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Organic Incorporated

Warren Weber's Star Route Farm couldn't have a more spectacular setting. Surrounding an elementary school, nestled in a hollow, it's a series of organically certified fields spanning a saltwater lagoon and a grassy mesa. Across the lagoon lie the undulating ridges and wooded ravines of Mt. Tamalpais. Behind Weber's house, up on the mesa, most of the town's 3,000 residents make their homes. With fifty acres of production, this is Marin County, California's largest vegetable farm. One would hardly see it as a testing ground for the future of organic farming. But on medium-sized farms like this (and smaller ones) all over the country, serious concerns are emerging about what organic agriculture is now, and what it should or might become.

Over the past two decades the organic farming movement has blossomed into a full-fledged industry. Gross sales of organic food (including processed products) could reach $4 billion in 1997, according to Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming and Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, California. That represents two percent of total food sales, a market share expected to reach twenty percent by 2010. Increasing mainstream acceptance of organic foods presents a worthy cause for celebration. Larger certified organic acreage means more people (especially children) have access to pesticide-free foods. Greater competition should lead to lower prices, making organic food more available to lower-income families. Farm communities and farm workers benefit from pesticide-free growing practices. And bigger operations contribute more funds to the certifying agencies that enforce codes of conduct.

As demand for organic products is increasing, organic farmers are buying land in warmer climates, and organic vegetables and fruits are becoming more available in every season. Contrary to assumptions held by the movement's early pioneers, organic farmers have found they can grow thousands of acres of monocrop grains, grapes, dairy, meats, vegetables, cottons, and rice. Corporations like Whole Foods and Hain are Wall Street performers, with histories of acquisitions. In mid-December 1997, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), after seven years of study, proposed a set of national standards which will have major repercussions for growers and consumers. The definitions are seen as a much needed, though potentially damaging, unifying measure, especially as we move toward an inevitable era of organic produce globalization.

Accelerated demand and growth, however, have surfaced a number of deeper concerns: questions of farm scale, best practices, community economics, labor conditions, water rights, habitat protection, and watershed stability. Many people now wonder whether recent changes will lead to a watering down of "organic" principles to the least common denominator, a narrow definition with numerous loopholes and compromised standards. If this happens, will the small grower be able to compete with the new organic mega-farms? How can farmers motivate consumers to spend their food dollars on agriculture that is the most sustainable?

The Burden of Success

It could be said that organic agriculture's first phase has ended—won by the hard work of small-acreage farmers, the response of the market, and the power of public opinion. What lies ahead is the need for organic pioneers (and perhaps all small growers) to create a strategy for the next twenty years, tackling not only market hurdles but deeper levels of cultural practices.

Weber was a member of the original drafting team for the first "rule book" on California organic farming. "When we started in the early 1970s," says Weber, who began market gardening with a horse and plow, "just charting a pesticide-free course was a substantial challenge." Like many pioneers, Weber carved out a market niche. As an urban fringe farmer, he delivers extremely high quality produce to a clientele of San Francisco Bay Area chefs and consumers willing to pay a ten to twenty-five percent premium. Consumer demand for healthy foods turned out to be stronger than many farmers or investment analysts ever dreamed.

In certain markets, consumers called for a year-round supply. Some farmers, like Weber, were limited by seasonal crops. In order to keep his clientele satisfied and captive, he acquired more distant lands in the warmer Coachella Valley and, during the winter, ships his harvests north. Corporate organic farms responded to the year-round market demand by establishing farms in the Imperial Valley, Baja, and Florida.

Stretching the Seasons

Eliot Coleman is another veteran organic grower who felt his business required that he stay a step ahead of large organic agriculture's sweep. He and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, farm a fifty-acre parcel in Cape Rosier, Maine, once part of the homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing (of "the Good Life" legacy). In order to counter the increasing importation of "cheap" organic produce from faraway farms, Coleman devised a method of growing in unheated greenhouses to extend his harvest capacity to four seasons. Without hired help, on just a quarter acre, they net $35,000 selling their four-season harvest to a market just twenty-five miles from the farm.

The fact that industrial agriculture and the USDA now stand in position to co-opt the "O-word" enrages Coleman. "The nice guys weren't prepared when the slime bags descended upon them," he says, citing one exemplary New England organic dairy cooperative that was purchased by a subsidiary of Gulf International. "The new marketing executives arrived, anxious to hype 'the product.'" Coleman is among many farmers who believe that a term other than "organic" should be coined to differentiate small-scale from industrial operations, as well as to set the path for the next phase of the organic farm movement.

Mutual Farms

"Fresh, local, perishable, and flavorful—these are qualities that can never be taken away from the small farmer by large faraway operations," says Coleman, whose commitment to quality is reputed among regional customers. "Industrial varieties produced without pesticides and shipped across the globe regardless of season still mean plummeting food values." By the late 1990s, after a decade of experimentation, Community Supported Agriculture (referred to as CSA) is coming to the rescue of many small farmers. In this successful system, consumers become subscribers or shareholders in a farm's weekly produce output, assuming some of the farmer's risk while receiving a new range of benefits along with their organic food.

As in the beginning of the organic movement, new directions for the small grower will require pro-active, educated, and sophisticated customers. Food purchases are not just financial decisions, but choices which fulfill a buyer's cultural values as well: participating in the local economy, helping a neighbor stay in business. CSAs have succeeded because they build a connection with a specific farm in addition to selling organic produce. Membership in a CSA provides a vicarious growing experience, and is indicative of a lifestyle choice that requires home-prepared meals and eating with the seasons. Small growers are banking that the consumer's investment will, of course, balance price and food quality. But within this new partnership paradigm, costs should also cover environmental, fair labor, and other community considerations.

The New Players: Biotech, Irradiation, and Sewage Sludge

Contrast the traditional principles of organic farming—cover cropping, plant diversity, beneficial insect habitats—with the major new force driving industrial agriculture: genetic engineering. "The patenting of animal and plant life by corporations and the creation of transgenic species is one of the most terrifying issues of our time, with a direct correlation to organic agriculture," says Andy Kimbrell, author, activist, and founder of the Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, DC.

"By very narrowly defining biotechnology as only recombinant DNA technology—inter-species genetic transfers [such as splicing a flounder gene into a tomato]—the USDA has left the doors wide open for major corporations to undermine the trust consumers have in organic agriculture." This means that by default the USDA standards permit certification of the following practices: cell fusion (the sheep/goat cross called "the geep"); gene deletion (Frost Ban strawberries and potatoes); cloning (Dolly, the ultimate monoculture); and double gening (used to enhance a characteristic such as color or flavor). Transgenic species, like the FlavrSavr tomato and others, could still be permitted to be labeled organic unless the USDA collects enough scientific evidence against them.

While biotechnology corporations are rapidly innovating new food gene combinations, many scientists insist that these products are genetically unstable. Gene insertion is an inaccurate procedure, with a lot of uncertainty as to where genes ultimately end up once transferred. It is still unknown whether toxins and allergens will be created in these laboratory-synthesized species, or whether the plants themselves will cross-pollinate with weeds and other plants, transferring unwanted traits (like pathogen resistance) to the weeds .

Will Allen, founder of the Sustainable Cotton Project and a fruit and vegetable farmer in Oroville, California, sees history being repeated with the new USDA regulations. "Each of the consumer protection laws has been picked apart by large corporate interests, beginning with the first pure food and drug movement and the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration in 1906. The 1910 pesticide law; the 1938 Pure Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Law; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA); and the Organic Foods Act—all have been diluted by corporate chemical interests."

Companies insisted that arsenic and lead were safe pesticides as early as the 1870s. Methyl bromide was promoted in the 1930s as the clean rescue chemical for arsenic's failure, and DDT was touted as non-hazardous in the 1940s. "Now, the same companies are telling us that biotech and irradiation are safe and necessary for a continued world food supply," says Allen.

The USDA is still considering allowing processed sewage sludge (that may contain heavy metals and organochloride residues) to compete with pure organic soil amendments of green and safe manures [see box]. In addition, to preserve foods and accommodate globalization, large-scale organic agribusinesses want to make irradiation of particular foods acceptable.

"The organic movement has been based upon a high level of consumer trust," says Kimbrell. "Now the USDA wants to certify genetically altered tomatoes fertilized with sewage sludge and preserved by irradiation."

Labeling and Regulations

Industrial agricultural growers have increased their use of poisons over the past decade, not only in terms of quantity, but potency as well. Yet they are not required to reveal their pesticide and chemical use at the fruit stand or supermarket. They are still allowed to spray neurotoxins on baby food and not disclose it, and to include genetically altered, herbicide-tolerant soybeans into infant formula without notification.

USDA definitions of organic are seen as a much-needed step to consolidate the standards of about forty independent certification agencies and thirty-three different state labels presently in place across the country. The lack of a single national standard causes limited development of important export markets such as Europe. And the individual state requirements range from stringent (California) to lax (Indiana and Connecticut). The pioneer growers wonder: Will labeling regulations end up hiding information from the consumer as opposed to enlightening and educating them? Will the labels result in meaningless, generic, weak definitions of organic? Will new rules freeze attempts to evolve the better-than-organic farm?

Will Allen has been marketing his Ganesha Growers melons, garlic, onions, and flowers as "isolated chemical-free beyond organic" for the past two years, even though he has been a member of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) for decades. "Across the country a ground swell is taking place," Allen says. "Farmers are moving beyond organic standards and educating their customers about these efforts."

For example, there is a "No Sweat" movement around fair labor practices. "Organic farmers, more than chemical farmers, need a more stable, educated (in organic techniques) and committed work force," Allen explains. "Some farms are now being unionized around worker benefits and worker education issues. 'Habitat Treatment' programs protect certain species. Other farms are developing strategies and markets using indigenous (American Indian) practices that require a 200-year plan."

Watershed Farming and Rare Species Protection

"What we failed to take into account when we devised California's organic standards," says Warren Weber, "was the ecological perspective of how a farm affects habitat and water." Weber fears that without some new orientation and direction, organic farming may ultimately end up mimicking the multinational, industrial scale model it rebelled against.

In the near future, each organic farm could include a site-specific ecology, and a certification program that more closely resembles those developed for sustainable forestry—ensuring that relationships between the wild and the cultivated are carefully managed. Farm practices, according to Land Institute founder and author Wes Jackson, should more closely resemble the ecosystems they are embedded in, rather than depending upon extracted materials, destructive cropping, and imported energy to support them.

"We have to work more closely with ecologists and set goals to improve habitat that are both practical and achievable," admits Warren Weber. "It means taking into account watershed issues, endangered species, and habitats, among other things." Weber believes that a new model must be developed to set the rules for such a process, and he believes California farmers can once again lead the way.

"Maybe it's called 'habitat-enhanced,'" he says, referring to practices which include workable agricultural solutions to solve ecological problems as well. He could change his brand to Black Rail Organics or Coho Farms as the new paradigm organizes itself. "Farmers are always managing," he says. "This new movement must be organized by the growers. The coalition hasn't emerged yet, that's all."

The Beginning

Wes Jackson has stressed the important distinction between the "problems in agriculture" and the "problem of agriculture." For the past century, the industrial agribusiness model has emphasized maximum yield and net returns on investment above all other considerations. The success of these mega-farms—often owned by faraway absentee corporations—has been heavily dependent upon federal subsidies for food prices, water, income, and research. The industrial agriculture model in fact has no soil stewardship practice and largely ignores issues of water or energy efficiency. It produces virtual foods, promotes questionable concern for livestock welfare, and often relies upon unacceptable employment practices. Yet it serves the bottom line at the checkout stand. Grassroots activists and organic pioneers have effectively challenged ag-biz for two decades. But in a cat and mouse game that has now moved to inside the Beltway, it appears that industrial growers are positioning themselves to co-opt the success and integrity of those organic pioneers.

The deeper challenges that lie ahead are formidable: product transparency, equal price and income subsidies, watershed ecology and habitat restoration, water efficiency in harmony with river flows, and caring employment practices. Information shared between food producers and consumers can confront the problem of agriculture. The new market still deserves a premium price, and the movement merits appropriate representation in terms of federal funding, labeling, and certification.