In light of the recent uproar over revelations
that the National Organic Program issued regulations
threatening the integrity of the program, Gene
Logsdon’s 1993 New Farm Magazine editorial
raising concerns about federal regulation of organic
seems downright timely. (For more on the recent
brouhaha, click here.)
We’ve decided to reprint Gene’s
editorial to launch an occasional series featuring
classics from the 16 years that the magazine was
in operation. Why Gene’s piece? Partly because
of the fascinating timing, but mostly because
reader Peggy Zdila wrote us earlier this Spring,
wishing New Farm magazine was still around (like
hundreds of readers before her).
“Things are in such as state of flux
right now in the organic world,” wrote Peggy.
“We are not seeking certification, and feel
sold out by the federal certification rules. We
have kept a bunch of acres idle with the intention
of going for certification, but not after the
federal rules came … I saw an article by
Logsdon in a 1994 issue of your magazine that
In a later email, Peggy told us that costs
and recording keeping were major disincentives
to certification, but that the “frosting
on the cake” was organic inputs—the
lack of certified organic straw for mulch, for
example. The rules, she said, seem almost designed
to set up barriers for small scale operators.
“When lay people ask me about federal organic
rules, I tell them that all they did was set up
a playing field for the big boys. I should probably
add that it confuses consumers and hurts small
farmers in the process.”
Enjoy Gene’s piece. We welcome your
reactions: Are his arguments still relevant? Is
the organic program by and large a good thing,
or a disaster waiting to happen for small farmers?
And by the way, if you remember an article
from the magazine that you’d like us to
reprint as part of this series, let us know.
1993, The New Farm: When Congress recognized the legitimacy
of the organic food business by passing the Organic Foods Production
Act in ’90, organic farmers felt they had gained a signal
victory. Now some are having second thoughts.
What many organic farmers want is a simple national labeling
law that would make it illegal for shysters to misrepresent
organic foods. What they are afraid they are getting instead
is endless red tape and policing that may cloud—not legitimize—the
meaning and attraction of organic food.
“The concern that many of us have is that in the process
of putting organics into a regulatory framework, we might
produce a conceptual model which is so complex that we face
prohibitive costs and intimidate farmers with unmeaningful
rules and paperwork,” testified George Siemon, an organic
dairyman from Wisconsin, before the National Organic Standards
Board (NOSB) in Fort Collins, Colo., last July.
Having years ago gone through attempts to set up a third-party
certification system under the aegis of Rodale Press (the
materials-list problems were so enormous, we gave up), and
having sat through countless discussions about the meaning
of organic, and furthermore, having farmed and gardened with
organic methods for 30 years, I feel compelled to add my two-cents-worth
to the issue.
Federal regulation of organic food is the kiss of death.
That’s my bias. I already notice where most of
the funding is headed-toward paper-shuffling USDA salaries
in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. Organic farmers have just
added another pimple on the Great Wart of Washington.
You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s coming.
Just look at what’s happening in California, a state
that’s always a few years ahead of the curve. The organic
law there was recently revamped to put more teeth into it,
according to ‘Amigo Bob’ Canstisano, one of the
founders of California Certified Organic Farmers. “So
now we have a new law which is 15 times longer that the old
one, with a lot more enforcement regulations,” he says.
“who has to pay for that enforcement?” The farmer.
Fees had to be increased 50 percent. A quarter million dollars
was collected, and in a few months the state people came to
us and said they had spent it all.
“They spent $65,000 on a survey of about 500 organic
farmers,” he adds. “Farmers can’t afford
to finance that kind of inefficiency.”
I suppose someday people will understand that Washington
can’t solve our problems anymore, and is actually a
large part of the problem. I recall something Bob Rodale said:
“Don’t get upset over the fact that there are
no good candidates for president anymore. If we get enough
bad presidents, people will finally realize they can’t
find salvation in Washington.”
My two-cents-worth goes like this:
- The mistake that has been made is in the notion that
organic food should be mass-marketed. I think I speak for
most organic farmers when I say that we believe mass-marketing
is antithetical to the definition of organic.
- The main reason that big companies are now interested
in mass-marketing organic is because it appears people will
pay a premium for it. Premium prices for organic are not
sustainable. They are mischievous. They lure in hustlers.
In the real world, if you do try to sustain them, you-the
farmer-will pay much more with taxes and fees for an army
of policeman than your premiums are worth.
- I hasten to add that I think there is one way you can
sustain a slight premium, not necessarily for organic food,
but for fresh, local food, and part of the fresh,
local appeal will come form the known, honest reputation
of the grower. Washington can’t provide you with that.
Only you can.
Example: Last summer, I bought some blueberries
right out of the patch. I gladly paid $1.50 a pint for them.
They weren’t organic. But I know the owner and he
tells me what he sprays, and when and how. Just three miles
away in the mall, shipped-in blueberries were selling for
$1.15 a pint, but the local grower sold out at the higher
price. I have seen this phenomenon repeated a hundred times.
The point is that even without a premium, you are ahead,
because the customer prefers local and fresh food over the
- Under these circumstances, organic and near-organic farmers
can label their food accurately by saying what they do or
do not use in production, thus avoiding the whole silly
argument of what materials shall be accepted never, sometimes
or always. Examples of labels that could be used:
- “No pesticides.”
- “No pesticides except one treatment of…”
- Fertilized with manure and leaf compost.”
- Fertilized with manure and a small 50-pound-per acre
application of potash fertilizer.”
Let consumers make their own selection, while you educate
them on the realities of food production.”
In the local situation, consumers will know if a farmer
lies a whole helluva lot faster than with a normal policing
You want to ship food to faraway markets? You want to
join the pious hypocrites in the international grain business
who like to say they are helping our balance of payments?
Fine and dandy. But stay the hell away from the word “organic.”
I know there are a lot of sincere and honest organic
farmers raising grain in the Corn Belt and Plains who
depend on export markets. (The folks in Fargo, N.D., and
Terre Haute, Ind., can only eat so much buckwheat.) But
if the organic export market really takes off, you’ll
be squeezed out by greedy conventional cash-grain MEGA-FARMERS.
To make a quick buck, they won’t mind cutting a
few corners or giving little thought to the environment.
You don’t really think there will be enough organic
cops to catch them all, do you?
Organic is not a synonym for premium prices. It expresses
a philosophy that emphasizes values other than money.
State and third-party organic certifications work well
now because most organic farmers aren’t in it for
the money. Don’t let big business corrupt organic.
Last fall, USDA slashed 1993 funding for the NOSB from $120,000
to less than $16,000. Perhaps they could have done organic
farmers a bigger favor by cutting funding to zero, and disbanding
Editors note: Free-lance writer and “Country
Farmer” Gene Logsdon raises sheep and strong opinions
on a small farm in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Much of the above
first appeared in Farmer to Farmer, published b the Ozark
Small Farm Viability Project, Mt. Judea, Ark.