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Sun Nov 25, 2012, 10:15 AM

"Organic" Farming and the True Cost of Food-A Small Farmers Perspective [View all]

I am writing this post in response to a GD thread about the price of "organic" food which included a quote by Joel Salatin. I was taken aback by some of the misinformed posts about "organic" food and its costs.

I am so sorry that the word "organic" has been co-opted by corporate America. Reading some of the posts that were dismissive of organic food led me to believe that the only contact that some people had with the organic and sustainable food movement came from folks whose only interaction with the local food movement comes from a visit to Whole Foods or the labels they read in a grocery store.

That's a pity because they are really missing out on what the true organic food movement is all about. So when they look at organic, they only see price. And while the price of food is a very legitimate concern, there is so much more to that woeful term "organic" than meets the eye.

A little about me. My wife and I have been farming commercially for the past 8 year with the last 2 being full-time. We raise organic vegetables, fruits and herbs in addition to having a flock of laying hens and periodically raising hormone free and organic poultry. In addition to our actual farming endeavors, we have been fully immersed in the local food movement. We have had a hand in starting and advising many towns on how to start farmers markets. Where there was only one farmers market in our county when we started, there are now close to 10. I mentor young and beginning farmers and am active in advocating for policies that can help local farmers in our state.

I am a DU fan because I see the outrage when Mitt Romney tells half the country they are nothing but useless moochers. But I get dismayed when I see blanket statements made about organic farmers being ripoff artists and our efforts being painted as nothing but a scam upon the American consumer. True, there have been some miscreants who operate under the banner of pure food production. And in many cases, these problems are being promulgated by the very corporate interests that cause so many problems in other areas. But just as the right wing would extrapolate a single case of welfare fraud into the face of Cadillac driving welfare queens, so too have these bad apples come to represent the face of what the organic food movement is all about

The overwhelming majority of farmers who practice organic and sustainable food production are small and ,many times, family owned farms. Increasingly we are idealistic young people or folks transitioning from corporate America who saw little social value in their work. We are not trying to feed the whole world, just our small part of it. And enough of us are successful, we will make a difference in the health and well-being of our communities. I think that is something that should be applauded not derided.

There are 2 certifying bodies in the world of organic production: USDA Organic and Certified Naturally Grown. And the overwhelming majority of the farmers receiving these certifications are small farms with small acreage: Anywhere from one to twenty in many cases. We receive little government assistance compared to large corporate farming operations. In fact, the little money that is allocated towards organic and sustainable farmers is ALWAYS a target in the farm bill process. Over the past several years. I have seen entire budgetary line items dedicated to sustainable farming practices wiped out while subsidies to the big guys go untouched. Think about that the next time you're tempted to complain about the price of so-called "organic" food.

Chances are that if your only encounter with organic and sustainably grown food is through Whole Foods or your local grocery store, then you are most likely dealing with an outfit that has the scope and scale of a conventional factory farming operation. Most organic farmers cannot make the financial investment to even qualify to sell our food through those venues. Between liability insurance requirements, HAACP plans and packing and shipping regulations, most small farmers, ourselves included opt to sell directly to the consumer. And trust me, even if you were a small farmer that were selling to a grocery chain, you are not seeing as much of that $6.00 a pound price from tomatoes that you should be.

And when complaints are raised about the so-called sky high price of organic food, I have to laugh to myself because I know that the people doing the complaining have absolutely no idea of the uneven regulatory playing field that is put before the small farmer. A chicken in a factory farm can be raised in the most inhumane conditions and whisked through a butchering assembly line in seconds in a factory that is self inspected by the company doing the processing. Yet a small poultry producer raising pastured birds in a humane setting free of hormones and antibiotics has to jump through all kinds of hypocritical hoops to process his birds on farm, if the state regulations allow them to be processed at all. Want to talk about why small farms MIGHT have higher prices? Then make sure you factor in the higher hoops that farmer might have to jump through vis-a-vis the corporate food chain.

Many of the farmers who grow organically have pricing that is fairly competitive with corporate farms. The difference is we choose to sell in venues where we can keep more of our money. So we choose to sell off farm, at farmers markets and through CSAs. Wal-Mart has their margin objectives and their commitment to local food notwithstanding, they intend to hit those targets. So think about that next time you look at the price of organic food in a market and paint the vast majority of organic farmers as price gouging moochers. There are 2 sides to the pricing discussion; An affordable price for the consumer and a living wage for the farmer. Too many people who rail about the former often neglect the latter.

But the organic and sustainable food movement is about more than price. You know the current push to get food into underserved communities? That's overwhelmingly being led by local and organic farmers. Corporate America is just waking up to it because they finally realize they can make a buck at it. To quote a line from Diehard "Welcome to the Party Pals"

The explosion in the growth of farmers markets throughout the country over the past 5 years? Headed up by "organic" and sustainable farmers, dedicated community activists and enlightened city planners who have tired of seeing their downtowns die because of big box stores. The push to get food into so-called food deserts? Spearheaded by a determined cadre of urban farmers looking to address problems at the source. I always chuckle at people who rail against the price of "organic" food at the supermarket that seem to forget that the very people they are so concerned might be priced out of buying fresh wholesome food are totally oblivious to the fact that many of these folks don't even have a store selling fresh produce anywhere remotely close to them. And you know who has been working to change this? Local food advocates. And many of them happen to be "organic" farmers.

Google FMPP and look at the push to get EBT benefits accepted at local farmers markets. And then Google Wholesome Wave, a program that doubles the value of dollars spent at local farmers markets. Guess what? These successful efforts to increase access to fresh, wholesome food have been championed by farmers that self identify as organic or sustainable farmers. Most of us have other priorities other than how much we can get for our food. We are passionate about what we do and know that we will certainly never get rich doing what we do. But that's part of the point. True organic farming is about more than how much our profit margin is at the end of the year. It's about being good stewards of the land, making sure that all of the residents in our community have access to good food and maintaining the genetic diversity of our agricultural sector.

As I said before, I'm so sorry that the word organic has been hijacked by corporate interests. The same thing is slowly starting to happen to "sustainability" So I am going to chalk up a lot of the ignorance on that thread simply to a lack of knowledge. Joel Salatin was called an elitist, asshole in that thread by someone who obviously doesn't know the yeomans work that he has done in helping a lot of small farmers get their food into underserved communities. His work alone in the area on on farm poultry processing has helped a lot of states develop regulations that make this activity viable, safe and legal for many small farms.

So the next time you are tempted to speak derisively about the so-called "organic" movement, make sure you are speaking from an informed position. Because if you were, you would understand that the movement is much more than price comparisons. The work we do is being conducted all across the country by unsung heroes who are operating in the true progressive values held so dear by the members of DU

Don't buy into the corporate bullshit-Support Small Farmers and Local Food Activists. Organic is more than a label.

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