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Small organic farmers pull up stakes

(Monday, Oct. 14, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

SAMUEL FROMARTZ, New York Times: A curious thing happened on the way to a national organic standard: the small farmer, once at the heart of the organic movement, got left behind.

Talk to those who have farmed organically for years and you will find a surprising number who have decided not to call their produce organic any longer. The costs administrative, monetary and philosophical of using the government-defined label are too great. Only farms certified under the United States Department of Agriculture's regime can legally call their produce organic after Oct. 21. (Farms with annual revenues under $5,000 can forgo formal certification, though they are expected to follow the rules.)

At local farmers' markets around the country, you'll find many farmers who say their vegetables are "grown without chemicals" or that their meat is "free of antibiotics," but many won't use the "O" word. Others are wondering if they will continue to.

Why are these organic farmers opting out?

The decision stems from the reasons they went into organic farming in the first place. Rather than relying on chemicals, these farmers worked in concert with nature and the environment. Rather than sell at depressed prices to giant agribusinesses, they sold locally. Instead of relying on crop hybrids capable of being shipped thousands of miles, they picked ripe produce and sold it the next day.

Organic farmers certainly didn't win consumers over with price. Their product was attractive because its quality was high and it was grown without synthetic pesticides in an environmentally sustainable manner. It was better for the planet and, by implication, for you. The organic ideal was rooted in a Jeffersonian vision of the family farmer eking out a modest, independent living from honest toil. The organic marketplace made that ideal viable because there were consumers willing to pay a premium for the products these small farms grew.

The success of this organic ideal over the past two decades, however, was also its undoing. As consumers snapped up organic products, less idealistic farmers got into the act. In a few well-publicized cases, conventional produce (that is, grown with chemical pesticides and herbicides) was sold under organic labels, causing a furor among producers and consumers and prompting states like California to define organic practices.

By 1990, this regulatory approach was codified in the Organic Foods Production Act. Now, the U.S.D.A. makes clear, organic is a method of production, nothing more.

Once a label becomes firmly defined, it also becomes a barrier to entry and thus politically charged. The initial list of organic practices, for example, included the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer and allowed genetically modified crops. Conventional farm interests wanted to be able to continue these practices. Faced with public protests, regulators scratched those items.

But even as the rules were refined, small organic farmers had trouble with the fine print. One farmer told me that an organic certifying agent inspecting his farm wanted to know the dates on which he had moved his crates of zucchini into the cooler the previous year and when he had sold them. "After farming for 12 hours a day, I am not going to spend two hours doing paperwork," he said.

Considering that small farmers typically grow dozens of crops on small plots, the paperwork burden could potentially exceed that of a large organic farm growing one crop on hundreds of acres.

Farmers also chafed at rules that sought to standardize practices that vary by farm or region. Composting guidelines, for example, proved unworkable for some farmers; they required such frequent turnings of piles (to kill potential pathogens) that some actually caught fire. These rules are expected to be rewritten. But some farmers who had been organic for years, composting safely without this specific regime, were offended at being told to alter their methods, especially when they saw only higher costs as a result.

If larger farmers, however, could work out the business model and the actual practices, they could grow organic produce on a huge scale and ship it to the distributors that feed supermarket chains. In an industry where low-single-digit growth was the norm, the organic segment's growth rate of 20 percent over a decade was unheard of. Organic agriculture might have been prompted by an agrarian vision, but along the way it also became a growth business, because that was the most realistic way to sate burgeoning consumer demand. Now farmers are talking about organic grains and produce coming out of China, where farms have sought certification to sell in the American market.

Inevitably, as more land goes into production, prices will come down, and organic foods will become more widespread. The environmental effect will be salutary more acres will be farmed without chemicals but don't be surprised if your local farmer has moved on, unable or unwilling to use a term that once defined his world. Small farmers will still sell bountiful produce at farmer's markets, but as always, they will be an alternative to the dominant agricultural motif.

Samuel Fromartz is writing a book about the organic food industry.