Farm Stewardship Association KEYNOTE
CR Lawn, November 3, 2001
Thank you, I’m happy to be here. It’s
a long way from Maine, but running a seed company has a way of shrinking
the world. Although I’ve never before set foot in the Carolinas,
I feel like I’m already after-a-fashion acquainted with some
of you whose names and scribbles have adorned past seed orders.
It is a pleasure to meet the real people behind the names.
It is absolutely amazing what the Carolina Farm
Stewardship Association has accomplished in the last 20 years. You
have gone from people barely knowing what organic farming is to
achieving a multi-million dollar local industry. With 100 certified
organic growers, who knows how many more sustainable but uncertified
growers and an organic market estimated today at $10 million, you
have advanced beyond the wildest dreams of the founders.
And that’s why we’re here discussing
national organic standards tonight. Because we have been so successful
that we are being taken seriously. The dilemmas we face with a national
organic program are our growing pains, a sign of maturity made possible
because of our astonishing successes.
I’ll begin this True Confessions Hour with
a question: How many of you have actually read the National Organic
Program rule? Want to raise your hands? [about a dozen hands went
up] Well, I have my first confession to make. Neither have I. There’s
a reason why I forsook my fantasies of a budding career after three
years of law school. Would I rather sift compost or sift through
pages and pages of legalistic fine print? You know the answer and
it’s the same for you!
Which leads directly to confession number two.
Although I’ve been a MOFGA member for over 25 years and maintained
a half-acre intensive garden from which I marketed the first 15
years, I’ve gotten certified exactly once. So you know where
my bias lies.
While I celebrate our phenomenal success, I find
some aspects of the National Program troubling. At Fedco we have
a network of 37 small seed growers who grew more than 90 of our
varieties this year. Of them, only 15 chose to get certified. Recently
one of our certified growers was describing his reactions to the
new composting rules which require turning the pile five times in
fifteen days if you use manure in it. What did he do with his plants
after he got all those 500 Cherokee Purple tomatoes picked? “Pulled
’em up, tossed the vines and squished-beyond-usable toms into
Fertile Decomposition Mulch Zones (FDMZ’s for short) but most
definitely NOT compost!”
A few wags in Maine have suggested that we should
simply stop using the word ‘organic.’ One sheep farmer
offered the label ‘Morganic’ as a replacement. Our seed
grower concluded that if he has to change the name of what he’s
doing (which is beyond organic anyway), so be it.
But I didn’t come here to rant and rave
even though I’m good at that. Instead I propose that we should
consider the meaning of certification. To know how to get the most
out of the certification standards we need to know why we certify,
what it means and what value it has. In the hubbub over the national
standards and even for years before, perhaps we’ve accorded
certification a place of more importance than it deserves and given
it more energy than it is worth.
As one example of that, at MOFGA we put on the
Common Ground Country Fair attended by 50,000 people annually. We
have a requirement that any food sold there must be certified organic
or at least certifiable. Our laudable intent is to improve the quality
of the food there, to showcase the quality of organic and to stimulate
the organic market. But we’ve run into an unintentional side-effect—the
need for several pages of arcane rules that even we can’t
fathom, let alone our would-be vendors. And we get into occasional
hours-long hair-splitting discussions that would rival any by the
medieval theologians. What if we had instead devoted all that time
to developing more creative ways to educate consumers to support
Which leads me to the question: Should we be equating
the success of our mission with the numbers of organic farmers choosing
to get certified? We’ve been grappling with this in Maine
where for every sustainable grower I know who chooses to get certified
I can probably name two others who choose not to. And when we make
this simplistic equation several negative things can happen. We
underreport the number of organic farms and therefore underestimate
our success. We tend to concentrate our energies on those who’ve
chosen certification while ignoring those who haven’t. We
run the risk of neglecting thousands of home gardeners who could
benefit from our educational programs and we sometimes get drowned
in our own paperwork, pushing papers around instead of values, becoming
cops instead of educators.
I would like to thank the USDA for helping me
clarify my thinking. By insisting that certification is an enforcement
function and largely divorcing it from education and support they
have laid bare certain realities. Although some education and support
will sneak in under the new rules, certification will no longer
function as a carrot-and-stick substitute for a real educational
I think of the new certification rules as being
akin to the traffic rules on the highway and the job of enforcing
them as akin to the job of the police in enforcing the traffic laws.
Whether or not to allow piperonyl butoxide is akin to deciding whether
we’re going to put a traffic light at this intersection or
that one. How strictly the rule requiring the use of organic seed
when commercially available will be enforced is likely to be left
to the discretion of the certifying agency just as whether or not
the police officer arrests you for speeding or just gives you a
warning is up to her discretion. The extenuating circumstances and
the social climate surrounding the rule will be important determinants
just as they are on the highway.
Rules maintain a base level of social functioning.
If some people drive on the left side of the road and some on the
right in the same town, that doesn’t work. If there were no
rules or standards chaos would result, some people would inevitably
take advantage and “organic” would come to have no meaning.
But at the same time we need to remember that the rules of the road
don’t determine the quality of the driving. It is possible
to adhere to all the laws and still not be a good driver. Rules
influence but are not the final determinant of the quality of the
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying
that the rules are trivial. Sometimes the placement of a traffic
light is critical. We have an intersection in my home town of Waterville
where the ramp coming off Interstate-95 turns onto Main St. that
desperately needs one. The traffic logjams there are putting everyone
at great risk. I find a possible analog in the new seed rules. Because
there is no agreed-upon definition of commercially available, I
worry that the vagueness in the term is going to put a tremendous
burden both on certifying agencies and farmers.
Sometimes putting in that traffic light and making
sure it is functioning properly are critically important. So is
making sure the traffic lights are in the right places and that
there aren’t so many that the highway gets blocked.
But the organic rules apply to only one highway,
albeit an important one, on the map. We need to put them in perspective
and not to confuse them with the whole map. We need to keep as many
highways open as we can. So my analysis leads me to recommend a
two-track strategy to try to get the most out of the rules.
The first track is to change them where the need
is urgent. One such place is the composting rules. Fortunately,
an initiative is under way to revise them. The NOSB has put together
a task force chaired by Maine’s own Farmer-Extension Coordinator,
Eric Sideman, which will make recommendations to the USDA in May.
Sideman is confident about prospects for a positive change in the
rules, although it may take 1-2 years to implement. His goal is
to get the USDA to realize that compost is not supposed to be sterile.
A second important strategy to keep the highway
open is to keep the costs low. I applaud initiatives like the one
in North Carolina in which the state has agreed to a cost-share
program for certification and I hope these spread to every state.
We can’t allow organic food to be priced so high that we are
left with good food for the wealthy and crap food for all the rest!
We need to keep the pressure on the NOP program
to keep it honest. It is critically important to nominate good people
for the NOSB. We need to have good people in the peer review panels
that review USDA program accreditation decisions. We need to closely
monitor the materials review process to ensure that it is not corrupted
by pressure coming from those with big money. As my friend Elizabeth
Henderson in New York State says, “If someone is governing
you, you gotta watch them all the time. And a lot of the watching
is very boring.” Boring or not, we need to maintain constant
At the same time, we need to understand that organic
certification is primarily a marketing tool. We should not equate
it with our social movement. The standards have been primarily market-driven,
not farmer-driven, pushed by food-safety groups, retailers and processors,
not by small farmers.
And so you should use certification as a marketing
tool. Should you get certified? Take a look at your markets and
decide whether the benefits of certification will exceed the costs.
Will you get a higher price for your products? More marketing exposure?
Enough value to offset the costs? Can you get some or most of the
same benefits without incurring as many costs by using an alternative
ecological label? Does the federal program open new niches for you
that will increase your farm income?
Don’t make the mistake of equating certification
with our whole vision. Certification is one road that can lead to
our destination, but it is not the only road. There are other roads
on the map that can also lead to our destination and our vision
needs to encompass the whole map…to be about reconnecting
people to the land, building community relationships where food
is more than a commodity and where farmers are more than producers
and people are more than consumers.
I would rather put my energy into helping create
the maps than in enforcing the rules of one highway. Maps represent
the landscape of our entire food system. Every time we create an
alternative to the mainstream supermarkets and fast food joints
we help shift the lines on the map. Each direct-marketing opportunity
we create reduces the miles our food travels, the energy it consumes,
and pumps blood into our local economy. Each time we educate consumers
to grow more of their own food or spend more of their food dollars
on local farmers, we are changing the whole social map. And it is
a real map, as real as the map showing roads and towns and communities,
because when we change the nature of our food system, we change
our communities and in the end we will change the road map as well
as the food map. Let us talk about how we can change the whole map.
Let us rededicate ourselves to our educational
and social goals by replacing the crop improvement part of certification
that is no longer permissible in the new regulatory environment.
Our organizations should use the time freed up from releasing our
certification programs to strengthen our educational initiatives
to all farmers and gardeners. Longtime CSA leader and Sharing
the Harvest author Elizabeth Henderson is hoping NOFA-NY will
be able to organize groups of farmers and consumers to discuss farming
practices and visit each other’s farms. She has already instituted
a model program in her CSA.
Henderson is also working with a committee to
create social justice standards for organic and sustainable agriculture.
They are addressing such issues as paying farmers and farm family
labor fairly and paying and treating farm workers fairly so that
we are sustaining our farmers as well as our farms.
We need to make special efforts to reach farms
that choose not to be certified. We should be reaching farmers who
are just beginning the process of becoming more sustainable as well
as those who are ready to take the certification leap. We should
also be publicizing all those farms. NOFA-MASS and NY are already
listing ecological farmers who aren’t certified in their publicity
brochures. Others should follow suit.
Let diversity flourish. Such initiatives will
provide us with additional opportunities to distinguish between
produce from small local organic farms and generic organic produce
shipped in from thousands of miles. We should take advantage of
the opportunity permitted in the new rule to use biological and
ecological labels to further differentiate. Florida Organic Growers
is thinking of offering additional certifications besides organic,
such as family farm, pasture raised and local. Diversity among our
sustainable farms has the same vital significance as biodiversity
in our cropping systems. It strengthens our movement, extends the
range of possible choices and creates identity preservation for
the unique features of our farms.
Support small local enterprises. There has never
been a greater need for every organic farming group to launch energetic
promotional and educational campaigns on the difference between
supporting small local organic farms and the huge California organic-certified
farms. We can’t let the NOP bring about a shake-out of smaller
farms. Small sustainable farms can thrive in this environment only
if consumers get behind them.
Launch direct marketing initiatives. We desperately
need to create more direct local markets that can lure shoppers
away from the supermarkets and fast food joints and back to locally-controlled
farms and markets. There is great opportunity for creative initiatives
in the Carolinas. Farmers markets and CSA’s build powerful
markets with direct relationships between farmers and consumers.
With only 7 CSA’s in the Carolinas there is huge untapped
market potential. By contrast there’s something like 54 in
Massachusetts and 32 in Vermont. You’re not going to allow
the Yankees to get ahead of you?! I got to meet the woman here who’s
pioneered the first CSA in South Carolina. She’s signed up
50 subscribers and has a waiting list. There’s room for more
CSA’s! Who will be the next Robyn Van En? Will she come from
the Carolinas? Robyn Van En is the person who brought the CSA movement
to America. Who will put together the next new form of directing
which captures the imagination of food shoppers?
Let us understand that the social significance
of the sustainable movement far surpasses the limited definition
of “organic” in the rules. We suddenly find ourselves
since September 11 living with great insecurity. The other day the
New York Times had an article expressing concerns about
the safety of our food system. [a few giggles] It’s not funny.
Our food is coming a long way and is very vulnerable. God forbid
if anything happened. I hope it never would but we have an opportunity
here to improve our security. Those of us who are growers of crops
or tenders of animals who eat crops know that true security comes
from good soil and good seed and from farmers building real strength
into their local communities.
If it came to a vote, I probably would not have
voted for the national standards. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t
even need certification. Because we should not be about exporting
food and shipping it long distances. We should be building an infrastructure
that reduces the distance our food travels, that increases its freshness,
that, in the words of MOFGA Executive Director Russell Libby, promotes
food with a face, a place and a taste. We should be getting the
word out about why sustainably grown food, whether certified organic
or not, is more wholesome, more nutritious, more tasty and more
healthful. And we’ve done a pretty darn good job of it over
the past 20 years without national standards. We’ve built
up that market by sharing our vision for a more sustainable food
system. And so, if we go about continuing to do what we’ve
been doing, if we make the profound connections about soil, culture,
food and health, the power of truth, the power of common sense and
the power of superior taste will prevail! In the final analysis,
the NOP can restrict our use of the word “organic” but
they cannot make us detour from our destination unless we allow
them to. So let us go forth to continue and strengthen what we have
begun, and whatever road you choose, may you keep your vision clear
and your eyes on the prize.