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Excerpts From Our Recent Organic Panel Discussion

On Wednesday, October 11th, Willy Street Co-op presented a panel where our owners and members had the opportunity to listen in on a discussion by professionals in the field of organic agriculture as they shared their work and opinions about how “Big Box” stores will affect Family Farm organics. Our thanks go out to the panelists who braved the first blustery evening of autumn and their invaluable contributions:

Michelle Miller, Willy Street Co-op Owner and UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems Outreach Specialist,has recently updated the Wisconsin Organic Status Report for 2006/7. She shared details from their findings.

Jim Goodman, noted organic farmer and activist, has been advocating for organic legislation on behalf of consumers and fellow farmers everywhere.

Mark Kastel, organic legislative activist and Senior Farm Analyst for Cornucopia Institute, shared a report on his current work to promote family farmers through corporate and political involvement on the issues affecting the organic standards.

The entire transcript of the panel has been posted on the Willy Street Co-op website (, and here is a small representational excerpt from the evening’s discussion.

Michelle Miller

We’re talking 8,000 farmers “In Wisconsin in 2005—that’s the best numbers we’ve got right now—there are more than 800 certified organic farms in the state. [That’s] second to California so that’s pretty amazing when you think about it. But in contrast, Europe and the E.U. countries had almost 135,000 organic farmers and five times the organic acreage than we have here in United States. In the total United States we had 8,000 organic farmers. And that’s largely due to the fact that here we’ve had a market-driven support of organic whereas in Europe they’ve had really strong governmental support for organic. So, we’ve got a very vigorous, strong organic movement in the country, but we’re talking 8,000 farmers. In 2003, The Rodale Institute set a target of 100,000 organic farmers by 2013. That’s a lot of growth in organic farmers that we need between now and 2013 to meet that goal. And that still doesn’t put us even close to the E.U.”

Processing vegetables

“A big-box store—I know you probably know who I’m talking about—wanted to arrange for some processing vegetables to be grown organically in Wisconsin. We’ve got a lot of processing facilities in the state, and we’ve got a lot of farmers who’ve done this before. Our total acreage of processing vegetables of just corn, beans and peas in 2005 was 207,000 acres of just those three crops. And this company is looking to contract less than 1,000 acres for organic in 2007. So we’re thinking, ‘That’s a lot of acreage,’ and it is a lot of acreage, but in the scheme of things, it’s just a drop in the bucket, and we still have a long way to go before we get to a point where organic is as much a
part of everyone’s everyday life as it could be.”

Right relations

“The organic movement was, to me, about right relations between farmers, the land, the markets, the consumers, the animals, the plants, everything. And to find that and exploring that is really a joyful experience and it’s really about that full circle of life and organic certification is just this tiny little twist tie in the big scheme of things. To expect to use that organic certification tool to take care of the bigger picture that we all care about is asking a lot of the certification.”

Mark Kastel

Owning the organic label

“Wisconsin has the third largest number of organic farmers, the largest number of organic livestock producers than any state. We’re on ground zero, and it’s not an accident that Willy Street Co-op has been so active in promoting organic. It’s one of the reasons for [Cornucopia] being in the state. So, if I was ranting and raving I’d start out by saying, ‘Members of the organic community, lock and load; the corporate takeover of organics is well underway.’ When the dust settles, who’s really going to own the organic label? Will it continue to benefit the earth, livestock, family-scale farmers, dedicated retailers and, ultimately, the organic consumers? And will the organic label continue to add meaning to food?

“Our collective jobs, whether we’re farmers or cooperatives or if you’re actually dedicated to this movementas a consumer, is to preserve the meaning behind organic food. And we’re really facing challenges right now. Consumer perception has historically been that the organic label has equated to the Cliff Notes version of doing your ethical food research. I’ve been an organic consumer for 20 years and I’ve really felt good about that relationship, and it stood for a different kind of ethic. We know that [when] consumers first come to organic food, there’s empirical evidence in research that indicates the number one reason is selfish. It’s concern with your own well-being, and more commonly, with your children, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everybody really cares deeply about their family whether it’s putting a good lock on the door or making sure we drink clean water and breathe clean, fresh air.

But we also know, through our focus groups at the Cornucopia Institute, research we’ve done ourselves, that one of the reasons there’s such little price resistance, and we all pay quite a premium to eat organic food, is that we think that not only are we doing something for ourselves and our families, but we’re also doing something for society, that there’s an altruistic dimension to our purchasing decision. And we think that we’re supporting, with those premium dollars, a different kind of environmental ethic, a different kind of morehumane animal husbandry ethic and a different kind of social or economic justice for family farmers. What we don’t think we’re supporting is the industrial paradigm. We don’t think we’re supporting organic farms that have five to ten thousand head of dairy cattle on them; or 100,000 chickens in one facility of laying hens; or imported vegetables or garlic or honey or apple juice from China. That’s not organic.

Jim Goodman

The same industrial parallel system

“I saw what was happening in the ‘80s to conventional farmers, and I see that happening, potentially, to organic farmers being pushed out by that same industrial parallel system. It really makes me nervous because we thought at some point that this was going to be ours. This type of farming is safe, it pays, it’s healthy, people liked it, but once money became involved, once that 20 percent per yearly growth entered in to the picture, people like Kraft, all these others came in. One of my biggest concerns is this new trend they call industrial organics or whatever you want to call it.

“First of all, I think having been a conventional farmer and how I told you coming through the crisis of the ‘80s and now I see the same thing happening. And I think it’s very important that farmers make a fair price. They have to be able to make their cost of living plus a profit. Everyone should have that. USDA knows how much it costs to produce a pound of hamburger, and organic is a little different. Generally we’re selling it at a premium, but organic farmers in the Northeast have a tough time making it as organic farmers because they have to bring grain from the Midwest to feed their cattle.”

Affording food

“Organic doesn’t always operate the way it should. [You ask] consumers if they’ll pay more for organic food, and we know they will. That’s why we’re getting this 20 percent [yearly] growth. [Now that] Wal-Mart has it, we’ll want cheap organic food so poor people could buy it. Well, we know that poor people would buy organic food if they had the money to buy it, and it’s not necessarily organic itself that they want, it’s just that they don’t have the money to buy any good food, bad food or indifferent. Eleven to twelve percent of the United States’ is food insecure in that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They’re going to bed hungry at night; that’s conventional food.
“Yeah, we can’t afford organic food but we should be able to feed everybody. We’re the richest country in the world; we produce more food, well the mono-crops, butif we could convert some of that into production… It’s just a crime that we have hungry people in this country. So I think, from my point of view, yeah, if Wal-Mart, whoever wants to sell organic food cheaper, maybe that’s okay, but the real problem is the people who have no money to buy it. They don’t have enough for food; they don’t have enough for health care; they don’t have enough money to have a place to live in a lot of cases. So, until we can address the real problem, I think the fact that Wal-Mart wants to sell cheap organic food, I think that’s just a sham.

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