Spring 2009
John Ikerd. English photo.

Farmer-to-Farmer Keynote Speech, November 2, 2008

John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, is the author of Sustainable Capitalism; A Return to Common Sense; Small Farms are Real Farms; and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture. His Web site is

At MOFGA and Cooperative Extension’s Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, keynote speaker John Ikerd addressed the evolution of organic agriculture; the current interest in local foods; and the need to reclaim the soul of the organic movement.

Ikerd noted that sales of local foods grew from $4 billion in 2002 to $5 billion in 2007 and are projected to reach $11 billion by 2011. Organic food sales, now almost $20 billion, seem to be slowing, while sales of local foods are accelerating. Ikerd believes that the growing popularity of local foods is the latest phase in a long-term trend that is fundamentally transforming the American food system.

People support local foods for many reasons, including freshness, flavor, safety, nutrition, supporting and trusting local economies and farmers, security, and reducing fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The Slow Food watchwords good, clean and fair embody these principles, as does the Chefs Collaborative promotion of the “joys of local, seasonal, and artisanal cooking.”

A Continuum from the Sixties

So, Ikerd explained, the local food movement’s quest for food that has ecological, social and economic integrity continues the natural foods movement begun in the 1960s when “back to the earth” people left the American mainstream, produced their own food, bought food at farmers’ markets, and formed cooperative food buying clubs and natural food stores. The natural food movement spread during the ‘70s and ‘80s, as more people became aware of potential health, environmental and social problems associated with industrial foods – and, more recently, about the nutrient deficiency of industrial foods.

Animal products began to break into organic markets in the late ‘80s amid concern about the widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones in industrial livestock; about inhumane treatment of animals in large-scale confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs); and about exploitation of family farmers and farm workers in increasingly larger and more geographically concentrated operations.

By the late ‘80s, several natural foods cooperatives had formed small chains operating from three to 20 stores. In 1991, Whole Foods, then a six-store operation, initiated a consolidation process that ultimately reshaped the natural foods market, as did Wild Oats in 1993, followed by mainstream supermarkets adding lines of organic foods.

The large retailers and processors, having trouble dealing with large numbers of small, diverse farms and multiple certification programs, encouraged uniform national organic standards, and in 2002, the USDA launched these standards with the National Organic Program (NOP)–facilitating the ongoing industrialization of organics.

As a result, the share of the organic market held by independent natural foods and health foods stores, said Ikerd, fell from 62% in 1998 to 31% in 2003.  By 2006, Whole Foods had 186 stores in North America and the U.K., and Wild Oats operated 110 stores in the United States and Canada. In 2007, Whole Foods acquired Wild Oats. By 2007, mainstream corporate supermarkets had 47% of the organic foods market; natural foods stores and specialty retail chains had 46%; and direct sales at farmers’ markets and cooperative food-buying clubs had just 7% of the organic market.

This industrialization of organics was driven by a quest for greater economic efficiency, reduced prices for consumers, increased profits for producers, and making organic foods available to more people in more places. However, the national standards no longer defined organic by a commitment to the historical ecological, social and economic values of the natural and organic food movements. The social and ethical values of organic farming were replaced by written rules defining allowable and non-allowable inputs or materials and production practices. Economic values were left to “free-market” competition. “The organic movement had sold its soul,” said Ikerd.

The True Spirit of Organic

Historically, organic farming was as much a philosophy of life as a means of producing food. It was rooted in the values of biodynamic farming, first articulated in 1924 when Rudolph Steiner said, “Central to bio-dynamics is the concept that a farm is healthy only as much as it becomes an organism in itself – an individualized, diverse ecosystem guided by the farmer, standing in living interaction with the larger ecological, social, economic, and spiritual realities of which it is part.” The term organic referred to the organization of the farm as a living organism, Ikerd noted; and biodynamic farming was clearly spiritual as well as biological. Steiner was concerned that food grown on increasingly impoverished soil could not provide the inner sustenance needed for spiritual health.
Organic pioneer and publisher J. I. Rodale wrote, “The organiculturist farmer must realize that in him is placed a sacred trust, the task of producing food that will impart health to the people who consume it. As a patriotic duty, he assumes an obligation to preserve the fertility of the soil, a precious heritage that he must pass on, undefiled and even enriched, to subsequent generations.”

Sir Albert Howard, in An Agricultural Testament, said, “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture,” which is the foundation of any permanent society.  Howard contrasted the regenerative agriculture of the Orient at the time with the agricultural decline that accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire: “The agriculture of ancient Rome failed because it was unable to maintain the soil in a fertile condition… The farmers of the West are repeating the mistakes made by Imperial Rome.”

Advocates of organic farming of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, said Ikerd, understood that organic farming is about permanence and sustainability and thus must have ecological, social and economic integrity.  Today, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) defines organic farming as “a modern, sustainable farming system which maintains the long-term fertility of the soil and uses less of the Earth’s finite resources to produce high quality, nutritious food.” The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) further defines organic agriculture as an “agricultural production system that promotes environmentally, socially and economically sound production of food and fibres…” Unfortunately, national and international standards for organic production emphasize specific inputs, materials and practices rather than historical values.

Ikerd quoted Eliot Coleman: “Since the 1930s, organic farming has been subjected to the traditional three-step progression that occurs with any new idea directly challenging orthodoxy. First, the orthodoxy dismisses it. Then it spends decades contesting its validity. Finally, it moves to take over the idea.”

Jim Riddle, who has been intimately involved in the organic movement, including the NOP, talks about the Organic Constellation of Values: 23 values of true organic food production. He openly admits that only about one-third of these are “clearly included” in the national standards; another third is “somewhat included”; so about one-third of the values traditionally associated with organic farming are not included. “The USDA organic standards,” said Ikerd, “leave out the soul of organics – the social commitment to family and community, the spiritual values, the ethical and moral values that underlie the organic philosophy, and the concept of integrity among people, and trust, that Riddle says are among the foundational values of organic.”

Standardization, Ikerd continued, is the domain of industrial foods. It’s based on economic values, not organic values. “Organic, by its very nature, in the beginning, was a rejection of industrialism.  You can’t expect an industrial food system to embrace something that’s fundamentally anti-industrial.”

With the current trend, certified organic production may soon be the exclusive domain of industrial-minded producers, processors and retailers, said Ikerd. The organic producer groups advising governments on organic standards and certification will soon be dominated solely by economic motives. “Organics will become just another gimmick to maximize corporate profits,” said Ikerd; and “producers will be forced by competition to meet minimum standards at minimum costs, forcing them to adopt industrial methods to survive.”

A Viable Alternative

Fortunately, industrial organic is not the only viable alternative for organic farmers or consumers. Lady Balfour said in 1977, “I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the outlook of the farmer.” Today, said Ikerd, many people want more than industry assurance or government certification that their food is organic; they want to buy their food from people they know and trust.  “This is what the local foods movement is about. It is an attempt to reclaim the soul of organics.”

People tend to underestimate the potential of the local food movement because they associate local foods with farmers’ markets and community supported agricultural (CSA) organizations. The number of farmers’ markets in the United States increased from 1,755 to 4,385 between 1994 and 2006. The number of CSAs is now estimated at 1500 to 2000 nationwide compared with fewer than 100 in 1990. But Ikerd believes that the local foods movement is probably most accurately defined by the growing number of discriminating restaurants, supermarkets and other retail food markets committed to reconnecting with local communities and sourcing as much food as possible from local growers.  He described several of these.

Local foods are also making inroads into institutional food markets, including schools and hospitals. “People who eat in institutional settings are typically among the most vulnerable members of society – the young and the old – and yet they often have the fewest food choices and the lowest quality foods.” In response, more than 2,000 farm-to-school programs have been initiated in 40 states, and more than 100 colleges with local foods purchase an average of more than $200,000 per school per year. Hospitals, increasingly aware that major health problems are linked directly to poor diets, are starting farm-to-hospital programs to provide better nutrition and health and to offer greater care and compassion for those least able to care for themselves.

Ikerd thinks that our society is in a period that he calls The Great Transformation. The model for the sustainable, local food system of the future may resemble more closely multi-farm CSAs or local food buying clubs, such as Grown Locally, Idaho’s Bounty and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, offering a variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, cheese, baked goods, flowers, soaps and herbs. Many items are available as CSA shares, standing orders, or for week-by-week purchase. Customers may select on-farm pick-up, local delivery points, or delivery to the door for an added charge. Different products and different delivery schedules exist for different seasons.  Web sites allow producers to post what they have each week, ensuring that products sold are available for delivery, and allowing customers to place or revise orders on the site.

Community-based food associations could establish local assembly and distribution systems to pick up products at local farms and assemble customer orders. Delivery systems such as UPS and Fed-Ex will become more frequent as Internet sales for products increase. That would be the most efficient means of getting things to people, Ikerd believes. A local food association could help establish and maintain personal connections between farmers and customers through local food events, scheduled farm visits and dinners at the farm. “Even regional, national or international networks of local food systems could offer personal relationships to connect communities,” said Ikerd, “with the relationships within each of those communities ensuring the integrity of the system.

“We could have a system that helps rebuild families, that brings them together on family farms within communities, that helps rebuild communities and that’s all rooted in healthy foods – healthy foods, healthy farms, healthy communities, a healthy society.” Ikerd said he’s accused of being idealistic, “but I would argue that such changes are not only possible, they are highly likely, and something like that is absolutely essential,” since the industrial paradigm has more than run its course. Industrial agriculture depends heavily on cheap fossil energy, which is coming to an end. Today’s food system accounts for about 17% of all fossil energy used in the United States and requires more than 10 kcals of fossil energy for each kcal of food energy it produces. “Agriculture was about collecting solar energy so we could feed people!” said Ikerd. Industrial agriculture also accounts for an estimated 22.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., with large-scale confinement livestock operations contributing more than 80% of that.

Industrial agriculture also contributes to the growing social and economic inequities in America, where farm laborers and food industry workers (and farmers) in these often-dangerous jobs are among the lowest paid and most mistreated workers, and most receive few if any benefits. Diet-related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are most prevalent among lower income consumers. Recent scientific studies documenting the nutrient deficiencies of industrial foods may eventually explain the apparent paradox that many poor people are “over-fed but under-nourished.”

“Only a true organic agriculture, carried out by farmers who are committed to permanence, farming that has a soul to it, as well as efficiency in productivity, can provide long run food security,” said Ikerd. Various organic farming strategies reduce fossil energy use by 30% to 60 percent.  According to a recent study by the Rodale Institute, a shift from industrial to organic farming could sequester about 50% more CO2 and greenhouse gases than agriculture is releasing today, just by putting it back in the soil as organic matter.

“Working with nature requires knowledge and understanding of nature – it requires thinking – but it yields both ecological and economic rewards. The most knowledgeable, thoughtful, educated people I have met are the organic farmers, the people that are making it work, not the professors. It’s a thinking business, but because of that thinking you can reduce your reliance on the fossil energy, of off-farm inputs, you can improve the profitability at the same time you’re improving the ecological integrity.”

Cultivating Relationships

Organic farmers must know how to build and maintain personal relationships if they are to participate in sustainable, community-based food systems, Ikerd continued; they must have an ethical and moral concern for other people; they must be able to work with others, rather than compete, dominate and exploit. “They must develop a sense of personal connectedness and deep respect for other people as neighbors and customers – as friends. They must understand the needs and preferences of their particular customers in order to produce the things that their customers value enough to pay profitable prices.”

Ikerd predicts that the food system will change as much over the next 50 years as it did in the past fifty.  “With growing threats to ecological, social and economic sustainability, it is obvious that future changes must be in a direction fundamentally different from the past. The sustainable food movement – natural, organic, local – is at least as advanced today as the industrial food movement was 50 years ago. We are on the verge of a fundamental change within society that could make it possible within a decade to transform this food system to something that’s fundamentally different, to something that most people won’t even recognize when it appears on the scene. It’s there, but if we’re going to achieve that great potential that’s there to recreate a system that has ecological and social integrity, then we have to reflect that integrity within our relationships with each other and our relationships with the earth. We have to create a system of farming and a whole food system that reflects those ethical and social values if it’s going to be economically viable over the long run. If we’re going to create a permanent food system for a permanent society, we have to reclaim the soul of organics. And you folks and all of us are the ones that must reclaim it.”

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