Does Size really matter?

Organic farmLast week, I was lucky enough to be one of the 3,300 people who attended the 25th anniversary MOSES conference. This annual conference, held in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is the foremost organic and sustainable farming conference in North America (perhaps in the world).

The total number of farmers in the US is about 2.1 million, according to the latest government census of American agriculture. Organic farmland is approximately 1% of total US acreage, so it’s quite possible that many of the organic farmers representing that 1% attended MOSES as well. Among the crowd were many small organic producers. Throughout my week, I experienced an uncanny convergence of conversations about big organic and small organic and local farms, which led me to ask, does size really matter?

I was pleased to note that many of the MOSES attendees were youthful and full of hope about organic agriculture. Some planted vegetables and sold them locally through CSA’s.  Others were inheriting their parents’ dairy farms or looking for new organic acreage to start a small heard and raise some chickens. Many of the workshops were geared to help beginning and small farmers take root in organic production, covering such topics as “weed control in transition years” to “crop insurance, new options and challenges”.

I engaged in several discussions over lunch and dinner about the difficulties of being a small farmer. I heard how hard it was to compete with larger “big organic” growers in the West. I knew this was true in some cases and wondered if the real problem wasn’t organic but the entire value we place on our food. I also thought, hadn’t we all begun as small organic? Also wasn’t it the big organic companies, like Organic Valley and Whole Foods that were helping to sponsor this very  conference? My mind was awash in contradiction and puzzlement.

Soon thereafter, an email popped up from my friend, Bob, with a link to a PBS feature titled, “Local vs. Organic”, produced by the Lexicon of Sustainability. The piece asked the question: “What’s more important, that your food is local… or organic?” They went to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where most of the small local growers are not certified. In fact, the southeast has the lowest number of certified organic farms in the entire country.  One farmer’s motto was “Organic is for California.” In many areas, organic certification rates face three challenges: the lack of adequate distribution systems, a lack of guidance and support to help farmers become certified and culture– they just don’t want the government to tell them what to do. The conclusion seemed to be: local first, certification second. One alternative they referenced was “face certification”, a relationship based on trust and faith.

I couldn’t help but think that, once again, the plight of these small southern growers wasn’t big organic. The culprit wasn’t some government plot to control their destiny as much as it was a lack of real resources. Small organic growers need education and technical assistance in order to farm with organic methods and become certified. They need financial assistance to defer the cost of certification; that now exists in the Farm Bill certification cost share program. Following organic standards must have real market benefits. Determining what to plant through the Organic Data Initiative should help growers plant the most profitable crops for their area.

Knowing someone’s trustful face isn’t enough to build an organic business or industry. That is what we had before the US organic standards, and we learned then that trust isn’t always enough to thwart those who want to cheat. My conclusion is that small organic growers need more resources. We don’t need to give organic certification a bad rap!

Finally, on Saturday, the TED-X Manhattan subject was “Changing the Way we eat”.  My old friend, Myra Goodman, co-founder of Earthbound Farms, was one of the esteemed speakers and her topic was “In defense of big organic”. The loop of my weekly ruminations seemed to be coming full circle and I had to listen in.  I remember when Myra and her husband, Drew, drove their white van up to the back door of Community Foods and delivered 10 hand sealed bags of organic spring mix each day. They not only grew, washed and packed their baby lettuce but also delivered it to a milk run of small health food stores in the Santa Cruz area. If anyone knows the trials and hard work of being a small organic farmer, Myra does. As the co-founder of Earthbound Farms, she also understands the benefits that a big organic farm operation can generate. She elaborated on the millions of pounds of industrial chemicals not being used as more acreage goes into production. She demonstrated the real benefits to soil, water and human health as a result. Her conclusion was that there is a place for both big and small as we strive to grow from the miniscule 1% of all farm acreage.

I believe that small and big organic are both equal and the same in terms of benefits. I believe they need each other now more than ever. Small, local organic farmers are often the consumer gateway to delicious and ultra-nutritious organic food. Consumers discover their produce at the farmers markets, graduate to a CSA and then purchase their organic staples at the local supermarket. In the winter, big organic supplies the strawberries and lettuces the local farmers cannot. Big organic companies have the means to support local growers by providing educational venues, such as the MOSES conference, as well as a commitment to assisting with distribution and education. Organic Valley Coop is a good example of big and small organic working in symbiosis.

The USDA must continue to address the barriers to becoming certified organic and lend assistance in these areas. Consumers must be willing to pay a little more for organic and support their local and certified organic growers. Organic really doesn’t cost more when you consider all the hidden costs of chemical farming.

The bottom line is small organic can, and often does, turn into big organic. Both must support each other in the quest to transform agriculture. We need more than 2.4% percent of our food to be produced with organic methods if we are truly going to heal the planet. The only way to grow beyond 1% of the total US acreage is for all organic, big and small, to work together and overcome their differences.  Size really doesn’t matter when you look at the big picture.

10 thoughts on “Does Size really matter?

  1. thanks for sharing news about Moses the perspective of small and large organic farms. You made it easy to understand the issues and different geographic views. Thanks so much. Please keep up the good work. jane nichols – Alberts Organics

  2. Melody, I like this dialogue. And I agree must embrace how to change large Ag if we are going to make meaningful progress towards changing Ag practices in US. I have spoken many times on ‘ it is not how large but how you make it large’ . When in Colorado I would live to have you tour Aurora Dairies with me. See you at dinner Mark

    Mark Retzloff Chairman and Co-founder Alfalfa’s Market Sent from my iPad

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful treatment of a tough issue that is the source of many splinters in the organic community’s hide. I agree with Mark Retzloff that how a company grows makes a big difference, but so does what the company does once its attained scale. There are some very big differences in any of the major organic sectors on this core question. It is inspiring to see what many of the large organic farms, food manufacturers, and retailers are doing for their workers, communities, and customers. It is also inspiring that relatively small farms like Full Belly and Tom and Denise Wiley’s can support several families, take care of the land, provide a living wage and opportunities for advancement, health care, education etc for their workers, and still put great food on the table. There is no one path or secret for success for large or small. With so many new and young farmers sinking roots in the sector, there will be need for new value chains and marketing infrastructure to move the growing volumes of food they no doubt will yearn to grow.

  4. Thanks much Melody. That was a very well written piece. I’m the senior administrator of a grocery store on a university campus in Iowa, we are more than 95% organic. The university community is becoming a strong center for sustainable living. Students keep asking me every week how to get into the organic farming business. Vocations are out there. Big organic must provide support to these vocations, nobody else will! Some sort of Alberts College for Organic Entrepreneur perhaps??

  5. Great piece Melody, always a pleasure to read your work…
    I agree 100% that stewards of the organic trade – both large and small – need to work together and share information to strengthen the system as a whole. Similar to a parent / child relationship, there needs to be a consistent stream of “role modeling”, where we always look to improve, teach and inspire.

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