Family Farmers in a Changing Organic World

Spring 2018

Emily Oakley spoke at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference about making a living on a small farm and about having input into national organic standards. Left to right: Jim Gerritsen (Wood Prairie Family Farm), Emily Oakley, and Eric Sideman and Dave Colson from MOFGA. English photo

As organic foods gain an ever wider audience and consumer base, family farmers find themselves in a challenging position. In the United States, organic has grown from a back-to-the-land movement into a $47 billion per year industry. What does that mean for smaller-scale farmers?

At MOFGA’s 2017 Farmer to Farmer Conference, Emily Oakley shared her experiences as a full-time organic farmer in Oklahoma, how that shapes her role as a producer-representative on the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and why it matters that growers get and stay certified, get counted and advocate for standards they believe in.

Oakley said that being on the NOSB is a lot of work with a lot of conflict within the organic movement. People told her she would be amazed at how influential corporations have become in organic. “I thought, it can’t be that bad. A year and a half later, I have a totally different perspective … but hopefully we can talk about some of the ways that we family-scale farmers can try to reverse that trend.”

Learning and Finding Land

Oakley and her partner, Mike Appel, both 40 and both city kids, studied agriculture in college, and Oakley went to graduate school at the University of California Davis. They interned at Full Belly Farm in California and at other farms and then decided to buy land in Oklahoma, initially leasing land on the fringe of Tulsa. Borrowing equipment and a barn helped them get established the first three years.

During those three years they sought land, using the NRCS soil map to help identify potentially viable ground. They eventually bought 20 acres for $105,000 with a “fixer-upper” house and an old barn, putting about the same amount into the house to make it livable. They bought the farm outright with about $35,000 from family help and the rest from income saved during the first three years of farming, during graduate school and while interning. They have not been in debt.

Their Three Springs Farm is a diversified, certified organic vegetable and fruit farm in eastern Oklahoma – zone 7, technically, although the temperature dropped to -27 F once last winter, said Oakley. They have 20 acres in this Ozark ecosystem – 3 in annuals, 1 in perennials and about 1 in rotational crops. They cultivate over two dozen crops and more than 100 varieties – all sold directly to their customers through the Tulsa Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and a 120-member CSA program in which members come to the stand weekly for 22 weeks to get what they want, and their purchases are subtracted from a balance. At the farmers’ market they use three stands in the summer. They hire three people to help during the busiest weeks. They also have some wholesale accounts.

Land at Three Springs that is not in production is in wildlife habitat with intentional wildlife plantings of wildflowers and native edible fruits.

The family manages the farm to avoid harming its pristine creek, in which they swim.

A Two-Person Operation

Pennsylvania organic farmers Anne and Eric Nordell inspired Oakley and Appel to have a two-person farm.

“We don’t have a lot of labor available in our area, and we don’t want to be forced to get out in the field at 7 or 8 every day because we have employees,” said Oakley. “If it rains, we want to stay inside and do office work and not feel that pressure. And in order to have employees, we’d have to scale up. And we’re not good at managing people.”

They also want to demonstrate the economic viability of small-scale farming – although a retired teacher has volunteered, free, on their two harvest days since their daughter was born four years ago. The farm is their full-time job, and they just finished their fourteenth season.

“We intentionally created that five-month marketing season,” said Oakley. 

“Our main goal is to be as small as we possibly can while also making a simple living … not to make a ton of money. We get more efficient the smaller we get.”

Another goal is to have low external inputs – which is at odds with hydroponics, noted Oakley.

A restful off-season is yet another goal. “You’re never totally off from the farm, but you can slow down, take time away,” said Oakley. “Our farm is totally dormant and in cover crops now. That is really helpful for regenerating us. We want to farm for the long-term – not to burn out.”

They use tractors and tillage so that they don’t have to hire labor, spending about $150 per year for tractor diesel.

“Ideally we rototill one or at maximum two times a year on a given bed,” said Oakley. “We don’t double-crop any beds, and half of our 3 acres of annuals are in cover crops for nine months of the year, and the other half for seven months. We’ve been moving away from chicken manure for philosophical and practical concerns, even though we’re in chicken country and it’s cheap and accessible. For the last two years we haven’t applied it. We hope to rely exclusively on cover crops. There’s not a lot of research about the long-term viability of that.”

The Economics of Hard Work and Enough Rest

Oakley provided figures for their 2017 five-month marketing period (probably a good eight-month work year):

Income $112,000
Expenses $32,000
Net $80,000

Oakley noted that as their income increased, their labor hours generally have decreased.

They may lose some customers by not growing in winter, said Oakley, but their core customer base is understanding when they end on Labor Day “to rest our soils and our souls” after working so hard in summer. They do that hard work knowing that “we can make more in the seven weeks from July to mid-August than in the other 15 weeks we market combined.” To farm year-round, they would lose some of that summer concentration of income as the would have to divert resources to start new seedlings and transplants, etc.

They take October to January off except for small jobs, such as planting garlic for a day and ordering seed. February and March aren’t too busy, but April through August or September “is pretty crazy,” said Oakley.

Cheap land in Oklahoma allowed them to avoid debt and its accompanying stress. Before investing in the farm, they ask if an investment will generate the income they want it to.

They try to save $30,000 to $40,000 per year for retirement, recognizing that the physical work of farming is already getting more difficult. They used some of that savings to buy a rental house near where they market in order to diversify their income – something they learned from the Agrarian Elders Conference.

They don’t work on Sundays; they try to work from 8 to 5; and they try to make time for their family, themselves or to volunteer … as with the NOSB.

Navigating the NOSB

One of the primary activities of the NOSB is to make recommendations to the USDA National Organic Program for the national list of allowed and prohibited substances in certified organic production. The USDA doesn’t have to listen to every recommendation that the NOSB makes, Oakley explained, but it cannot add a material to the national list unless the NOSB approves it, and the NOSB reviews every material on the list every five years to make sure it still meets the standards.

“For example,” said Oakley, “at our last meeting, we voted to remove vitamin B1 from crops production because a technical report showed that it wasn’t effective.”

The NOSB also makes recommendations on practice issues, such as hydroponics or the use of organic seed. 

To submit a public comment to the NOSB, Oakley said to Google “National Organic Standards Board” and then follow the menu for recommendations, subcommittee notes, meetings, meeting agendas, resources, subcommittee proposals, and finally, how to comment – in writing, by webinar or by attending a meeting. Commenting during a webinar is powerful, she said, but you have only three minutes. People (often lobbyists) who have petitioned to use certain substances often comment this way, while busy farmers infrequently do, “so when farmers speak, it’s really important, and they get listened to … their voice is magnified. I cannot over-exaggerate this,” said Oakley. “The main farmers who are commenting right now are the founding farmers of the organic movement. As they get older, it’s that much more important that younger farmers start getting involved in this process. If younger farmers don’t start participating, the standards will continue to evolve away from the heart of the movement, because there won’t be enough resistance.” The pressure to adopt standards that are friendly to big agribusiness is immense, she noted, but even with thousands of comments on an issue, all are read – including by USDA staff.

Oakley is on the crops, certification, accreditation, and compliance committee because of her interest in an issue called “eliminating the incentives to convert native ecosystems to organic agriculture.” She is also on the materials and GMO committees.

A Changing Marketplace

The organic marketplace has changed in the 14 years Oakley has been on her farm. Organic products from all over the country and world are widely available in grocery stores now. People have proposed partnering with them to try to create Blue Apron Three Springs Farm.

Three Springs’ customer base is aging, and millennials aren’t cooking so much. People with families have limited time to cook and limited knowledge about how to cook. Nationally farmers are being pushed to offer personalized CSAs (in which customers choose which items they want from the farm).

Also, “We have organic Doritos. Do I have to say any more?” asked Oakley. “If they think that somebody in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is going to buy organic Doritos, what does that tell us about this changing marketplace?”

Unlike 14 years ago, nobody asks them what “organic” means now. “They see our USDA seal, and they trust it.” Documentaries and “buy fresh, buy local” movements have increased the number of customers thinking about where their food comes from. So more farmers – including conventional agribusinesses – are expanding into the organic sector.

“Many of us have reassured ourselves that while agribusiness organics is not ideal, at least it’s better than the land being grown conventionally,” said Oakley. “That’s an argument I told myself often and one I’ve heard from others. But there comes a point in which the system, as in the case of hydroponics, becomes so far removed from the heart of the movement as to become unrecognizable … Those large corporations who have nine toes in conventional farming and a pinkie toe in organics are actively advocating for standards that are conventional-farming-friendly,” including those related to hydroponics, animal welfare, organic herbicides and others.

Meanwhile, “small farmers are feeling the pressure to adapt to customers who want choice and [to] doing more markets per week to expand accessibility and convenience while not necessarily making more money.” At the same time, customers see negative headlines or competing research claims, they grow skeptical about organics, and they use that as an excuse not to pay a little extra for organics.

However, “I also think that we have a really diverse organic consumer base,” said Oakley, from “the person who will buy organic milk for their kids because they don’t want hormones in their kids’ milk” to “somebody who buys all organic, comes to the farmers’ market, has a CSA, is totally committed [to] organic, local when possible.

“We’re tapping into the diehard end of the spectrum, and those are the consumers who best understand why we do what we do, who share those same values of the broader environment and lifestyle reasons, and aren’t just concerned about the health benefits to themselves.”

People often claim at NOSB meetings to know what the organic consumer is, “but I think the organic consumer is extremely diverse,” said Oakley. Agribusiness is capturing the low-hanging-fruit consumer, she added, but is “banking on customers thinking of us, the smaller, family-scale farmers, and our practices … We are really and truly still the face of organics, even at a Walmart.”

While some customers buy organics to avoid pesticides or GMOs and because they are concerned about the environmental consequences of growing food, Oakley said that farmers “don’t need to pander to that dumbing down of organic thinking but to help build up the biodiversity implications and get customers understanding the broader work we’re doing as organic farmers.”

Of the 14,185 certified organic farms in the United States in 2016, 73 percent grew under 180 acres (including pasture and rangeland). When the NOSB hears that those smaller-scale or family-scale farmers get fed up with all the chaos and leave the movement, some NOSB members say, “Fine, let them go. We’ve got big organic farms that can fill their place and can feed the wholesale market.” But, said Oakley, if the small-scale family farmers leave the movement, the whole label collapses because of that 73 percent under 180 acres.

“That’s a huge motivating force, and I hope you feel empowered by those numbers. But the people who comment before the NOSB are the people that the NOSB hears, and they’re disproportionately loud because they can and do hire lobbyists. The small-scale farmers cannot, nor do we even want to go into that realm. That’s not why we got into this. But if small-scale farmers aren’t commenting and are not vocal, it’s really easy for everyone to say that silence means consent.”

Oakley showed a picture of Wholesum Harvest tomatoes at the Tulsa Whole Foods in mid-August when Three Springs Farm was also in its peak of tomato production. Because of that competition, Three Springs sells its slicing tomatoes at market for $3 per pound. The Wholesum Harvest tomatoes are labeled as greenhouse-grown, but their hydroponic cultivation is not revealed (they’re called container-grown), and they’re covered in disease, said Oakley. “Do you think that this expansion of hydroponics is going to affect you?” she asked.

“The organic label has become a victim of its own success,” she continued, “and smaller-scale farmers have a philosophical bone to pick with hundreds of acres of monoculture lettuce and hydroponics being an even broader step away from the diverse systems originally envisioned by organic farming. Hydroponics is the equivalent of organic CAFOs for vegetables, and this is why farmers are so concerned by its allowance. It’s symbolic of trends toward agribusiness organics, which is totally counter to what created the movement in the first place. While many of us direct-to-consumer or smaller-scale growers know our customer base and have loyal followings, we’re all subject to the effects of pricing. A flooding of the organic market by hydroponic operations will bring downward pressure on the very crops that small-scale operations depend on to remain profitable. It is no coincidence that hydroponic operations have cherry picked the most profitable crops to sell, the crops that are the bread and butter of local farms – salad mixes and baby greens, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers. Is anyone growing hydroponic cabbage?!”

The greatest challenges faced by those farming in soil are building soil fertility and weed control – taking the long view in farming, Oakley said – and those are the two practices that hydroponics aims to avoid by growing in an artificial environment. “Weeds can be blocked out by plastic or cement, and plants can be fed liquid fertility on a continuous or near constant basis.” It’s not as egregious as giving plants a steroid of synthetic fertilizers like urea, she said, but it’s based on the same concept, only using organic inputs instead of urea; it’s input substitution.

The Way Forward

Family-scale farmers built the principles of organic farming and created the market label and market base, and those farmers need to be active and vocal, said Oakley. Certification has value because it protects farmers and consumers, and we don’t want to go back to when “organic” could mean anything to anyone. “We are sharing the label with corporations that are profit-driven and are not passionately motivated, but don’t let that be a reason to abandon the label or opt out of certification … There is tremendous, enormous power in family-scale farmers getting certified, being counted and advocating for standards we believe in. Write a comment, speak on a webinar, or … attend a meeting. What we’re all debating is our vision of organic agriculture. Is it just input substitution on any scale and under any conditions, or is it the broader view of the farm ecosystem, the surrounding environment, a philosophy that guides each management decision? Let’s all get active; let’s all let our voice be heard; and let’s all tell the USDA and the NOSB that that is what organic means to us, and we are the heart of the movement.”


Asked what inputs hydroponic growers use, Oakley said finding out has been very hard because the growers say it’s proprietary information. Some say they’re making compost tea; some are using hydrolyzed soybean meal (a highly soluble form of nitrogen). Hydroponics depends totally on outside inputs, she said. Hundreds of acres of hydroponic blueberries are grown in peat moss and coco coir. “That’s a lot of input. How that water is recaptured after it goes through the container is a question. Is it just going back into the ground? What are the effects of those nutrients, even if they are organic, in the broader environment?”

She said that an aquaponic operation that had a power outage in winter lost everything, including fish, within eight hours due to freezing. “These are input-intensive not just on the fertility side but on what it takes to build these structures, the energy used. Some are in enclosed rooms or containers that require artificial lighting.”

Oakley clarified that the NOSB did not vote to allow hydroponics when it met last fall. “We had a motion before us to prohibit it. Seven of us voted to prohibit it and eight did not vote to prohibit it. That does not mean that the NOSB has now said that hydroponics are allowed. All it is is a failed motion to prohibit. It just leaves us with the status quo. People who are going to rush into organic hydroponics as a result of that do so on shaky ground.”

Asked, “Why not move to hydroponics and let the forest grow back?” Oakley responded that insufficient inputs exist for everyone to grow that way. “It’s pretty clear that what you use on your farm is less than what someone will use on hundreds of acres of hydroponics.”

Oakley mentioned the movement for an add-on “regenerative” or “family farmer” label to USDA organic – one that would consider the CO2 issue. Carbon sequestration became a huge talking point for the NOSB, she said; unfortunately it’s not in the Organic Foods Production Act, so it’s not something the NOSB can pen legal authority on. When a friend did a pro-bono carbon sequestration and carbon footprint analysis of Three Streams Farm, the friend’s boss said, “I’ve got to come to Oklahoma and see this, because I don’t believe it.” The numbers were so low, said Oakley, that they seemed impossible. That kind of information can add a lot of value for small-scale organic farmers.

Asked if the problem is with the Organic Foods Production Act or with USDA’s failure or unwillingness to enforce the provisions of the act, Oakley said, “The law was created over a long period with a lot of time, a lot of thought, a lot of effort by many people. I think the problems reside in its enforcement and, to some extent, the issue of scale. People say organics is scale-neutral, but when you have an Aurora Dairy, I’m not sure if it really is scale-neutral. I think there is a point at which it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to fully apply all of the standards. That’s where enforcement comes in.”

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