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.
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.,
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
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 mall food.
- 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 system.
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 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.