By Laura Klein
Sustainable agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of the food industry. On the other hand, less than 1% of American cropland is farmed organically.
In light of this conundrum, what keeps the organic farmer going?
I spoke with Richard Wiswall, author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff – and Making a Profit, to find out more about what it’s like to be an organic farmer in these tough economic times.
“The future of organic is very, very solid in spite of level sales,” says Wiswall. A farmer first and author second, Wiswall is seeing a groundswell of new organic farmers entering the marketplace, which he and others attribute to the writings of Michael Pollan, films like Food Inc., and the increased concern surrounding food safety issues in general.
However, there are big speed bumps in the way of an organic farmer’s success.
GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, provide what Wiswall dubs as a “very dark cloud” for the organic farmer. Not only do GMOs operate outside the boundaries of nature, they are the source of expensive lawsuits for farmers. Companies like Monsanto regularly accuse farmers of “stealing” their seeds, even though GMO-tainted pollen often lands in an organic farmer’s land unknowingly via mother nature.
Other issues with GMO foods include:
- GMO seeds are costly to patent and by law, can’t be saved for replanting. This is a far cry from the claims that GMOs help poor farmers from around the world
- GMOs need increased levels of toxins to control weeds, an unsafe option both ecologically and from a human health standpoint.
- GMOs are artificially injected with foreign proteins. Check out Robyn O’Brien’s book The Unhealthy Truth How Our Food is Making Us Sick – And What We Can Do About It to learn how foreign proteins are negatively affecting human health.
GMO “developers have not failed at making huge profits in a system where farmers are forced to market on volume, and have no market rewards for nutritional quality or penalties for ecological impact,” according to Timothy J. LaSalle.
Another huge challenge for organic farmers are Good Agricultural Practices or GAP, which audits food growers for safety standards (see the debate about one such GAP program, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is raging on OrganicAuthority.com). While the premise is solid – to ensure food is safe – GAP certification can be cost-prohibitive for small organic farmers, ranging from $5,000-$10,000. Plus, the strict standards of sanitization required by GAP are geared for big corporate agriculture – not organic farmers.
With food safety issues on the rise, insurance companies are also heavily involved. “Insurers are pressuring retailers for GAP certifications, and retailers are pressuring farmers,” says Wiswall.
The light at the end of the tunnel
According to Wiswall and others, one of the challenges faced by organic farmers is price. In a tight economy, many consumers aren’t as likely to spend the on-average 20% extra for organic products.
But a look at Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company, or MOOMilkCo, showcases how consumers are willing to rally around the healthiest, most fairly-produced product – regardless of price.
MOOMilkCo consists of 10 organic dairy farms that were dropped by “big milk” manufacturer H.P. Hood. This new brand of company will funnel 90% of the company profits directly to the farms as payment for their milk. The remaining 10% will be retained for the business end of the company, which is a joint effort of the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
“This company is not set up to make money,” writes David Bright, Farm Bureau Marketing Committee member and the MOOMilk’s secretary. “It is set up to allow the farmers to make money farming.”
According to Bright, there is an “extremely large demand” for local farm products in Maine and New England, which is working in the company’s favor. “Consumers want it and the retailers are welcoming our milk into their stores.” In fact, several hundred people have logged into their web page – http://MainesOwnOrganicMilkCompany.com to indicate support and pledge to buy the milk, which will initially be available in Maine and New Hampshire.
As for growth, prospects are bright; sales negotiations are in process with Shaw’s and Wal-Mart, and cream, half & half, butter, yogurt, ice cream and other products may become part of the brand in coming years (in the meantime, these by-products will be organically certified and sold into the wholesale market).
Show and Tell: The Future of Food
MOOMilkCo. is an inspiration; a business community that has banded together to make the freshest, healthiest organic product available in a country where huge agri-business doesn’t make it easy to achieve.
Transparency is a vital start: the more people start to think about the origins of their food and ask questions, the better for the organic farmer. After all, organic farming, in its most simple form, is raising crops and animals for food in a way the laws of nature intended.
“I think that in 30 years, there won’t be a difference between organic and conventional foods,” says Wiswall. This hope is already a reality in Europe, where ‘every day,’ store-bought food is what Americans know as organic.
Why is nutritionally inferior food that is GMO-grown and sprayed with synthetic toxic chemicals considered our nation’s “normal” food? Our food – as a matter of course – should all be nutritionally-rich, free of toxic chemicals and GMOs. It is the pure food grown on organic farms; a beacon of hope for the future of our food and the health of our nation.
Laura Klein is the publisher of OrganicAuthority.com and LauraKleinGreenClub.com. She is also the TV Host of Better Living with Laura Klein and The Andrew and Laura Show. She is a passionate organic foodie and promoter of all things green.