Carolina 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 our farmers?

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 program.

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 product.

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 vigilance.

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.