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 continue to.
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 farms grew.
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 market.
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 agricultural motif.
Samuel Fromartz is writing a book about the organic
ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/14/opinion/14FROM.html