catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 2 :: 2005.01.28 — 2005.02.10


A global network of local organic food producers

My wife Sarah and I attended the 24th Annual Organic Agriculture Conference at the University of Guelph in Ontario last weekend. The theme for the conference was “Local Organic…A Global Solution” and the program included a variety of workshops, as well as a trade show and exposition with over 130 exhibitors. These ranged from advocacy and special interest groups to networking organizations to businesses specializing in sustainable building, landscaping, seed marketing, renewable energy, herbal remedies and, of course, food production. There were many opportunities to sample products from companies selling organically-produced milk, coffee, maple syrup and sugar, meats, cookies, fruitcake, ice cream, wine, honey, vegetables, bread, tea, and soy products among many others.

From economics to ecology

The keynote speaker was John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri. The title of his address was “Local Organic Saves Farmland and Communities” and his primary concern is the breakdown of community and family relationships in the name of ever-increasing economic efficiency. Organic farming is predominantly family farming, although it has begun to face some of the challenges of industrialization. It runs the risk of becoming corporate by adopting the underlying principles of industrialization. Dr. Ikerd warned that our experience in the last fifty years with the industrialization of conventional food production should teach us that this “may make economic sense, but it doesn’t make common sense.”

Dr. Ikerd began his career as an agricultural economist believing fully in the inevitability of bigger-is-better economics. He described the logic of the farming boom in the 1970s when government and university experts like himself were advising farmers to go big or go home, encouraging them to take out large loans to expand their operations. These farmers were then caught in the vise of the farm crisis in the 1980s when the bottom fell out of the boom and farmers strapped with bank loans they couldn’t pay went bankrupt by the thousands, forcing yet another cycle of rural depopulation and industrial centralization.

Dr. Ikerd quickly realized that the farmers he and his colleagues had considered “good” farmers, “farmers doing what we told them to do,” were in the worst trouble, while the “bad” farmers were able to weather the tough times, because they had not over-extended themselves in an effort to become bigger, and richer, according to the unsustainable industrial model. These were the farmers the economists had considered the “laggards,” stubborn traditionalists who had refused to see their farms, and farming, in merely economic terms. They tended to be the farmers who viewed their roles as food producers as a responsibility, and they tended to treat their farms as “a living organism, a biological system.” Dr. Ikerd discovered he had a new-found respect for them and he began to question the factory model of farming.

He came to understand that the practice of farming was inseparable from the worldview that informs it, and he described the need for a “rightness of relationship between people and the land” and between food producers and their customers. He explained that the concept of sustainability in food production is directly tied to the understanding of the farm as a single biological organism, because “only living things are capable of offsetting the tendency towards entropy,” of renewing themselves. He extended this insight to the whole of culture, claiming that right relationships in food production are essential to the foundation of a civil and sustainable society. He emphasized that social responsibility and ecological integrity can not be embodied in a set of regulations, but demand a personal commitment of human hearts and souls to supporting and developing sustainable farming and food marketing practices.

In the end, he argued, it all comes down to love. Love of the land, love of our quality of life, love of our neighbors, love of our food, is the only thing that will motivate us, both as producers and consumers, to transform the industrial model of agriculture. Dr. Ikerd cited agricultural authorities, beginning with Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, and including Sir Alfred Howard, Andre Voisin, J.R. Rodale, Joel Salatin and, of course, Wendell Berry, who have all emphasized the fact that stewardship is inseparable from agriculture, that food production is “a sacred trust.” It is only by cultivating this awareness in ourselves and others that those who share the philosophy behind organic, local food production, be they Christian or otherwise, will be able to reach the goal of establishing “a global network of local organic food systems.”

The good news

Contrary to the popular conception of who is involved in organic agriculture, the people in attendance would be difficult to categorize according to conventional stereotypes. There were young, idealistic people enthusiastic about the possibilities for becoming involved in agriculture in some way, but there were also many older, established farmers who began farming organically simply because it made good sense for their families and their livelihood. There were urban gardeners and shoppers who were interested in finding out more about the range of organic food products available to them. There were also traditional Mennonite farmers in attendance who have essentially always been farming organically and have seen many of their concerns about the negative impact of industrialization on community and family life be taken up by a growing number of their neighbors. The variety of political, religious, and social perspectives we encountered over the course of the weekend left no doubt that concerns about our food cut across boundaries and serve as a uniting force for people with different worldviews.

The scope of the conference was large and reflected the variety of people who were in attendance. The workshops included advanced topics for experienced organic farmers such as dairy breeding, sanitation and liability issues, soil fertility management, and issues related to threats from genetically-modified organisms; as well as introductions to more general topics such as gardening with children, renewable energy, raspberry fundamentals, and greenhouse design.

The best workshop I attended on Saturday was “Thinking Upstream on the Whole Farm.” The presenters, Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, farm 1,300 acres of certified organic crops in the Finger Lakes region of New York, operate an organic feed and seed mill—Lakeview Organic Grain—and are monthly columnists for the Rodale Institute’s <A HREF = “” target="_blank">New Farm

webzine. They emphasized the need for a creative problem-solving approach in organic farming that goes to the heart of destructive practices. They quoted from Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart to explain why people often fail to make the leap of insight necessary for developing a better way of doing things:

Design is the signal of intention. To design systems that are “less bad” is to accept things as they are, and to believe that poorly designed, destructive systems are the best that humans can do. The ultimate failure of the “be less bad system” is a failure of the imagination to grasp an entirely different model.

Klaas and Mary-Howell described how industrial agriculture functions like a drug addiction, requiring more and more input to get less and less result, eventually destroying the organism’s ability to function at all. Economic policy keeps farmers trapped in this vicious spiral because they are forced to grow corn crops that lose money just to get the $140 per acre U.S. government subsidies.

The Martens’ approach is inspired by Andre Voisin, who wrote in Soil, Grass and Cancer that the “primary goal must be to protect, that is, to grapple with the causes, rather than to concentrate on curing the disease, which after all, is only the consequence,” and they illustrated their talk with specific examples from their own experience. For example, they described a simple adjustment to a John Deere corn-seeder that would allow the corn to get a better head-start on the weeds by planting the seed at an appropriate depth for conditions. A whole-farm approach to weed control, made up of thousands of observations and adjustments to practice over time, can eliminate the need for pesticides as it has on their farm and those of their neighbors who have followed their example.

The bad news

I had a difficult choice to make on Sunday between two workshops, one titled “Farming and Spirituality: Feeding the Hunger for Spirit and Meaning” and “Politics, Organic Agriculture, and the Environment: An open forum on the challenging issues.” I chose to attend the workshop on politics, not because I think politics is more important than faith, but because I felt I had the most to learn there.

The political forum was an important reality check because it would have been easy to get swept up in the overwhelmingly positive, and very real, advances that have been made in local organic food production over the last fifteen years. It is true that in many areas the demand for locally-produced organic food is growing faster than it can be met. Many people are becoming aware of the dangers of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and the health risks that industrial agriculture exposes them to. They are demanding food that they can eat with a clear conscience, knowing that its production and marketing has contributed positively to their local ecology and community, and that the animals they eat have lived good lives and died dignified deaths.

There are real challenges to be faced however. The governments of the U.S. and Canada continue to support and aggressively promote the interests of agricultural biotechnology corporations. The use of pesticides has been as clearly connected to cancer and asthma rates as smoking. Cancer rates have increased 200% in children over the last ten years and genetically-modified plants have been shown to carry viruses that can adapt to infect humans, but research funding continues to go to the development of GMOs. These products, such as Round-Up ready canola (Round-Up is a common pesticide), are released to the agricultural community without the benefit of peer-review studies or significant research being conducted on their long-term effects. No safeguards are put in place to protect the crops of farmers from being contaminated by modified genes (through bee pollination, for example) and such contamination increases their dependence on pesticide use. Requests for research funding for alternative approaches to agriculture are routinely ignored.

North America lags far behind Europe in addressing our food production problems. Most European nations, as well as Japan, have placed restrictions on the importation of genetically-modified food because of health concerns. Rather than curbing the development of further GMOs until appropriate independent studies on their effects can be conducted, Canada and the U.S. have attempted to bully their trade partners into lifting these sensible restrictions. While there are several universities in Europe granting degrees in organic agriculture, there are none in North America (although the University of Guelph is developing a program). There are other challenges as well. Many small local businesses, like a micro-dairy in North Bay, Ontario called Mrs. Jersey’s, are forced out of business because production regulations tend to favor large companies that are working according to the industrial model of bigger-is-better.

Phil Penna, one of the panelists in the political forum, raised the question of why the chamber of commerce, other businesses, city officials, and the provincial government representative (who bought ice cream for his family picnic at Mrs. Jersey’s) didn’t come to the assistance of a wonderful local business. He offered this explanation:

I believe that no one came out to help this local dairy because city politicians and urbanites in general, take food for granted. We do not care where our food comes from. We have money and we will be able to import our food from one part of the world this year, and if that source dries up we can get it from somewhere else next year. We do not care where food comes from because we have lost touch with reality: that the foundation of a healthy society is a healthy relationship with the soil. We did not care that this local business went belly up because we do not know how cities work. City folk are illiterate of the writings of Jane Jacobs who tells us about how cities create [a relationship] with the surrounding regions and this relationship is symbiotic, powerful and sustainable.

The case for hope

All of this is discouraging news and could lead to pessimism, but as another of the panelists pointed out “pessimism arises from a feeling of isolation.” If there ?s one thing that the conference accomplished, it was to show everyone there that they were not alone in their concern about food or in their willingness to do something about it.

Dr. Ikerd ended his keynote address on Saturday morning by quoting Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it ?s the only thing that ever has.” He also said that “one by one we’re transforming the society we have today,” and went on to emphasize the idea that individual producers and consumers could bring about agricultural reform on a massive scale, simply through the power of the choices they make about what they grow and what they eat.

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