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Organic Panel Discussion Excerpts

Organic Panel Discussion
On November 18, 2003, the Willy Street Co-op was privileged to present two distinguished organic professionals who discussed the current challenges and accomplishments of organics in the state of Wisconsin. Michelle Miller and John Kinsman shared their findings and reflections during our Organic Panel Discussion. In the next two months the Willy Street Co-op plan to bring our members some of the many meaningful excerpts from this valuable panel to the pages of our Reader. Those attending the panel were as valuable to the discussion as the panelists and represented a wide variety of our membership including organic farmers, horticulture grad students, a produce retailer, an environmental educator, a chef, an organic certifier, and many more. Our deep gratitude goes out to all those who support this and other avenues of educating our members on the importance of organics and of continuing to recruit those willing to furtherthe cause.

Michelle Miller
Our first excerpt is from Michelle Miller, former Willy Street Co-op Board Member and coordinator for the Pesticide Use and Risk Reduction project at the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS). CIAS is a research center for sustainable agriculture in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Bringing together university faculty, farmers, policy makers, and others, their mission is to study relationships between farming practices, farm profitability, the environment and rural vitality. Ms. Miller, along with John Hendrickson of the CIAS and Matt Mariola from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, recently released their work, the Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin: 2003 Status Report. Michelle shared some of the highlights and findings from that work in the discussion. To see the complete report log on to

Acting as the Catalyst
"Thank you Lynn, for bringing up co-op principle number five (to educate our members), helping to get people up to speed on various issues so that they can be active participants. Matt Mariola is one of those people who had taken some time to know a little bit about organic and had foundation money to pay for his basic expenses through the summer, but he didn’t have a project, so he came to us and said, “Do you have anything I can work on” and I said, “Yeah! Let’s do this report!” So that’s how we got this published this year. It’s (organic reporting) the kind of thing that’s been very difficult to get out because there hasn’t been a lot of institutional support for organics in Wisconsin at the University, the Department of Agriculture, or any of the state agencies. So, it’s amazing what one person acting as the catalyst can really bring about, so I want to encourage you all to think about ways you might be able to do the same.

"John would attest to the fact that pretty much everything happening in organic has been the result of very willful individuals with a lot of creative energy just pluggin’ ahead and doing it because we weren’t getting support for it and we knew it needed to be done. Hopefully you can all help us with that over the years.

Right Relations
"Some of you may know a woman named Jody Pagham. She works for MOSES, and she had emailed me a copy of some the remarks she was going to make at a university class in Wausau on organics. The person she was going to be speaking with on the other side of the panel was a guy from Monsanto, so she was a little nervous about getting up there and really making it. As I’m reading her remarks, I’m thinking, 'You know what? Organics is really about is right relations with the land and putting plants and animals in right relation to each other and helping encourage that. And also, right relations between people—I think that’s really the heart and soul of organics.' And whether or not formal organic certification really meets that lofty goal is another matter.

Room for Improvement
"But I wanted to put that out there right away that it really is, like sustainable agriculture, it really is a goal. It’s something that we’re always working towards and an area where there’s always room for improvement. If you look at the organic certification process, one of the pieces of the process is this idea that there’s room for improvement. And as we learn more about how to eliminate purchased inputs into a system and replace that with relationships between plants and animals, that we do that, and the certification standard gets stricter. That’s kind of a cool thing about organics that I think often gets lost in the shuffle.

Third in the Nation
"I wanted to share with you a few statistics from the report. The report’s based on research that came out of the United States Department of Agriculture. They started to require Environmental Research Service to do regular, every two year data collection on farms that were certified organic. We don’t have data on farms that are, what we call, organic with a little "o," where they’re following the practices but may not hire an inspector to come out and actually certify their farm. Growers who are under $5,000 in sales are allowed to use organic as a word without being certified. And then we’ve got all the larger growers, the ones that I would call commercial-scale growers, who are able to make a living growing organic food and probably have to be certified because they’re selling more than $5,000 a year to really make it as growers. So, the data on the report is really focused on those larger, certified farms. One of the things that really stood out for us, and one of the reasons we wanted to write this report, was that we’re behind California and Minnesota in terms of number of organic farms. Wisconsin is third in the nation in the number of organic farms and most of those farms are located in the southwest side of the state. There are more than 100 certified organic farms in Vernon County alone. "That’s a huge concentration. My guess is most of those are probably dairy. The Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP), which was changed to Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, are a marketing co-op and assist growers in finding processors primarily for organic milk, but also meat and some other vegetables. They’re located in Vernon County so that’s one of the reasons why I think there’s such a concentration there and can support all those dairies.

Potential Growth
"The other thing that’s interesting is that, of the total acreage in farming in Wisconsin, very little of that is organic (1%). We think 'Oh, we’re third in the number organic farms,' but still we’ve got so much potential growth possible. It’s our hope that this report will spur policy makers to want to support that growth and make it possible. The Rodale Institute just came out with a challenge to create 100,000 organic farms (nationally) by the end of the decade. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think it’s possible. Wisconsin’s also number one for organic livestock and milk cows and 22% of the nation’s organic dairy cows are from Wisconsin. And those cows are raised primarily on grass-based systems. So, we’re not looking at cows raised in confinement or raised on a lot of corn. They might have a little supplemental corn, but primarily they’re out there grazing in fresh air and getting exercise and living healthy lives for cows. We can be really proud of that. We’ve got less than 1% of the total number of milk cows in the state as organic, but we’re still the number one organic milk producer in the country.

A Boon to Local Economy
"Another statistic in the report is that Organic Valley, which is CROPP, employs more than 240 people in a very small town (LaValle, WI) and that’s a really big boon to the local economy, so organic has been contributing quite a bit to their local economy. Both in terms of supporting farmers but also in terms of supporting local communities where processing and marketing [is] going on. There are about 57 certified processors in the state, so that could be small dairies making cheese, like Cedar Grove, or it could be something like CROPP which is very large and does a lot of different kinds of processing. It could also be certified processors for meat.

Increasing the Economic Potential of Organic
"All that adds to the business economy of the state and that was the large part of the report’s message, that if state government and other state institutions would support organic it would really increase the economic potential of organic in Wisconsin and it’s something we could then sell toother states or in state or even to other countries. Back in 1992, Sweden really got on top of this stuff and they promoted themselves as the healthiest agriculture in the world. Japanese and German markets are very big for purchasing organic food from the U.S. and we’ve had a lot of people at our research center from those countries come by and want to learn more about what’s going on in organics in Wisconsin and make business contacts.

Doing Organic Work
"The governor [Doyle], about a month and a half ago, was at an organic farm and used our report to help make his comments and remarks. One of the things that he pointed out was that he really wanted to see a commitment to doing more organic work and institutionalizing it better within our state government. Hopefully, our state department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection will do some things to make it a more visible economic activity in the state.

Promoting Organics at the Field Level
"Another thing that’s interesting is that we rank number one in the category of organic hay and silage and this is what’s fed cows when they’re not grazing. In the wintertime, or maybe on the side as well, this idea that organic certification requires organic feed actually promotes organic farming at the field level. So corn production, soybeans, all the other things that might be fed to an animal now can be grown organically and there’s a bigger market for it because it’s a part of the certification process. Overall, our numbers are small compared to Europe, so if we wanted to look at where we could go we could think about what they’ve been able to accomplish in Europe.

European Accomplishments
"For instance, more than 30% of the bread consumed in Austria is organic. That’s a lot of bread and a lot of wheat and the fact that consumers there are that aware of what they’re eating is a nice thing to hope for here. About 4% of the acreage in the European Union is organic so compared to the 1% or a little more of the U.S.-wide organic here, we’ve got room for growth there.

WI: Wholesome and Cool
"Another marketing statistic that I thought was interesting, out of 52 national markets, metro Milwaukee rates 48th in terms of interest in sales in organic. Minneapolis is 32 and Chicago is 19. Those are three major markets that we’ve got to work with to get our organic products out and clearly if you want a receptive market, you go to Chicago with your stuff. I think a lot of the people that we know that sell here also take the trip to Chicago. When I go to Chicago I make an effort to find this little magazine called Chicago Style. It’s a free thing that is for an upscale consumer, someone who has a lot of money, and they always have an article in there about Wisconsin and organic food of some sort or artisan cheese, and I find that really interesting. Chicagoans are getting this image of Wisconsin as this very pure and wholesome and cool place and that’s a good thing. It makes it easier for us.

Wisconsin’s Organic Sales
"We’ve got a lot of co-ops in Wisconsin with more than 40,000 co-op members, 900 employees, and over a million in food sales. And a lot of organic food sales go through co-ops, just like this one, so thanks for being members and thanks for supporting that. And know that if you go to another city and you go to a co-op you can do the same thing. There’s also another 14 privately owned retails that focus on organic foods in Wisconsin. In fact 73% of the traditional grocery store chains nationwide sell organic products now, so it’s not completely organic, but at least it’s getting into mainstream a little bit. Forty-nine percent of organics now are purchased in these conventional stores, more than what’s purchased in the co-ops. I look at it as an opportunity to get people the rest of the organic message. If they got a little piece of it, then we’ve got our foot in the door and so hopefully that will be in our favor.

Direct Sales
"Wisconsin is top ten nationally in terms of the number of farms that sell direct to consumers. In the value of direct sales we’ve got 21.8 million in direct sales that’s been catalogued every year and a lot of that has been organic food, not all of it, but a lot of it.

Moving Forward
"We’re doing all of that without any real institutional support. The hope is that with just a little bit of coaching and bar-lifting we can increase the number of organic farmers, increase the economic potential for the state and really move organics forward here.

Stay Tuned
See the February issue of The Reader for more excerpts from the Organic Panel. We’ll be featuring John Kinsman’s contribution to the discussion.