OCT. 14, 2002, New York
Times via CropChoice
News: A curious thing happened on the way to a national
organic standard: the small farmer, once at the heart of the organic
movement, got left behind.
Talk to those who have farmed organically for years and you will
find a surprising number who have decided not to call their produce
organic any longer. The costs — administrative, monetary and
philosophical — of using the government-defined label are
too great. Only farms certified under the United States Department
of Agriculture's regime can legally call their produce organic after
Oct. 21. (Farms with annual revenues under $5,000 can forgo formal
certification, though they are expected to follow the rules.)
At local farmers' markets around the country, you'll find many
farmers who say their vegetables are "grown without chemicals"
or that their meat is "free of antibiotics," but many
won't use the "O" word. Others are wondering if they will
Why are these organic farmers opting out?
The decision stems from the reasons they went into organic farming
in the first place. Rather than relying on chemicals, these farmers
worked in concert with nature and the environment. Rather than sell
at depressed prices to giant agribusinesses, they sold locally.
Instead of relying on crop hybrids capable of being shipped thousands
of miles, they picked ripe produce and sold it the next day.
Organic farmers certainly didn't win consumers over with price.
Their product was attractive because its quality was high and it
was grown without synthetic pesticides in an environmentally sustainable
manner. It was better for the planet and, by implication, for you.
The organic ideal was rooted in a Jeffersonian vision of the family
farmer eking out a modest, independent living from honest toil.
The organic marketplace made that ideal viable because there were
consumers willing to pay a premium for the products these small
The success of this organic ideal over the past two decades, however,
was also its undoing. As consumers snapped up organic products,
less idealistic farmers got into the act. In a few well-publicized
cases, conventional produce (that is, grown with chemical pesticides
and herbicides) was sold under organic labels, causing a furor among
producers and consumers and prompting states like California to
define organic practices.
By 1990, this regulatory approach was codified in the Organic
Foods Production Act. Now, the U.S.D.A. makes clear, organic is
a method of production, nothing more.
Once a label becomes firmly defined, it also becomes a barrier
to entry and thus politically charged. The initial list of organic
practices, for example, included the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer
and allowed genetically modified crops. Conventional farm interests
wanted to be able to continue these practices. Faced with public
protests, regulators scratched those items.
But even as the rules were refined, small organic farmers had
trouble with the fine print. One farmer told me that an organic
certifying agent inspecting his farm wanted to know the dates on
which he had moved his crates of zucchini into the cooler the previous
year and when he had sold them. "After farming for 12 hours
a day, I am not going to spend two hours doing paperwork,"
Considering that small farmers typically grow dozens of crops
on small plots, the paperwork burden could potentially exceed that
of a large organic farm growing one crop on hundreds of acres.
Farmers also chafed at rules that sought to standardize practices
that vary by farm or region. Composting guidelines, for example,
proved unworkable for some farmers; they required such frequent
turnings of piles (to kill potential pathogens) that some actually
caught fire. These rules are expected to be rewritten. But some
farmers who had been organic for years, composting safely without
this specific regime, were offended at being told to alter their
methods, especially when they saw only higher costs as a result.
If larger farmers, however, could work out the business model
and the actual practices, they could grow organic produce on a huge
scale and ship it to the distributors that feed supermarket chains.
In an industry where low-single-digit growth was the norm, the organic
segment's growth rate of 20 percent over a decade was unheard of.
Organic agriculture might have been prompted by an agrarian vision,
but along the way it also became a growth business, because that
was the most realistic way to sate burgeoning consumer demand. Now
farmers are talking about organic grains and produce coming out
of China, where farms have sought certification to sell in the American
Inevitably, as more land goes into production, prices will come
down, and organic foods will become more widespread. The environmental
effect will be salutary — more acres will be farmed without
chemicals — but don't be surprised if your local farmer has
moved on, unable or unwilling to use a term that once defined his
world. Small farmers will still sell bountiful produce at farmer's
markets, but as always, they will be an alternative to the dominant
Samuel Fromartz is writing a book about the organic food industry.
ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/14/opinion/14FROM.html