Local, Organic and Fair

by Elizabeth Henderson ???????with accompanying photos

I am very excited to be here today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of NOFA-MA. The year 2008 is a year of many celebrations ? the 20th anniversary of GVOCSA, the 10th anniversary of Peacework Farm, and my 65th birthday. That is how I know for sure that NOFA-MA is 25. In 1983, the year we started the chapter, I was 40 and decided that I was old enough to be the president of something. Gail Fuhrer was also 40 and became the first vice-president. By the age of 40, I had recovered sufficiently from my education to appreciate that my tendency to see everything as interconnected was not some defect in my brain, but a valuable alternative view of the world. Organic agriculture, the love of nature, my attraction to cooperatives, the importance of process in working with other people, and the lifelong struggle for peace and social justice in the world that I inherited from my parents ? all fit together!

Pack rat that I am, I saved my journal from 1983 where I wrote about NOFA-MA's founding meetings, kept a list of active members, and sketched out a set of purposes for the organization. Top of our list in 1983 was growing the network of organic farms and market gardens and creating a solid market for locally grown food in Massachusetts. At about that time, Governor Winthrop was one of the first leaders of a state government to realize that farming in his state was in serious trouble and that something could be done to save it. But no one in state government or the universities was thinking about organic agriculture. When I called my extension agent in Greenfield (and there still was a county agent in those days), she laughed at my request for information on how to grow raspberries organically and told me it was impossible. Needless to say, it was a long time before I called the extension again.

If organic agriculture was going to grow, it was entirely up to the farmers, gardeners and people who wanted to eat organic food to make it happen. Our resources were slim ? the volunteer time of a few dozen people, some important support from Drumlin Farm, the New England Small Farm Institute, which was just getting started, and the New Alchemy Institute. (We should devise a special prize for Judy Gillan for her incredible patience and persistence in building NESFI and maneuvering its farmland through the state labyrinthe from ownership by the dept of mental health to the dept of agriculture to the acquisition of long-term tenure for the institute.)

With four friends, I had purchased a totally run-down dairy farm in Gill, MA, in 1979, with the intention of starting an organic farm. We named our farm Unadilla, after the stream that ran through it. There we built a 6-sided barn and grew our first crops in1980: a garden for ourselves plus a crop of leeks for sale. With an ancient combine, an Allis Chalmers 40 salvaged from Amber Waves of Grain, a commune across the border in Vermont, we harvested a 10-acre field of soybeans to sell to the local tempeh works. In 1981, we built a 6-sided house and I gave up my city job teaching Russian literature at Boston University to move to the farm. Over the next few years, we expanded the gardens to 4 acres of raised beds, built a solar greenhouse, and acquired a small flock of Jacob sheep, the overflow from the flock of Jacques and Benjie Lasseau who farmed in Deerfield. We raised some chickens and a few hogs which I slaughtered and butchered myself. One of my main goals was to keep out of the supermarket. If we could not grow it ourselves, barter for it with friends, or buy it at the food coop, we did not have it. My son survived childhood without the benefit of a TV in the house or a single meal at MacDonalds. He got his start as a schoolteacher looking after the Many Hands brood at NOFA gatherings.

I learned organic farming the hard way?by doing it. My only preparation was a few years of reading, attending NOFA conferences and visiting market gardens in France. By the time I moved to the farm in 1981, I had maybe 5 years of gardening experience and that was all. I do not recommend that as a way to get started. We made a lot of mistakes ? that old combine cracked most of the soybeans so the tofu factory would not buy them and we were lucky to sell them for tempeh. Since we were new to marketing, we tried a bit of everything selling to the Greenfield coop and farmers market, some restaurants, including Common Ground, the cooperative restaurant in Brattleboro, the Pioneer Valley Growers Association (PVGA), Bread and Circus, and a local independent grocery. Our farm was one of the founding members of the marketing coop Deep Root, which is still alive and well today.

Unadilla was the only organic farm in the PVGA where I withstood a lot of teasing. Remarks from other farmers like, "I drink captan for breakfast." The coop's manager was a bit of a drill sergeant, but she trained me in the market requirements for packing vegetables. I remember spending a tense evening seated to the right of the produce buyer for Bread and Circus (now a vice-president of Whole Foods) while John Bauer, a conventional farmer who later converted, sat to his left. Every time I said something about how I grew a crop, John would interrupt to say' "that's not possible on a commercial scale." Among the first people I got to know were Wally and Juanita Nelson. Their example taught me so much about how to live simply and contribute to building local economic alternatives. Juanita exchanged homemade soap for vegetable starts; Wally and I scavenged together for boxes in restaurant basements. With her half acre, Juanita considered me a big farmer with my 3 or 4. To acquire more skills in farming, I volunteered at the Harlow Farm where Paul and Susan were just converting to organic methods, but already had many years of experience growing and marketing vegetables. I also observed other more experienced farmers?Nancy Galland and Richard Stander were especially generous in sharing what they knew.

In 1981, Nancy, Richard, Judy Gillan, Ted Haber, Ian Robb, David Wheeler (Ed McGlew replaced him the next year when he took over the job as manager at Maplewood Farm) and I formed a study circle to learn more about organic agriculture. Each month, we did readings on various aspects of farming and reported to one another. I took on pest control: a medical student friend did a literature search for me on the botanicals and we discovered to our horror that rotenone is implicated in Parkison's disease. That year, someone flogged off a shipment of conventional carrots as organic, so our study circle decided to investigate organic certification. Judy was involved with IFOAM and organic developments in Europe. We modeled our standards on the IFOAM Basic Standards, and like IFOAM, limited the scope to the method of production, although I think all of us would have agreed that organic agriculture meant much more. We saw organic food as part of a way of life for both producers and eaters that provided an alternative to supermarkets and monocrop farms. It did not occur to us at that time that fair pricing for farm products and fair treatment of farm workers could have been among the criteria for certification. One of our assumptions was that protecting organic integrity would maintain the premium for organic prices and enable farmers to make a living thus addressing one of the root problems in the current agricultural crisis?the price farmers receive does not cover the cost of production. To establish certification, we needed an organization and NOFA was the logical choice. At the summer conference in 1982 there was agreement that it was time for state chapters. By 1983, NOFA-MA was up and running. Though not in the standards, the organic social agenda shaped the contents of NOFA's conferences and newsletters.

I do not have time to go over the history of the NOFA-MA certification program (you can find that by rummaging through old copies of The Natural Farmer, now archived) except to say that our process was highly participatory. Our first outside funding came from a FSMIP grant with which we hired Lee Stivers to facilitate completing the standards and setting up the certification program. We took the draft standards to open meetings around the state where anyone, farmers and non-farmers alike, could present their views. Those hearings were well attended. Debates ran hot over such issues as allowing Chilean nitrate, the use of botanicals, and whether to allow split operations. We began certifying farms in 1985 with Eero Ruuttila, who had been a produce buyer for NEFCO, as our first inspector. At our annual meeting that year, Eero showed photos of the farms he inspected. Miraculously, he still has the slides and I would like to show you a few:

  • Sam Smith at Caretaker Farm
  • Unadilla
  • Stern's Farm, Farmington (Penelope Turton)
  • Steen Benson at White Oak Farm
  • Dancing Bear Farm in Leyden
  • Maplewood Farm, Amherst
  • John and Gordon Bemis at Hutchins Farm
  • Ivy Donovan's potato farm
  • Carol Rees and Joe Scanlon at Redwing Farm (in Vermont, but marketing with Deep Root)
  • Paul and Susan Harlow
  • Andy Bartlett at Great Oak Farm (the home of NESFI).
These farms were the MA and southern VT pioneers.

Our focus in the mid-1980s was on making sure these farms found a way to thrive so that many others could join them. Much like the Fair Trade movement, we did not give much consideration to the conditions and wages of hired help since only a few farms were big enough to hire anyone. Even on those farms, the farmers themselves were barely making what we would now call a living wage. Deciding to farm was a little like joining a monastery. My first few years as a farmer, I was happy that our produce sales could cover the farm's expenses, while as a widow I lived on social security. We paid our interns $50 then $100 a week, plus room and board. Until organic vegetables started to pour into the NE from California later in the '80s, I don't think we gave adequate thought to how bigger farms and businesses might exploit the organic premium.

In the NOFA-MA newsletter in 1984, Lee Stivers challenged our efforts to build economic alternatives, insisting that for organic agriculture to be meaningful, we had to plug into the mainstream distribution system and sell through mass markets. I replied:

"You touch a sore spot with me. I would like nothing better than to get my tasty, nutritious vegetables into the mouths of the teaming millions hooked on soda pop, plastic chicken, giant whoppers, and catsup. You tell me I have to grow more to do that. More acres. More production, higher productivity, greater efficiency ? gee, that sounds kind of familiar. Wasn't it some sort of fever like that which has brought American agriculture to the mess it is in today?"

Then I cite Wendell Berry's wonderful words from The Gift of Good Land about the farm and the farmer "as a single organism:"

An organic farm . . . is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence and the benign dependence of an organism.

I concluded my reply to Lee:

"The more I think about it, the more I know that I prefer swimming against the stream. Who knows, if enough people join me, we might have the strength to reach its source and then we might even change its direction. (I just saw that Jim Hightower calls his new book Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow.) In the meantime, I will do whatever I can to help more people become organic growers. Hundreds of 1 to 3 acre gardens can replace the thousand acre dinosaurs of California. The organic growers I know out here in Western MA have older cars, fewer appliances and less hot water than the average middle-class American. We have our troubles too, but we are perfecting our craft and learning to cooperate with one another . . . If we don't like farmers getting 28 cents for every dollar spent on food we have to develop an alternative to the present wholesale marketing system."

When I moved back to New York State in 1988, one of my first undertakings at my new home farm was to start a CSA. My partner at Rose Valley, David Stern, and I were determined to create a commercial-scale organic vegetable farm that would be our primary source of income - a big step from my homesteading/market garden at Unadilla. Even in 1988, it was clear to me that we would have to do as much direct marketing as we could and cut out the middlemen if we hoped to survive economically. Our experiment with 31 working shares blossomed into the Genesee Valley Organic CSA, which encompassed over 300 households in 2007. As the CSA became a more significant portion of our farm sales, we began to share the farm budget with the members. We did this to educate them about the realities of farming, but it had an unexpected result. Many told me they were shocked at how little we earned as farmers. Members of the core group became our best advocates for making the contract between the farm and the members something more resembling a fair deal.

A 95 percent CSA farm like Peacework comes about as close to being a living alternative model as it is possible to come in the economic context of cheap food, globalization and the realities of taxes and other pressures to use cash. Ten years ago, Greg Palmer and I started Peacework Farm in the town of Arcadia. Greg's wife Ammie joined us as a full-time partner in 2000. (We are seeking an additional partner, preferably someone younger.) We run the farm as a collective (always a struggle given our different personalities), sharing decision-making and dividing areas of responsibility. Every year we train two interns ? we still have one opening for the coming season. Greg and I selected the land because the soils are category 1 and 2 and relatively flat, well-suited for vegetable production with mechanical help and for the first 5 years rented from the Kraai family. We sell everything we produce within 50 miles of the farm, most of it through the GVOCSA. What is special about our CSA is the membership participation. Every member is either on the core group with a particular assignment, such as editing the newsletter or collecting the fees and keeping the books, or works 2 or 3 four-hour shifts at the farm, harvesting, weeding, and other jobs that need many hands, and 2 two-and-a-half hour shifts helping with distribution at the Abundance Cooperative Market in Rochester where members pick up their shares. When we have more crop than the CSA can absorb, we sell to Abundance. Like some of the other older and better-established CSAs, the GVOCSA has become a well liked and respected institution in our area. Producing for the CSA has made it possible for our farm to remain in the black without any debt. Three years ago, the Genesee Land Trust purchased the farm on which we had been leasing 18 acres with money contributed by the members of our CSA, and then leased the land to Peacework with a 25 year rolling lease. So without making a heavy financial investment, we enjoy long-term tenure and we are farming on community owned land.

As a practitioner of Whole Farm Planning, I find it useful to create three-part goals for my farming and for the other work that I do and review the goals from time to time. I invite you to join me in assessing where we are as a movement.

Over these 25 years, NOFA-MA has grown into a much larger organization with many more active members than we had in 1983. Whatever criticisms we may have of the National Organic Program, there is still no question that we have participated in establishing what is widely considered the gold standard eco-label ? certified organic. We have proved beyond a doubt that organic production methods are viable on any scale. The 2001 census found 1.3 million acres in organic cropland, and the acreage has expanded significantly in the years since then. Recent research by the Rodale folks and others has proven that organic methods are as environmentally sound as we had hoped. Organic farming uses 30 to 50 percent less energy than conventional. Paul Hepperly's work demonstrates that organic methods can sequester as much as 3500 kilograms of carbon dioxide per hectare per year, and John Teasdale's research shows that organic is much more effective than no-till in building organic matter and preserving soil quality.

We are all familiar with the impressive growth in the market for organic food, expanding at the rate of over 20 percent per year. Direct sales have actually grown even faster. There are now over 4000 farmers markets in the US, up from less than 1000 25 years ago. A recent study by the Market Research Group finds that the volume of local farm sales reached $5 billion in 2007 (Local and Fresh Foods in the US, a new market research report from Packaged Facts, a division of Market Research Group). Buy-local campaigns flourish all over the country with locavores, 100-mile diets and Slow Food chapters.

That is all very encouraging, but as we know, a lot of work remains to be done. Most of the food available still comes from chemical agriculture and most of the organic food in the supermarkets is the product of industrial-scale organic farms. Though there is more information available on how to do family-scale organic farming and many fine materials such as our series of NOFA manuals and all the NESFI workbooks, it is still much too difficult to become a farmer. Despite the buy-local enthusiasm, farms are still struggling economically. Wholesale prices do not cover the costs of running a farm. Near any city, you can't pay for land out of a farming income. Farmers lack health insurance and pass on the downward financial pressures by underpaying the people they hire. In terms of the paperwork and fees involved, it is easier to charge people to train on your farm than to pay them as interns or apprentices.

My generation did the job of bringing organic food to the mainstream. I am convinced that our next leap forward will come by putting the social agenda of organic agriculture front and center. Since 1999, I have been involved in the creation of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) ? you can read more about it in the latest Natural Farmer. In our Social stewardship standards, we set down what social justice means in concrete terms:

  • fair, long-term contracts for farmers
  • fair pricing that reflects the cost of production
  • decent working conditions for farm workers and interns
  • recognition of indigenous peoples' rights
  • an appropriate balance between the farm as a place to raise and educate children and the danger of exploiting their work.

Many of the eaters of organic foods already believe that supporting organic means supporting our social mission. We need to build these values into our labeling system so that a farm that exploits undocumented migrant labor or a processor that pays farmers less than the cost of production will loose their organic certification. Over the past two years, in partnership with the Local Fair Trade Network in Minnesota, AJP has engaged in a pilot project that has been very well received by customers in the two coops involved. How about a pilot project with a local fair trade organic label in Massachusetts?

The buy-local energy presents us with a great opportunity. We need to encourage people to think more deeply about what they want local to mean. I believe that most of the people who choose local over imported organic are hoping that local means clean food free of chemical residues and GMOs. They would not want their farmer neighbors to be poisoning themselves, their workers and the local soil and water with toxic chemicals. They would not digest their local food as well if they realized that their friendly local farmer is barely scraping by or paying undocumented workers less than a living wage. NOFA is a founding member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association. When Bill Duesing and I filled out the application where we had to demonstrate that NOFA not only endorses but also applies the principles of Domestic Fair Trade in our work, we found many good examples among the projects NOFA members are already doing. Let's build on our good work so that when people hear "local," they immediately think ? local, that means - organic and fair!