Inside Organics Blog

Elders pass torch to new stewards of organic movement

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

Within the organic community, there is a generational shift occurring in leadership. Many of the organic pioneers who brought organic from the margins to the mainstream are reaching a time in their lives where farming or work with the organic community is no longer a focus of their activities; they are passing the baton to an up-and-coming group of new organic stewards.

In the early and middle parts of the 20th century, the thoughts and writings of Sir Albert Howard, Lady Belfour, J.I. Rodale, Rudolph Steiner and others led the way for the organic movement. These leaders encouraged an understanding and promotion of agriculture that respected and emulated the natural world. They also rejected the use of toxic materials to grow food and fiber. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book Silent Spring, awakened the next generation to the unintended and far-reaching negative consequences of agriculture’s reliance upon chemical inputs to win the war on weeds, pests and plant diseases. Pioneering organic farmers knew that if you see agriculture as a war, you have already lost. Instead, they sought knowledge and methods using nature’s many tools to produce food in a way that does not harm the environment.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a back-to-the-land movement enticed people to start farming. Many of these new farmers were at least one generation away from living on the land or had no connection to agriculture at all. They were not happy with a status quo that included the heavy use of toxic materials to produce food, and sought a way to change the way we farm in the United States and the world. These farmers connected with consumers through natural food cooperatives, buying clubs, farmers’ markets, and, in the late 1980s, through CSAs. Luckily, a select group of consumers eagerly sought out whatever organic foods they could find.

Organic fruits and vegetables in the late 80s and early 90s were expected to be “ugly.” Early organic consumers were tolerant of blemishes, and provided a market while these new organic farmers experimented and learned to farm organically.

In February 1989, CBS TV aired a story on “60 Minutes” that exposed the dangers of Alar, a plant growth regulator used on non-organic apples, to children who drank juice from these apples. Up until this time, the allowed exposure to this chemical was based upon what was felt to be a safe level for adults to consume. However, children, with their smaller size and higher consumption of apple juice than adults, were exposed to exponentially higher rates of Alar residues, and numerous alarming studies detailed the carcinogenic potential of Alar on their growing bodies. Consumers began to pressure mainstream supermarkets to stock organic fruits and vegetables.

Conventional farmers started to transition land to organic production, both to meet consumer demand and to get away from the use of chemicals they knew were dangerous to themselves and their environment. Many organic farmers will tell you they farm organically due to cancer or other health problems they have experienced in their own families or local communities—illness they see linked to the use of synthetic pesticides.

This growing demand and diverse market challenged organic farmers to greatly improve the cosmetic appearance and overall quality of the produce they supplied to the marketplace. They have met this challenge and now the quality of organic produce is equal to and often better than non-organic produce of the same type sold in the same store.

There have been many struggles to reach the 4 percent market share organic foods have in the U.S. today. Organic is slowly gaining recognition within government agencies as a viable and important segment of agriculture. Building infrastructure—organic soil and crop consultants, feed mills, veterinarians, transportation companies, input suppliers and organic seed breeders—has helped the growth of organic farms in many regions by providing the services farmers need to be successful. The Upper Midwest has led the way in building this infrastructure, providing for rapid growth of organic farms in the region. There are three organic feed mills, grinding organic grains and blending them into organic feed rations for numerous types of organic livestock within 25 miles of my farm in Southwest Wisconsin, and many local feed mills selling this bagged organic feed even closer. By contrast, if you live in Alabama, you need to drive to Tennessee to buy organic livestock feed.

Many of those farmers who started in the 1970s and 1980s are looking to slow down or quit the hard physical labor of farming. But, they are not yet ready to be put out to pasture. Many are part of numerous mentoring projects, such as the MOSES Farmer to Farmer Mentoring Program, or the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, or numerous other programs run by the Angelic Organics Learning Center, Land Stewardship Project, Georgia Organics, and others. They still carry the fire in their bellies to see U. S. agriculture change in a fundamental way, and 4 percent market share and less than 1 percent of the agricultural land being farmed organically is not anywhere near what they want to see. These organic elders have brought wisdom and vision to the ongoing struggle that will result in real change for a better future.

Many countries in Europe and around the world are much more progressive in their promotion of organic agriculture. Denmark currently has more than 7 percent of its agricultural land certified organic and is aggressively working to increase this to 15 percent by the year 2020. The European Union sees organic agriculture as an integral part of its future, and promotes organic to farmers and consumers.

Here in the United States, organic is still somewhat of a “niche” market. We still have a long way to go to change the dominant form of agriculture supported by our government from one that is based in the use of toxic materials and their partner input: genetically modified seeds. Fortunately, there are many successful models from around the world that Americans can emulate to bring change to our agricultural landscape.

The status quo is not acceptable; our world is in an ecological crisis. The accelerated adoption of organic production practices is an obvious solution to the dead zones in our rivers and oceans, the loss of habitat causing declining numbers among many species of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals, and the unacceptable rates of cancers and other environmentally triggered diseases humans face. Real change takes time and we are fortunate to build on the vision and knowledge of our organic elders to continue the essential work they have started.

A new generation will take the organic movement in a direction that meets their passions and dreams. However, they should not become complacent that most of the work has been done. We still need to push our policy makers to invest in organics, to educate consumers on the many benefits found behind the certified organic label (especially as other labels pop up that appear to provide similar benefits but do not), and to provide the education and tools to farmers to make organic farming an attractive and viable option.

Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist and member of the National Organic Standards Board, answers farmers’ questions about certification and organic practices. Email harriet@mosesorganic.org.

From the March | April 2016 Issue

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