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
us your views; we'd love to hear from you.
p o n s o r B o x
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service,
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
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service,
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
A vision—or a nightmare—of
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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:
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.
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.
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!