northeast Ohio? You’re not alone. Most are from the state of Washington, clear across the country.

Yet apples grown in our soils and shaped by our weather happen to taste better. If we could buy organic versions more easily, we could also support our local farm economy.

Apple scab is the main reason for the lack, a fungal infection that thrives in more humid climates and leaves apples disfigured. Most scab is controlled by chemicals that do not meet standards for organic certification.

But there’s new hope to increase organic apple production in our region, and two of its proponents are orchardists Don Kretschmann and Tim Gebhart from Rochester, PA, about 40 miles southeast of Youngstown. The farming duo appeared at the recent 2015 OEFFA sustainable food conference and said there are a lot of reasons to start growing organic apples, at home and on a commercial farm.

Here are five of them:

More scab-resistant varieties are on the market. Gebhart listed a few of his favorites: Pristine (yellow, tastier than most early apples); Liberty (MacIntosh style flavor); Crimson Crisp (a good keeper, Gebhart’s favorite) and Gold Rush (flavorful, keeps in refrigeration for many months). Each is resistant to scab and many other diseases, and there are more hybrids like them coming out each year. Some of their favorite sources Cummins Nursery near Ithaca, N.Y. and Adams County Nursery near Gettysburg, PA. The duo recommends dwarf rootstocks for easier access, and spreading the roots fully when planting, not curling them into place.

More information on growing organically is available. Cornell University recently released its Organic Apple Production Guide, available online. The two farmers also recommend the web site and books by New Hampshire organic orchardist, Michael Phillips, which can also be found online.

More supplies are readily available. Organic apple growing still requires lots of specific soil conditions, serious pruning, good drainage and foliar spraying to fight off pests and diseases that like fruit as much as we do. A list of certified organic suppliers can be found online. Surround, a mudlike organic pesticide sprayed on trees to fight plum curculio that causes fruit drop, is available at Ohio Earth Foods in Hartville (330-877-9356.)

More is known about the harm caused by conventional pesticides and herbicides. Beyond effects on human health, they can kill the very beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that provide a biologically healthy soil web. Find more information in the sources previously listed. Also, commercial growers might consider the duo’s technique for warding off deer: Setting up a 6,000-volt wire around the orchard, attaching an occasional metal mesh covered in peanut butter. Once the deer get shocked, said Kretschmann, they rarely come back.

More people want organic apples. Krestchmann admits that also means more education. Organic apples can look as pristine as grocery store apples, but that is not always the case. Still, they sometimes get three times the price for whole apples by the bushel compared to the same amount they once used only in cider. The education is worth it, he says. “I can produce quality fruit to an educated customer,” he said. “I always say that using a paring knife (to trim unwanted parts of the fruit) are always better than using chemicals. Chemicals, you can’t pare off.”

Guebert tells OEFFA members ‘big ag’ is unsustainable

By Chris Kick, Farm and Dairy, 2/16/15

GRANVILLE, Ohio — Bemoaning the ways of “big agriculture” and many of the trade groups that represent it, Illinois writer and columnist Alan Guebert encouraged a return to affordable, sustainable agriculture during his keynote address Feb. 14 at a state meeting of organic and sustainable farmers.

“Twenty-fifteen is going to be a big year both for sustainable and a big year for unsustainable agriculture,” he told a crowd of about 1,100 people, at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association annual conference, held at Granville schools.

On the “unsustainable” side, he expects farmers will continue to face steep financial burdens.

“How sustaining is it to plant a $350 bag of seed corn on $10,000-an-acre ground, with a $250,000 tractor,” he asked.

Government support

The only way such farmers will sustain their operations, he said, is with tax breaks and subsidies, including government-subsidized crop insurance.

“The way they farm won’t succeed and, in fact, on its own, it’s never going to succeed,” he said. ”Throughout American history, American agriculture, left to its own devices, has produced itself smack dab into poverty.”

Aside from the financial challenges, Guebert said modern farming practices are destroying fertile soil, which results in $400 billion in lost food production every year.

“American farmers and ranchers are going to have to change,” he said, noting that all generations of farmers have had to change in order to survive.

But some things don’t change, like the demand for good-tasting food that is fresh, safe and high quality, he said.

He recalled growing up on his family’s crop and dairy farm in southern Illinois, when most of their food came from within 10 miles of their home farm. The term “junk food” was unheard of, people were thinner and healthier, and there were more neighbors and neighborhood businesses.

Original foodies

Guebert said he and his rural neighbors were “foodies” long before the movement began.

“With almost perfect ignorance, we ate from farm-to-table,” he said, adding, “Our farm, to our table.”

He said some of the things “big ag” is promoting, like its claim of feeding the world and producing the safest food supply in the world, are myths.

He pointed to recent salmonella cases and foodborne illnesses, as proof.

Guebert said corporate agriculture tries to tell people what to think, when it should be informing them about the facts.

Challenging ag

If left unchallenged, big ag’s message, would be to “sit down, eat and shut up,” according to Guebert.

Guebert has definitely been a challenger throughout his career, which has mostly centered around ag journalism and a syndicated column, called the Farm & Food File, which is carried by Farm and Dairy.

Many of his columns are critical of large farm organizations and government leaders, and commodity checkoffs, especially the National Cattlemen’s Beef Checkoff, which he faults for not doing a proper job of auditing its spending.

His brother, Richard Guebert, has taken a different approach to farming. Richard is president of the Illinois Farm Bureau and now serves on the national Farm Bureau board — organizations that Alan Guebert criticizes for promoting myths and misinformation.

Guebert said the kind of agriculture he expects to survive is that which is “sustainable,” betting against things like genetically modified organisms and certain soil amendments.

“If I was to bet on the food production scheme most likely to succeed in the next 50 years, I’d bet on the scheme that has succeeded for the last 50 centuries,” he said. “I’d bet on sustainable food production.”

Organic checkoff

In a morning session, he moderated a panel discussion about a proposed organic checkoff program. The checkoff has been in the works for the past couple years, and the 2014 farm bill contains language that could move it forward.

In favor of the checkoff was organic dairy farmer Gene DeBruin, of Fayette County, Ohio. And opposing the checkoff was Carmen Fernholz, an organic crop farmer from Minnesota.

DeBruin said he supports creating a checkoff because it would help promote and distinguish the organic brand.

“If we’re going to protect our premium market, we’re going to have to put some effort into it,” DeBruin said.

Fernholz, who also holds a position with the University of Minnesota as organic research coordinator, said he’d rather see the work of a checkoff be done through a land grant college, with public tax money.

Fernholz said he’s “never seen what I would call a good story from checkoffs.”

As an organic farmer, he finds himself paying to checkoffs that already exist, but that don’t do research into organic practices.

“If I’m not getting organic research on those dollars, who’s getting it,” he asked.

One of the challenges to creating an organic checkoff, Fernholz said, is that organic producers can’t really claim it’s any better than conventional food.

“What are we going to promote?” he asked. “What promotion can you really say, other than ‘look for the organic label.’”

Organic exemption

Fernholz said he’s in favor of “complete organic exemption” from all checkoffs, and more emphasis on public research.

But new funding, even for food research, can be a tough sell for taxpayers.

“I’m just afraid that ain’t going to happen,” DeBruin said.

Guebert concluded the checkoff discussion by talking about the challenges of operating a checkoff and the responsibilities of its members.

“They’re (checkoffs) not hard to start, but they’re really hard to monitor,” he said.

A federally supported checkoff would have U.S. Department of Agriculture oversight, and certain budgeting and auditing requirements.

Guebert said organic producers still need more information, to “ensure that if this is what you want, it’s done in the manner that you want.”

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