By Bob Downing
From a Friday press release:
By Bob Downing
From a Friday press release:
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.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Monday awarded more than $113 million in program grants to support farmers growing fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery crops, also known as “specialty crops,” through research, agricultural extension activities, and programs to increase demand and address the needs of America’s specialty crop industry.
Monday’s announcement is part of a USDA-wide effort supporting President Obama’s commitment to strengthening local and regional food systems. These grants are administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
“Increasing market opportunities for local food producers is a sound investment in America’s rural economies, while also increasing access to healthy food for our nation’s families,” Vilsack said. “These investments will support local and regional markets, and improve access to healthy food for millions of children and supply thousands of farmers markets, restaurants and other businesses with fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables. The grants also help growers solve technology needs or make better informed decisions on profitability and sustainability, leading to stronger rural American communities and businesses.”
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is awarding $63 million to 755 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program projects nation-wide. The grants are issued to State departments of agriculture for projects that help support specialty crop growers, including locally grown fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops, including floriculture through research and programs to increase demand. Since 2009, AMS has awarded 385 grants totaling $392.9 million for 5,484 projects, including those announced Monday.
For example, an Ohio program was awarded a grant that will increase specialty crop competitiveness by helping Ohio growers with organic production and food safety grant. The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association will provide Ohio beginning and existing organic farmers direct technical support and educational programming to help improve organic production and marketing skills. The project will also help transition other growers to certified organic production, and will help farmers of all sizes and levels of experience to establish and implement on-farm food safety plans.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is announcing $50 million in grants funded through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which is made available through the 2014 Farm Bill. This program develops and disseminates science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops across the entire spectrum of specialty crops production, from researching plant genetics to developing new production innovations and developing methods to respond to food safety hazards.
In fiscal year 2015, NIFA made 15 new awards totaling more than $40 million. Fiscal year 2015 grants includes USDA Agricultural Research Service, Peoria, Ill., which will receive $3,672,482.
Additionally in fiscal year 2015, NIFA made also made five continuation awards totaling $9.7 million for grants initially funded in prior fiscal years. Continuation awards are based on available appropriations and project success.
Examples of funded projects include a project at the University of California working to sustain the supply of high quality lettuce in the face of changing technology and climate. The University of Florida will research management strategies for Laurel wilt, a lethal disease in avocadoes. And Michigan State University aims to use applied genomics to increase disease resistance in cucurbit crops. Since 2009, NIFA has funded almost $285 million for 138 research projects including those announced today. Abstracts of projects previously funded are available on NIFA’s website.
AMS works to improve global opportunities for U.S. growers and producers. AMS grant funding supports a variety of programs, including organic certification cost-share programs, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program. This funding is one of the ways that USDA invests in the future of rural America and the nation’s agricultural sector. NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.
By JD Malone
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.”
By Peter H. Milliken
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.
By Mary Kuhlman
Organic farmer Mardy Townsend of Ashtabula County is worried about the effects of fracking waste on the environment, as well as her crops. Courtesy: Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
WINDSOR, Ohio – From spills to earthquakes, environmental and agriculture groups say hydraulic fracturing poses serious threats to land, water and public health.
Ohio is one of several states taking part in a National Day of Action today, calling for an end to fracking waste and fracking-related earthquakes.
Mardy Townsend owns Marshy Meadows Farm in Ashtabula County, where there are 15 active fracking waste injection wells. A board member of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, she says a similar well was behind a series of earthquakes in the area in 1986.
“That is a real concern for us, because the Perry Nuclear Power Plant is less than 20 miles away from my home and my farm,” she says. “It is one of the few areas in Ohio that has been known to already have seismic activity.”
There are over 180 injection wells in Ohio receiving fracking waste from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and state officials linked a string of quakes near Youngstown in 2011 to a wastewater injection well. Industry groups, such as Energy from Shale, argue that hydraulic fracturing is safe, and a boon to the economy – if regulated properly.
To coincide with the national event, Ashtabula County Water Watch is launching a campaign to increase awareness among residents about the dangers of fracking waste. Townsend says what is known as “brine” is toxic, radioactive and largely unregulated.
“The concerns have to do with the possible environmental contamination,” she says. “The other concerns that the people in this county have about brine is that it is being spread as dust control on the dirt roads.”
Townsend adds that very few people benefit from the claimed benefits of fracking, while the rest are left exposed to environmental problems, including possible water and soil contamination.
“I do know of an organic farmer who is surrounded by both frack pads and compressor stations, and I don’t know how long he’s going to be able to hold on,” she says. “Stewardship of the earth is one of the reasons we’re organic farmers, and fracking does not lead to good stewardship of the earth.”
Rallies are being held in over a dozen Ohio counties, as well as in Cincinnati and Columbus.
By Rita Brhel, P&D Correspondent
Farmers and ranchers, as a whole, tend to like quiet lives. They’re not much into politics and would rather leave the lobbying to farm organizations like the South Dakota Farm Bureau or Nebraska Cattlemen.
But increasingly, agricultural producers are being called into advocacy to protect their way of living and doing business. Those who refuse threaten to have their rights taken away by lawmakers who aren’t educated on how their decisions can affect citizens who are involved in agriculture.
“When most people think of influencing regulation, they really think of lobbying,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Columbus, Ohio, during a farmer advocacy training webinar held in September.
But she said advocacy is just as vital to shaping agricultural policies.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Lipstreu said.
Advocacy is the active promotion of a cause or principle, she explained. Unlike lobbying, advocacy does not have to involve confrontation or conflict, though it does include actions that lead to a specific goal.
There are a variety of advocacy strategies, from talking one-on-one with politicians, testifying in state legislature and litigation to educating community groups, hosting speakers or independent film showings, and writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Advocacy also includes attending rallies, blogging or even just being on the regulations team of a local Natural Resource District or another agency. Just about any activity that is done to promote a certain cause is included in advocacy, Lipstreu said.
With today’s media-saturated age, law- and policy-makers — not to mention any reader, listener or viewer of messages online or through traditional media outlets – are bombarded with communications advocating for one thing or another.
“While advocacy is getting louder, it’s not necessarily getting more effective,” Lipstreu said, who recommended that farmers interested in advocacy have the most sway with lawmakers simply by making phone calls or sending personal emails to lawmakers.
“Personal stories are the single, most effective tactic,” she added. “Personal stories, plus why the issue matters to you.”
Politicians respond best to people they have a relationship with, Lipstreu said, so she also suggests advocates take the time to not only thoroughly research the issue they want to promote, whether that be boycotting the construction of a pipeline or protecting crop subsidies, but also to research what issues are important to their state lawmakers.
“Don’t call about broad issues. Call about specific legislation,” she said, adding that as few as 10 calls on a certain angle of an issue can change a lawmaker’s stance.
It’s not unusual for farmers to be intimidated by making a phone call, but hearing a voice gives more meaning to a story than reading it in an email, Lipstreu said.
To give an overview of a typical phone call to a lawmaker’s office, Lipstreu introduced Jazz Glastra, a college intern who worked with Lipstreu over the summer. Glastra said that one of the lawmaker’s aides typically answer the phone. The person calling in needs to remember to give the aide his or her name, residence, any relevant association affiliations and the reason for the call, citing a specific piece of legislation, before giving a personal story and a statement as to why that lawmaker should care about your story.
“This doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience,” Glastra said, though she did admit that the first couple of phone calls do feel awkward.
The aide who takes the phone call is generally able to help the caller through the process. The aide will take notes as the caller talks, before thanking the caller and hanging up the phone.
Other tips from Glastra included writing down talking points and being prepared to give an introduction in a voicemail, with the caller’s name and phone number, so that his or her story can be told when the aide calls back.
“The more you make those calls, the more you interact, the easier,” Lipstreu said.
No matter what, farmer advocacy is becoming an ever-increasing need in agriculture to ensure that farmers – who are in the minority of the total U.S. population – are able to keep their rights as to how to do their business.
“We have so many pressing issues around agriculture and food policy right now,” Lipstreu said.
When trying to influence a legislator or a federal or state agency, one heart-felt personal letter is likely to be more effective than the signature of 1,000 persons on a form letter.
That advice was given by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) policy program coordinator Amalie Lipstreu during a webinar titled “Advocacy: What, Why, and How.” She commented that although “advocacy is getting louder, it is also less effective.”
“You don’t have to go to Washington, DC or your state capitol to be effective,” Lipstreu said. She noted that merely signing an online petition is easy to do but this is seldom likely to make a difference.
Take advantage of organized lobby days, develop relationships with legislators, research a topic properly and demonstrate one’s scale or interest in an existing problem, Lipstreu suggested. Organize or attend rallies because they tend to attract media attention.
An often overlooked avenue of advocacy is providing input when federal agencies have a formal comment period on the development of regulations. She said legislation could be needed to deal with violators or actions which are causing harm.
When writing that letter or making a phone call to a legislator, be sure to research any existing stance of the legislator on the topic, try to make some connection with what the legislator views as a priority, and be very specific on the policy or pending legislation, Lipstreu said. In some cases, as few as 10 calls can make a difference on legislation.
In addition, take advantage of any opportunity to meet the legislator in one’s home district, Lipstreu stressed. When making the contact, point out that “you are a constituent” of the legislator, “identify any organization memberships that you have” and “tell your story” on why the legislator should act in a certain way, she stated.
Writing letters to the editor can also be effective, Lipstreu said. She noted that the OEFFA’s website has a page with guidelines on how to write such a letter.
As farmers, gardeners, and educators — the groups who make up most of the membership of the OEFFA — it is important both from a historical perspective and on pending current relevant issues to engage in advocacy for one’s beliefs, Lipstreu emphasized.
Lipstreu cited the effectiveness of advocacy in creating the national organic production certification program 35 years ago. She said advocacy also includes trying to get large institutions to make corrections in existing practices or policies and that advocacy does not necessarily result in conflict or confrontation.
Advocacy also applies to arranging community meetings or forums that lead to setting goals and setting strategies on ways to approach problems. She also suggested that advocacy should not take the form of a partisan political stance.
In Ohio and other states, some of the current topics suited for advocacy are frac sand mining, the labeling of foods for genetically modified organisms, crop insurance, and local food policy councils, Lipstreu said. She noted that Ohio already has more such councils than any other state — due in part to advocacy by OEFFA members.
“More general topics that are appropriate for advocacy include the economy, the environment, biotechnology, and the effect of legislation on local communities”, Lipstreu said. She can be contacted at Amalie@oeffa.org.
By Analena Bruce
It’s a cloudless Saturday morning at the farmers market, perfect for strolling past stands overflowing with tomatoes, summer squash and melons. Filling your bag with fresh grown goodness, you feel the satisfaction of feeding your family the best and knowing that your choice is helping a small farmer steward the land in the best way possible while making a living, right? Not exactly…
Here’s a day at the market from the perspective of Sue, a small-scale alternative farmer:
And then you go there, you’ve spent five or six hours preparing, getting your linens together, baskets and harvesting and packing and getting the coolers, the trailer and all that crap.
You get there. You stand around for five or six hours. You listen to people come up “Oh, yeah I have tomatoes. I have blah blah blah.” And they comparison shop. So these guys that are buying at the auction are undercutting you. Then you come home, and you have to unpack all this stuff. And it’s not worth it.
The problem is that many small-scale alternative farmers have trouble making a living from farming. Research suggests that many only manage to ‘get by’ if they have some off-farm wealth or outside income that enables them to operate the farm without earning sufficient income from it. If sustainable agriculture is only feasible for those who can afford a paltry income, the likelihood that it will transform the larger agricultural system seems low.
Small-scale, alternative farmers practice a more environmentally sustainable, or more organic agriculture, meaning they avoid synthetic pesticides and genetically engineered crops, while building the organic matter in their soils, which provides greater resilience in drought and flood conditions. They grow a greater variety of fruits, vegetables and small livestock, selling their products in alternative food networks such as farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm-to-table restaurants.
As Americans, we place an almost religious value on small, family farms, and for good reason. Going back to Thomas Jefferson’s American agrarianism is the notion that family farms possess virtue and independence that is essential to our republic. Small-scale alternative farms of today capture the imagination of what farming should look like because they grow foods that people actually eat, rather than large-scale farms that typically produce one or two commodity crops for animal feed, biofuel or processed food fillers.
Traditional small-scale farms around the world produce a greater variety of crops more efficiently on less land with far less fossil fuel and chemical pesticides, by relying on intensive cultivation and careful management of complex, ecologically adaptive systems. Small-scale farmers provide important ecological services to society, growing a greater diversity of crops and planting locally adapted varieties, thus preserving genetic traits that may become essential in a changing climate.
Despite the apparent benefits, it’s disheartening that small and mid-sized farms are still going out of business in the U.S., while the number of large farms is steadily increasing. Large and very large farms now account for 30 and 47 percent of American agricultural production respectively, despite representing just 9 percent of the total farms in the U.S.
In general, farmers have been caught in a cost-price squeeze driven by their loss of control over production and marketing processes. Proximity to urban markets is important for alternative farmers’ ability to market their products directly to consumers, but the price of farmland, particularly on the urban fringe, has increased significantly. National farmland values doubled from $1,090 per acre to $2,140 per acre between 2000 and 2010.
Given the prohibitive cost of farmland and the increase of rented land (up to 38 percent of farmland in the U.S. is rented), many new farmers search for long-term lease agreements. However, these arrangements are very difficult to establish, given the high rental prices, reluctance of absentee landowners to take risks with new farming practices and the difficulty that beginning and alternative farmers have in accessing credit.
To better understand how small-scale alternative farmers make a living, I did extensive fieldwork including participant observation on 25 farm tours, numerous food and farm events and working as a caretaker on a small organic farm in Southern Ohio. I did 45 interviews with farmers in Southern Ohio and founding members of the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association and professionals who work with farmers. The farmers also completed a survey about their land access, the percentage of their household income that comes from their farm, non-farm revenue and off-farm jobs and socioeconomic information. I spoke with farmers from a range of backgrounds and farming experience, from organic grains and dairy and small livestock to vegetables and cut flowers. With this data I identified three pathways into alternative agriculture:
My research revealed that one of the main reasons small-scale alternative farmers struggle is that growing food more sustainably is much more labor intensive. Small-scale alternative farmers are forgoing the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, monoculture-based system, and economies of scale that industrial farming practices rely on. They are substituting their labor power for fossil fuels by investing significantly more time in the health of their soils. Making long-term investments in their soils with extended crop rotations, cover crops and amending with compost or manure requires a lot of work. In addition, many of them market their products directly to consumers, which is logistically challenging and time-consuming.
Thus, while they achieve more profit per unit of production, these farms are logistically complex, highly labor-intensive operations. Organic price premiums are not high enough to compensate for these differences, so sustainable agriculture is an economically precarious enterprise. Beth described it this way:
Well, it’s way more hard work than you could ever imagine. Bob and I were just talking about that the other night and I was even crying about it. I was reading an article in Farming Magazine and this couple had just moved back to the land. It was a young couple and they had young children, and they were all idealistic. They had bought a cow that they were going to milk and had chickens. I was happy for them but it made me cry because I thought, they have no idea of what’s coming.
Half of the farmers I interviewed work more than 65 hours a week, and the rest work more than 40 hours a week on their farms or maintain full time or part time jobs off the farm. Diversifying their income by patching together different revenue streams enables them to offset the precariousness that defines small-scale farming. Keeping up with farm work in the evenings and weekends, often working into the dark, is common. For example, Sue works in commercial real estate and still manages her farm on the side:
Yeah, I do it… I’m working two full time jobs… I get up at 4:30 or 5 every morning and work the real estate part of it until usually my girls come, in the summertime they come around 8 o’clock, and we work til about 2. Then I go back to doing real estate until the evening. Then I go back out and work until dark. As my son says, ‘Mom, you have no life.’
Because managing their farms is so time-consuming, many small-scale alternative farmers find themselves caught in what Jeffrey Jacob called the time-money dilemma. This dilemma is that alternative farming requires a lot of work, but because much of the work is unpaid, it leaves farmers without sufficient income to support their efforts. Farmers with a time-money dilemma either lack adequate time or hired labor to develop sustainable systems because they are working off-farm to support their operations, or they lack the capital to invest in them. Richard describes it as:
Labor. Even though it seems like we’ve got it all together, we grow and then we hit this wall where we’re not making enough money yet to hire another person, but we know we need another person.
A consequence of the time-money dilemma is that it’s much easier for wealthy people or those with substantial off-farm income to practice this type of farming.
Small-scale alternative farmers also struggle to compete with highly capitalized industrial organic producers who use economies of scale to drive down the premium in organic prices through what Julie Guthman calls “organic lite practices.” Organic lite hamstrings small-scale farmers who practice a more comprehensive form of organic farming. Adam describes the challenge of selling to a restaurant that wants to work with local farmers:
That’s the challenge is it’s not sustainable. They’re not consistent. Their bottom line is so low that the prices they’re used to paying aren’t based on a sustainable system, so when they have to pay the prices of me or somebody, even though we’re not high, they can’t because of their bottom line.
The challenges facing small-scale alternative farmers are not an inevitable result of their size. U.S. farm policy dictates the structure of agriculture in a myriad of ways, and for the past several decades has given a competitive advantage to large commodity producers over small-scale diverse farms. The USDA’s Economic Research Service found that commodity payment programs are directly correlated with the concentration of farmland in the U.S. Median payments for farms operating on 1,000 to 10,000 acres were almost three times the median payment for farms operating on 500 to1,000 acres, and about 200 times the median payment for farms with 150 to 500 acres of farmland.
These commodity payments were directly correlated with the solvency of farm businesses that received them. Thus a significant portion of Farm Bill spending, which represents billions of dollars of tax payer money, goes to the production of a few commodity crops that will become animal feed, biofuel or the raw ingredients for processed foods and soft drinks, rather than high quality food grains, fruits and vegetables.
Agricultural policy and technological innovations in the U.S. have emphasized the perceived value of saving labor over the values of environmental sustainability, human health and farmers’ viability. The Green Revolution led to significant achievements in labor saving technology, resulting in extensive mechanization, genetic engineering to accommodate reliance on synthetic pesticides and herbicides and a monoculture-based system that produces a limited number of commodities.
Together with U.S. farm policy, these innovations accelerated the consolidation of the farm sector into larger and larger farms, resulting in the loss of small and mid-sized farms, serious environmental problems and unemployment and economic recession in farming communities. Alternative farmers practice ecological stewardship that has become critical in the face of climate change. Their higher labor requirements could be recognized and better supported as a social good with the potential to increase employment and enhance the vitality of farm communities.
Small-scale alternative farmers continue to persist despite all odds, partly because they are deeply passionate about what they do, work extraordinarily hard and make personal sacrifices that not many of us are willing to make. The farmer-owned and operated Organic Valley Cooperative has been very successful in keeping a fair and stable price for their members. In contrast to the other farmers I interviewed, the organic dairy farmers and organic grain farmers who sell their grain to them are able to make a living as farmers, earning greater than 80 percent of household income through farming. In fact, Organic Valley not only keeps a stable price for its members, but also sets a higher standard of fairness in pricing and contracts in the organic dairy market that other companies are forced to compete with.
Keep buying from alternative food networks but don’t stop there. Pay attention when the next Farm Bill, the big piece of legislation that shapes U.S. food and farm policy, is up for debate. The market for organically grown foods has grown by double-digits in most years since the 1990s, but there is a significant national shortage of farmers able to meet this demand. There is no reason we shouldn’t have a policy structure that reflects this demand and provides fair competition and equal opportunity for all farmers.
By Mandie Trimble
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.