The organic food movement has become the last big unexploited niche in the highly competitive world of food marketing, but small scale organic farmers have managed to hold on to their principles in spite of incursions by the Federal government into the integrity of their ways.
Consider the attempts by agribusiness to allow “organic” chickens to eat non-organic feed, or to allow an “organic” label to appear on processed food that consists only partially of organic ingredients. Nor do the current National Organic Standards adequately address the problem of animal cruelty of “Confined Animal Farming Operations” (CAFOs) that allow for the “factory farming” of meat and dairy animals under the organic label.
Before there was a monetary incentive for organic farming, there were practical and ethical ones. Farmers who elected to farm organically did so because they believed that it was simply the best way to farm. In the early 1970s, California organic farmers organized themselves into a non-profit organization called “California Certified Organic Farmers” (CCOF) the “Certified” standing for the fact that they checked up on each other to ensure that mutually agreed upon organic farming practices were being followed.
Long time patrons of the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market will remember Tom Willey, a retired school teacher from the San Fernando Valley who sold CCOF vegetables for his son and daughter-in-law under the farm name “T&D Willey Farms.” I still encounter people who talk about the exceptional flavor of the Willeys’ beets and green beans. Tom and Denesse Willey lost their farm in Fresno to the local school district, but managed to relocate and replant their crops nearby, where they continue to farm organically today.
Their primary customers are restaurants, but they also serve buyers who visit the farm. Denesse delivered an impassioned key note address several years ago at the California Farm Conference where she outlined, with humor and insight, the challenges facing California’s small farmers.
Small farmers have practically everything going against them – small output, lack of access to big buyers, consolidated competition from fewer and bigger producers and, for organic farmers, the ongoing uncertainty of each harvest’s yield. Yet as Denesse asserted in no uncertain terms, she and her husband Tom chose to farm organically for only one reason – it was the only method that rewarded their struggles with a product and lifestyle they could be proud of.
Although organic produce represents a fast-growing segment of the agriculture market, it is still a very small and misunderstood part of the overall economic picture. Organic farmers struggle more than conventional farmers to get grants and crop insurance. A very small piece of the federal Agriculture budget goes to support organic farming methods and research. And without the active support of organic activists and watchdog groups, even fewer of the funds would be delivered as promised.
Part of the problem for organic agriculture is that consumers are not sure they are getting their money’s worth when they buy organic. They want to measure the value of the organic produce by comparing it to conventional produce – does it taste better? Is there a noticeable difference? How can they be assured that it is really organic? Because organic produce is held to such a high standard, consumers are not satisfied unless they can have tangible proof that it is actually “better” than the regular produce. I can suggest a few other ways to gauge the value of organic produce:
Organic produce carries the integrity of the farmer with it. The way I like to think about organic produce is that I am buying a piece of the farm every time I buy the product. Farmers who sell “Certified Organic” produce have gone through federally mandated inspection and record keeping programs, and they literally stand behind everything they sell. Of course the majority of farmers were already certified organic before the federal program came along, so this is nothing new to them. But the rise in consumer demand for organic has persuaded more and more farmers to make the switch to organic farming.
Certified Organic produce is good for the farm, good for the farmer, and good for the customer. Organic farmers are very concerned with the health of their soil. By farming, they are actually increasing the sustainability of their land rather than depleting it with herbicides and pesticides.
Certified organic produce is a viable choice in a world of mass produced food. Commercial marketers tout “low price” as the very best thing about food, and they stock their aisles and shelves with items that are shipped and trucked from an average of 1,500 miles away, that are treated with chemicals to prevent spoilage, and that are grown under non-sustainable conditions, both for the land and for the workers – who are not the owners – who toil every day to grow and harvest it. The system of exploitation of labor and natural resources can be entirely avoided by buying from a local Certified Organic farmer. And the more we exercise our ability to choose organic, the more chance the organic farmers have to keep on farming.
Certified organic farming is a system that includes the customer as integral to its success. Small organic farmers are not selling to anonymous buyers who can manipulate market prices that do not reflect on-farm value. Customers who buy direct from small organic farmers come to understand the forces of nature that affect the produce, whether it be the cold snap that finally brings the heirloom tomato season to an end or the rain that destroys the grapes on the vines. Customers who are thus educated are better customers who learn to make substitutions when their crops are not available. They buy to support the farmer as much as to enjoy one final end of the year tomato salad.
While more and more farmers are converting to organic farming due to consumer demand, many, many more farmers continue to farm as they know best – not certified organic, but with very limited use of synthetic products. Farmers have educated themselves about the use of beneficial insects, and they are planting crops that will attract these good bugs which will feast on the bad ones. Most small farmers use no pesticides at all – but are not certified organic because they use synthetic fertilizer. Some do everything and more that the certified organic growers do but just don’t want the hassle of dealing with the regulatory paperwork. Organic farmers are to be recognized as guardians of our earth. If I had the time and the ability, I would grow my own food just like they do.