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The State of Organics

What do you imagine when you think of organic farming? Many people picture bare-footed, bib-overalled Earth Mother/Father types lovingly cultivating vegetables or winnowing grain. This is the public image some folks have of organics, and it still exists in a few cases, but the truer picture is going through many changes. To a growing number of consumers, it has become important to be able to attach a farmer’s name or face to the fresh new greens they bought for dinner. Other people are satisfied knowing their food is marked with the “USDA Organic” label, regardless of where it was produced. Many people assume that USDA certification also implies that their food was produced under conditions that were safe and humane for farm workers and livestock. Others look for labels like Humane Certified or Fair Trade to assure good treatment and fair wages. All of these things illustrate parts of today’s organic food system.

There are other images we need to include in our picture of today’s organic food system. Factory farming of dairy cows and poultry exists in the organic world. Armies of migrant workers handpick strawberries and labor on many other farms as well. And organic food is being shipped to us from farther away than ever-increasingly, our food is shipped from Chile or New Zealand, and even from China. Many people, from consumers to farmers and activists, feel that this type of food production violates the spirit of the organic movement in its disregard for environmental issues and fair labor and economic standards for farmers and workers. Willy Street Co-op considers production practices as a factor when bringing in a particular product; when the option exists, we will typically try to carry the product made by the independent business rather than the corporate, and the local rather than the foreign.

Supply and demand

One of the growing challenges facing the organic movement is that of supply and demand. Sales of organic food continue to expand, growing an average of 15 to 20 percent for each of the past several years. A report released last May by the Hartman Group shows that 75 percent of Americans buy organic food at least occasionally. Twenty-three percent of us buy organic at least once a week.

Mark Kastel is a co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic agriculture watchdog group. He spoke at an Organic Panel discussion forum sponsored by the Co-op last October. (The transcript of that forum is available online at: Kastel told the group about research conducted by Cornucopia that indicates that many people who buy organics regularly are willing to pay a higher price for their food in part because of a belief that they are helping make a difference in the world-supporting sustainable farming practices, creating a better financial picture for small farmers and paying for humane working conditions for laborers and living conditions for livestock. Kastel pointed out that much of what we are actually paying for is industrial agriculture that shuns locally grown crops in favor of cheaper imports from around the world. This is an industry that is dependent on fossil fuels for growing, processing and transporting food to the marketplace. Much of the fresh produce we have available in winter is imported from Mexico and South America and the frozen and processed food industries also depend heavily on crops grown outside the United States. China is becoming a huge player—a Chinese-government sponsored website recently claimed that one northeastern province had 2.32 million hectares under organic cultivation. In 1999, there were only 200,000 organic hectares in all of China. Most of this land is apparently devoted to huge fields of monoculture crops. Because much of the farmland in China is owned by the state, large retailers like Wal-Mart and big food processing companies are able to contract for entire crops at prices much lower than that paid to American growers. White Wave Foods is one major producer reportedly sourcing the soybeans for its tofu and soymilk products from China, where organic soy can be purchased anywhere from $4.00 to $8.00 per bushel less than in the U.S.

The pastoral organic myth

In his recent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan also exposes the pastoral organic myth. Pollan traces the spirit of the American organic movement to an underground movement of the 1960s that took over vacant urban lots for organic gardens—the first was probably People’s Park started in Berkeley, CA in 1969. The “guerilla growers” in Berkeley believed that everyone should participate in a cooperative society and have access to nutritious, uncontaminated food, rather than the “establishment-style,” industrial products that were then becoming popular.

The People’s Park experiment was a strong inducement to the formation of rural farm communes and the food co-ops that formed to sell their products. Thirty-seven years have passed and organics has grown into a huge industry with sales of over $14 billion. That industrial paradigm is having a major impact on growers, processors and consumers:

  • Small organic growers and food processors are continuously being bought out by big agribusiness names like Con-Agra, General Mills, Kraft, Dean, Coca-Cola and others.

  • According to Professor Phil Howard of Michigan State University, as of November 2006, the only major independent organic companies surviving in the marketplace are Eden Foods, Golden Temple, Amy’s Kitchen, Organic Valley, Clif Bar, Nature’s Path, Alvarado Street Bakery and Pacific Natural Foods.

  • There are thousands of organic frozen and packaged grocery items available to consumers. Most manufacturers source their ingredients from growers in multiple states and more and more often from other countries. The USDA National Organic Program still allows a short list of the synthetic ingredients in some processed foods where there are no other options for organic sources or when food safety is an issue.

  • The biggest organic dairy producers in the U.S. rely on milk from factory farms. According to Mark Kastel, writing in a white paper focused on Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic market, Aurora Dairies obtains all its milk from industrial scale feedlot-type dairies and Dean/Horizon buys about half its raw product from farms with at least 10,000 cows. Wal-Mart has contracted with Aurora to supply the milk for its private “Great Value” label.

  • • As well as Wal-Mart, other chains like Safeway, Super Target, Costco, Whole Foods/Wild Oats, Trader Joe’s and others are jumping into the organic food market with both private label and nationally known products. These big chains tend to centralize their buying from regional warehouses; this kind of volume buying helps to ensure their profits are as high as possible, but also means they are purchasing product from the biggest suppliers rather than local producers.

Potential positives

In mid-March, at the time of this writing, the reauthorization of the 2007 Farm Bill was still pending in Washington. Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin had introduced legislation that would provide funding for farmer incentives to protect drinking water and other environmental improvements, protect wetlands, provide funding for renewable energy development on farms and expand funding of healthy foods programs in schools and for low income families and seniors. This could potentially have a huge, positive impact on fruit and vegetable growers. Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl has expressed a desire to include funding in the Farm Bill to assist farmers in transition to organic production and to include a provision barring products of cloning from organic designation.

Better at home

The picture is brighter in Wisconsin than in many places. We are blessed with a plethora of organic farms producing vegetables, fruits, eggs and poultry, dairy products, beef and more. Many of those farms fit right into the pastoral scene pictured in children’s books. They have healthy livestock roaming on rolling green pastures, human-scaled tractors and farm families willing to shake your hand at the market. According to the Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin: 2005 Status Report prepared by three groups at the University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin ranked second in the nation in 2003 in number of certified organic farms with 659 farms. We still hold that #2 ranking, but 2005 data recently posted by the USDA shows a reduction to 580 farms, although total organic crop acreage in Wisconsin held almost steady with a reduction of only about one percent. Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), in Viroqua, WI certified 537 of those farms last year. MOSA Director Bonnie Wideman told me that certifications by her organization have grown by about 20 percent over each of the past several years. She said that many of the farms they certify are small and pointed out that in 2006 new MOSA-certified dairy herds averaged only 38 cows!

Michelle Miller of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at the UW and one of the authors of Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin also spoke at our organic discussion forum last October. Miller talked about the importance of increasing the number of organic farms in the U.S. She told audience members that there are over 135,000 organic farms in the European Union and five times the total amount of U.S. organic acreage. Nationwide, the U.S. acreage devoted to organic crop and pastureland is on the increase. Every state now has some certified organic land and there were 8493farms certified by the end of 2005. Miller pointed out that organic food has huge customer support in the U.S., but in the EU organics also enjoys enormous government support. In the U.S., by contrast, the government heavily subsidizes conventional agriculture and spendsless than one percent of its budget on organic programs.
According to Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin, several federal, state and private agencies have launched ambitious programs to promote organic agriculture to existing and potential farmers as a means of increasing the number of organic farms and acreage in Wisconsin and across the country. Some of those programs include Organic Valley’s Generation Organic, aimed at recruiting new farmers; Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) started an educational program for farmers called Help Wanted: Organic Farmers, in 2005; The Rodale Institute’s campaign 100,000 Organic Farms by 2013, is a national program; ATTRA-National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service provides training and education resources and some funding to farmers, ranchers and others involved in sustainable agriculture; UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems provides training and curriculum for would-be farmers, current growers and educators.

Hometown goodness

If you can’t shop at Willy Street Co-op (where it is our goal to provide you with the name of the farm where the produce is coming from whenever possible), other good things continue to happen with locally grown organic food in Wisconsin. Here in the Madison area we are lucky to have access to several weekly farmers’ markets: the Co-op sponsors the Eastside Farmers’ Market from May into October, and we can enjoy the 35-year-young Dane County Farmer’s Market, which operates year-round. Also, there are markets on the Northside, at Hilldale, and in Monona, Sun Prairie, Stoughton, and lots of other area towns. These are all excellent places to meet farmers and discuss their farming practices. Often the smaller markets are less crowded and farmers have more opportunity to talk with shoppers about their growing methods—not all are certified organic, but most employ organic techniques.

Community supported agriculture is another great way to show your commitment to the spirit of organics. When you buy a season’s CSA share, you enjoy some of the freshest produce available, short of growing your own. Some farms provide eggs, flowers, honey, poultry or meat in addition to vegetables and fruit. The Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC) provides a link between consumers and CSA farms through education and outreach. There are 22 farms on MACSAC’s list this year, serving members in the Madison and Milwaukee areas, as well as some in Chicago and the Minneapolis metro region.

There is support for organic agriculture at the state level as well. Governor Jim Doyle formed a task force in 2004 to develop plans to help the state take the lead in organic agriculture. Creation of the Wisconsin Organic Advisory Council was a priority recommendation the task force made and this group met for the first time in February 2007. The Council is charged with advising government agencies on the best ways to promote organic agriculture in Wisconsin. The Governor’s task force also recommended that the state’s Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) employ a permanent organic specialist and that recommendation was also implemented recently. Other task force suggestions will continue to be implemented by DATCP and the Organic Council.

Other area groups promoting organic and local agriculture include the Dane County Food Council, REAP Food Group, Wisconsin Home-Grown Lunch, the Farmers Market Alliance, Michael Fields Agriculture Institute, Homegrown Wisconsin, and more. We celebrate local food at markets, the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, the Local Food Summit, the Food for Thought Festival, and at restaurants that support the Buy Fresh,Buy Local campaign at the annual Local Night Out—and every night.

The Farm Fresh Atlas

The Farm Fresh Atlas will put you in touch with growers and producers all across southern Wisconsin. It includes listings for u-pick operations,pasture-raised meat and poultry, CSAs, markets, and even wool for spinning and weaving. Check the brochure rack in the Co-op entrance for a copy of the Atlas or pick one up the next time you are at a farmers’ market.

Are you concerned about the industrial food model?

There are some simple steps you can take to avoid it and to help change it. One of the most important things is to support local growers and producers and other independents. When you shop at the Co-op, look for the purple signs identifying local products. Visit a farmers market in your neighborhood and talk with—and buy from—the farmers you meet there. It’s not too late to buy a CSA share for this year and there will be lots of farm stands and u-pick opportunities available throughout the summer.

When I asked Mark Kastel about the importance of locally grown food he said, “Well, in terms of an alternative food pyramid organic and local has to be at the pinnacle. For the consumer, buying local means optimum nutritional value and flavor. There’s an old saying in the country, ‘Don’t go out and pick your sweet corn until the water is already boiling on the stove.’ Well, with the super-sweet varieties of corn these days that quote is a little less applicable. But the concept is sound. As soon as produce is harvested it begins losing its flavor and nutritional value. Whether it’s at the farmers market, the CSA box, or the produce department at Willy Street, local food offers a quality that just can’t be matched by fruits and vegetables trucked or flown in from California, Mexico, Central America or even China. From a societal standpoint, buying local reduces our dependency on the fossil fuels used in transportation and supports family farmers and our local economy.”

Corporate ownership

Be aware of the ownership behind the food brands you purchase. We have a link on the resources page of our website that identifies ownership most of the major organic food labels: Instead of these, consider looking for brands that are produced in the Midwest-these items might be fresher or more nutritious since they have traveled shorter distances; at the very least less fossil fuel will have been used getting these products to market.

Use your voice

People in the organic know, including Wideman, Miller and Kastel, would urge you to use your voice in addition to buying locally. Contact the USDA and your Congressional representatives and let them know of your concerns. Let them know if you support country of origin labeling—COOL was part of the 2002 farm bill and was supposed to become mandatory in 2004; enforcement was then postponed until 2006. At this time, only seafood requires labels, other foods are scheduled to follow suit in the fall of 2008. If you have concerns about the cloning of livestock or pasture requirements for organic dairy herds, speak out. Whatever your thoughts send an email or pick up the phone—as Bonnie Wideman told me, “The organic consumer is important. It matters so much what people think and say.”