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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If you have something important to say about agriculture
in a sustainable global food system, please -- speak
I offer my point of view in response to Elizabeth Henderson’s
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 production systems.
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.