Organic Agriculture

Spring 2003

By Larry Lack

I’m an organic farm inspector currently living in a city (Portland, Oregon) where I also help to manage a thriving farmers’ market. I’ve lived in the country most of my adult life, have been a farm worker and have also farmed commercially on a small scale. Because I have one foot in the city and the other in farm country, I’m especially convinced of the need for city and suburban people – who are the vast majority of North America’s population – to know more about farms and farming.

In an article headlined “Murdering the Family Farm” (Progressive Populist, Feb. 1, 2000), A.V. Krebs outlines some of the causes of the desperation that family farmers are experiencing. Much of what he says is certainly true – corporations, mega-farms, processors and banks are squeezing more and more family farms out of business. Prices for grains, livestock and other farm products are so low that they do not pay the cost of farming, let alone leave anything for farmers to live on. Suicides among farmers are on the rise. A few farm people have even joined the ranks of the militias or the so-called “wise use” movement as they look for someone to blame for the downward spiral of troubles they face.

I think, however, that Krebs is wrong when he blames environmentalists for contributing to the problems farm communities face. Krebs quotes author Joel Dyer saying that armchair “pseudoenvironmentalists” have put “thousands of rural people … out of work with impractical environmental legislation dreamed up by urban activists who lack practical knowledge of rural life.”

Krebs doesn’t spell out what legislation Dyer is referring to here, but presumably the reference is to laws that supposedly regulate pesticides. In fact the environmental groups that advocate for stronger pesticide laws (such as NCAP, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides; and NCAMP, the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides) have strong farm and rural connections. Unfortunately these groups have had very limited success in achieving effective pesticide regulation. Every year American farmers apply more and more chemical pesticides, and for decades every effort toward reducing pesticide use by banning or seriously limiting the use of dangerous pesticides has been stymied by powerful chemical companies and their lobbyists who direct huge payoffs to both Republican and Democratic politicians, particularly those from farm states. As a result, U. S. pesticide laws and regulations are notoriously weak and ineffective, and the food Americans eat continues to be tainted with residues of dangerous pesticides. These same pesticides contaminate our soil, air and water, especially in agricultural areas.

While efforts to regulate pesticides in U.S. agriculture have been dismal failures, there is a viable, practical solution to many of the problems American farmers face. But this solution gets little or no attention from Krebs and most others who write about the crisis in rural America.

Organic agriculture offers farmers an alternative to the chronically low prices that are forcing so many farms out of business. In many parts of North America, organic agriculture has made substantial progress toward revitalizing rural communities, but currently only a small percentage of North America’s farms are organic, and organic products account for a similarly small percentage of farm products sold.

In the United States, organic agriculture is expanding, while conventional agriculture is in decline or at best stagnant. But the organic method of farming is still viewed with suspicion by many U.S. farmers who are used to getting advice from chemical company salespeople or from university agriculture departments that are heavily endowed and influenced by chemical companies and bio-engineering firms.

Unfortunately most organic certifiers and other pro-organic organizations don’t have well-developed programs for encouraging conventional farmers to make the transition from chemical to organic farming, and as a result many farmers don’t have the information they need to evaluate whether going organic may make sense for them. The USDA Cooperative Extension Service should be encouraging the transition to organics, but it is not. The entire USDA bureaucracy has only one extension agent who is a qualified expert in organic agriculture. (Predictably, he’s located in Santa Cruz, California.)

Farming is hard work, and in many cases farming organically is even harder. Weeds, harmful insects, fungi and other pests must be monitored and managed much more painstakingly, while beneficial insects and soil organisms are encouraged. Organic growers must keep up with research about alternative methods of pest control and apply the results on their farms. They must learn to control pests using an “ecosystem” approach that requires patience, because sometimes it takes several years to produce satisfactory results. Even more important, organic farmers must care for and enrich their soil with organic matter and non-chemical sources of the nutrients their crops require, and this is often much more labor intensive than the yearly applications of chemical fertilizers that conventional farmers use.

But organic agriculture is viable and practical for most crops, and farmers who are motivated can, without too much trouble, find the information and resources they need to successfully transition most farm operations – grains, vegetables, livestock, eggs, herbs, etc. – to the organic method.

More must be done to convince conventional farmers to go organic. Some of this encouragement should come from organic certifiers and others in the business of processing, selling and promoting organics. Consumers can also play a role by letting grocery store produce managers and farmers they meet at farmers” markets and farm stands know that they want certified organic produce. Publications can do more by considering the growth and development of organic agriculture and its potential for helping American farms and farmers out of the desperate financial and personal circumstances in which so many of them are trapped.

Organic agriculture certainly can use more friends and advocates. At the same time, critical attention must be paid to some disturbing trends that seriously threaten the integrity of the organic movement. The most important of these is the current effort by large corporations that are trying to take over organic agriculture and that have in fact already had considerable success in doing so. As organics has grown, corporations have seen the potential for profits, and they have been trying to buy control of what was once a grassroots and family-based segment of agriculture.

General Mills is already the largest buyer of organic grains in the world, and other corporate giants, including Amway and even Disney, are also involved in what some people insist on calling “the organic industry.” If we don’t reverse this trend and get these corporate gorillas out of organics, we’ll see the idealism that has always characterized organics replaced by the same trends that are destroying conventional family farming: control by brokers, processors, banks and middlemen, plus consolidation and the “get big or get out” mentality. Again, informed consumers will have to play a role, organizing to insist on grassroots control of organics by family farmers and family farm coops, not massive food broker-marketers and multinationals.

Organics should also resolve to supply local and regional markets first. Too much of the growth in organics is fueled by long-distance international commerce in export commodities. In poor countries an emphasis on export crops – even if they are organic – often displaces basic food crops, and the result is increased poverty and malnutrition. Organic agriculture needs to come to grips with this ethical dilemma and put more emphasis on growing food for local consumption.

Also, organic food must not be a luxury that is beyond the reach of most buyers. As organic agriculture has grown, retail prices have become more reasonable. Because organic food is believed to be higher quality, healthier food, it will continue to fetch somewhat higher prices than conventional produce. But if its market share is to go on growing, organic produce must be affordable. America should not be a place where some people can afford food that’s fresh and healthy and others have to settle for less.

I certainly agree with Krebs that Americans need to know a lot more about the conditions that farmers and farm families currently face. We need to understand that an absurdly small slice of what we pay for farm products – often less than five per cent – goes to the farmers and farm workers who grow and harvest this food.

While getting the word out about the severity of America’s farm crisis is vitally important, farm advocates need to do more. We should inform both consumers and farmers about potential solutions to the crisis that is destroying our country’s heartland. Voices for rural America need to consider and debate organic and other sustainable methods of agriculture so that their readers can be fully informed consumers and food activists. Organic farming is a viable option for many more farmers than those who are presently farming organically, and changing to organics offers farmers and farm communities additional benefits by reducing water pollution from fertilizer runoff and eliminating toxic pesticides that threaten the health of farm families.

Organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds, can effectively counter the power this out-of-control technology poses to the future of family farms and farming communities. A fully developed organic agriculture has the potential to feed the world better and more efficiently than our present chemical-dependent industrial agriculture can.

We should all do what we can to strengthen the connections between farm communities and consumers. This work should include supporting a transition to organics in all sectors of U.S. agriculture and in agriculture throughout the world. Converting agriculture to the organic method can give us healthier food and a healthier environment. In my opinion, only a careful and responsible transition to organics can also ensure a prosperous, stable and healthy future for the farms and rural communities that nurture and sustain us all.

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