All organizations take on a life cycle from birth, as they learn to toddle and then eventually they walk and ultimately run marathons. There is no other food organization under as much scrutiny and bound to such extreme transparency as the National Organic Program (NOP). Did you know that this program nestled inside the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is just fifteen years old? While organic farmers require tools and consumer groups demand strict purity, this organization must bridge the two needs and expectations with regulations and enforcement. What have they accomplished in their formative years, and more importantly in the last five years? When you look back, it is quite impressive. Continue reading
It was just over two years ago now that a young man from Bradmer Foods tracked me down with an interesting idea. He had heard about the newly formed UNFI Foundation and wanted to talk to me about broadening the impact. It was on a cold and blustery autumn day that I met this stranger for a delectable locavore Maryland lunch where we discussed a few big ideas. On the table: the most pressing issue of the day for organic agriculture was the lack of supply and the decline of the number of organic farmers. The question: How could organic companies come together to make the greatest impact on that issue? The Future Organic Farmers Grant Fund, born over an organic kale salad, is now a reality and aims to assist young people entering the field of organic agriculture.
According to the USDA census data U.S. farmers are aging, and our nation faces declining numbers of people entering this age old profession. The average age of principal farm operators in the U.S. is 58.3 years old, nearly early an eight year increase since 1982. Even more troubling is the decline in new farmers. “In 2012, the number of new farmers who have been on their current operation less than ten years is down 20 percent from 2007.”
The supply of organic ingredients and crops in the U.S. continues to be outpaced by demand and one of the reasons is linked to the lack of new organic producers. There are multiple barriers in becoming an organic farmer. Education, technical skills, access to land and assistance with transition are all hurdles new organic growers face. Another less talked about, but certainly relevant hurdle is the cultural component. If our youth grow up learning the basics of organic agro-ecology they are much more likely to become sturdy new farmers and ranchers.
The Future Organic Farmers Grant Fund is a collaboration of concerned businesses and individuals striving to provide direct financial assistance to the next generation of organic farmers. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) Foundation and its partners NCG, UNFI Foundation, Driscoll’s, Organic Valley, Lauren and Eric Schiermeyer, and Clif Bar Family Foundation are supporters. Now, in only its second year, the size of the Fund has doubled to nearly $100,000. It will provide direct financial support to teachers and students.
Twenty $2,500 grants will be made to support vocational and higher education students enrolled in educational programs that will benefit their future careers in the organic industry.
The current call for applications is open NOW until May 15, 2015. Certified K-8 grade teachers throughout the nation as well as vocational and higher education students are eligible to apply.
If you know a teacher or a higher education student who would be interested in this opportunity send them directly to http://www.ccof.org/foundation/fofgf.
Ultimately, we all want to increase the supply of organic, which continues to be outpaced by demand. Investing in the next generation of organic producers ensures the continued health of this industry and the important benefits it brings to our communities, the economy and the environment.
My humble beginnings in the organic industry began in 1976 in a small Coop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The people were eclectic and I was drawn to the culture as much as I was the idea of providing healthy, unadulterated whole foods to my community. I was swept up in a movement of sorts, getting back to the land and to nature. Growing, selling and eating organic foods were a palpable crusade of Birkenstock bedecked, new-age folks who wanted to leave the world a better place through food and agriculture. I joined the game with full force and never looked back. Fast forward almost 40 years later and where have we come?
Every year the Organic Trade Association (OTA) studies and surveys the Organic Industry. According to their latest, sales of organic food and non-food products in the United States broke through a record in 2014, totaling a whopping $39.1 billion, up 11.3 percent from the previous year! This is amazing consider the struggle we have with tight supplies in sectors such as dairy and cereal.
Back in 1997, when I was just starting my own business, organic food sales were just $3.4 billion and under 1% of total food sales. The hard work paid off and now organic is at 5% of total food sales! Our growth rate of 11.3% totally eclipses the overall food industry growth rate of 3%! No wonder conventional companies want a piece of the action, it’s once again palpable!
As I now sit at my desk and cogitate on the possibilities I wonder if we have really hit the big home run. Should we be satisfied to be 5% of food? At the OTA Policy Conference USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that there are currently 19,474 certified organic operations in the United States and 27,814 around the world. The number of U.S. certified organic operations rose by more than 5% in the last 12 months. Sure that’s great and I wouldn’t give it back but it is still only 2% of total agriculture in the U.S. Has my life’s work been spent for 2% of a home run? What kind of ball game is this?
Think about the potential organic agriculture has. Shouldn’t we be striving for more than 2% in this world of ecological woes? An increase in organic acreage has the potential to build and preserve our top soil, clean up our nitrogen and pesticides laden waters. Studies show organic agriculture sequesters carbon, protects wildlife and pollinators, and definitely reduces our exposure to toxic chemicals. Did you hear the latest on glyphosate being a likely carcinogen? You can be guaranteed that there will be none of that in your organic dinner!
Did I mention we have extreme supply shortages? Have you walked into the store and witnessed the bare naked dairy and eggs sections, devoid of organic provisions? Another recent OTA study displayed that imports of organic soybeans and organic corn—the main ingredients in organic feed for the expanding U.S. organic dairy, poultry and livestock sectors are up sharply. We continue to import corn and soy because there aren’t enough organic acres and organic farmers in the U.S. growing these items.
Yet despite these dingy signs the organic dairy sector posted an almost 11% jump in sales in 2014 to $5.46 billion, the biggest percentage increase for that category in six years! Think of what we could do if we had enough organic feed! No strikes, no fouls, organic milk in every glass!
We clearly need a few things to help protect and grow this robust phenomenon that is the organic market. We need more organic farmers. Plain and simple we need to recruit young people and train existing farmers. We must provide technical assistance to help farmers’ transition land into certification. We need more science and research to help organic farmers produce more efficiently with higher yields. Organic seed breeding and research is essential to help producers succeed in the midst of a changing climate.
This can all be accomplished and much more if the organic community pools their funds and approves an organic research and promotions program. The Organic Check-Off is an idea whose time has come. If everyone pays a little, we can have enough funds to match USDA research dollars at land grant universities. Transitioning farmers will have the technical assistance and training to bring more acreage under organic production. The public can be educated on the true meaning of organic.
I am ready to swing hard this time at bat to bring my team home. The bases are loaded and we have this one chance. Won’t you join me and sign on as a supporter of Groorganic? It can be the World Series legacy we leave future generations.
This week I am lucky enough to be attending the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in La Jolla California. It won’t be days of beachcombing or sipping sweet nectars in the sun for me. Instead I will be locked inside a room for 8-10 hours with a dedicated group of stakeholders discussing current and future changes to the organic regulations. It’s a sometimes tedious and always in-depth process of public comment and board recommendations to the National Organic Program (NOP). The thorough and rigorous nature of the discussion is a sure sign that the organic seal is absolutely the highest standard of food production in the land! Continue reading
It has been almost 20 years since GMO technology was introduced into our agriculture systems. Over time this toxic arms race has created a scenario whereby 80-90% of corn and soy planted in the U.S. is grown with GMO technology. As a result it is now difficult for farmers to easily source non-GMO seeds. In mid-March Rep. Pompeo, Mike [R-KS-4] reintroduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act which would take away our right to label GMOs for a very long time. Some have dubbed it the Deny Americans Right to Know (DARK) act, and this nefarious legislation is quickly gaining steam in Congress. Continue reading