National Organic Standards: Kiss of Death?
Gene Logsdon asked that question in an essay for the New Farm Magazine, back in March of 1993. We reprint it here as the first in a new series featuring classic articles from the magazine.

By Gene Logsdon

Editor’s NOTE
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 was prophetic.”

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.

March/April 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.

Another Pimple

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 mall food.
  4. 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.”

  5. In the local situation, consumers will know if a farmer lies a whole helluva lot faster than with a normal policing system.

  6. 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?

  7. 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 the board.

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.