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Big Organic and the Persistence of the Small

When Amazon kicked off its overhaul of Whole Foods at the end of August by slashing prices on a range of top-selling items, stocks in groceries fell, and the big box stores took notice of an aggressive competitor. While organics still account for under five percent of grocery sales, a growing market is clearly attractive both to the food industry and to farmers, who increasingly convert to organic to take advantage of premium prices. The biggest organic labels now show up in Wal-Mart and Target stores from Oregon to Florida, giving more consumers than ever access to healthier, more environmentally friendly food. 

Increased scale streamlines the food system, from the farm field to the grocery store. It’s efficient to harvest large quantities of single crops all at once, and to store and transport them in large, combined shipments. Grocery buyers can work more easily with one company than with many independent producers. Big distributors work with producers who can provide a consistent supply, and can offer discounts on high volumes of product to stores with enough money and storage space. Savings get passed on to customers, who can easily fill their carts with reliable brands. Built to fit the national food system and the current forms of consumer demand, it’s a system that works. 


It’s also a system that tends to push out or absorb smaller players. Large corporations have been buying up small organic companies for a long while now (see the “organic ownership chart” included here: www. Most formerly independent distributors today are owned by Tree of Life, or by United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), which recently also bought Albert’s, one of the leading distributors of organic produce. (UNFI is a major distributor for your Co-op.) Food producers and stores working with this systemhave to play by its rules in order to take advantage of competitive pricing. That’s not easy for small farms or local processors working in community kitchens—or for co-ops and small grocery stores. For some time, Whole Foods has been reducing space for small and local producers in favor of Big Organic brands. Now that’s starting to happen at many co-ops as well, as stores try to scale up and maximize efficiency in order to survive. Many consultants from groups like National Cooperative Grocers (founded in 1999 to share resources among co-ops) recommend that stores add new sites, carry more conventional product, and adopt a recognizable brand identity in order to fit the mold of the large-scale system. That seems like a pragmatic strategy—and why not? If Big Organic is so successful, is an attachment to older ways of doing things anything more than nostalgia? Maybe the difficulties of the small scale are simply the growing pains of a movement that’s moving into the mainstream. 


It’s a question that goes back at least to 1990, the year the USDA nationalized organic standards. The organic ideal had begun as a response to the 1950s industrialization of agriculture. The founders of the movement saw the damage inflicted on ecosystems by industrial methods, and wanted whole, natural, sustainably produced foods, free of anything made in a laboratory. They didn’t trust agribusiness to meet those demands, and so they started small organic farms, urban gardens, and grocery co-ops, with a focus on region and community as the context for autonomy and control over the production and sourcing of their food. 

By the time of the USDA hearings, some producers had already scaled up, trying to expand the market for organics, and established, conventional food corporations had purchased many of them. Those corporations pushed the USDA to establish standards friendly to an industrial-style system, including allowances for feedlot-style dairies and synthetic additives in packaged foods. Many organic pioneers fought with some success against what they saw as a dilution of principles, resulting in an uneasy compromise that left the field open to many of the methods of Big Food. 

The folks who raised a ruckus during the 1990 hearings saw some inherent drawbacks to the large scale, and some intrinsic advantages of smaller systems. Sustainability and resilience are crucial concerns for any food system (or any business). The large West Coast vegetable growers, to meet the demands for efficiency exerted by the food system, generally plant monocultures (single species, or closely-related species). Monocultures drain soil nutrients, rendering plants less able to fight off the diseases and pests that come with lack of species diversity, so that growers have to bring in more off-farm inputs to make up for depleted fertility and heightened fragility. Weed control on these farms depends on heavy tillage (plowing), which damages soil structure, reducing its capacity to retain water—which, in the west, is increasingly scarce. A drought could bring major crop failures, and fragile topsoil could be blown or washed away in storms. High-density meat and dairy operations produce the same range of problems. If a crisis affects one area, the big companies can move production to other fields, but an agriculture that extracts more from the land than it gives back will hit a limit at some point. 


Smaller-scale farming, to be successful, calls for ingenuity and invention. Small organic farms, without the option of moving to new ground in bad times,generally practice frequent rotations of diverse crops, planting densely to minimize bare ground. Some farmers try to eliminate plowing almost entirely, seeding fall crops directly into the residues of earlier harvests, which act as a weed-suppressing mulch and a soil bacteria-nourishing compost. Graziers employ methods of frequent livestock rotation that maximize the welfare of animals and grasses, whose deep roots build soil structure and feed crucial underground fungi. Such practices can lead to continually improved ecosystems, reducing erosion and runoff and restoring the resilience of damaged land. Small organic farms also typically produce more calories per acre, and foods higher in the essential micronutrients and fats healthy plants and animals develop in symbiosis with good soil. 

Smaller systems have the potential for high economic resilience as well. A spike in fuel prices will make it expensive for big farms to operate machinery, to refrigerate product in storage and shipping, and to deliver it over large distances, and those costs will be passed on to stores and customers. A regional producer, with shorter storage periods and delivery routes, will be hit less hard. Stores with long-standing connections to local producers will have survival strategies already in place, and the price of local food should stay comparatively steady, especially given an economy in which much of the money spent in a community circulates locally. In turn, a rootedness in agriculture can strengthen a region; farms not only stay put (rather than moving overseas to seek more profitable conditions), but can also support an economy and culture in substantial ways. 


As an example of what happens when small farms disappear, consider the changes industrial agriculture have made in rural America. Country towns had sprung up initially as commercial centers for family farms, which anchored stable economies of skilled tradespeople, shop owners, small processors, food entrepreneurs and local banking systems. Federal policy pushed farms to expand, mechanize, and focus on commodity crop production, rather than food for their communities (or even for human consumption). Farmers took out loans to make that shift, and then began foreclosing in vast numbers during the fuel crisis of the 1970s. Agribusiness corporations bought up the land, making tenants of the few farmers who remained. Without the anchor of the farm, self-sufficient economies and cultures crumbled; rural people moved or commuted to the cities, and chains replaced local businesses in small towns. Life in the country became more vulnerable, fragile and desperate, and produced a sense of being passed over that has finally become big news in the wake of recent state and national elections, so powerfully driven by the rural population. 


Until there’s a major shift in our market economy, and a corresponding change in patterns of consumption, Organic probably needs to be Big and Small, an industry and a movement. The problem, again, is that the inherent biases of the big food system tend to eradicate smaller-scale enterprises and move toward an effective monopoly. A co-op featuring local products, and responsive to the desires of its Owners, helps preserve meaningful choice, emphasizing diversity and unique value. Small-scale production tends to be more transparent, while it’s difficult to know whether the ingredients in a can of food processed by an internationally recognized company were produced under desirable conditions—and it’s hard to be confident that the CEO of a big food corporation will reliably prioritize the health of land and people. How can we avoid diluting the values of health, sustainability and autonomy in this market? Scaling up production will face the same demands of efficiency that dictate the methods of the big growers; expanding a co-op in an attempt to compete seems like a recipe for disaster, since there will always be bigger and more ruthless players to drive prices down even more. 


In nature, the best adaptive strategies are flexibility and diversification, and the standards just might apply to food systems and businesses. One approach might be to create more coordinated systems of smaller players, in which each participant retains its unique identity and way of working. Fortunately, a variety of such efforts are already underway in our region. Organizations like the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative allow members to maintain an appropriate scale for their land, while giving them access to marketing and retail opportunities. Food hubs create centralized storage, distribution and/ or marketing networks for regional producers, creating a locally rooted “one-stop shop” for stores and individual consumers (for more on food hubs, and a range of additional possibilities for strengthening a local food movement, see Patrick Schroeder’s article “What Is Next for the Local Food System?” in the September issue of the Reader: www.willystreet. coop/reader/september-2017/what-next-for-the-local-food-system). The Wisconsin Farmers’ Union, a collaboration increasingly between small farms, works to strengthen rural communities, keep feedlot livestock operations from polluting the countryside, and change government regulations in favor of home-scale food production. Cooperative models of all kinds are popping up in our region to scale up the small on its own terms. 


How can you and your Co-op do more to strengthen small-scale systems, and to remain solvent in the current market? We at the Willy Street Co-op have a long history of working closely with small producers, locally and elsewhere. Owner involvement—not only buying local, but communicating with the Co-op and its Board of Directors—helps support the continuation of those relationships. Support the Retail Ready Lab program, which helps to nuture local small vendors. 

If you have bigger ideas for the form and role of the Co-op, share those as well! How can we diversify? What if our next projectwere to manage a storage and distribution site for a producer-owned foodhub? What if we created more processing facilities, in which local producers or co-op workers could can, pickle and dry more local food for the off-season, generating value and creating unique products? With what regional organizations could we collaborate? How can we go in new directions to fill unmet needs? 


We can view new challenges as crises, and respond with familiar survival strategies. Alternatively, we can look beyond established solutions, and view a changing environment as an opportunity for learning, expanding boundaries, doing something new. More and more people want a food system that truly meets the needs of people and planet. All the basic ingredients are there. Let’s take up the legacy of all the people who’ve found value in the small and thought big!