This week’s list
Organic is farming using natural systems and inputs with a view toward a sustainable future. Warren Weber has the oldest continuously certified farm in California.
Why buy organic?
Because organic contributes to the health of the soil, the plants, the workers, and the consumers.
Why grow organic?
Apart from not polluting the soil, the aquifers, and ourselves, growing organic ensures that you are building soils for future generations and doing so in a way that maintains a balance of critical natural resources.
Warren Weber says that 35 year ago, most “experts” thought organics couldn’t produce so many different crops in so many different regions of the world. They were wrong. In the 1950’s, 20% of commercial farms in California were under 10 acres. Many of these farms were succesful doing small crops. That model fell apart as mega farms emerged and food became a commodity. The only way for small farms to survive was to go organic. Star Route was the first in California.
Organic flowers, like the pictured Black-eyed Susans, don’t use any artificial or chemically derived nutrients, pesticides, or herbicides. Only a minimal use of approved organic herbicides and pesticides are applied.
Farmer Lyle was raised in NY’s Hudson Valley. His father subscribed to Organic Garden Magazine in the 50’s. When he bought land in Boulder, he didn’t intend to start a market farm. It just happened. Now they grow over a hundred varieties of flowers and vegetables on 35 acres.
Why should flowers be organically grown if they aren’t going to be eaten? Lyle says that conventional flower production requires the same chemical input (herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides) used in conventional agriculture. Because flowers aren’t eaten, workers in this industry are subjected to some of the worst human rights violations, not to mention environmental pollution, hence his decision to go organic.
Michael Ableman believes that in the future, full-time farmers should no longer grow fruits and vegetables. Instead, this should be the responsibility of individuals and families to do for themselves in their front and backyards, on their balconies and rooftops, and in community garden plots. There has been entirely too much energy and focus in the food movement on growing that which we could actually survive without. We can all live without another carrot or tomato, but can’t live without protein sources, and given our resources, these will be plant-based.
“We’ve got to find new ways to talk about what we do; we may have to use different words beyond organic…There is a fundamental difference between the organic movement and the more recent organic industry. We need to dig deeper and look beyond narrow legal definitions to find a philosophy that truly addresses a system of agriculture that is incredibly complex and multidimensional. Certification and label systems are like locks on doors – they are there to remind us of our boundaries.” – Michael Ableman
Stubbs Vineyard grows organic grapes without the use of herbicides and pesticides. The vineyard hosts Charonnay and Pinot Noir grapes on eleven acres.
Organic is a wide umbrella that covers many philosophies of practice and lifestyle. It has earned its own certification by the USDA and is the buzz among conscious consumers. Fred Kirchenmann discusses the significance of organic certification and what it means to different producers, distributors, and consumers.
Q: You’ve done so much to help establish the method that we now use for organic certification. Could you give us a framework to understand how USDA certification for organics came to pass?
It was a long process. I was on the National Organic Standards Board when we were given the responsibility to develop the rule for implementing the law. There were 17 people that were required to be on that board. It was a diverse group; four appointees were organic farmers, two were from the organic food industry, one from retail, one scientist, one from the environmental community, one from the consumer community, etc.
On most issues we came to a consensus, but there was difficulty when some of use wanted to include the focus on the health of soil in the requirements for certification. Historically, managing soil for its self-renewing capacity was an important part of what “organic” was about. We developed a rule that managing organic farms for soil health was a requirement for certification. The board agreed to that, but when the national organic program staff submitted it to the USDA lawyers for approval, they rejected it. They said in a regulation you have to be able to answer things with a “yes” or “no,” and requiring farmers to restore their soil to health is too complex to answer with a “yes” or a “no.”
That’s how we ended up with the core requirement that you cannot use synthetic inputs except those that are on the approved synthetic list—that’s a “yes” or a “no.” And you can use natural inputs except for those that are on the unapproved list—that’s also a “yes” or a “no.” Today you can be certified as an organic farmer without paying any attention to the soil. You simply use natural inputs instead of synthetic inputs.
Q: Somebody said to me recently that one problem with organic certification is that it ultimately works more to the benefit of large, industrial producers. Do you subscribe to that notion?
It can tend in that direction, and it’s because of this: if you have to pay attention to restoring the health of your soil, you have a much more intimate relationship with your farm. But if all you have to do is insert natural inputs, you can do that on a scale that ultimately has no limits except for the kind of natural inputs you can get your hands on.
Q: I went through the South for a few months creating films for our project. About five days in, I realized that not one of the farms I had spent time on was certified organic. When I finally asked a farm if it was certified organic, the farmer said, “You must be from California.” He said instead of organic certification, they believe in the principle of “Local First, Certification Second.” Have you heard that principle before?
I haven’t specifically heard it in that form but there is now more skepticism going on about certification, especially among growers, not only in the situation that you described, but also with very small growers because of the cost of certification. Small growers are more interested in developing trusting relationships directly with their customers. From their point of view, they don’t need the certification because their customers know them. Those are the kind of issues that the certification industry has to come to terms with.
When food producers get to a certain scale they lose that trusting relationship with their customer. Because of this, consumers increasingly want some sort of third party verification, whether it’s because producers are claiming their food is local, sustainable, natural, or organic. There is a lot of hype going on in the food industry. I’ve been in supermarkets where they have local cherries in a region where they aren’t growing any cherries, and you start asking, “where do these cherries really come from?” And they say “Well, for us it’s local when it’s from within the state.” Sometimes it’s considered local if it’s within the United States and that’s not what consumers are expecting.
Q: Warren Weber has the oldest continuously certified organic farm in California. He said that one of the greatest things that happened to organics at the beginning was the rise of industrial agriculture, because small producers were really forced to create a system that would distinguish them from the larger players. Now that these larger players have recognized that money can be made with certified organics, they’ve all moved into this space, and therefore really diluted the this certification of its importance and significance of that?
I don’t know. Each of us has our own opinion about how all of this is going to play out. Seven or eight years ago, I had a conversation with Richard Schnieders, who the president and CEO of the Sysco Corporation at the time. He was telling me that the emerging market for Sysco now was no longer about being fast, convenient and cheap. It was about what he called “memory, romance, and trust.”
First, he said if you want access to this new emerging market, you want to have a product that is so good that when your consumer eats it, they say, “Wow, where did that come from? I want that again.”. We then want to build that memory connection with that food product.” The people who want quality food not only want a good tasting product, but they also want to feel good about it.
Second, he said they want to have a good story that comes with it. Some people want to know the animals are treated appropriately, some want to know there was good environmental stewardship all the way the from farm to the table, and some want to know farm workers were treated fairly. You have to pay attention and to the story and, you know, provide a compelling story that comes with the food.
Third, he said they want a trusting relationship. People don’t want to worry about things anymore. If you want to be successful in the new emerging market, those are the three things you have to pay attention to. I’ve talked to a number of people in the food business and they’ve all told me that they think that’s exactly the right description.
A longtime national and international leader in sustainable agriculture, Fred shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center and as President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. He also continues to manage his family’s 1,800-acre certified organic farm in south central North Dakota, utilizing a diverse crop rotation system that enables productivity without synthetic inputs.
He is a professor in the ISU Department of Religion and Philosophy, and has held numerous appointments, including the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production operated by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. Fred was one of the first 10 recipients of the James F. Beard Foundation Leadership awards in 2011 and received the 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa.
While the organic standard was spearheaded by honest stewards of the land, it is now being lead by consumer demands. Mark Kastel shares his thoughts about the history of organic certification and it’s promising future.
Q: Can you tell us the history of how organic certification came to pass in this country?
The organic movement started in the mid-1980s. A lot of people were using the term “organic” but there was no consistency, so farmers started their own certification groups. These were true believers engaged in organic farming long before there was any premium market available. They did it because they believed in it and wanted to protect their own and their family’s health. They did it because they were true stewards of the land and they wanted an independent body that could corroborate their statements. The marketplace was, in some cases, secondary.
By the late 1980s, there was a problem with large industrial scale farming operations and medium-size operations being labeled organic. The legislature in California passed a labeling law that was much more lax than most of the independent certifiers. The independent certifiers were saying you had to be at least three years off of any synthetic agricultural input, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides before you could label your products organic. But according to the labeling law in California, you could be organic one year, nuke the ground with herbicides the next year and then label organic the following year. For that, and a number of other reasons, we felt that having one uniform federal standard would be the best way to create a level playing field.
Q: When people talk about sustainable systems they often talk about scale, and that when things become too big they can’t be managed properly. Why doesn’t scale factor into the discussion about organics and certification?
Organic standards are scale-neutral; there’s nothing in their that says that you can’t milk more than 1,000 cows, or 5,000 cows. But it’s our contention that, if enforced, organic standards are scale limiting.
For example, organic standards require that all organic livestock have access to the outdoors and organic ruminants have access to pasture. It’s one thing to be doing organic beef and have a thousand cattle in the hillside, munching away—that works great even on a large scale. However, at an organic dairy you have to bring the cows in at least twice a day, and some big industrial outfits milk as many as three or four times a day. They would have to move those cattle back and forth to a fresh piece of grass and they’d be walking half the day.
If you’re milking cows and pushing them for so much milk production, they live short stressful lives. Real organic farmers understand that it’s the quality of the animals’ life and illness prevention is key. Whether it’s our vegetables and grains or our meat, even dairy and eggs, true organic production results in superior flavor and, as a growing body of scientific evidence suggests, a vastly superior nutritional profile.
Q: Consumers often look at organic food as being elitist and simply too expensive. How do you get people to rationalize making purchases based on values instead of simply price?
Cheap food is no bargain. We have the cheapest food in the world, bar none, but we also have the most expensive healthcare system. When you combine those, the medical outcomes and quality of life outcomes in this country are abysmal.
As food became industrialized in this country and in many other affluent countries, most of us have become food secure. We have taken food for granted and it has not served us well. There are now a growing percentage of citizens that are willing to look at food as one of the most important marketplace decisions they make, and they’re voting in the marketplace.
You really can’t afford not to buy organic, fresh and local foods. Consumers are coming to recognize that more and more.
Q: So you’re optimistic?
Organic food sales are growing. The farmer’s market movement, the CSA movement, the local food movement are growing. These are people who are going out of their way for much less convenient forms of doing business to procure their food and are finding a renewed sense of spiritual connection to their food and to the earth.
Mark Kastel is co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a populist farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin and director of its Organic Integrity Project. The institute’s goal is promoting economic justice for family-scale farmers and protecting market access to “authentic” food for consumers.
By now you are probably familiar with the food scandals that have been running rampant in China. In the aftermath of any such situation, new movements are born. Lifen Yang, owner and chef of Tusheng Shiguan, is part of an effort to bring healthy and organic food to Kunming, a city in the Yunnan Province of China. But for her it goes beyond healthy. After graduating from University and working in business, she found a way to go back to the farm and fight for healthy and organic food. This inspiring story shares a hopeful future for food in China.
The Perennial Plate is an online weekly documentary series dedicated to socially responsbile and adventurous eating. Chef and Activist, Daniel Klein and Filmmaker Mirra Fine are traveling the world exploring the wonders, complexities and stores behind the ever more connected global food system.
Chef Ann Cooper is the Renegade Lunch Lady. She is an internationally recognized author, chef, educator, public speaker, and advocate of healthy food for all children. She is also the founder of Food Family Farming Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to empower schools to serve nutritious whole food to all students. F3 supports positive change through educational training programs, direct services, a web portal and collateral resources. Chef Cooper envisions a time soon when being a chef working to feed children fresh, delicious, and nourishing food will no longer be considered “renegade.”
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