March 13, 2014

Organic Farming: Is It Mainlining Joy?

Angela Smith

Angela Smith

Project Adviser

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Good garlic on Angela's farm

Good garlic on Angela’s farm

Last week I had the great good fortune to attend the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The conference was a gathering of young and old, men and women, experienced farmers, and those new to the game, all united in their belief that we can have an agricultural system that nurtures land and people rather than the current industrial model that tends to favor profit above all else. Workshops ranged from soil science to permaculture to weed prevention to food safety to food storage to consumer perceptions to, well… you name it. For those of you who are easily excited about dirt and trees and livestock, this is your conference. One woman I sat next to at lunch said that she comes to the MOSES gathering each year because “It’s like mainlining joy.”

Incredibly, it is conceivable that nearly 10 percent of all the organic farmers in the United States were at the MOSES conference last week, a conference that drew around 3,000 people. Mark Sheperd, a permaculture farmer who wrote the book, Restoration Agriculture – Real World Permaculture for Farmers, gave a keynote address in which he told us that only 1 percent of 1 percent of American farmers are organic. That’s only 31,000 farmers out of about 2 million. In my now-home state of Minnesota, there were a mere 650 organic producers farming 154,000 acres in 2010. Compare that with 81,000 farms totaling nearly 27 million acres in the entire state. Although my camp is clearly in the minority, the good news is that our numbers are steadily increasing. There was a 64 percent jump in the number of organic farms in Minnesota between 2000 and 2010. That’s a huge increase, even though the absolute number of organic operations remains small. When MOSES started hosting its conference 25 years ago, 90 people showed up. Last week, the convention center was bursting at the seams.

Organic farmers are on the march. The desert brought about by industrial agriculture is beginning to flourish.

What has led so many new farmers to choose sustainable agriculture over conventional? Why are conventional farmers transitioning to organic? Well, for one, the market is there. Consumer research firms have found that between 70 and 75 percent of Americans from all income and ethnic groups buy organic products. And while organic only accounts for  4 percent of all food sold in the U.S., it’s the only sector of the food market that is increasing. In some places, small-scale, organic farmers can’t keep up with the demand. It’s wonderful that so many hospitals, universities, and other institutions have realized the benefits of purchasing sustainable food grown closer to home, but there simply isn’t enough of that food to go around just yet. And the demand is only going to increase. Another conference keynote speaker, Alan Guebert, author of the syndicated column, “The Farm and Food File,” referred to a lecture recently given at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The speaker, Dr. Robert Paalburg (author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know) told the audience there that he hasn’t met one student in the classes he teaches at Harvard and Emory who thinks anything done by Big Ag is good. Not one student. Incidentally, this generation of students – part of the Millennial generation – are soon set to outnumber the Baby Boomers. These young adults already have considerable purchasing power; just think about when they graduate and get “real jobs.” They also care about where their food comes from.

Second, for me anyway, organic is just a lot more interesting than conventional. I’m not saying that there isn’t a considerable amount of know-how that goes into planting commodity row crops and figuring out how to get the best yields possible. Farmers in general are a pretty smart lot. And obviously, a lot of science has gone into figuring out the chemical formulations behind synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and the creation of GMO crops—but to what end? As Mr. Guebert so eloquently asked of Big Ag, “Is your goal really to produce the cheapest food in the world?” Is “cheap” the best attribute that we have to give to our food? Frugality is a noble goal, sure, but nobody likes a cheapskate.

The goal, of course, should be to grow healthy, high-quality, clean food at a decent profit, and to build community while we’re at it. Farms are not factories. We shouldn’t raise farm animals as if they are mere units of production, or grow zillions of acres of monocrops that destroy the very biodiversity that can assist us in growing good food. Should I choose to do this kind of one-off farming, where the short-term gain is valued above the long-term health of the land, I would be engaged in never-ending problem-solving for problems that could have been avoided in the first place. (Not my idea of a good time!) With organic, there are also a lot of moving pieces to figure out, but organic farmers must learn to work with nature; they cannot rely on petroleum-based chemicals to grow their crops, and they still need to make a living. This requires long, deliberate, and careful observation of soil biology, ecosystems, and all sorts of other complex natural interactions. I suspect that when a farmer bears witness to just how complex, awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) nature can be, humility is born. Humility, of course, helps us to understand where we stand in relationship to everything else, and we no longer need to lord it over the natural world. It is this type of thinking that also fosters cooperation and communication among organic farmers. It’s almost as if their observations concerning how all the independent pieces of an ecosystem work together translates into how they interact with each other. It is this kind of work that brings pride and joy to the enterprise of organic farming and makes for such a happy gathering of 3,000 farmers.

Until this conference, I kept thinking that I needed a certain amount of requisite knowledge before I could really start farming in earnest. Now I see more clearly that farming is a process and that learning as you go is half the fun. I also see that I don’t have to start this up alone, and that there is a community of organic farmers ready and happy to lend a hand. I had not realized what a weight it was to think that I would be doing this entirely on my own until that weight was lifted last week. I have glimpsed a strong and growing light at the end of the industrial agricultural tunnel: organic farmers are passionate, active, vocal citizens who are well-organized and leading the charge for change. Industrial agriculture, while not entirely without some merits, has nonetheless brought about some pretty dark days for farming. While surely many challenges remain, the river seems to be parting, pointing us to a healthier way of doing things. Thanks to MOSES for helping to make that happen.

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