TALKING SHOP/KEYNOTE: Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference
La Crosse, WI, Feb 26 - 28, 2004

Who SHOULD own organic?
The rapid expansion of organic agriculture presents us with
tough choices about the kind of a movement we want to be

By Elizabeth Henderson
Posted March 23, 2004

Editor's NOTE

All of us here at The New Farm® who attended the MOSES conference in La Crosse were blown away by the high caliber of the presentations, the enthusiasm of the audience, the diversity of the exhibitors—and by what it all comes down to in the end, the talent and dedication of organic farmers in the Upper Midwest. Over the next few months, we'll be running a number of stories inspired by the people we met with there, including a series on wind power as an alternative farm enterprise and energy source, profiles of OFARM (the Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing) and some of their member co-ops, and more.

One of the recurring topics of discussion at MOSES was the increasing corporate presence in organic food and farming. Elizabeth Henderson made it the subject of her keynote presentation, reprinted here, as did Iowa farmer Tom Frantzen in his. Phil Howard's chart of the organic industry, also in this issue, was frequently referred to. Is the mainstreaming of organics a good thing on balance, or a bad thing? What can be done to control it? Send us your views; we'd love to hear from you.

S p o n s o r B o x
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, Inc (MOSES)

The non-profit Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) provides training, resources, and referrals to individuals and organizations across the Midwest interested in organic and sustainable farming. It also organizes the annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, which in fifteen years has grown to become one of the largest and best-known organic farming conferences on the US calendar (a record sixteen hundred people showed up this year).

Contact info:
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, Inc (MOSES)
P.O. Box 339
N7834 County Rd B
Spring Valley, WI 54767


Keynote Address, February 28, 2004: The past three decades have been years of solid achievement for organic agriculture. Like a chestnut tree seedling, we have been growing our roots, sending them down deep into the soil before putting our energies into growing upwards towards the sun and outwards into the air. Without much help from the government, university researchers, or the extension services, we have created an ecologically sound way of farming, an effective system of verification, organic certification, the most highly respected of all the eco-labels, and the only sector of US agriculture that is attracting young people and arousing hope for the future of rural communities. But our growth is bringing us to a critical crossroads. Will our trunk grow straight or crooked? How high will we spread our branches? Whom will they shelter? Whom will we feed?

"50 percent of organic sales in California come from the 27 largest farms, or just 2 percent of the total . . . Eight of the top food corporations own the 38 largest organic businesses . . . The network of regional coop food warehouses has disappeared."

To answer these questions, we must make a decision about our identity: are we an industry? Or are we a movement? The leaders of the Organic Trade Association and the bureaucrats at the National Organic Program (NOP) like to refer to the organic industry. There is a lot of evidence that organic agriculture in the US is taking that form. Michael Sligh and Carolyn Christman recently released a study, titled Who Owns Organic?, which reported that 50 percent of organic sales in California come from the 27 largest farms, or just 2 percent of the total. (A question not touched on in the study is what percentage of this food is grown using underpaid or undocumented farm workers.) Eight of the top food corporations own the 38 largest organic businesses. Archer Daniels Midland, Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Dean Foods, Dole, General Mills, Groupe Danone, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg, Mars, Parmalat Fianziana, Kraft, Sara Lee, and Tyson Foods have formed partnerships with organic companies or developed their own organic lines.

Dean Foods controls Horizon, which claims to have captured 70 percent of the US organic milk market, squeezing out pioneer local dairies like Russell Van Hazinga’s Brookside Farm in Massachusetts. Heinz owns 19 percent of Hains; Tanimura and Antle bought one-third of Natural Selection (owner of the Earthbound Farms brand, with13,000 certified acres); and General Mills owns Cascadian Farms. Grimway Farms, the largest vegetable farm in the country, with over 44,000 acres, controls 16,000 acres of organic production. The network of regional coop food warehouses has disappeared. In 2002, United Natural Foods (with $1.2 billion in gross sales) engulfed the last two—Blooming Prairie and Northeast Cooperatives. The only other national distributor of natural and organic foods of comparable size is Tree of Life, with $600-650 million in U.S. sales.

The organic industry and the NOP

While the NOP is not the cause, its way of operating facilitates the process of concentration in organics. For the next round of accreditation, when it will charge the full costs of accreditation to certifiers, certification fees will rise all over the country, beyond the pockets of many small farms. Already, there has been a shake out of the smallest certifiers, such as the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, the Georgia Organic Growers Association, and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. Although the basic production standards are sound enough, the NOP’s failure to create a healthy public-private partnership by respecting the decisions of the NOSB breeds cynicism. To get around NOP foot dragging on compost regulations, certifiers are teaching farmers to lie. The NOP has accredited certifiers with no track record at all: the most outrageous example being the Georgia certifier that allowed Fieldale Chicken to label its chickens organic while using only 10 to 30 percent organic feed, instead of the 100 percent required by the Rule.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Independent Certification, Incorporated (MICI), refused to certify a chicken farm where the chickens had no outdoor access. The NOP administrator told MICI that they had to certify that farm since it met USDA standards. An administrative judge has ruled that MICI has no right to appeal this decision. MICI is appealing to a higher instance in the hope of having a hearing on the substance of their case, not just the formalities. The next certifier The Country Hen turned to did not have the courage to risk losing NOP accreditation and reluctantly granted certification.

"Is the USDA an accreditor or a certifier? . . . Is the NOP ISO compliant or not?"

There are two basic issues here. Is the USDA an accreditor or a certifier? According to Kathleen Merrigan, one of the authors of the Organic Foods Production Act, which set up the NOP, certifiers are agents of the USDA. ISO 65, which sets the standards for accreditors to which the NOP claims to adhere, requires a separation between the entity that certifies and the one that accredits. Is the NOP ISO compliant or not? The other question is the meaning of “access to the outdoors.” Is looking out through a screen enough? Where do you think the owner of a 3000 cow organic dairy would stand on this?

A vision—or a nightmare—of the future

Let’s look into our crystal ball at the future growth of the organic tree in a NOP-regulated organic industry:

Organic is the mainstream with 50 percent of the market! The three largest certification programs provide services for all but a few hold-out small scale family farms. Horizon is crowding CROPP/Organic Valley milk sales, putting downward pressure on payments to farmers from $20 to $19 to $18 a hundredweight. Tyson organic chickens, under a “cage-free” label like Horizon’s, are underselling small, free-range chicken farms around the country. Con-Agra is partnering with Coleman Natural Meats, while McDonald’s has bought the franchise for the Local Diner. Birdseye Foods, with its far greater efficiency of production, has pushed Cascadian Farms out of the market. Wal-Mart distributes Cal Organics and Earthbound Farms vegetables, forcing prices for fresh market organic vegetables down.

Underpaid migrant farm workers outnumber self-employed organic farmers. Whole Foods, having implemented its own in-house certification, thrives, with branches in every upscale neighborhood. The organic division of Cargill is importing cheap organic grains from Argentina and Brazil, undercutting US grain growers. Representatives of Tyson, Horizon, Heinz and Birdseye dominate the NOSB, and the NOP listens to their recommendations. Its new regulations for food contact substances allow for the manufacture of organic high fructose corn syrup, and organic Pepsi is climbing past 50 percent of market share. The former Monsanto executive who heads the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has set the NOP allowance for GMO contamination at two percent. The few thick branches of this tree bear many green leaves, but only a select few enjoy their riches.

Is this what you want? Let’s have a show of hands.

If you had voted yes, I was going to pack up the rest of my talk, grab my slides go home.

Okay, so we agree that we want to be a movement. What does that mean? If we don’t like the way our tree is growing, maybe we need to consider some severe pruning.

Our peasant heritage, and another possible future

Let’s go back to our roots. After all, as organic farmers it behooves us to be radicals. Our anchoring taproot connects us with the indigenous farmers who over millennia built up the seed stock for domestic grains and vegetables, domesticated livestock, and discovered that rotations, composting and biodiversity make it possible to provide adequate harvests to feed their families and communities. This traditional, peasant agriculture provided the model for modern biodynamic and organic methods—from India via Sir Albert Howard and his disciple Robert Rodale, from Japan via Nature Farming and Masanobu Fukuoka, and from central Europe via Rudolf Steiner.

"In the world today there are three billion people dependent on subsistence farming . . . our movement can create a global policy for economic development by favoring local food sovereignty: the right of people to grow their own food, save their own seed, and derive whatever financial benefit flows from their local germ plasm."

In the world today there are three billion people dependent on subsistence farming. While it may be more efficient in industrial terms to grow their food on a few thousand high-tech farms, organic agriculture offers an alternative vision of prosperous, self-reliant villages with trade only in surpluses and regional specialties. Dipping down into our peasant heritage, our movement can create a global policy for economic development by favoring local food sovereignty: the right of people to grow their own food, save their own seed, and derive whatever financial benefit flows from their local germ plasm.

Our network of largely self-employed, family-scale farms has long roots in the American frontier tradition, in Thomas Jefferson’s concept of an agrarian democracy, and on the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted enough free land to a family to provide for its own needs on the condition that the family settled on the land and used it. A surprising percentage of organic farmers do not own the land they farm. For farmers like myself, private property is less important than usufruct—the right to land based on its good usage. Perhaps we need to include this among the principles of our movement.

The importance of farmer-owned co-ops

Some of our strongest institutions are cooperatives, both for selling and buying organic products. The roots of these co-ops reach down to the Populist movement, the waves of organizing among farmers and rural people to resist the power of the robber barons at the end of the 19th century. The traditions of the Farmer Alliance are particularly strong here in the Upper Midwest, where you still benefit from some of the structures created by the farmer-labor alliance. Cooperatives enable many small entities to group together for economic power. The internationally recognized principles for co-ops uphold open membership, democratic control, return of surplus to members, limited return on investment, education of members and the public, cooperation among coops, and work for the sustainable development of communities.

"Today, CROPP/Organic Valley is one of the brightest lights on the organic scene. Its members would be well-advised to cherish its democratic foundations and keep a close watch on its management . . ."

Yet all too often, farmer co-ops have betrayed the interests of their members. Look at Farmland Industries, which grew into the largest farmer co-op in the country, then went bankrupt and sold out to rival agribusiness giants, leaving farmer members with no equity. Agway began as a farmer-owned purchasing co-op in the days when the Grange campaigned against the railroad monopoly. Deep Root Organic Truck Farmers, a co-op I helped found in the '80s, is small and struggling, but still alive based on member participation. Today, CROPP/Organic Valley is one of the brightest lights on the organic scene. Its members would be well-advised to cherish its democratic foundations and keep a close watch on its management, lest too rapid growth and the pressures of the highly competitive marketplace in time lead to the atrophy of member control.

Organic farming and social justice

The organic movement in this country does not always acknowledge its roots in international organic agriculture. When scattered groups of organic farmers sat down to write organic standards in the mid '70s and '80s, we took as our inspiration the guidelines created by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Along with principles for ecological farm production, the IFOAM Basic Standards include these social principles:

To recognize the wider social and ecological impact of and within the organic production and processing system.

To provide everyone involved in organic farming and processing with a quality of life that satisfies their basic needs, within a safe, secure and healthy working environment.

To support the establishment of an entire production, processing and distribution chain which is both socially just and ecologically responsible.

To recognize the importance of, and protect and learn from, indigenous knowledge and traditional farming systems.

This year, for the first time, IFOAM’s accreditation service, the International Organic Accreditation Service is requiring the Accredited Certification Bodies to implement these social standards.

"As a movement, we have spent so much time on production standards that we have not devoted adequate attention to these human aspects of organic agriculture."

As a movement, we have spent so much time on production standards that we have not devoted adequate attention to these human aspects of organic agriculture. To stimulate discussion and debate in this area, a few of us from the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture organic committee have written a set of Social Stewardship standards for organic agriculture. Our initial draft has gone through six revisions as we have held a series of meetings over the past three years. In our document, we try to articulate what social justice means in concrete terms:

  • fair, long-term contracts for farmers;
  • fair pricing that reflects the cost of production;
  • decent working conditions for farm workers and interns;
  • recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights;
  • an appropriate balance between the farm as a place to raise and educate children and the danger of exploiting their work.

I believe that the public’s strong positive response to CSAs and to Organic Valley’s marketing strategy emphasizing family farms demonstrates that many of the eaters of organic foods already believe that supporting organic means supporting our social mission. We need to build these values into our labeling system, so that a farm that exploits undocumented migrant labor or a processor that pays farmers less than the cost of production will lose their organic certification. Our customers expect no less.

Three working goals

One of my daydreams is that our movement will somehow find a democratic and participatory way to create a set of holistic goals for our future, so that we can grow into a great healthy tree, spreading our branches over all the people, uniting, nourishing and enriching. With our brothers and sisters of the land, the whole that we manage is the entire earth; the participants, all the earth’s peoples, their domestic livestock and the uncountable inhabitants of the soil.

Here is a rough draft of a set of goals for us. I hope you will take them home, share them with brothers and sisters in this movement, and revise them according to your lights, so that we may perfect them into a working document:

1. Quality of life: a world of peaceful, cooperative, self-reliant communities. Resources shared justly among them. No hunger, enough food that everyone is adequately nourished with food of his or her cultural preference. With adequate food recognized as a human right and food sovereignty as the right of each nation, no one is forced to leave home to seek migrant labor in a foreign land. Curiosity about other people’s ways. Cultural cross-pollination on a basis of equality. Tolerance of differences. Rich spirituality.

2. Mode of production: many small-scale farms and gardens, run by families, tribes or neighborhoods, clustered into cooperatives for purchasing and sales. Staple foods produced where they are eaten. Trade in surplus production at prices that cover the producer’s costs, while neither gouging nor undermining the economy of the buyers.

3. Future resource base: a world of clean air, water and regenerated soils. Oceans and rivers teaming with fish. No pollution, no erosion, no toxic landfills or dumps. Energy from renewable sources - wind, solar and geothermal power. Healthy farms and gardens carefully balanced with the ecology of each region.

If this sounds utopian, that is only because we are surrounded by so much grime and greed and depression. Everything I have mentioned is within our grasp. We have the practical skills to make this vision come alive. Our roots are strong, our sap is flowing. We have the love and the determination. As a movement, we can do this. Let’s start today!