COLUMBUS — Don “Doc” Sanders’ question (In his April Rural Life Today column) —“So, what’s better, organic or traditional farming”— is the wrong one to ask. Instead: “What do consumers want?” and “What will benefit farmers?” are the relevant questions.
Dr. Sanders brought up rbST; however, this issue has been decided in the court of consumer opinion. Consumers don’t want milk from cows injected with this drug. Arguing the merits of its benefits is beside the point. When grocery stores such as Kroger and juggernaut dairy processor Dean Foods state they don’t want to buy milk from farmers who use this product, it’s time to acknowledge the marketplace has spoken.
And the marketplace continues to speak: consumer demand for organic products has grown by double digits every year since the 1990s, with 84 percent of Americans now reporting they purchase organic food. Fresh produce and dairy are in the highest demand.
Consumers want what organic delivers: farming practices that maintain and improve the soil and water resources on which we all depend; eliminating the reliance on synthetic fertilizers that run off fields and pollute our waterways; enhancing biodiversity; animal health care practices that emphasize prevention; allowing ruminants to forage on grass and exhibit their natural behaviors; traceability from farm to table, and a prohibition on genetically engineered seeds and feed.
It’s unfortunate that Dr. Sanders’ column shared some misinformation about organic dairy production, such as the idea that antibiotic treatment is denied to cows that need it. The National Organic Program regulations require that “all appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail.” If antibiotics are needed, they must be used; the animal must then be removed from the organic herd.
Organic is not about substituting an unacceptable input for an acceptable one. Instead, it’s about managing a system. It is that production system – in which a variety of clever and effective natural practices are used – that allows organic farmers to avoid using synthetic pesticides that, in turn, remain as residues on food.
Organic farmers have access to 25 synthetic active pest control products which have been evaluated for their environmental and human health effects and which are only allowed under a restricted set of conditions; over 900 pesticides are registered for use in conventional farming. It is these contrasts in production systems that produce the demonstrable differences in what Dr. Sanders calls “quality, purity, and nutritive value of organic versus conventional food.”
An organic livestock system relies on preventative health practices to reduce the risk of common diseases, and to ensure animal welfare and productivity.
We need veterinarians like Dr. Sanders to help organic livestock farmers understand what they can do to reduce risks in their farming operations, and help them manage those animals if they do get sick. This approach to livestock farming, and the systems used in organics, can benefit all herds— whether the farm is organic or conventional.
For more information about organic certification and livestock management, go to http://certification.oeffa.org/.
Carol Goland, Ph.D, is Executive Director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
SALEM, Ohio — Organic producers, policy leaders and consumers agree the road to creating uniform standards for organic production was not an easy one. Even after the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the rules concerning organic production were disputed and would take several more years to sort out.
Twenty-five years later, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association acknowledged this milestone in a teleconference, Nov. 30, by talking about the challenges of creating unified standards in organic production. Participants also shared their hopes for the future of the National Organic Program.
Before the law
“There was no ‘ah-ha’ moment for us,” said Mike Laughlin, a certified organic specialty crop farmer from Johnstown, Ohio, referring to his decision to go organic. He and his wife had been growing a few small plots of vegetables in their backyard, nothing large-scale at the time.
“When our farm became a reality, it was a simple choice to grow in a manner that protected and enhanced the earth and provided good clean, safe food for us, our children and our customers,” Laughlin said during the conference call. But finding the information they needed was a challenge.
“It was a different time,” Laughlin said. “A lot of information was hard to find.” That’s when Laughlin discovered the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and found a group of like-minded individuals. Through the association, Laughlin was able to become certified organic under the criteria supplied by the OEFFA.
Having the OEFFA standards in place made Ohio one of the first states to develop rules for organic production, but it didn’t seem to be enough, said Laughlin. “It didn’t stop anyone else from saying they had an organic product. There were no rules to prevent that from happening.”
This began a push for more uniform U.S. standards.
“This was a very classic David and Goliath story,” said Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. deputy secretary for the USDA who helped write the laws for the national organic standard that would replace the patchwork standards developed across the country in the late 1980s.
At the time, there was a distrust between farmers and the government. “Farmers had not been treated well by USDA historically,” explained Merrigan. So it was a surprise to see farmers coming to government’s door for help. Legislation for the Organic Foods Production Act was signed into law on Nov. 28, 1990. Concerns for the language in the legislation would prompt more changes in the next 12 years.
The use of GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge were all permitted in the original legislation, which ignited an uproar in the organic community, explained Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition adviser. There were over 325,000 comments submitted to the act’s implementation — “the biggest comment to any USDA rule at that point,” said Hoodes.
It wasn’t until 2002 that a final rule was published, establishing an intensive set of rules. “Back then, the organic standards were just two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper,” said Laughlin, whose Northridge Organic Farm was one of the first Ohio farms to become certified organic under the new federal standards. “Now they’re more like a telephone book.”
Even with a very prescriptive set of rules, all panel members agreed, the future of the organic industry looks promising. Organic products have seen an “astounding” growth, said Abby Youngblood, National Organic Coalition Executive Director, with sales reaching nearly $40 billion annually, which she said is about 5% of total food sales.
“I think organic is a key opportunity for those who are getting into farming,” she said. “In terms of profitability, on a per-acre basis, in many cases organic does offer increased profitability and a way for people to get started in farming.”
But more organic research funding is needed, added Youngblood. “Only one-tenth of 1 percent of all agricultural research is dedicated in the (USDA’s) flagship research program to organic research.”
Kathleen Merrigan said she has seen practices led by organic farmers be adopted by a larger number of farmers who are not organic. “Investing in organic research is not just investing in organic agriculture, it’s investing in agriculture,” she said.
Her example was the use of rotational grazing on dairy farms, a practice she said was “pioneered by organic producers” and has since been widely adapted on a variety of operations both organic and non-organic — “because it makes sense.” The kinds of research that (organic producers) are calling for is a way to broaden our American agriculture portfolio, said Merrigan.
Supporters celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Organic Foods Production Act last week. Leaders reflected on how far the movement has come in the past few decades during a virtual press conference hosted by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, one of the nation’s first promoters of organic food.
Signed into law in 1990, the OFPA was a battle before and after implementation.
Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition adviser, said prior to the OFPA there was no national standard for organic farming.
“It’s important to remember the development of the law came from farmers and consumers, joined by environmentalists and industry in the very beginning,” she said.
Kathleen Merrigan served as head of the Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999 to 2001 and is known as the chief architect of the present-day organic standards. She later served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2013.
Prior to the OFPA, Merrigan said a deep mistrust had grown between organic farmers and government. With growth in the organic sector, farmers were concerned organic standards would be watered down, so they went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help.
Merrigan said the USDA originally tried to work with label rules but decided the issue needed legislation. Government officials, farmers and organic stakeholders partnered to write the bill.
“I think that partnership, that collaboration, is embedded in the law through the construction of the National Organic Standards Board,” she said.
Even after the draft bill was written, the group had trouble getting it passed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, introduced the bill in a chamber with a Democratic majority. While the Senate went along with the bill, Merrigan said, the House was a different story.
“When I look back on that time, this is a very classic David and Goliath story,” she said.
Merrigan said the USDA had trouble finding a Congressman to introduce the legislation before Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed to sponsor it. He was not on the House Ag Committee and had an uphill battle before the bill passed and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law.
After passage, the law was slow to get off the ground, hampered by a lack of appropriations for USDA staff and the National Organic Standards Board to develop the rules.
The first draft rules were finally published in 1997, but contained what Hoodes described as a “headline grabbing” allowance of three controversial things: GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge.
Hoodes said grassroots groups pulled together and the draft rules received 325,000 comments in an era before Internet submissions. Hoodes said the comments represented the most submitted on a USDA rule up to that point.
During Merrigan’s tenure at USDA, the rules, which she described as “a phone book” thick, were refined and published in 2002.
Merrigan said while food safety was the motivation at the time of the OFPA’s passage, environmental health, sustainability and farm structure have benefited.
“I think we have seen in time that we are ready to start going beyond that initial food safety, consumers driven to organic because of concerns about pesticide residues,” she said. “Now, consumers in the marketplace are reaching for the organic label because of a whole host of attributes.”
Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition, said organic food sales have grown to $40 billion, representing 5 percent of U.S. food sales.
“We have seen really astounding growth in a short period of time,” she said.
However, research funding has not kept up. Youngblood said just one-tenth of 1 percent of the research in the USDA’s flagship program is dedicated to organic systems. She said more federal funding is needed for organic research to help farmers breed seeds better adapted to changing climate and organic systems.
Youngblood said farmers are benefiting from the OFPA by organic farming practices and price premiums. It also offers a way for beginning farmers to start a career.
“Organic is a key opportunity for those who are getting into farming,” she said. “We know that if we want to continue to produce food domestically, we need to have more farmers and we need to attract young people to the profession.”
Youngblood also said the OFPA laid the foundation for a much more democratic and transparent food system.
“It is this opportunity that citizens have to participate in the process and to engage in helping to decide what that organic label means,” she said. “It’s really so important and so exciting, because we know that we can keep building the organic label. It’s not static, and it can keep changing and adapting to reflect new production methods.”
Former president George H. W. Bush was not known as a supporter of organic agriculture, not even remotely. But back on November 28, 1990, the elder Bush did play a small, but significant role in the history of the movement when he signed the Organic Foods Protection Act (OPFA) into existence. This was the beginning of USDA Organic certification and a momentous leap forward for what has grown from a fringe movement in the 1960s—what some saw as just a “hippy garden project”—to a formidable market force in the global food industry today.
But with all its success, the national organic program has weathered its share of challenges. Modern Farmer was invited to participate in a virtual press conference yesterday, held by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in honor of the milestone, where a panel of organic movement veterans reminisced about the long, and often turbulent, journey thus far and shared their hopes for the future of the National Organic Program.
“It was a classic David and Goliath story,” recounts Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of the USDA, who was asked by Mark Lipson of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to help draft a national organic standard, which would replace the patchwork state-level organic standards that existed in the late 1980s. Organic food was becoming increasingly popular in the general public, leading some large conventional growers to take an interest—folks whose interest seemed to be motivated more by profit than by organic principles.
“There was a concern that the standards would get watered down,” says Merrigan, who ultimately prevailed in shepherding the OPFA through the halls of Congress at the behest of a nationwide coalition of organic farmers and certifying agencies. “This was tough for the organic community because they had not been treated well by the USDA historically … but there was a sense that [OPFA] was necessary. It was interesting that a community of folks, who historically were distrustful of government, actually came to government’s door for help.”
Though the law was signed in 1990, it would be 12 more years before the rules governing organic practices were sorted out and implemented. This was largely due to a massive backlash against three components that were included in the new national standard, but that few people outside of large food corporations thought had any business being there. The use of sewage sludge, irradiation, and GMOs were all permitted in the original wording of OPFA, but after receiving more than 325,000 public comments—mostly in opposition to these three practices—the USDA caved in and reworded the final rule, which was finally published in 2002.
That was only the first in an ongoing series of battles concerning exactly what should and should not be allowed under the organic standards, resulting in the labyrinthine rulebook that organic farmers must follow today. It’s on par with the tax code in terms of its heft and complexity. “Back then, the organic standards were just two sides of an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet of paper,” says Mike Laughlin, of Northridge Organic Farm in Johnston, Ohio, who was one of Ohio’s first certified organic farms under the new federal standards. “Now they’re more like a telephone book.”
“To move forward in the future with organic, it’s going to be imperative that we devote more money to funding organic research.”
The original proponents of the national organic standard—mostly small, diversified organic growers—got the recognition and legal protection they were after, but ironically, having a unified code with the weight of the federal government behind it gave large corporations exactly the opening they needed to enter the market and take advantage of the growing demand for organic produce. The industry has exploded in an exponential growth curve that would make any Wall Street capitalist sit up in their chair: Sales of organic products in the US have risen more than tenfold from $3.6 billion in 1997 to almost $40 billion in 2014. Costco recently rose above Whole Foods as the nation’s top organic retailer.
While organics have grown from less than 1 percent of total US food sales in 1997 to nearly 5 percent today, the organic industry receives a disproportionately smaller share of public funding for research and development than the conventional food industry. “To move forward in the future with organic, it’s going to be imperative that we devote more money to funding organic research,” says Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition, noting that the USDA currently allocates just 0.1 percent of the budget for its flagship research program, the Agriculture Food Research Initiative (AFRI), for organic farming research. “We have identified a long list of organic research needs,” she says. “We know that farmers are going to need seeds better adapted to our changing climate, and better adapted to systems of organic production, and we know that we’re going to need new ways to control pests and disease that aren’t reliant on chemical inputs.”
A huge chunk of the organic food flying off the shelves of Costco and other large retailers is imported from overseas.
It’s not just research dollars that don’t match the tremendous sales growth of the organic industry: The number of acres in organic production has barely budged since the USDA started keeping track of them in 2002. In 2012, when the most recent agricultural census was conducted, the number of organic farms in the US was just 0.6 percent of total US farm acreage. In other words, a huge chunk of the organic food flying off the shelves of Costco and other large retailers is imported from overseas. According to a recent global survey of organic production, North America ranks 5th, ahead of only Africa, in acres of certified organic land. In Italy, 10 percent of agricultural land is certified organic, compared to 0.6 percent here. India has more than 650,000 organic producers compared to less than 13,000 in the US.
Merrigan says the discrepancy between demand for organic goods in the US and domestic supply is certainly not for a lack of enthusiastic young people who want to start organic farms, but there is a high cost threshold for new farmers to enter the market:
“We want to grow our own home base of organic farmers, but that requires bringing on the next generation of American farmers…and they are facing huge capital costs. Many of them are not hailing from the farm, but are college graduates wanting to go to the land and be a young entrepreneur, and they all of a sudden find the price tag of what an acre costs and what a combine costs and that sort of thing. But if there is anything that should be a call to arms in this next decade moving forward, it is to find a way to put those young people on the land. To me it just cries out opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. We know that there is a market for them to sell to.”
Besides the capital costs involved in farming, which are a reality that both conventional and organic growers face, labor costs are a particular concern to organic farmers, who rely largely on human power for weed and pest control, rather than chemicals. In this regard, it’s hard to compete with places like India, where wages are a fraction of what they are in the US. It will be a steep row to hoe for organic farmers in the US to keep up with demand, but it’s a worthy challenge for the next 25 years.
More Ohio-grown organic produce should be finding its way to supermarkets as an increasing number of the state’s farmers turn to this method of growing in a nod to consumer demand.
Though the image of organic farming is one of back-to-the-land hobbyists raising heirloom vegetables for farmers markets, Ohio’s organic farms have found that what was once a niche is now an industry.
The state’s organic farmers added 12,000 acres to their more than 500 farms and doubled sales between 2008 and 2014, the only two years of full U.S. Department of Agriculture census data on organic farming nationwide.
Another sign of Ohio’s organic farming growth is that 25 percent of organic operators get all of their income from their farm, up from just 14 percent in 2008. Last year, 34 of Ohio’s organic farms had sales of $500,000 or higher, more than double the number in 2008.
“A lot of farmers are seeing that there is a tremendous amount of potential in the organic market,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “We have seen more growth in demand than supply. The market opportunity is just incredible.”
Ohio’s organic producers grow peppers, squash and tomatoes, cut flowers and herbs. They make pickles, grow microgreens indoors and raise sheep. They also grow some organic corn and soybeans for animal feed. But the big growth in Ohio’s organic production has been in dairy and eggs, two longtime Ohio specialties.
Ohio’s organic milk production, with $36.6 million in sales last year, makes up more than 40 percent of the state’s entire organic production.
Perry Clutts converted his family’s 116-year-old crop farm near Circleville into an organic dairy, and he’s never looked back.
“We transitioned in 2007, and it has been nothing but asking for more and more milk,” he said.
Clutts sells to Horizon, one of the largest organic dairies in the nation. When his family’s tenant farmer retired, Clutts wanted to invest in something with a bright future. He knew his family’s farm, with its poor soil, couldn’t compete with conventional growers. He saw potential in organic products.
“Demand wasn’t great in 2007, but it looked like an opportunity,” he said. “It looked like something that would be around for awhile. I figured people would be more interested over time than less interested in these products.
“I wish I could pick things as well at Scioto Downs.”
Organic egg production has seen hockey-stick growth. The segment had sales of about $2 million in 2008 and grew to more than $17 million last year — about 19 percent of the state’s total organic sales. Ohio is home to enormous egg operations and trails only Iowa in egg production, so it makes sense that farmers here exploit an opportunity when they see it.
“It depends on consumer trends. If the consumers are asking for more (organics), farmers like us will continue to produce more organics,” said Lisa Timmerman, egg division manager for Cooper Farms in Fort Recovery, in western Ohio. “We are seeing a strong market for organics.”
Cooper Farms produces regular white eggs, cage-free eggs and about a year ago added organic eggs. Organic now makes up 5 to 6 percent of its egg business, Timmerman said.
Finding partners and making sure its operation met organic standards has been pretty smooth so far, Timmerman said. The company contracts with local farmers in Indiana and Ohio for its organic eggs.
“The key is that no matter what kind of eggs, cage-free, conventional or organic, farmers will be willing to produce what the consumers want,” she said.
Though it is growing in leaps, organic farming is a tiny fraction of the state’s agricultural footprint.
Ohio has about 75,000 farms and more than 10 million acres in production. The value of Ohio’s bounty tops $10 billion a year.
Lipstreu sees Ohio’s strength in conventional farming as a boon to its future organic growth. A lucrative organic grain market — for high-demand organic meats — could attract more of Ohio’s large, experienced grain farmers into organic production, especially as prices for conventional corn and soybeans continue to fall.
The U.S. imported more than $1.4 billion in organic foods in 2013, according to the USDA. A lot of that food, such as bananas and coffee, can’t be grown here. Soybeans and wine, of which the U.S. has abundant conventional producers, are also leading organic imports because demand far outstrips domestic supply.
Organic grapes won’t likely be a major Ohio crop, but Lipstreu sees grains like soybeans, wheat and corn as the next big growth area for organic farmers.
“We have seen some farmers split operations, doing both organic and conventional, testing it out,” she said. “There is a huge opportunity there.”
An East Side couple is pursuing a passion for organic farming in the city and supplying crops to two local restaurants and to a Butler, Pa., community- supported agriculture organization.
Joe Pedaline and Suzanne Murphy commercially grow salad greens, herbs, popcorn and sweet corn at Early Road Gardens, 585 Early Road, where they live.
Pedaline said he has turned his life around after his three-year federal prison term for his role in a Marshall Street marijuana warehouse ended in 2007.
“It was a mistake I made doing something illegal. I paid my price,” Pedaline said.
“I just want to stay here and out of trouble,” Pedaline said of the farm his grandfather, Joe Hubert, bought in 1943.
Murphy, a tailor by profession, joined Pedaline on the farm seven years ago, after moving here from Minnesota.
“I had my own garden in Minneapolis. I did mostly flowers, and I had a little community garden plot,” Murphy said.
“When I was 3 years old, I would go down and play in the greenhouse and be in the gardens all the time, and it just got into my blood,” Pedaline said.
Pedaline said the location of his city farm is convenient. “I don’t have to drive 35 minutes to go anywhere,” he observed.
“I’m two minutes from downtown, and it’s quiet and private here,” he added.
Pedaline, Murphy and three part-time workers farm 5 acres of the 30-acre site. The remainder is mostly woods.
“I’ve always been interested in growing my own food,” said Taylor Marucci, of Struthers, a civil engineer at Marucci & Gaffney Excavating Inc. in Youngstown and one of the farm’s part-time workers.
“I really like plants and nature,” she said, adding that she would like to reduce her food expenses and eliminate trips to the grocery store.
“It’s a healthier way of eating,” Pedaline said of consuming organic food.
“It just tastes better, and it’s better for the environment,” Murphy said.
Organic farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers or chemically based pesticides or herbicides, and they don’t use genetically modified organism products, Pedaline said.
“We know where it’s from, and we know what’s in it,” Pedaline said of crops grown on his farm.
“Anybody we sell anything to, we say: ‘You come to the farm and see what we do.’ You’ll see exactly what goes on. You’ll know what we’re putting in the soil,” Pedaline said.
Early Road Gardens is certified as an organic farm by the Columbus-based Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
The farm supplies food to Ely’s vegan restaurant in Boardman and to Friends Specialty at the Garden Cafe at Mill Creek Park’s Fellows Riverside Gardens.
A greenhouse and three unheated “tunnel” buildings extend the growing season at Early Road Gardens, where crops are produced from mid-March to mid-December.
“Whenever we harvest, we try to replant the same day,” Pedaline said.
“I think it’s a great trend. People are getting more aware of it,” Murphy said of the organic-food movement.
“I think, 10 years down the road, it’ll be a whole different food movement in this area,” she added.
She and Pedaline lamented, however, that too few people are willing to pay the higher prices for organically grown crops, which Pedaline said are typically 50 percent higher than those of conventionally grown crops.
“Our fertilizer is twice as much. Everything we buy is twice as much. We weed by hand,” Pedaline said, explaining the higher overhead and labor costs associated with organic farming.
“People talk about wanting good food, but, actually putting their money and their cooking habits where their mouth is, is a different story,” Pedaline said.
Mike Laughlin (R) delivers organic butternut squash to a Short North restaurant.
Organic farmers are celebrating a milestone anniversary. It’s been 25 years since the federal government started regulating organic farming. The Organic Foods Production Act unified a patchwork of different state standards. We take a look at organic farming regulation and the areas where industry experts say there’s room to improve.
Mike Laughlin delivers several crates of large, organic butternut squash to the Short North restaurant Northstar.
Laughlin owns Northridge Organic Farms, in Johnstown. He’s been an organic farmer for about 35 years, long before the Organic Foods Production Act.
“Back then there was no law that governed labeling of the products, so you could just say it was organic,” he recalls.
Before the federal regulations, states certified farms. And the rules varied.
“Some of them were not as strict as others. So if you were growing organically in Ohio and selling it, you might be competing against somebody across a border that is producing with less stringent standards and maybe can produce that a little bit cheaper,” Laughlin says.
Laughlin says the Organic Foods Production Act leveled the playing field.
“And it protected the integrity of the word organic.”
But the law wasn’t perfect. It received a lot of public outcry and pushback from farmers for being overly broad and not stringent enough.
“That original set of rules would have allowed in organic production: genetic engineering, sewer sludge and ionizing radiation,” says Carol Goland, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association director.
OEFFA is one of the oldest organic certification agencies in the U.S.
“As a result of that backlash, those three things are explicitly prohibited in organic today,” Goland says. “Eventually, those rules were revised and they were released in 2000.”
By 2002, the federal National Organic Program was created to oversee all organic production and labeling.
On the northwest side of Columbus, Amy Shaw, shops at Raisin Rack, a natural food store. Shaw says she has eaten only organic foods for eight years. She thinks it’s healthier and better for the environment, but she wonders about the labels.
“You have to be wary. I’m big on whole foods. I mean, you don’t have to worry about the labels or the labeling if you’re eating an organic apple,” Shaw says. “If you know the farmer, and you shop locally, you can be pretty sure that you’re getting what they say you’re getting.”
Agencies like OEFFA certify organic farms for the USDA. There are about 50 of them in the U.S., and they hire contracted inspectors.
Goland admits agencies are stretched thin. OEFFA, for example, oversees nearly 900 farms and 70 processors across 10 states.
“But the reality is, that farmers and organic food processors have to go through the certification process every year,” Goland says. “As a whole, we are keeping up, but it represents an area of growth since organics is growing.”
Goland adds certifiers are calling for clarification and more regulation in areas like animal welfare, hydroponic crops and beauty products.
“You will see some cosmetics or body care products out on the market that are labeled organics. There aren’t really standards for these,” she says.
There are more than 730 certified organic operations in Ohio and nearly 20,000 in the U.S. Nationally, organic products generate $39 billion in sales.
Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian sit across from each other at the center of a long table they’ve haphazardly strung together from four-tops at Athens’ hippie Mexican eatery Casa Nueva. One by one, as their friends arrive—a recent college grad in a maxi skirt, a toddler-wheeling couple sporting dreadlocks—Jaeger and Ajamian jump up and smile with arms outstretched. Every guest is treated with an enthusiastic hello or a strong-armed embrace that lingers with familiarity.
The convivial air carries through dinner. Familial teasing is directed at the father figure of the group. Remember that one time Jaeger had to learn to drive a combine on the fly, and then it ran out of gas on a hill? Or when, having never operated a forklift before, he had to reverse it off the bed of a truck?
The goateed Jaeger laughs along as he takes it in stride, adding to the stories with hand gestures that mimic gear-shifting. Amused, Ajamian sips on a can of Jackie O’s beer as she good-naturedly disputes small details in every tale.
Among the baskets of tortilla chips and sauce-covered enchiladas that decorate the table, the real reason for this dinner takes shape. The staples of this meal—chips, black beans, tortillas—would not be possible without this ragtag group of community do-gooders who learned how to run an organic grain and seed mill on the job. Since opening in 2010, Shagbark Seed & Mill has become a source to which organic farmers can sell corn that turns into food, not feed, and from where area chefs find grains, beans and flour grown and processed in Ohio.
Brandon Jaeger at the Shagbark mill in Athens
That’s a tougher feat than it may seem. Until Shagbark began selling black turtle beans, Northstar Cafe had to look to the West Coast to buy the essential ingredient for its veggie burger. One corn farmer confesses he had never tasted his own crop in a product before Shagbark began making tortilla chips.
“Brandon and Michelle are really, in a very direct way, changing the world and Ohio for the better,” says Darren Malhame, partner at Northstar Cafe. “People like to talk about organic like it’s some sort of elitist thing. There’s nothing elitist about providing healthy food for everyone. They’re using corn for really what it should be.”
Sustaining the masses is exactly how the idea of the mill started. At the peak of the local food movement, as consumers began obsessing over heirloom tomatoes and kale grown nearby, Jaeger fixated on a single question: Why are we looking elsewhere for staple foods like corn and beans?
“We’re just not going to survive on tomatoes and lettuce and kale and heirloom squash. We’re going to need to rebuild our staples,” says Jaeger, who calls this conundrum his existential anxiety. “Someone needs to be focusing on organically producing the foods that have been a staple in our diets for so long.”
That someone, it turned out, is Shagbark.
An Origin Story
Shagbark Seed & Mill was never intended to be a business. It was an experiment that started with a two-year grant application to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a U.S. Department of Agriculture organization that promotes agricultural innovation.
At the time, Jaeger was on a monastic training retreat at the San Francisco Zen Center. Ajamian, a community activist with a design background, came out to stay with Jaeger—planning the getaway to work on a grant proposal to support a perennial-annual education lab. But after Jaeger first uttered the phrase “existential anxiety,” Ajamian suggested a second proposal.
The question that won them the $5,800 grant in 2008: Could they create a model staple food system that would make high-nutrient grains and beans local again? It started as test plots on four farms to identify which ancient grains—quinoa, amaranth, millet—and beans would grow well in Appalachia. But as they conducted studies and consulted with members of the collaborative they’d created, Jaeger and Ajamian found one glaring piece missing from the staple food network: a processing facility. Even if a farmer wanted to grow black turtle beans, Jaeger says, he’d have no outlet through which to process them.
“We were ready for a blissful life with our hands in the soil and walking through test plots with clipboards noting pollinator activity and stem girth,” Jaeger says. “But we realized there are plenty of farmers around us with the soil and equipment and know-how to grow the right crops. But they need a reason for it.”
If you wanted to open a coffee shop, you could walk around a single city block, find a handful of java-slinging storefronts and get a feel for how the business is run. But, five years ago, if you wanted to start a regional organic grain mill, you’d come up short with examples to follow.
That was a big challenge in the beginning as they launched their prototype regional mill, Ajamian says. They consulted with any experts they could find, cobbling together the necessary equipment. An organic farmer in Oregon recommended the kind of French mill they needed. They found a seed cleaner for sale in Westerville. The wooden Austrian sift box they use now to grind polenta, grits, spelt flour and buckwheat flour is still technically on loan from a farmer.
And of course, they needed to persuade area farmers this would work—and it would be worth working with the little guy who needed a few hundred pounds, not tons, of corn.
Thankfully, the right farmer followed Ajamian out into the hallway. She had just delivered her stump speech to a group of grain farmers at an Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) meeting.
“I’d like to come down and see what you’re doing,” said the anything-but-shy Chris Clinehens. More than a decade earlier, the third-generation Bellefontaine-area farmer had his conventional 210-acre farm certified organic. Shagbark intrigued him.
That first trip, he brought 150 pounds of corn. Now, he supplies the more than 100,000 pounds of corn needed annually to make Shagbark’s signature tortilla chips and corn crackers. Talk to him about his commitment to Shagbark, and he speaks as if he’s a partner in the business, wishing his farm wasn’t 250 miles away so he could help more day to day.
“They’ve got a lot of guts,” Clinehens says, admitting he’s given them a lot of leeway on when they pay for product. But it’s worth it, he says, because he believes in their mission. “I can see where they’re headed. It’s pretty outstanding that they’ve accomplished what they have.”
For a company that runs on part-time employees and volunteers, Shagbark’s growth has been explosive—from selling corn meal and spelt berries at the Athens Farmers Market to tortillas and chips at Columbus-area Whole Foods. Clinehens is one of eight farmers—a mix of certified organic and Amish—who supply the mill with high-nutrient organic goods to produce roughly a dozen products, including buckwheat flour, spelt, popcorn, stone-ground grits and polenta and pinto and black beans.
Shagbark went from selling $10,000 worth of product its first year to $125,000 the next. By 2013, they reached $321,000 in sales. It’s leveled out a bit, Jaeger says, but is still on an upward swing. This year, they’ll go through about 150 tons of Ohio bean and grain crop—with corn for chips, crackers and tortillas making up 60 percent and black beans another 30 percent.
Much of this growth is owed to Shagbark’s ability to diversify products and adapt a wholesale business that distributes product around the state.
Jaeger and Ajamian created their three-ingredient tortilla chips (corn, sunflower oil and sea salt) in 2011 to help one of their favorite restaurants, Casa Nueva, which didn’t have the manpower to make chips in house. Now lovingly referred to as their “gateway product,” the chips have become their most recognized creation.
The chips first attracted Katalina’s owner Kathleen Day to Shagbark in 2012. After sampling their chips at a Dine Originals event, Day persuaded them to sell her individual-sized bags she could serve alongside sandwiches at her Harrison West cafe.
“Once you eat their chips, you are a convert for life,” says Day, who also uses Shagbark black beans. “You can taste the difference in the corn. It’s what Michael Pollan would call heritage corn. It’s much more filling and good for you, and it’s not overly processed. It’s what real corn chips should taste like.”
Shagbark’s latest product is just as everyman-friendly—corn tortillas, which they started producing at the Koki’s Tortillas plant in October 2014. Shagbark tortillas stand out not just because organic corn is used, but also because the corn is soaked in an alkaline solution before it’s hulled—an ancient process known as nixtamalization that’s been proven in some scientific studies to increase nutritional value, flavor and aroma in corn. (The corn for their chips is also nixtamalized.)
It’s also a nod to the way corn has been treated in Mexican culture for centuries, Ajamian says. The two had a chance to experience this process first hand. Earlier this year, she and Jaeger traveled to Mexico with the owner of Koki’s to visit her family. There water was electric blue, rich with limestone. This is the water in which corn is soaked before it’s ground into maize for tortillas.
When the food culture relocates, Ajamian says, swiping through pictures of her trip on her phone, a lot of people bring the food, but not the cuisine. “We’re doing our tortillas the traditional way—calcium added into the water and pressed into the tortillas,” Ajamian says.
“It was a really nice reinforcement of the concept—how important food is to culture,” Jaeger adds. “Maize is the perfect example of culture of food. Nixtalimization in tortillas and chips—it’s a process that’s community-oriented.”
The tortillas, which will be on retail shelves later this summer, are becoming popular with chefs at area restaurants including Skillet, Casa Nueva, Acre and The Worthington Inn.
The product is twice as expensive as conventional tortillas, admits chef Tom Smith of The Worthington Inn, but it’s worth it. “You can taste they’re doing the right thing,” Smith says. “It’s good corn they’re using. It’s processed well and fresh. Like in the tortillas, you don’t get that fresh corn flavor unless it’s just been milled.”
When he started using Shagbark tortillas on his pork tacos earlier this year, Smith says the whole dish came together. “It’s very rare you bite into your own food and go, ‘Wow.’ ”
It’s no surprise why Jaeger is so trim as he effortlessly limbers up and down a flight of wooden stairs. He disappears into the scaffolding, and then re-emerges with a gray tub of heirloom corn. Tipping it over, the red and yellow kernels buzz loudly like a hive of bees down into the funnel at the top of a blond wooden mill.
He bounds down to the concrete floor, flips a switch and put his nose to the now-grinding mill stone. Soon, granules of corn that have been pumiced into grits and corn meal begin to fill up large bags. This is the most processing any of Shagbark’s products receive. There’s no stripping of nutrients for shelf stability, or re-enriching. To ensure freshness, they mill and bag products to order.
It’s Tuesday, and a big production day inside the Athens mill. The warehouse space they rent might be small, but it’s efficient, Jaeger says. With gravity on their side, they could unload a ton of grain in 30 seconds if they’re not careful.
Today, a few part-time employees will help sort and bag 2,000 pounds of black beans as Jaeger grinds corn. On the floor at his feet are a few scattered red hulls, remnants of the buckwheat flour freshly milled for Taste of Belgium the day before.
Two years ago, when Whole Foods stopped carrying the brand of flour the Cincinnati-based restaurant needed to make their signature buckwheat crepes, owner Jean-François Flechet turned to Shagbark.
“I didn’t realize you could mill things so many different ways,” says Flechet, who expects to source up to 20,000 pounds of buckwheat flour this year. “Brandon sent us maybe 15 samples of buckwheat flour with different coarseness. It’s like a custom mill.”
Flechet speaks highly of the quality. He brought in the best flour he could find in France, and then made two crepes—one with the French flour, the other with Shagbark’s. The result was a draw. “For our application, it’s perfect,” he says.
Chefs throughout Central Ohio share similar experiences of Shagbark’s willingness to produce the product they need—and they say working with the company is as much about believing in the people behind the concept.
“They’re just characters. They are amazing, unique people, and they have these wonderful, optimistic, energetic personalities,” says Malhame, of Northstar, which has been buying Shagbark black beans for all its restaurants for three years and committed to buying 14,000 pounds this year. “They are just really great people who want to change the world for the better.”
SALEM, Ohio — Circleville, Ohio-based dairy farmer Perry Clutts has been farming 100 percent certified organic since 2005.
Since transitioning from a conventional dairy operation, Clutts has not had to pay into the national dairy checkoff order, thanks to a 2002 farm bill provision exempting 100 percent organic operations from conventional checkoffs.
A proposed rule change announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dec. 15 would expand that exemption to include 95 percent organic farmers, handlers, marketers and importers — otherwise known as “primary organic” operations.
The USDA recently fast-tracked its efforts to expand the exemption, part of the 2014 farm bill. A 30-day public comment period on the proposed rule change ended Jan. 15.
There are 22 national research and promotion checkoff programs. Under these programs, producers of a particular agricultural product pay assessments to fund marketing campaigns and research initiatives that benefit their commodity.
The USDA estimates the organic exemption has freed up $13.6 million for the organic sector, which produces an estimated $35 billion in annual sales, according to the USDA.
Not far enough
Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of Organic Trade Organization, applauded the USDA’s efforts to implement the rule change so quickly.
“The 100 percent exemption solved some of the problems, but was drafted in such a way that it was restrictive,” Batcha said. “Communications from some of the commodity orders were bordering on disparaging to organic. They were not promoting organic a lot.”
The USDA’s proposed rule change, Batcha explained, would apply to split operations, those that farm both organically and conventionally. It would also address instances when non-organic agents are used in processing, such as sanitizing agents on a production line or milk processing line.
Carol Goland, executive director for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, said the USDA’s proposed rule change corrects the 2002 rule’s inequity in defining different types of organic operations.
“In a sense, what this farm bill does is better define the multiple foods and crops of organic as a single commodity,” Goland said, adding that OEFFA fully supports the proposed rule change.
A number of conventional commodity organizations, including the United Soybean Board and the Almond Board of California, have requested the USDA extend its 30-day public comment period due to the complexity of the issue.
Organic checkoff option
The 2014 farm bill grants the USDA authority to not only expand the organic exemption in the 2002 farm bill, but to also explore options for an organic-specific checkoff order.
Maggie McNeil, director of media relations for the Organic Trade Association, said the organization has been working on the framework for such a checkoff for three years.
McNeil said they hope to have the application out within the next two months. If accepted by the USDA, it then has to go through a comment period, and a referendum — an actual vote of all organic stakeholders in the industry.
“A lot of people know the word organic, but don’t know really what it means,” said Clutts, who also sits on the board of the Organic Trade Organization. “It is based on a very specific criteria like no other food process anywhere. I think the collective pool could do something bigger (to promote organic agriculture).” Gaining majority support for an organic checkoff order, however, could be challenging.
Goland said OEFFA recognizes the need for organic research and promotion and feels the organic sector should “be able to spend its money as it sees fit.”
“But I would not necessarily go so far as an organic checkoff,” she said.
Several comments on the USDA’s rule change proposal also cautioned against an organic checkoff.
“Please stop the start of a checkoff plan for organic products,” wrote Roger Pepperl, of Wenatchee, Washington-based organic fruit farm, Stemilt Growers. “Our organic world is too large and diverse to have an organization work on our behalf. We grow organic tree fruit and have nothing in common with organic cotton, organic beef, etc.”
Organic farmer Ted Weydert, of DeKalb, Illinois, added, “Contrary to popular belief, the Organic Trade Association only speaks for a very small number of actual organic farmers. This checkoff is not needed.”
PHOTO: Certified organic farmer Mick Luber of Bluebird Farm in Cadiz, Ohio, says he’s concerned about what possible contamination from nearby fracking operations could mean for the future of his business. Photo credit: Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Certified organic farming is a growing business in Ohio, but some farmers warn that the threat of contamination from hydraulic fracturing could dampen its future. Some of the chemicals used in fracking have been identified as naturally-occurring toxic substances, metals, and radioactive materials.
In eastern Ohio, Mick Luber is a certified organic grower and owner of Bluebird Farm in Cadiz. He says several well pads and a compressor station are located near his land. He is worried about contamination of soil, water, and air, and what it could mean for his organic certification.
“I’m in a quandary about the production on my farm being of good quality,” says Luber. “Do I lose my business? I’ve put 30 years into this soil to make this soil grow. You don’t just go someplace and oh, well it’s bad here, I’ll just go over the hill.”
If prohibited substances, including some fracking chemicals, are detected on a certified organic farm, the producer may have to wait at least three years before becoming eligible for recertification. Ohio is home to more than 700 certified organic operations and nearly 57,000 acres of certified organic land.
Luber says an air-quality monitor showed high levels of particulate matter on his farm. He says one time, he discovered water running white from springs coming out of a well pad near his land.
“The Ohio EPA had a 165-day investigation, supposedly, and said there was no problem,” says Luber. “But from my estimation, somehow they fractured the rock structure so that anything spilled on that well pad site will get into that water and flow down through the stream.”
Besides drilling sites, there are pipelines used to transport gas, and injection wells that store fracking waste throughout the state. In the event of an accident or spill, Luber says it’s impossible to know the full extent of the danger.
“What they’re doing is a bad idea,” he says. “Any cement you put in is going to crack sometime. So, all these wells are eventually going to leak. And if they have all these chemicals in these wells, they’re going come up and they’re going to affect the groundwater, and they’re going to affect people’s health.”
Supporters of hydraulic fracturing say it is an economic boon for the state, but opponents argue the risks outweigh the benefits.