Note: Much of this article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of the Reader. Because it is an issue we are often asked about and one that we find extremely important, we have updated the article to be up-to-date.-Editor]

Not so very long ago, organic food had a reputation as being “weird,” for “hippies,” or “only vegetarian,” and was sometimes considered to be a food group that contained “only brown rice, beans and granola.” Often organic food was almost an impossible challenge to find—if you did not have access to the Co-op, or another store of our kind, you were simply out of luck.

Today, sales of organic food are the fastest growing sector of the retail grocery market. Organic Trade Association figures indicated that U.S. sales of organic food totaled about $14 billion for 2005, up from about $5 billion in 1997. The OTA reported sales of almost $17 billion in 2006, or about three percent of U.S. food sales. It seems that almost everything a shopper would want is now available in an organic variant and you might think that would spell success for all sorts of small farmers and food processors. The real story though, is not so simple or pretty.

An attractive investment

Small businesses of all kinds have been swept up into the growing corporate, global economy and the food industry is no exception. The rapid sales growth of organic food has made it an attractive investment for even the biggest players in the conventional food industry. General Mills made its first foray into the organic market back in 1995 with the introduction of Gold Medal Organics. Kraft bought out Boca in 2000 and Heinz acquired substantial equity in Hain Celestial in 1999 and consequently in all of Hain’s many natural foods subsidiaries. When you trace the major shareholders in these food corporations you find even bigger giants with names like Monsanto, Citigroup, Exxon/Mobil, Philip Morris/Altria, Wal-Mart and others.

Dr. Phil Howard of Michigan State University has been studying the “corporatization” of organics for several years. His most current research shows a new trend in ownership; investment firms are buying up organic companies, presumably as a result of the sales growth of organics among consumers. Investors or processors have acquired full or part ownership of Kettle Foods, Late July and Smart Balance/Earth Balance in the past two years. Investment firms also have ownership in Aurora Dairies, Rudi’s Organic Bakery, nSpired Natural Foods, Fantastic Foods and others. Dr. Howard’s research identifies just eleven major independent organic companies, along with four major organic cooperatives. Additionally, mass-market retailers are spinning off their own organic house brands and specialty stores at an increasing rate. Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club have three private labels; Whole Foods has three; Safeway has two private brands and a specialty store. Our biggest wholesale distributor, United Natural Foods, has developed four private brands including Woodstock Farms, Grateful Harvest and Organic Baby and has purchased several independent companies as well. Graphic representations of Dr. Howard’s work are available at his website: http://www.msu.edu/percent7Ehowardp/organicindustry.html or at ours: http://www.willystreet.coop/corp_ownership

The “corporatization” of the organic and natural foods industry has many people worried about how organic standards might be affected, as well as wondering about the spirit of the organic movement. There are also environmental and labor issues to be considered as huge retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco jump into the organic market in a big way. Wal-Mart is contracting with producers in China to bring in their private label organic foods at deep discounts, but many people have concerns surrounding China’s dubious record on labor issues and questions about China’s organic standards.

Still independent

The good news is that there are still lots of independent organic food producers around. Many of them are located right here in southern Wisconsin. You may argue that some of these products are more expensive than the mass-produced versions, but they actually more accurately reflect the true cost of food. Often, when we choose products from independent producers, we are supporting smaller family operations or businesses that employ members of their local communities at fair wages. This helps keep local economies strong. It is possible that as fuel costs continue to climb we may see locally produced goods becoming less expensive than national brands, due to lower shipping costs. Many times independents have better track records on environmental and labor issues than their corporate counterparts. Many experts and organizations recommend that we consumers “vote” against corporate policy with our wallets. An admirable sentiment, but can you buy the foods you need and want without patronizing big corporations? One of the advantages the Co-op has over a conventional supermarket is the flexibility to purchase goods from a variety of independent producers, not just the standard fare from a single distributor. We also try to give you the information you need to make an informed choice. We believe Co-op shoppers can declare corporate independence, bypass “industrial-scale” organic food and still eat well. Care to try it for a week?

Fresh local produce

Let’s start with something easy—fresh produce in July is a no-brainer when it comes to supporting independent growers and how lucky and grateful we are for that! As we near the height of the local growing season, the Produce department is bursting with almost every color and flavor you might want. Our Produce department is proud to count about 25 independent Wisconsin farmers among its vendors throughout the year and this is the peak season to enjoy their products. You will find changes in availability as the growing season progresses—if your favorite vegetable isn’t here right now, why not try something new while you are waiting. By supporting these local growers, you are assured of product that comes to your table at the peak of freshness and nutritional quality. You also can rest easy knowing that you are supporting growers that nurture our waterways and soil and want a cleaner, safer environment for their families and yours.

Our local growers are always working to bring us—and you—the highest quality produce in abundant variety and quantity. Keewaydin Farms is one example. After the punishing floods of last August and a winter that really lived up to the definition, Rufus Haucke at Keewaydin was optimistic this spring. The Haucke family is building a new packing shed and certified kitchen; the farm is now certified as a local fair trade enterprise and they still find time to grow delicious vegetables. See the Producer Profile in this issue of the Reader for the full story on Keewaydin Farms.

Two of our produce growers are reaching out to fill needs in other Co-op departments. Troy Gardens and Garden to Be are growing fresh wheatgrass for the juice bar in addition to the sprouts, cat grass and micro greens they deliver to the Produce department. Claire Strader, the farmer at Troy Gardens, said they spent months in trials with various seed, light and water conditions to achieve the product they now sell to the Juice Bar. Troy’s wheatgrass is sold exclusively at Willy Street Co-op.

Contrast this local bounty with the huge organic produce industry centered in California. There are more than 2,500 registered organic growers and processors in California, many of them independents, but almost all the produce shipped out of that state comes from four companies that control land in California, Arizona, Mexico and even further afield. You’ve probably seen some of their glossy ads—healthy looking kids and lush, green fields of vegetables. Consider that Earthbound Farms, a family-owned operation, has grown from 2-1/2 organic acres in 1984 to over 40,000 acres today. Earthbound is the largest grower of organic produce in the U.S., with more than 100 kinds of fruits and vegetables under cultivation. Their products can be found in at least 75 percent of grocery stores across the country. They control 80 percent of the organic lettuce and salad mix market, shipping 13.5 million servings each week—more than 200 semi-loads pull out of their warehouse daily! They also grow and process an average of 27 million servings of conventional salad greens each week, sold mainly to large scale food service providers. Earthbound Farms is one-third of a partnership with Natural Selection Foods and Tanimura & Antle, another longtime family-owned produce grower in California.

Dairy

The Grocery department also provides us with goodness from independent producers throughout the year. The Dairy aisle is anchored by Organic Valley, a cooperative of about 700 family farmers around the country and by Wisconsin Organics, which is a dairy supplied by regional family farmers. Although Organic Valley members farm all over the U.S., their milk is packaged and sold in the area where it originated to preserve maximum freshness. In addition to milk and butter, you can choose yogurt from several independent dairies: Sugar River, Whispering Meadow, Seven Stars and Nancy’s from Springfield Creamery are a few to look for.

Eggs, meat and soy

It’s easy to support independents if you are a consumer of eggs or meat. Eggs are a grocery category that consists solely of independent producers. The farms vary in size, and not all are organic, so you do have some variables to factor into your choice. The meat case is almost entirely filled with products from small, mostly local, farms. No matter what your meat preference is, you will find a product grown close to home—and don’t forget to check the frozen meats as well.

Maybe you don’t eat meat? If your preference runs to soy you are still in luck. Simple Soyman is a Wisconsin company that has long been a favorite with Co-op shoppers. Their products can be found in the Dairy coolers.

Bulk

The Bulk department offers us food choices from independent producers too. Nuts and dried fruits come from Tierra Farm and Big Tree. Farmer-owned Heartland Mill and Grain Place Foods produce flour, rolled oats and other grains. Lundberg Family Farms grows several varieties of bulk and packaged rice. Riscossa pasta is a family-owned Italian company and Foulds Milling in Illinois manufactures pasta under a variety of commercial labels. Fresh granola comes down the street from Nature’s Bakery. A non-profit group manufactures Golden Temple granola, but Hain Celestial owns the Breadshop brand of cereals and granola. Don’t forget to pour a cup of locally roasted java to accompany that granola—have you tried Etes-Vous Prets, or Just Coffee to jump-start your day?

Packaged grocery

Finding independent producers in the packaged grocery aisles is getting trickier all the time. Wholesale distributors tend to carry the big national brands that everyone recognizes. Unfortunately, that popularity makes those labels ripe pickings when it comes to corporate buy-outs. There are still some strong independents out there—look for products from Eden Foods, Bionaturae, Lundberg Family Farms, Eastwind, Pacific Natural Foods, Enrico’s, Nature’s Path and Amy’s Kitchen to name just a few. Amy’s has experienced rapid growth the past few years, but they still source as much local (to them) produce as possible. You can choose local independent producers too—try Nature’s Bakery, Natural Ovens, and RP’s Pasta for starters.

Kickapoo Gold is a new name in the Grocery aisle. This organic maple syrup is tapped and bottled near Viroqua, Wisconsin by Phil and Sarah Gudgeon. The trees they tap are managed in a sustainable way, within a buffer zone that protects them from contaminants. The Gudgeons must follow other criteria in order to sell an organic product including using approved filtering and cleaning agents, regulating the number and size of taps used, and tracking the syrup from sap collection to the point of sale.

Renaissance Farm is an herb farm located near Spring Green. Farmer Mark Olson raises herbs to sell at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, but has also developed retail products using his herbs. Look for his Zalta line of herb-infused sea salt above the spices in the Bulk aisle. Look for Renaissance Farm vinaigrettes with the salad dressings in the packaged Grocery aisles.

Cheese

Renaissance Farm basil shows up in the Cheese cooler as well, where you will find it flavoring Otter Creek Pesto Cheddar cheese and in the freezer in the form of delicious pesto.

Otter Creek Cheese partners with another local favorite too. Master cheese maker Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese takes raw milk from Otter Creek’s pastured cows to create the seasonal Cheddar cheeses sold under the Otter Creek label. Otter Creek is a family owned organic farm near Black Earth that has received numerous certifications for their environmental stewardship, humane animal treatment and fair employment practices.

Wisconsin cheese makers produce most of the cheeses in our case. The companies vary in size and farming practices, but the knowledgeable staff in the Cheese department is available to make sense of all the differences.

Baking mixes and oils

Choosing independently produced baking mixes and oils can be problematic. Spectrum Naturals was recently acquired by Hain Celestial, which also markets oil under the Hain and Hollywood labels. Loriva oils became a subsidiary of nSpired Foods in 2000—nSpired also owns Cloud Nine, Tropical Source, Sunspire and Maranatha Nut Butters, among others. You can choose oils from Eden Foods, Colavita or Oskri Organics for an independent source—Oskri Organics is located in Ixonia, Wisconsin, about an hour east of Madison. Try baking supplies from Dr. Oetker, Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur Flour, or Wanda’s. There are several independent bakeries represented in the bread aisle—most of them are also local. Enjoy fresh baked goodness from Kamm’s Farm, Stella’s, Madison Sourdough, Nature’s Bakery, or Clasen’s for starters.

Frozen foods

Are frozen foods the savior of dinner at your house? It’s tough to maintain your independence in this department. This is a category the big players dominate—probably because so many of us spend so much money in this area. In addition to products from Amy’s Kitchen, try pizza from Rising Moon or A.C. LaRocco, or snacks from Ian’s Natural Foods, Health is Wealth, or Ling Ling’s. Don’t forget the pasta from RP’s Pasta here in Madison! Sno Pac Foods of Caledonia, Minnesota supplies a complete line of organic frozen fruits and vegetables to round out your meals when fresh isn’t on the menu.

If you need some independently made vegetarian grillers for your cookout on the Fourth, try some tempeh, locally made by Bandung restaurant, or burgers from Natures Bakery or Amy’s Kitchen. Big corporations control the rest of the veggie burger market. Kellogg bought Gardenburger in November 2007.

Frozen desserts

Don’t forget the Sibby’s or Chocolate Shoppe ice cream—a cool, local finish to your “Independents” cookout.

Cleaning products

We all need to spend some time cleaning our personal spaces and this is an area in which we can support independent companies and the environment at the same time. Cleaning and paper products from companies like Seventh Generation, Lifetree, and Ecover are all designed to be non-toxic and biodegradable and these companies are still privately owned.

Personal care products

After cleaning your personal space, you might be ready to clean your person! Clorox purchased Burt’s Bees in October 2007, so you may want to try liquid or bar soaps from Dr. Bronner’s, Carrot Tree, or Kiss My Face instead. Other body care products from independents include Aubrey, and Four Elements. LuSa is a favorite of many Co-op shoppers. You may be familiar with this line under its former name of Queen Bee. LuSa products are hand made in Viroqua by the Wolf family and a few employees. They use local, natural and organic ingredients and packaging made of recycled materials. LuSa’s employees boast a zero carbon footprint for their commute—everyone walks to work! Try supplements from New Chapter, Enzymatic Therapy, Nature’s Plus and of course, our own Willy Street Co-op label.

Chocolate

That covers just about all the major categories that most of us need to get through the week—except chocolate! This important food group is an easy place to declare independence and you can support fair trade at the same time. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a nibble from Equal Exchange, Alter Eco, Endangered Species or Divine. Hershey’s added the Dagoba brand to their premium line in October 2006.

Vote with your wallet

It is increasingly difficult to live in our society without some dependence on corporations. More and more often, we hear about workers being forced to take cuts in wage and insurance benefits, record-breaking profits for oil companies make the news and corporate CEO’s take home pension packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It may seem like a small thing to vote with your wallet, but give it a try.

The agri-business model that dominates the food industry dictates prices paid to farmers, often far too little for them to make any profit at all without an off-farm job or two. The typical American family now spends a much lower percentage of its income on food than in any other country in the world—much less than we used to spend when systems were more localized. According to the USDA, in 1929, the average household in the U.S. spent 20.3 percent of income on food. By 2004 that number had dropped to 5.4 percent spent for groceries. If you add in the money we spend eating out, the number rises to just 9.5 percent of income. In most places around the globe it is typical to spend 20-30 percent of income on food. A 2001 study by the Crossroads Resource Center indicates “...if the region’s consumers were to buy 15 percent of their food from local sources, it would generate as much income for the region as two-thirds of farm subsidies.” This would help keep family farmers on their land and might help to break the cycle of corporatization. Imagine what could happen if we were willing to spend an extra five to ten percent on good food each month.

As member-owners of the Co-op we have the privilege of choosing where our food comes from. Declare your independence and buy from independents.