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
p o n s o r B o x
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, Inc
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).
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, Inc
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
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
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 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
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
||"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
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
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