A Way Of Life In Danger

Organic farmers face unprecedented challenges.
Cow And Field Of Fresh Grass

Photo©Iakov Kalinin/123rf.com

Passion comes quick when organic farmers talk soil. Their commitment to land stewardship—nurturing and improving the soil’s life-giving qualities—is a point of immense pride.

Take Glenn Elzinga, whose vast Alderspring Ranch grazes around 500 head of organically certified beef cattle in an Idaho mountain valley. As a prominent advocate of grass-fed beef, Elzinga is obsessed with rotational grazing so his cattle can munch on a healthy variety of native grasses, small shrubs, and wildflowers. After a few days, they are herded to the next mountain pasture, while the old pasture is left to regenerate.

Alderspring is doing its level best, he told me, to replicate the ecologically rich environment that existed hundreds of years ago when sixty to seventy million bison roamed the Great Plains. It can be backbreaking work. Because Elzinga and other certified organic farmers renounce the harsh industrial chemicals used in conventional farming, Alderspring work crews—led by Elzinga’s seven daughters—are on their hands and knees pulling out a deeply rooted invasive plant known as field bindweed.

“It’s the only way we can deal with it,” he says, matter of factly. There are no organically approved methods that kill it. (The toxic herbicide glyphosate, found in Roundup, is most definitely off limits.) “For some weeds, we’ll distribute these beetles that have tested not to be predatory on native plants,” he tells me. “But, Marc, it’s like a dollar an insect, and we’ll dump out 20,000 in an afternoon. We’re talking $20,000 for bugs!”

Elzinga was initially incredulous, but pleased with the results. Sixteen years into refining his rotational grazing system, he says, Alderspring has doubled the amount of organic matter in its soil, which has major implications for carbon sequestering that mitigates global warming.

I hear the same sort of satisfaction from Shirley Young as she tells me the story of her Young Earth Farm in Randolph, Wisconsin, a rural town about forty miles from Madison. Now in its fifteenth year, her certified organic vegetable farm is a mere five acres. It is practically micron-sized compared to Alderspring Ranch, which is big in that outsized western way—47,000 acres, most of it leased federal scrub land. Yet Young and Elzinga are kindred souls in their pursuit of soil excellence.

Young’s inspiration is a fertilizing technique known as Korean Natural Farming, which got its start in the 1960s as a low-cost alternative to South Korea’s embrace of U.S.-made chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s all about multiplying native microorganisms and enzymes in the soil, through composting and fermentation. In Young’s case, it means fermenting her unsold squash and brussels sprouts in twenty-five-gallon crocks that are carefully layered with brown sugar, chopped produce, and other ingredients. She irrigates her fields with the finished juices.

She swears her produce tastes better and is packed with more nutrition because of her farming technique. “My sales have gone up over the years,” Young says, sounding satisfied. A farmer’s daughter, she worked eighteen years in the printing business before returning to the farm life that her dad ultimately relinquished.

Jim Young went from dairy farming to hog raising to cabbage growing. In the end, he couldn’t compete with the big guys, as she put it, who cut their prices to force small farmers out. “He just said, ‘Enough!’ My dad had been farming his entire life. He was in his fifties. He had been doing all right. All of a sudden, he was losing money. He got out.”

Shirley Young says her success “has everything to do with me being certified organic.” Her business model is to sell at Madison’s popular downtown farmers’ market on Saturdays, at her farmstead one day a week, and directly to select restaurants. That green, USDA-certified organic logo creates an economic environment for Young to sell a premium product at a premium price. And that, in turn, provides the means for Young to support herself on a sustainable, organic five-acre farm.

Elzinga and his wife, Caryl, who has a doctorate in botany and is the ranch’s chief financial officer, have carved out their own business plan—high-end national mail-order sales of their pasture-raised, organically certified beef, pork, lamb, and chicken.

To listen to Young and Elzinga talk about their success (and the love they have for their work) is to appreciate how marvelously successful the National Organic Program, created as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, has been. Under pressure from a forceful grassroots campaign that mobilized farmers and consumers alike, Congress included the Organic Foods Production Act in the 1990 Farm Bill. It took another twelve years of battling over specifics for the actual organic standards to be launched under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Those certification standards—barring the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other synthetic inputs; requiring pasturing for farm animals; establishing a three-year protocol for converting conventional farmland to organic status; and a lot more—were nothing less than transformative.

What had been a growing but idiosyncratic and fragmented movement—at least twenty-two states had their own rules for organic labeling—became a single national market with standardized rules. This led foreign farm operations to seek USDA certification so they could sell their goods stateside.

Organic food sales exploded. By 2011, sales hit $25.1 billion, and by 2020, sales had more than doubled to $56.5 billion. In 2021, the USDA counted more than 28,000 certified organic businesses in the United States. Another 17,000 foreign operations were certified as USDA organic.

But far from it being the glory days of the organic food movement, this is a time of maximum danger. A perfect storm of problems is challenging organic’s primacy in producing healthy food. And organic food, once a culty and idealistic passion for both farmers and consumers, is increasingly just another cog in the agribusiness behemoth.

Get Big Or Get Out

Hugeness begetting consolidation, of course, is the ruling dynamic of the U.S. economy. You see it in the coupling of hospital chains with doctor groups and health insurers. You see it in the five tech baronies of Meta (Facebook), Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet (Google). Big Ag was early to this game.

Famously, in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary, Earl Butz, repeatedly admonished farmers to “get big or get out” and to plant grain crops “fence row to fence row,” even if it meant tearing up conservation beltways. This was the birth of the corn and soybean monocultures that still define the rural Midwest landscape.

Michael Pollan, in a sorrow-tinged New York Times account in 2016, detailed how President Barack Obama failed to break Big Ag’s stranglehold on farmers, even though, as an outsider candidate in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, he knew the problem well. When he left office eight years later, the stranglehold was tighter than ever.

As Pollan wrote, farmers are often captive to a small number of giant processors and purveyors that control particular branches of the industry: beef slaughtering, chicken packaging, corn and soy processing, agrochemical sales, and seed selling. Dairy farmers have their own  special hell with what’s called “monopsony”—having only a single powerful buyer in their region to process their perishable raw milk.

Dan Kaufman, in a carefully argued piece in The New Yorker last August, made a case for rigorous antitrust enforcement to break up the Big Ag cartels. Perhaps most galling of all: Farmer-owned cooperatives, which had been granted “significant exemptions” from antitrust laws in the 1920s, were now treating their farmer-owners in the same predatory fashion as their corporate masters.

Peter Carstensen, a former federal antitrust attorney turned dairy-industry expert and law school professor, gave me a one-word answer when I asked him how farmers were responding to the big squeeze: “Exit!” He says farmers are getting older and desperate to find a way out. Their kids are moving away. Other young people aren’t interested in the 24/7 farm life, or have a real problem accessing land and capital.

“What we’re getting is an increasingly industrial agriculture with large factory farms operated by employees rather than family farmers,” he says. “That destroys local economies. Ultimately it’s going to destroy agriculture.”

Destroy agriculture? Why do you say that?

“Because the Soviet system failed,” Carstensen replies. “What we’re looking at is something that is analogous to the Russian collectivization of agriculture. We’re talking bigger and bigger units, like 10,000-cow dairies, that are run like a manufacturing plant. When you think where that model was tried before, it was the Soviet Union, and it resulted in famine and hardship for the people left on the land.”

Carstensen predicts, with a pessimist’s certainty, “We’re going to see all kinds of problems in rural America that result from this kind of concentration of power.”

Brand Name Organics Are Now Agribusiness-Owned

For all of its success, organic farming is barely a blip on agriculture’s big screen. The USDA has nearly 100,000 employees; fewer than seventy toil for the National Organic Program, known as NOP. Yet the same mega-trends advancing consolidation in conventional agriculture have rolled over the organic field as well.

Veteran organic watchdog Mark Kastel, the Wisconsin-based founder of OrganicEye, tartly observes that almost every recognizable brand name in organics has been acquired by a multinational agribusiness. Kellogg’s owns Bear Naked Granola and Kashi cereal. General Mills has Annie’s Homegrown and Cascadian Farm. J.M. Smucker pilots Santa Cruz Organic. Hormel Foods acquired Applegate Farm. And so on. (To learn more, see Philip Howard’s definitive chart of the corporate acquisition of organic labels.)

Like other organic pioneers, Kastel thought he was creating an alternative food system to conventional agriculture. But supplanting a crazy quilt of state regulation with a national standard for organic would, of course, pave the way for national brands.

Far more insidious has been the erosion of core organic standards to where once inconceivable products—say, hydroponic berries grown in plastic containers with liquid fertilizer or milk produced in 10,000-cow dairies—carry the green, USDA-certified organic logo. You would think that organic rules would require that the berries be grown in nutrient-rich soil and that those cows spend most days grazing in pasture, according to the strict standards of the National Organic Program. You would be wrong.

The organic industry wants to do as little as possible to satisfy the letter of the organic rules “but not necessarily the intent of the regulations,” says Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

This ugly little farce has played out in the National Organic Program’s power politics. The Secretary of Agriculture has repeatedly ignored the organic advisory board’s urgent petitions to begin rulemaking to address these gaps in organic enforcement.

And since hydroponics were not barred in the NOP’s foundational documents, it did not matter that the plants were not grown in soil, despite the group’s documented duty to enhance the soil.

Evading the “access to pasture” requirement for grazing animals, meanwhile, required a different sort of creativity, as it was explained to me: Feed the cows their full daily ration in the factory barn, and then, open the gates should they want to wander out to graze. Well, they don’t.

These giant dairies have been extraordinarily destructive to the family farms that once found a profitable organic niche milking fifty to a hundred cows. In a powerhouse exposé, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that in 2016 just six of these suspect organic dairy farms in Texas produced almost 25 percent more milk than all of Wisconsin’s 453 organic dairy farms combined.

Reality is that it’s good for organic industry stockholders that relatively cheap store-brand milk from Texas can be shipped nationwide, sold as “organic” at Walmart, Costco, and many grocery chains, and that all sorts of berries labeled “organic” are available all year at your local co-op.

Driven by idealism, the organic movement has found itself in a losing war with the organic industry, which is steeped in the practicality of making a buck.

Adding to the gloom is the giddy rise of plant-based drinks and proteins. Improbably, these products have attracted venture capitalists, who poured an astonishing $3.1 billion into “alt protein” startups in 2020, while simultaneously convincing younger consumers in particular that plant-based milk, egg, and meat substitutes are healthier for them and better for the planet than, say, the farm products of Glenn Elzinga and Shirley Young.

These laboratory-synthesized products, while undeniably popular, defy the simple advice that Michael Pollan gave in his 2008 book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

No Federal Support for Organics

The seeds of today’s organic crisis were planted with organic’s federalization. The structural decision to use third-party inspectors—rather than USDA employees—to certify organic farm operations opened the door to inconsistent assessments of organic integrity. It also set the stage for conflicts of interest as the privately owned, nonprofit, and state agencies that do the federal organic inspections all financially benefit from certifying the largest industrial players.

The bigger story is that the USDA itself didn’t quite know what to do with the National Organic Program. Organics hadn’t been pushed by the Big Ag interests or farm-state politicians who traditionally sway the USDA operation.

“The NOP was definitely a very low priority,” says Jim Riddle, an organic farmer and inspector who chaired the NOP advisory board from 2004 to 2005. “It’s where bureaucrats went to die. If you weren’t a ‘riser’ in the USDA bureaucracy, you’d be assigned to the NOP.”

“These were people who clearly did not support organic principles or even understand them,” he adds. “I remember one guy telling me his favorite meal was a Diet Coke and a Big Mac—and he was in charge of the organic program.”

Organic activists say Democratic administrations were only marginally better than Republican ones in running the organic program, and sometimes even worse. To this day, there remains a palpable anger toward the Obama Administration for staging a series of public hearings on antitrust complaints only to drop the issue.

“Nothing came out of it. Nothing!” says John Peck, whose Family Farm Defenders group had marshaled farmers to tell their stories of economic predation. “I mean, it was such a waste of time and effort.” Kastel calls the inaction “a profound missed opportunity.”

Equally disturbing was how Tom Vilsack, Obama’s Agriculture Secretary for the eight-year run, became a poster boy for the revolving door between government and agribusiness when he stepped into an $800,000-plus job running a dairy promotional group funded by mandatory payments from hard-pressed dairy farmers.

The door swung open again when President Joe Biden picked Vilsack to return to his old USDA job, which drew groans from farm activists. Another Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found that in 2017, a year in which 1,600 U.S. dairy farms went out of business, Vilsack’s dairy promotional group had paid its top ten executives more than $8 million.

A scandal exposed by The Washington Post that same year found that millions of pounds of corn and soybeans imported from Black Sea ports were fraudulently labeled as organic. This actually roused Congressional ire and prompted the USDA to pledge a crackdown on the fraudsters.

This tainted grain was sold in the United States as feed for organically certified livestock. Because it flooded the market, the mislabeled grain drove down the prices paid for domestic organic corn and soybeans. It was yet another financial blow to the nation’s organic farmers.

Can Trust In The Organic Label Be Salvaged?

Might the USDA finally be showing a stiffer backbone in overseeing organic standards? This is the quiet hope I heard voiced by a few activists like Harriet Behar, an organic pioneer from Gays Mills, Wisconsin, who’s now in her fifth decade of farming and advocating for the cause. Behar, a past chair of the NOP advisory board, sees signs that federal staffers are rising to the enforcement challenge. But she’s also enough of a realist to talk openly about flaws within the program.

That candor is heartening. Like Behar, a growing number of advocates are breaking the code of silence that has kept organic farming’s problems from the public. In years past, key leaders wanted to soft-pedal them for fear of damaging the label’s reputation for quality. Today, there is a frank recognition that a public reckoning is arriving.

Behar writes how “trust in the label has been shaken by recent high-profile, mass-volume fraudulent sales [of organic grain] with malicious intent,” which she describes as a tragedy for both farmers and consumers. Behar is not alone in blowing the whistle.

Iowa farmer Francis Thicke ended his stint on the National Organic Standards Board in fall 2017 with a furious blast at the organic certification of a 15,000-cow feedlot in the Colorado desert and for industrial chicken factories crammed with 200,000 birds per building and no real access to the outdoors.

Thicke warned that the “organic” chicken industry was working behind the scenes “to make sure that the animal welfare standards—weak as they were—never see the light of day, just like their chickens.” Meanwhile, the rise of the Real Organic Project, founded by Vermont tomato grower Dave Chapman and now co-led by Colorado plant pathologist (and vegetable farmer) Linley Dixon, suggests that group may have hit the sweet spot of activism.

There are a mind-blowing number of alternative labels in the marketplace all competing with the green, USDA-certified organic logo, but all lack a government imprimatur anchoring their claims. The Real Organic Project, with its own set of standards barring hydroponics and factory farms, is an add-on label. That means that, as a farmer, you can’t apply for it until you’re USDA-certified organic. So the Real Organic Project is fighting to both fix the National Organic Program and advance an even more rigorous organic standard.

This could be the way forward.

Chapman cites a conversation with the environmentalist Bill McKibben as a clarifying moment in his thinking. McKibben told him he used to think he was engaged in a debate over climate until he realized it was not a debate but a fight.

“We’re having a serious fight about what organic means,” Chapman says, adding that it is about ideas and farming practices. “It’s not about marketing.”

Marc Eisen is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, previously with Wisconsin Interest magazine, The Isthmus, and The Capital Times.

This article first appeared in The Progressive magazine, Vol. 85, Number 6, December 2021/January 2022