Category Archives: Sustainable Agriculture in the News

A Call To Boost Local Foods in 2018 Farm Bill

By Mary Kuhlman, Ohio Public News Service


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Federal lawmakers are ramping up their work on the 2018 Farm Bill, and some Ohio farm groups and producers say measures to boost local foods should be included.

Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown says the Local FARMS Act he introduced in the Senate can help family farmers and local growers reach new markets and improve access to fresh foods for Ohioans.

That was the exact mission of Betsy Anderson and others in Wooster when they created Local Roots Market and Café eight years ago.

“The connection to the food is just so different when you grow it yourself,” she says. “And our market gives people an opportunity to meet with the farmers and really see exactly where their food’s coming from. People just seem really happy.”

The Local FARMS Act includes investments in programs such as the Local Food Promotion Program, which Local Roots have utilized to enhance the cooperative over the years. The House Committee on Agriculture is holding a hearing on the 2018 Farm Bill today.

Anderson says Local Roots and the area economy have both benefited thanks to funding from the program. She explains the market was able to expand its advertising, and bring in more local shoppers and sellers.

“The producers are from our communities,” she notes. “We had about 200 already selling products, and then we got up to about 284. And sales continue to increase. We saw a bit over half a million dollars a year in local product.”

According to USDA data, more than 167,000 U.S. farms produced and sold food through farmers markets and other similar channels in 2015, generating nearly $9 billion in earnings for local producers. The 2018 Farm Bill could move to the full House by mid-March and be in the Senate in May.

Consumer Advocate and Investigative Journalist Stacy Malkan to Address Sustainable Food and Farm Conference

For Immediate Release: December 14, 2017

Renee Hunt, Program Director, (614) 421-2022 Ext. 205,
Lauren Ketcham, Communications Coordinator, (614) 421-2022 Ext. 203,
As evidence mounts about the health and environmental harms associated with pesticides, some corporations are responding with tobacco-style propaganda campaigns designed to undermine organic and non-genetically modified agriculture.

Who’s behind these attacks and how they are doing it will be the focus of a keynote address by author, journalist, and leading consumer advocate Stacy Malkan at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) 39th annual conference, A Taste for Change, this February in Dayton.

In her Saturday, February 17 talk, “Fake News, Fake Food: Standing Up for Organic and Our Right to Know in the Era of Big Ag,” Malkan will cut through the spin, unmask the messengers, and share strategies for rewriting the narrative about our food system.

“With Monsanto’s spin operation in full swing, it’s getting harder to find unbiased information in the media… With top reporters basing stories on Monsanto’s ‘consensus of safety’ talking points… it can be hard to know what to believe or who to trust to get the facts about genetically engineered foods that most of us are eating every day,” Malkan wrote in Civil Eats in 2014.

Malkan is co-founder and co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit public interest group whose mission is to educate and inform consumers about the often hidden practices that shape the food system and advocate for safer products and our right to know what’s in our food.

She served as media director for the 2012 ballot initiative in California to label genetically engineered foods, and is the former communications director for Health Care Without Harm. Malkan previously worked as a journalist and published an investigative newspaper.

“A core industry narrative is that the science on GMO safety is settled. Pro-industry messengers focus on possible future uses of the technology while downplaying, ignoring, or denying the risks; make inaccurate claims about the level of scientific agreement on GMOs; and attack critics who raise concerns as “anti-science,” Malkan wrote in The Ecologist in 2016. “Facts on the ground expose the PR spin, half-truths, and outright propaganda that has come to dominate a public conversation that is not so much about engineering genes, but engineering truth for the benefit of multinational corporations.”

Malkan is also author of the award-winning book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

She has generated thousands of media stories about safer products and has appeared on Good Morning America, CBS Morning Show, NBC, ABC, Democracy Now, in the New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and many other outlets, and writes for the Huffington Post.

On Saturday, February 17, Malkan will also lead a 90 minute workshop, “A Future Worth Fighting For: How You Can Stand Up to Big Ag and Make a Big Difference,” where she’ll explore the powerful role that farmers and consumers can play in standing up for truth and transparency in our food system.

“We’re excited to have Stacy join us at conference to connect the dots between the messages we hear about our food system, who’s funding them, why it matters, and what we as consumers and sustainable farmers can do about it,” said OEFFA Program Director Renee Hunt.

Malkan will speak as part of Ohio’s largest sustainable food and farm conference, which will run Thursday, February 15 through Saturday, February 17 at the Dayton Convention Center.

In addition to Malkan, this year’s conference will feature keynote speaker Jeff Moyer on February 16; nearly 80 educational workshops; four full-day Food and Farm School classes on February 15; a three-day trade show; networking events; activities for children; locally-sourced meals; a raffle; book sales and signings, and more.

For more information about the conference, or to register, go to

Madison County ag retreat looks at crops and profit

The Madison Press, Michael Williamson, 11/3/17

“Grow More Vegetables, Make More Money,” was the theme of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) two-day retreat at the Procter Camp and Conference Center just outside of London Friday morning through Saturday evening. OEFFA started in 1979 by a collection of farmers dedicated to the growth and promotion of ecological and organic farm systems. The goal of the workshop was to inform farmers on practices that could enhance their management plans and advance their earning potential.

“This particular workshop is geared towards farmers who are already farming mixed vegetables, specialty crop-growers who are kind of at a certain scale where they’re looking to expand their operation and implement more efficient mechanization and systems on their operation in order to sell to larger buyers,” said Kelly Henderson, the Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator with OEFFA.

Linda Halley, an expert in organic farming from Bryn Farm in Wisconsin, led the workshop. This is the second time Halley has presented this workshop to interested farmers, the first time being in 2013.

“From talking to a lot of our farmers, they’ve implemented a lot of the practices that they’ve learned at that workshop,” Henderson said. “So it was really important for us to be able to bring that opportunity back again.”

Although the two-day workshop focused on what OEFFA calls “Early Career Farmers,” — people who have been farming for their whole career — their programs extend to both seasoned farmers and beginners.

In August 2016, OEFFA received a three-year, USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grant which allows the organization to bring best practices education to farmers just starting out. The grant allows them to work toward their goal of bringing information and skills to farmers to get the most out of their operations.

Eric Pawlowski, Sustainable Agriculture Educator with OEFFA, said they’re working to get the farmers to a place where they can do wholesale distribution of their produce and not be so concerned with the marketing side of farming.

“The farmer’s wearing a number of hats. He’s a business manager, he’s a farmer, he’s handling produce but then he’s got to take the other side of the coin in marketing. And now it’s a direct market,” Pawlowski said. “We’re trying to get efficiencies on the production end so that maybe the farmer can stay on the farm and have a volume, a scale at an appropriate level where they can get into wholesale distribution where they don’t have to be the marketer as well.”

Some of the topics of the workshop included direct seeding, how farmers can meet the demands of business partners and even information on the picking and packaging of their produce for sales.

OEFFA has a number of programs in place to help farmers of varying experience. Henderson is at the head of a whole farm planning course that is not yet available for registration but will be presented next year. The program allows farmers to attend 60 hours of in-class training to assist with putting together a whole-farm business plan.

Their next large event is the 39th annual OEFFA Conference in Dayton which will be held Feb. 15-17 and will feature a number of workshops and speakers. The opening day will also have a scheduled time that will be open to the public for anyone interested in the organization and their programs.


New Report Helps Farmers With Food Safety Planning: Features Case Studies of Ohio Organic Farms

For Immediate Release:
October 26, 2017
Renee Hunt, OEFFA Program Director, (614) 947-1642,
Eric Pawlowski, OEFFA Sustainable Agriculture Educator, (614) 947-1610,
A publication released today by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) will help produce farmers understand what it means to develop a farm food safety plan and meet new federal food safety rules.
Food Safety Planning Down on the Farm: Examples from Ohio Certified Organic Farms features eight vegetable and fruit farms of various scales and serving diverse markets.
“Our hope is that farmers, whether or not they are certified organic, will see themselves in these profiles,” said OEFFA Education Program Director Renee Hunt.  “We want these case studies to give produce growers ideas of what they can do and make food safety planning less intimidating.”
Produce farmers face new regulations with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). While the law exempts the smallest farms (those selling less than $25,000 in Covered Produce, such as lettuce, strawberries, and radishes), some buyers may require those operations meet FSMA standards as well.
“Food safety is everyone’s concern,” said Hunt. “But it shouldn’t mean farmers have to quit raising fruits and vegetables because they find the compliance process confusing or think it will be too costly to meet the standards.”
The publication identifies challenges and discusses changes that reduce risk. For example, Jorgensen Farms in Westerville, Ohio, had built its packing area prior to FSMA. The open sides of the packing area—where produce is made ready for restaurants or to take to the farmers’ market—posed a contamination risk. The farm addressed the situation by enclosing the area with ½ inch hardware cloth sides and doors.
“Many times, farmers are already doing the right thing,” said OEFFA Sustainable Agriculture Educator Eric Pawlowski.  “It is just a matter of codifying their practices and documenting the actions they have taken.”
The new report, along with additional resources, are available at OEFFA’s food safety web page.
This publication was financed through a grant from the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) provisions. This is a USDA SCBGP-supported publication. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA.

Ohioans can have direct impact on environment, Kate Williams, 10/15/2017

Guest columnist Kate Williams, CEO of 1% for the Planet, advocates for donating to SEED Ohio. Donations, she writes, "enables you to make a single donation that directly impacts your home state, city, and the park lands, rivers and lakes you enjoy with your families."

Guest columnist Kate Williams, a lifelong advocate of the outdoors and the environment, has been CEO of 1% for the Planet since 2015. Previously, she served as Board Chair of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and as Executive Director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

Citizen action and voice have never been more critical to the future of our planet. Across the globe, it is a time of extremes – storms, drought and politics to name just a few. Here in the United States these extremes are accompanied by significant reductions in federal funding to address environmental issues.

As global citizens, we must take action. Businesses and individuals are urgently needed to make up for the shortfalls in funding that keep vital programs running.

I lead an organization called 1% for the Planet. Our growing movement of businesses, individuals and nonprofits around the world creates positive environmental impact through annual commitments and everyday action.

Ohioans concerned about environmental issues facing their state have an opportunity to join this movement through SEED Ohio. SEED (Solutions Elevating Environmental Donations) benefits a curated and vetted group of Ohio nonprofits representing six environmental issue areas: land, water, climate, food, pollution and wildlife.

One donation to SEED Ohio will support the Western Reserve Land ConservancyOhio Ecological Food and Farm AssociationOhio River FoundationCuyahoga River RestorationBuilding Value and Clean Fuels Ohio. These partners work to keep Ohio rivers clean and free of pollutants, to preserve land for farming and recreation and to promote green deconstruction so building materials can be salvaged and reused. They plant trees, protect native habitats and help Ohio businesses adopt cleaner fuel practices. Their efforts focus on repair, prevention and education. Collectively, they plan and anticipate for a more uncertain future.

Two of our partners, Western Reserve Land Conservancy and Cuyahoga River Restoration, are based here in Cleveland. Western Reserve Land Conservancy has preserved more than 680 properties totaling 50,000-plus acres, planted thousands of trees in Cleveland and created more than 150 public parks and preserves. Cuyahoga River Restoration has provided shade, shelter and food for more than 400 catfish, bass, shiners, sunfish and other native fish species.

We understand that it can be difficult to discern which nonprofit organizations are most deserving of your hard-earned dollars or to understand where the most acute needs might be. Like you, I want to see the tangible results of my investment and know without a doubt that my giving has immediate impact. SEED Ohio is designed with clarity and credibility in mind – you can trust that your dollars are driving real impact.

I invite you — and all Ohioans — to join our global movement by making a difference in your own backyard. The SEED Ohio platform enables you to make a single donation that directly impacts your home state, city, and the park lands, rivers and lakes you enjoy with your families. By donating through SEED Ohio, you will join with other businesses and individuals who care about the future of Ohio and the future of our planet. Together, we can make a difference.

Growing Better Taste: Huntertown farm first USDA certified organic poultry farm in Indiana

By Ryan Schwab, 7/18/16, KPCNews

Growing better taste
Dorothy “Dotsie” Hoffman works daily at Huntertown-based Hoffman Certified Organics, Indiana’s first and only 100 percent USDA Certified Organic pasture-raised poultry farm. Her sons, Don and Ben, are co-owners.

HUNTERTOWN — Don Hoffman doesn’t eat a chicken at a restaurant.

“I remember how chicken used to taste. Today, it taste like cardboard,” he said.

And the chicken you buy in the stores?

“It is just awful. It’s not what I grew up on and prefer,” he said.

Don and his brother, Ben, are co-owners of Hoffman Certified Organics, which operates on their family farm at 2606 Chapman Road in Huntertown. Their company is the first and only 100 percent USDA certified organic pasture-raised poultry farm in Indiana, specializing in pasture raised chickens.

“Our motto is that we are going to raise our chickens to taste like it used to taste back in the day when they farm-raised chickens,” Don Hoffman said. “Today, we marinate it or we brine it. You shouldn’t have to.”

Added brother Ben, “There is a big movement in knowing your farmer and the ‘farm to fork’ atmosphere. We decided to go organic because we saw a need for it in our area. It is very difficult to find an organic, pasture raised bird. There is a fine line between what is organic and what is pasture-raised organic. The flavor is in the chicken. That is the difference between a confined operation and a place like ours, where the birds can go out when they want, come in when they want and eat what they want.”

The Hoffman family has owned the property since 1976, but it sat idle for 35 years until the brothers decided to take on the new venture. Don had raised chickens on his property for nearly 25 years and together with Ben, began the road to organic pasture-raised birds three years ago. The company was incorporated in 2015.

“It needs to be done,” Don said.

They raise a White Mountain Broiler, which can grow to 4.5 to 6 pounds. The females grow on the lighter end of the scale while the males are heavier. The bird is more popular in Ohio, but has a smaller mortality rate than the cornish crossbird, which is more popular in Indiana. The birds have a 56-day life cycle.

The brothers pick up the chicks just after they are hatched from Eagles Nest Poultry in Oceola, Ohio. They are driven back to their farm and are housed in their brooder, where they are cared for with feed, water and an introduction to clover. Over time, the birds will eat less feed and more clover and grass.

The organic feed comes from a certified distributor in Wolcotville and the brothers are certified to grow their own organic clover.

Once the chicks are about four weeks old, they are moved them from the brooder to the pasture. They are housed in chicken coops — known as “chicken tractors” — to keep them safe from predators. Each tractor is loaded up with water and feed bins and the birds will eat the clover and grass as they are moved up and down the family farm each day.

Ben Hoffman said before they utilized the chicken tractors and allowed the birds to roam free, 142 of 400 birds were killed by area predators. He said they have had no deaths since utilizing the “chicken tractors.”

At full growth, the birds are then transported to a processing center in Colfax, Indiana, located halfway between Lafayette and Indianapolis along Interstate 65. There, between 600 and 800 birds are processed in a 3-day period. The first run of 2016 produced 642 birds.

They will make eight or nine trips to processing center of the course of a year.

“You want to make sure the birds are familiar with people handling them, that way your losses during transport decrease, because they are familiar with people handling them,” Ben Hoffman said. “As much interaction you have with these birds, decreases the shock value when you do handle them and have to transport them over two hours away. It can be five seconds. You can pick one up, set it down, and that can be the end (of its life). We only lost two birds of the 642 on the first run. The processor said they had never seen (a successful transport) like that before.”

Although there are other organic chicken farms in Indiana, Hoffman Certified Organics is the only farm of it’s kind that allows their chickens to be raised outdoors at pasture. It’s location is a fortunate one, with ACRES Land Trust, Issak Walton League and the Girl Scout Camp of Northern Indiana on its borders.

“It can be virtually impossible to guarantee your product will be organic. Out here, we are just so fortunate,” Don Hoffman said. “Being sandwiched between so many amazing preservationists makes over spray concerns nonexistent. It allows our farm property to exceed the USDA Organic regulations and ensure that our USDA Organic seal is trusted.”

Neither described the certification process as difficult, just that it provided a lot of hoops to jump through. The cost of certification through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Agency is $1,300, but the farm was reimbursed $750 through a USDA grant. Water and soils must be tested, a daily feed log must be provided as well as a mortality rate. The farm is inspected on site and the certification must be renewed annually.

Hoffman Certified Organics will have its chicken for sale every Saturday at the Fort Wayne Farmer’s Market from 9 .a.m to 1 p.m. near the corner of Barr St. and Wayne St. It is also available at LaOtto Meats and can also be ordered for on-farm pickup. The brothers hope to start a delivery service in 2017.

“The whole organic idea is to grow local, be local and know who is raising the birds. Keep transportation and fuel costs low and be environmentally-friendly. That is how we wanted to start,” Don Hoffman said.

The company has just three other employees. Don’s wife, Stephanie, runs the office and handles accounting and sales operations. Ben’s fiance, Natalie, handles is the marketing and social media manager. Lastly, the boys’ mother, Dotsie, provides daily help.

Don also works for Asphalt Drum Mixer in Huntertown as a steal fabricator, parts cutter and welder and Ben works as a general contractor. They both still find time each day to spend 4-5 hours on the farm, where they also grow organic sweet corn. That, however, is not yet certified for resale.

“Chickens is enough for our plates right now, since we still have two jobs. Once we get used to it, we can ease into something else,” Don Hoffman said.

And they won’t eat them from anywhere else.

Calls for Better Fracking Regulations on Day of Action

By Mary Kuhlman, 6/6/16, Ohio Public News Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio – While oil and gas drilling has slowed in Ohio in the past year, fracking opponents say the impacts continue to threaten the fabric of communities.

The Frackfree America National Coalition, based in Youngstown, on Tuesday is sponsoring a National Day of Action on fracking with events scheduled in Ohio and other states to call attention to problems associated with fracking, including toxic waste, pipelines, spills and leaks, and earthquakes linked to injection wells.

Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, says communities need more protection.

“People who depend on our government to protect us from these harmful environmental impacts are concerned because we don’t have those necessary regulations in place to protect communities from the harmful impacts of fracking,” she states.

Lipstreu notes that most gas drilling and extraction is exempt from the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

More than a dozen actions will be held Tuesday in Ohio, including an event at Bluebird Farm in Harrison County, an organic operation currently threatened by the proposed Utopia pipeline.

Supporters argue fracking supports more than 2 million jobs nationally and boosts local economies.

But Lipstreu counters that the short-term benefits do not outweigh the long-term costs to the water and land that communities rely on.

“The land is our grocery store, the grocery store for our families and communities,” she stresses. “And for those communities to thrive and survive, we really depend on that healthy land. ”

Lipstreu adds organic farms, which must meet strict guidelines for certification, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of fracking with 20 percent of all organic farms in the U.S. located within close proximity to a hydraulic fracturing operation.

Ohio Pipeline Projects Stir Fears of Compromised Farmland Integrity

By Mary Kuhlman, Ohio Public News Service, 2/4/16

COLUMBUS, Ohio – There are fears that two proposed pipelines, which would run through Ohio, will threaten the livelihood of some Ohio farmers.

The proposed Nexus and ET Rover pipelines would transport gas obtained from Ohio hydraulic fracturing operations through Michigan and up to Canada.

The pipelines will impact 25 counties, and Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), says besides affecting forests and waterways, the pipelines could compromise the integrity of farmland.

“And very particularly organic farmland,” she points out. “It’s very vulnerable to contamination, to soil compaction, destruction of soil structure and potentially loss of certification for organic farms.”

Lipstreu notes that approving the pipelines would show a commitment to an extractive energy industry that threatens water quality and is linked to earthquakes instead of long-term energy solutions.

Supporters of the projects maintain they would lead to cheaper energy, and say pipelines are the safest and cheapest way to transport natural gas.

James Yoder produces organic milk at Clover Meadow Farm in Wayne County, where the ET Rover pipeline would cut diagonally across 11 acres.

If the company does not use a mitigation plan, he says his organic certification would be in jeopardy.

“I probably wouldn’t go on farming if we had to be conventional,” he states. “If they don’t follow those guidelines, I’m sure part of the land or all of the land would be conventional. I don’t know if we could get it back if we go through the three-year transition period to get the affected land back to organic again.”

At this point, Lipstreu says there’s been no word if the company will take any measures to
prevent soil contamination, degradation of milk quality and loss of organic certification on Yoder’s property.

But she adds the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is accepting public input on the pipelines.

“There is an opportunity for people to weigh in on this issue,” she states. “We can think about what we’re doing here and think in terms of more long term sustainability.”

She also points to the risks to health and safety posed by new pipeline infrastructure.

In November 2011, a natural gas transmission pipeline exploded in Morgan County, burning three houses and leaving a 30-foot-wide crater.

The next year, a pipeline spill polluted one and-a-half miles of Boggs Fork in Harrison County.

Labor of Love: Small-scale farmers in alternative food networks

The Blue Review


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.

Kids, old farm truck, Cynthiana, Ohio.

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.

"Pastured Providence", a diverse livestock farm in Chillicothe, Ohio.

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:

  • nontraditional first-generation farmers who are inspired by the food movement,
  • experienced farmers who adopt organic practices to improve their financial standing,
  • and returning farmers who are a generation or more removed from agriculture, yet find new opportunities via alternative food networks.

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.

Farm in Cynthiana, Ohio.

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.

Water Quality in Ohio: Taking a Page from Organic Farming

By Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service, 7/20/15

PHOTO: Sustainable farming groups say lessons from organic farming can help solve Ohio’s toxic and unsightly algae problems and improve water quality. Photo courtesy NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

 PHOTO: Sustainable farming groups say lessons from organic farming can help solve Ohio’s toxic and unsightly algae problems and improve water quality. Photo courtesy NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
July 20, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Algal blooms in Lake Erie are predicted to be among the worst in recorded history this summer.

And organic farmers say taking a page from their playbook can help state leaders working to address the recurring problem, and other water quality issues.

Organic farms are prohibited from using synthetic fertilizers, which are linked to toxic algae.

One farmer, Dave Shively of northwest Ohio, says the practices he uses reduce runoff and soil erosion, which in turn reduce the chances that excess nutrients reach waterways.

“Most of the products we use are more water-soluble, so they stay in place more,” he explains. “And any manures we put on are usually incorporated right away. And we do a lot of crop rotation, which we put a lot of small grains in, and legumes.”

Ohio recently enacted a law (Senate Bill 1) that prohibits applying manure and fertilizer on frozen or saturated ground.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association is among the groups suggesting growers follow organic farmers’ lead and use sustainable practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation and field buffers to reduce farm runoff into waterways.

Organic farmers also are required to take steps to maintain water quality as part of their Organic System Plan.

Shively says protecting water sources is vital to the health of the ecosystem and the public.

“What we’re doing is trying to not pollute that with pesticides and herbicides and insecticides, so we’re doing a more sustainable, natural way,” he explains.

Shively stresses chemicals used in traditional farming should be reduced to improve water quality.

“I feel very strongly about the chemical ag world and that that’s a practice that’s getting worse and worse as we go along, with more potent chemicals and pesticides,” he states. “And they’re creating resistance to herbicides, which is creating a whole other issue.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the effects of algae in Lake Erie are expected to peak in August or early September.