Growing Our Roots

by Elizabeth Henderson

Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, February 2004

"We aim to rescue the government from the control of the privileged few and make it function for the use and benefit of all by abolishing monopoly in every form." Declaration of Principles of the Farmer Labor Association, 1924.

It is truly an honor to be here again.

The past three decades have been years of solid achievement for organic agriculture. Like a chestnut tree seedling, we have been growing our roots, sending them down deep into the soil before putting our energies into growing upwards towards the sun and outwards into the air. Without much help from the government, university researchers, or the extension services, we have created an ecologically sound way of farming, an effective system of verification, organic certification, the most highly respected of all the eco-labels, and the only sector of US agriculture that is attracting young people and arousing hope for the future of rural communities. Our growth is bringing us to a critical crossroads. Will our trunk grow straight or crooked? How high will we spread our branches? Whom will they shelter? Whom will we feed?

To answer these questions, we must make a decision about our identity are we an industry? Or are we a movement? The leaders of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the bureaucrats of the National Organic Program (NOP) like to refer to the organic industry. There is a lot of evidence that organic ag in the US is taking that form.

Michael Sligh and Carolyn Christman recently released a study, "Who Owns Organic?" Half of organic sales in California come from the 27 largest farms, 2% of the total. (A question not touched on in the study is what percentage of this food is grown using underpaid or undocumented farm workers.) Eight of the top food corporations own the 38 largest organic businesses. ADM, Cadbury Schweppes, Coca Cola, ConAgra, Dean Foods, Dole, General Mills, Groupe Danone, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg, Mars, Parmalat Fianziana, Kraft, Sara Lee, and Tyson Foods have made partnerships with organic companies or developed their own organic lines. Dean Foods controls Horizon claims to have captured 70% of the US organic milk market, squeezing out pioneer local dairies like Russell Van Hazinga's Brookside Farm in Massachusetts. Heinz owns 19% of Hains, Tanimura and Antle bought one-third control of Natural Selection, owner of the Earthbound Farms brand with13,000 certified acres, and General Mills owns Cascadian Farms. Grimway Farms, the largest vegetable farm in the country with over 44,000 acres, controls 16,000 acres of organic production. The network of regional co-op food warehouses has disappeared. In 2002 United Natural Foods ($1.2 billion) engulfed the last two - Blooming Prairie and Northeast Cooperatives. The only other national distributor of natural and organic foods of comparable size is Tree of Life with $600-650 million in US sales.

While the NOP is not the cause, its way of operating facilitates the process of concentration in organics. For the next round of accreditation, when it charges the full costs of accreditation, certification fees will rise all over the country beyond the pockets of many small farms. Already, there has been a shake out of the smallest certifiers such as CT NOFA, GOGA, and CFSA. Although the basic production standards are sound enough, the NOP's failure to create a healthy public-private partnership by respecting the decisions of the NOSB breeds cynicism. To get around NOP foot dragging on compost regs, certifiers are teaching farmers to lie. The NOP has accredited certifiers with no track record at all: the most outrageous example being the Georgia certifier which allowed Fieldale Chicken to label its chickens organic while using only 10-30% organic feed, instead of the 100% requirement in the Rule. Meanwhile, MICI, a Massachusetts certifier, refused to certify a chicken farm where the chickens have no outdoor access. The NOP administrator told MICI that they had to certify that farm since it meets USDA standards. An administrative judge has ruled that MICI has no right to appeal this decision. MICI is appealing to a higher instance in the hope of having a hearing on the substance of their case, not just the formalities. The next certifier The Country Hen turned to did not have the courage to risk losing NOP accreditation and reluctantly granted certification.

There are two basic issues here. Is USDA an accreditor or a certifier? According to Kathleen Merrigan, one of the authors of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) which set up the NOP, certifiers are agents of USDA. ISO 65, which sets the standards for accreditors to which the NOP claims to adhere, requires a separation between the entity that certifies and the one that accredits. Is the NOP ISO compliant or not? The other question is the meaning of "access to the outdoors." Is looking out through a screen enough? Where do you think the owner of a 3000 cow organic dairy would stand on this?

Let's look into our crystal ball at the future growth of the organic tree in a NOP regulated organic industry. Organic is the mainstream with 50% of the market! The three largest certification programs provide services for all but a few hold-out small scale family farms. Horizon is crowding CROPP milk sales, putting downward pressure on payments to farmers from $20 to $19 to $18 a hundred weight. Tyson organic chickens, under a "cage-free" label like Horizon's, are underselling the small free-range chicken farms around the country. Con-Agra is partnering with Coleman Natural Meats, while McDonald's has bought the franchise for the Local Diner. Birdseye Foods, with its far greater efficiency of production, has pushed Cascadian Farms out of the market. Wal-Mart distributes Cal Organics and Earthbound Farms vegetables forcing prices for fresh market organic vegetables down. Underpaid migrant farm workers outnumber self-employed organic farmers. Whole Foods, having implemented its own in-house certification, thrives with branches in every upscale neighborhood. The organic division of Cargill is importing cheap organic grains from Argentina and Brazil, undercutting US grain growers. Representatives of Tyson, Horizon, Heinz and Birdseye dominate the NOSB and the NOP listens to their recommendations. Its new regulations for food contact substances allow for the manufacture of organic high fructose corn syrup and organic pepsi is climbing past 50% of market share. The former Monsanto executive who heads the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of USDA set the NOP allowance for GMO contamination at 2%.The few thick branches of this tree bear many green leaves but only a select few enjoy their riches.

Is this what you want? Let's have a show of hands.

If you had voted yes, I was going to pack up the rest of my talk, grab my slides go home. . . .

Okay, so we agree that we want to be a movement. What does that mean? If we don't like the way our tree is growing, maybe we need to consider some severe pruning.

Let's go back to our roots. After all, as organic farmers it behooves us to be radicals. Our anchoring taproot connects us with the indigenous farmers who over millennia built up the seed stock for domestic grains and vegetables, domesticated livestock and discovered that rotations, composting and biodiversity make it possible to provide adequate harvests to feed their families and communities. This traditional peasant agriculture provided the model for modern biodynamic and organic methods—from the orient via Sir Albert Howard and his disciple Robert Rodale, from Japan via Nature Farming and Masanobu Fukuoka, and from central Europe via Rudolf Steiner. In the world today, there are 3 billion people dependent on subsistence farming. While it may be more efficient in industrial terms to grow their food on a few thousand hi-tech farms, organic agriculture offers an alternative vision of prosperous self-reliant villages with trade only is surpluses and regional specialties. Dipping down into our peasant heritage, our movement can create a global policy for economic development favoring local food sovereignty, the right of people to grow their own food, save their own seed, and derive whatever financial benefit flows from their local germplasm.

Our network of largely self-employed family scale farms spreads long roots in the American frontier tradition, Jefferson's concept of an egalitarian democracy based on 10 acres and a mule, and the Homestead Act of 1862 which granted enough free land to a family to provide for its own needs on the condition that the family settled on the land and used it. A surprising percentage of organic farmers do not own the land they farm. For farmers like me, private property is less important than usufruct—the right to land based on its good usage. Perhaps we need to include this among the principles of our movement.

Some of our strongest institutions are cooperatives, both for selling and buying organic products. The roots of these coops reach down to the populist movement, the waves of organizing among farmers and rural people to resist the power of the robber barons at the end of the 19th century. The traditions of the Farmer Alliance are particularly strong here in the upper mid west where you still benefit from some of the structures created by the farmer-labor alliance. Cooperatives enable many small entities to group together for economic power. The internationally recognized principles for co-ops uphold open membership, democratic control, return of surplus to members, limited return on investment, education of members and the public, cooperation among co-ops, and work for the sustainable development of communities. (Sharing, p. 41)

Yet all too often, farmer coops have betrayed the interests of their members. Look at Farmland Industries which grew into the largest farmer co-op in the country, then went bankrupt and sold out to rival agribusiness giants, leaving farmer members with no equity. Agway began as a farmer owned purchasing coop in the days when the Grange campaigned against the railroad monopoly. Deep Root Organic Truck Farmers, a co-op I helped found in the 80s, is small and struggling, but still alive based on member participation. (I was shocked last fall when I learned that the wholesale price for organic carrots listed by New Farm was only 50 cents a pound, no higher than when Deep Root first sold my carrots back in the mid-80s.) Today CROPP is one of the brightest lights on the organic scene. Its members would be well-advised to cherish its democratic foundations and keep a close watch on its management lest too rapid growth and the pressures of the highly competitive marketplace in time lead to the atrophy of member control.

The organic movement in this country does not always acknowledge its roots in international organic agriculture. When scattered groups of organic farmers sat down to write organic standards in the mid 70s and 80s, we took as our inspiration the guidelines created by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Along with principles for ecological farm production, the IFOAM Basic Standards include these social principles:

  • To recognize the wider social and ecological impact of and within the organic production and processing system
  • To provide everyone involved in organic farming and processing with a quality of life that satisfies their basic needs, within a safe, secure and healthy working environment
  • To support the establishment of an entire production, processing and distribution chain which is both socially just and ecologically responsible
  • To recognize the importance of, and protect and learn from, indigenous knowledge and traditional farming systems.

This year, for the first time, IFOAM's accreditation service, the International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS), is requiring the Accredited Certification Bodies to implement these social standards.

As a movement, we have spent so much time on production standards that we have not devoted adequate attention to these human aspects of organic agriculture. To stimulate discussion and debate in this area, a few of us from the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture organic committee have written a set of Social Stewardship standards for organic agriculture. Our initial draft has gone through six revisions as we have held a series of meetings over the past three years. In our document, we try to articulate 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 and an appropriate balance between the farm as a place to raise and educate children and the danger of exploiting their work.

I welcome you to attend the workshop on this subject that Michael Sligh and I are giving later at this conference. I believe that the public's strong positive response to CSAs and to Organic Valley's marketing strategy emphasizing family farms demonstrates that 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. Our customers expect no less.

The last time I appeared at UMOFC in 1998, I had left Rose Valley Farm, where I had lived and worked for 10 years, and I was transplanting my roots to start farming all over again in a new place in the same county. I would like to bring my story up to date because I think it illustrates what we can achieve if we take our role as contributors to a movement for sustainable communities seriously.


The members of the GVOCSA core group helped my partner Greg Palmer and me find land on which to farm. His wife Ammie joined our farming partnership in 2000. After much brainstorming, we decided to call the farm Peacework Organic Farm. We like the pun with piecework, and the initials match those of the parent organization of the GVOCSA, the Politics of Food. Most important, this name expresses our strongly held belief that organic farming is Peacework—part of the striving for peace among humans and between humans and all the other creatures of the earth above and below ground.

Through the 1998 season, our members helped us build this farm. They raked the heavy clods of sod tossed by the chisel plow off the grass strips so that we could spade them into the beds. Two lawyers did pro bono work on a partnership contract and our lease with the farm's owners. Two architects helped us design a greenhouse. Large groups of members helped us clear away an old shed and construct the greenhouse. A retired electrical engineer did a lot of the wiring. An electrician contributed all the components and installed the electrical service.

In the heat of August, members helped us dig a trench for a cold frame. Several patient crews carted the junk stored in the big barn to the smaller barn, and then, when the section of the barn we initially cleaned up to use as a packing shed collapsed, moved that same junk from the small barn to another storage area. Others helped us move the walk-in cooler from its first home to the new packing shed. A member brought her Girl Scout troop to help us with landscaping. The day after a major snowstorm, a valiant crew of eight helped me move all my possessions to a house next to our land. When we reported to the GVOCSA core that we would need to borrow $5000 to complete construction and equipment purchases, members contributed $6000 with no tax deduction or strings attached. Since then, members have contributed an additional $14,000 to our capital fund and helped us get a grant for $3000.The hundred families that went through the transition year with us are deeply invested in Peacework. We are their farmers and it is their farm.

Since the move, our CSA has expanded to 280 households, largely by word of mouth. Our farm serves as home garden to these 280 families. The structure of our CSA blends farm business with community organization: everyone participates in the work of making it run. For each share, members work 3 four-hour shifts at the farm, helping with harvesting and simple farm jobs. Members provide the farm with over 3000 hours a year of work. This season, over 100 children came with their parents and did some farm work. The members also commit to 2 two-and-a-half-hour shifts on distribution, weighing, bagging and setting out the food for members to pick up. Distribution for local members takes place at the farm; rural members form small groups to take turns driving to the farm to pick up. The city members pick up at Abundance Cooperative Market, a food co-op in Rochester. Our two co-ops enjoy valuable synergies -the two evenings when members come for their shares, the co-op bustles with many of them as customers. Other co-op shoppers see what our members are doing and ask to join.

Besides all the help from our members, the labor on our farm is done by my partners and myself, and two full-time interns. Each year, we three partners take responsibility for slightly different jobs, so that each of us is able to do all the jobs needed to make our farm function. We are hands on, blue-collar farmers, not office managers. As interns, or apprentices, we seek people who want to farm, or, at least, are considering it seriously as the path for their lives. We do everything we can think of to weave our interns into our farm team and to provide them with the learning experiences they seek.

A core group of 25 or so administers our CSA. This represents a real sharing of responsibility between our farm and the members. One of the powers of the core group is to set the annual budget. The farm presents the core with several variants of a detailed budget for what we think we will need to support the farm for the year. The core discusses our proposals and votes on the version they prefer. These budgets include the amount of money each of us as farmers will receive as pay. It is a gratifying experience to hear our customers discussing how we deserve to be paid more and figuring out how to do that. Gradually, over the years, the core has helped us reach what we consider a living wage with health insurance and a small pension fund.

Once they vote for a budget, the core makes a commitment to ensure that we have enough members to cover it. Members pay for shares on a sliding scale from $13 to $19 a week for the same packet of food. A few pay the entire fee up front, but most pay in 4 installments, and some pay by the week. Our scholarship fund allows 5 or 6 families a year to pay as little as $5 per week.

We do not want to exclude anyone because of inability to pay. As I mentioned earlier, CSA members also contribute financially to our capital fund. As a result, our farm has no debt. We purchase only what we can afford to buy with cash. CSA member down payments in the fall of $50 each add up to $4000—our seed money for the next season. Each individual member signs an annual contract committing to payments and CSA work. Although we do not have a written contract with the core group, we have what amounts to a fair contract for most of what we produce.

The promise that we ask of our members to share the risk with us has been put to the test a few times. In 1992, much of our farm was under water for several weeks. After 5 inches of rain on already saturated fields, we proposed to the Core group that we close down for the season and give the members their money back. The Core stuck to their promise to share the risks of farming with us and said if we could supply even one item a week, they would be satisfied. Our first five years at our new farm, we have suffered through a severe drought, a year of extreme wet and cold, then two dry seasons in a row, the worst droughts in Wayne County history. In August 2001, hauling water and hosing an acre of broccoli plants by hand, I wondered if I had made the right choice in continuing to farm. But we struck water while digging for an irrigation pond, put in a well instead, and were able to pump water through our trickle irrigation for the end of the season.

And then came 2003, the best year of farming I have ever experienced. This year, we had the pleasure of sharing our abundance. Excess production went into making the shares bigger than usual: instead of a pound of beans a week and a pound of onions every other week, we were able to provide 1˝ pounds of beans and 2 pounds of onions. Throughout the season, members purchased much of our excess and also ordered close to $3000 worth of "squirrel bulk" storage vegetables for the winter. We also sold regular deliveries to Abundance Cooperative Market, and donated many bushels of slightly defective, but still edible veggies to Food Not Bombs for their free Sunday dinners.

Life is full of unpredictable and unfathomable twists and turns. Two years ago, we learned that Doug Kraai had a cancerous brain tumor. Within four weeks, our strong and supportive landlord and friend was dead. His wife Becky spent a full year walking in Doug's shoes, doing an impressive job of running the farm. By last spring, she was clear that farming was not her path. A few weeks ago, she offered to sell us the 130 acres of the old Humbert Farm, where 12 of our 18 acres lie. We are going to try to buy this farm. In line with our belief that we can only be caretakers for the all too short time we are here and that private property is an illusion, we plan to place the land in a trust. We are working with the local land trust to raise the money to purchase the farm and then we will lease most of it back from the trust with a 99 year lease. Holding the land in this way will make it affordable for the farmers who come after us.

One of my daydreams is that our movement will somehow find a democratic and participatory way to create a set of holistic goals for our future so that we can grow into a great healthy tree, spreading our branches over all the people, uniting, nourishing and enriching. With our brothers and sisters of the land, the whole that we manage is the entire earth, the participants — all the earth's peoples, their domestic livestock and the uncountable inhabitants of the soil. Here is a first draft set of three-part goals. I hope you will take them home, share them with brothers and sisters in this movement, revise them according to your lights, till we perfect them into a working document:

  1. Quality of life: a world of peaceful, cooperative, self-reliant communities. Resources shared justly among them. No hunger, enough food that everyone is adequately nourished with food of his or her cultural preference. With adequate food recognized as a human right and food sovereignty as the right of each nation, no one is forced to leave home to seek migrant labor in a foreign land. Curiosity about other people's ways. Cultural cross-pollination on a basis of equality. Tolerance of differences. Rich spirituality.
  2. Mode of production: many small scale farms and gardens, run by families, tribes or neighborhoods, clustered into cooperatives for purchasing and sales. Staple foods produced where they are eaten. Trade in surplus production at prices that cover the producer's costs while neither gauging nor undermining the economy of the buyers.
  3. Future resource base: a world of clean air, water and regenerated soils. Oceans and rivers teaming with fish. No pollution, no erosion, no toxic landfills or dumps. Energy from renewable sources - wind, solar and geothermal power. Healthy farms and gardens carefully balanced with the ecology of each region.

If this sounds utopian, that is only because we are surrounded by so much grime and greed and depression. Everything I have mentioned is within our grasp. We have the practical skills to make this vision come alive. Our roots are strong, our sap is flowing. We have the love and the determination. As a movement, we can do this. Let's start today!