July 2, 2004: If we want small scale farmers
to survive and flourish they must become economically viable.
Farmers have to make money and that means free market capitalism.
Good food, safe food, from local sources will not be cheap and
we shouldn’t expect it to be.
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I offer my point of view in response to Elizabeth Henderson’s article
our Roots on NewFarm.org in March 2004. In her article,
Ms. Henderson provides us with some challenging questions,
a personal version of agricultural history, a healthy dose
of criticism directed at our government, some unkindness to
both America’s working farmers and consumers, and makes
an incorrect assumption that all those who produce or buy
organic products want to belong to a movement. She should
understand that many of us simply want to buy safe food from
local sources we know and trust; we don’t want to join
I will not attempt to defend the National Organic Program
nor the USDA. On these issues, Ms Henderson is right. NOP
has become a disappointment. I didn’t think the marriage
of these organizations, NOP and USDA, was a good idea from
the very beginning because it gave control to the government
of something that is not controllable.
Her solutions to the issue of organic labeling are to create
more government, or at minimum to get rid of existing mainstream
government and replace it with one controlled by her kind
of bureaucrats. Most organic advocates from Ms Henderson’s
camp did support the NOP. Now that the marriage of the USDA
and organic labeling are proving problematic folks like Ms
Henderson want organic certification to have even greater
restrictions and more complex labeling. Can we not see the
folly in this?
I will agree with Ms Henderson’s implication that “organic”
as a label and thus a marketing tool has been co-opted, abused
and twisted by the NOP and by corporate food giants. It now
holds little of the validity or value it once had. Therefore,
let’s ignore organic labeling and focus on the economic
viability of small-scale local farms that use sustainable
Personally I feel my food options and quality of life are
more threatened by activists like Ms Henderson than by the
NOP. I don’t need a government label nor do I need a
laundry list of social issues to guide me in my food purchases.
Weekly trips to my local farmers market; the purchase of a
side of beef, a lamb, a hog and 20 chickens from local farmers;
a trip to the country at the end of the season for a couple
of bushels of tomatoes and other vegetables will fill my freezer
and thus make labeling insignificant for me.
I know my farmers. I buy directly from them. One hundred
percent of my food dollar goes back to the farm. This makes
the farm economically viable. How the farmer spends that dollar
is not part of my business. Ms. Henderson would like to control
how the farmer spends his income uses code phrases like social
justice, food security, healthy working environment, fair
trade, wider social and environmental impact to further her
very strong political view of issues that are best left to
the free market to decide.
After more than 20 years in the restaurant business, during
which time I have created a network of local farmers who are
the suppliers of my food, I am fearful when self-appointed
experts attempt to usurp control of food and farming in the
sustainable community. I deal every day with government bureaucrats
who make owning and operating my restaurant much more difficult.
More government is never the right answer.
The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, the group
Ms. Henderson champions, seems to me a group that mixes a
large dose of politics into their farming activities. I fear
that Ms Henderson may very well be shooting the organic movement—as
she calls it—in the proverbial foot if she insists that
her politics must be cultivated in the garden of local, seasonal
food production. Ms. Henderson needs to spend a little more
time reading an economics text book and a little less time
in the think tank.
My suggestion to the entire sustainable agriculture community
is this: Let’s get back to farming, food production
and our family dinner table. Leave the issues of social engineering
to the academics. And for those planning conferences to discuss
the issues of sustainable agriculture let’s have a little
balance—equal justice for all as Ms. Henderson would
say—and include speakers who can teach farmers about
free enterprise, capitalism and marketing.
Like junk science, socialism is junk economics. It isn’t
viable and the good guys lose.