• WisBusiness

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Political undercurrent runs through organic conference

By Marc Eisen
The Minnesota family chosen as "the farmer of the year" at the 21st annual Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse was meeting the press last Friday when a casual comment about health care prompted Jane Fisher-Merritt to protest:

"Don't get us started -- health care is such a problem!"

Fisher-Merritt, who farms with her husband John and son Janaki near Duluth, had been listening while John proudly explained to reporters how they work around the short growing season of northern Minnesota and have prospered through the selling of subscription garden shares to their customers.

But mention of health insurance prompted husband John to veer off course and complain it cost his family "a bloody fortune" -- he figured the family would pay $12,000 a year in premiums and deductibles to gain their first dollar of insurance coverage.

For years, he noted, his family had qualified for "MinnesotaCare" -- a program akin to Wisconsin's BadgerCare that provides health insurance to poor families.

That was a revealing moment on several counts. First, that a hard-working farm family could find itself forced into poverty program to secure health insurance. Second, it showed how political pressure points would emerge every so often in the three-day conference that was otherwise filled with workshops on topics like conservation tillage and pest control for small organic orchards. More than 2,600 people attended.

The political detour was a pointed reminder that not everything is sweetness and light for the folks who sell child-friendly organic milk, tomatoes that don't taste like cardboard, and hamburger meat that is not subject to stomach-turning investigative stories in The New York Times.

The funny thing is that one of the movement's biggest political victories -- convincing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tighten the regulation of organic livestock -- has exacerbated a split in Wisconsin's tight-knit organic community.

Because the Badger State is a leader in the organic movement, their dispute has nationwide implications. Ranked second in the nation for the number of organic farms, Wisconsin is also home to the largest organic agriculture cooperative (the Organic Valley network of farms in 33 states), to several feisty advocacy groups, including the Cornucopia Institute and Family Farm Defenders, as well as to a topnotch support agency, the Midwest Organic & Sustainability Educational Service.

As it happens, Wisconsin's fingerprints can be found all over the new rule, which becomes effective June 17. It creates new benchmarks for the pasturing and grazing of organic dairy cows and ends a contentious ten-year struggle over the regulation of what critics consider fake organic dairy farms.

These are the corporately owned 2,000-to-7,000-head dairy operations in the arid ranges of the west. In contrast, most Wisconsin organic dairy farms are family operated and milk less than 100 cows.

The fight was spearheaded by the Cornucopia Institute, which filed multiple complaints with federal regulators alleging that the large operations were nothing more than factory farms using barely disguised feed lots rather than pasturing their animals as federal organic rules require.

An August 2007 consent decree ordering Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colo., to correct its operation gave credence to Cornucopia's suspicions. And the tough new rule -- which both sides applaud -- seemingly is another feather in the organic group's hat.

But is it? Critics wonder if Cornucopia's aggressive approach didn't backfire and actually slow the agriculture department response to large dairy farms attempting to bring mass-scale economies to what had been a boutique market.

"Our groups not working together sent mixed messages to the USDA," said conference organizer Faye Jones, who directs the MOSES organic-services group from its headquarters in Spring Valley.

She sounded philosophical about the dilemma: "It's in the nature of what we do that we have a lot of mavericks with deep passion. That's what interfered. I would say it slowed down [the resolution]."

Similarly, Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, who praises the new rule as "awesome," nonetheless suggests that the USDA flinched and froze up in the face of so much criticism.

"All the controversy shut down the [reform] process," he said.

Siemon's reasoning infuriates the activists. "How ironic," said Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst Mark Kastel. "George has not a word of criticism for the dairies found to be cheating, but criticizes Cornucopia, which filed the legal complaint that led to the USDA's legal enforcement against some of these dairies."

Equally upset was John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders in Madison. He blames the Bush administration for what he sees as the USDA's failure to act in a timely manner. "Pasture rules are a huge issue for organic farmers," he said. "The integrity of the standards had to be maintained."

Peck adds: "It was frustrating because we also had all these people in the organic industry who wanted bottom-of-the-barrel standards. That undermined consumer confidence."

That was another issue the two sides tried to claim: Who was responsible for the public confusion over the quality of organic milk?

The two sides wound up blaming one another.

"The constant negative headlines about organics have been harmful to our overall marketplace," said Siemon. "People are losing confidence in organics."

That assessment was later echoed by a California activist, Maureen Wilmot, who told a workshop on "Squeaky Wheels and Organic Change," that after the controversy over milk labeling she was surprised at how many shoppers in her hometown grocery told her: "I don't know what to do" when they considered buying organic milk.

At issue were the giant dairies that frequently sold cheap certified organic milk to the house labels of mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco. The activists feel nothing more is important than maintaining the integrity of the certified USDA organic label in the public's mind. They're dumbfounded that they're blamed for the negative publicity that may have affected sales.

Indeed, 2009 recorded the first dip in organic sales since the national organic standards were established in 1990. Things were particularly brutal in the dairy sector where a shortage of organic milk from 2004 through early 2008, Siemon notes, prompted a rush of new suppliers reaching the market just as the country fell into a steep recession.

The result: an oversupply of organic milk that may have been worsened by consumers not wanting to pay a premium for an organic product surrounded by controversy.

Jim Riddle, one of the conference's leaders and a former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, was judicious in trying to sort through the issue for reporters. But when he chaired the "squeaky wheel" session, he offered praise for the activists like Kastel.

"We are a movement. We are an activist community. Nobody gave us 'organic' -- we had to insist on it," he said. Of the current controversy, Riddle added, "The activists kept the heat on, and it was something that couldn't be ignored and swept under the rug. We had an inside-outside strategy that eventually worked."

In an earlier interview, Siemon framed the standards debate in a different way. "I'm very happy with the outcome," the Organic Valley leader said. "Whether it would have got there without all the controversy, you can debate that all day long. Personally, I've always been a big supporter of the USDA process."

The big, still-unresolved question for the organic movement, Siemon suggested, is this: "How do you agree to disagree and have an open dialog?"

-- Eisen is a writer and editor living in Madison.


Comments: 4

At March 2, 2010 at 11:24 AM, Blogger Mark Kastel --- The Cornucopia Institute said...

Our thanks to Marc Eisen, a highly seasoned and professional Wisconsin-based journalist, for his provocative coverage of last week's Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference.

There is certainly a divide in the organic dairy industry. On one side are upwards of 2000 family-scale organic farms, averaging about 60-80 head each, where cows typically have names not numbers. On the other side of the spectrum are giant corporate agribusinesses running factory farms masquerading as organic.

We have aimed the spotlight at the heroes and bad actors in this industry. The good news for consumers, according to the comprehensive research study we conducted, is that 90% of all namebrand organic dairy products are of high integrity (see the Cornucopia Institute's organic dairy scorecard at: www.cornucopia.org).

The corporations involved have consistently tried to kill the messenger. Organic Valley's CEO has walked a tightrope. Earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, running a half billion dollar business enterprise, he has also had to deal with the farmer-owners of the cooperative who have kept the brand true to its mission.

And giant corporations like Dean Foods, owner of Horizon organic from many factory farms, has given millions of dollars away to charitable organizations that sometimes have attacked industry watchdogs like Cornucopia.

We have recently learned that the "activist" quoted in Mr. Eisen story is now working for a major nonprofit on the West Coast that has taken millions of dollars from corporate agribusinesses, including Dean Foods and the now infamous organic scofflaw, Aurora Dairy (five factory farms in Texas and Colorado).

You need a scorecard to figure out the two sides in organics. Finding your favorite brand on the Cornucopia scorecard is your way of rewarding ethical family farmers and the processors they partner with.

Mark A. Kastel
The Cornucopia Institute
Cornucopia, Wisconsin

At March 25, 2010 at 5:08 PM, Blogger maureen said...

Thanks to Marc Eisen for his thoughtful piece on the political undercurrents that ran through the Midwest Organic and Sustainability Educational Service annual conference last month in Lacrosse. Clearly, political undercurrents of numerous kinds are a part of the organic community generally. Given the diverse nature of the community, it would be even bigger news if suddenly we all came to complete agreement on any one of dozens of pressure points within the nascent organic food production system. Identifying and discussing our points of concern in fair and open dialogue is a healthy exercise for any community as large and varied as ours. That, I thought, is what we were trying to do during the roundtable discussion on which Eisen based his article.

In its comments, it appears the Cornucopia Institute has chosen to take offense at some of the questions I raised during the roundtable. As a bona fide organic activist, I asked the group how we, as a community, are going to address the confusion among consumers about the meaning of organic. To me, it is a logical, fair, and reasonable question that we should all be asking. It baffles me that Cornucopia Institute would feel threatened by such a question.

It is interesting to me also that the Cornucopia Institute has chosen to suggest that it took some type of investigation on their part to figure out that while I consider myself an organic activist, and was so identified by Mr. Eisen in his article, I am also the Deputy Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. The fact is, I was introduced as an OFRF staff member at the start of the roundtable discussion and am quite proud of my affiliation with the Foundation. Mr. Eisen identified me in his story as a “California activist” because I told him my comments did not represent those of the Foundation, but were offered by me based on my own experience talking with fellow shoppers at my local grocery store.

Additionally, the Cornucopia Institute implied in its comments that the support OFRF has received from across the broad spectrum of individuals and businesses involved in the organic industry over the years is somehow suspect. While the Cornucopia Institute may take issue with some of the organizations from which we receive support, we are quite certain it has no evidence to indicate that there was anything sinister involved in the transactions. OFRF has never hidden the names of those who help support our work and the work of the organic farmers we encourage. Here’s a link to the contributors page on our website: https://ofrf.org/giving2ofrf/funders.html That page is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, year after year. It provides our most recent (2008) list of the many, many contributors to the Organic Farming Research Foundation. On that list you will find the names of hundreds of individual donors as well as the names of many organic processors and retailers (large and small) and the names of numerous charitable foundations. OFRF is proud of the list. It represents the broad cross section of interest and support in organic farming research, education and policy advocacy, which our organization has dedicated itself to over the past twenty years. In our view, it represents the organic community in all its diversity: farmers, consumers, processors, retailers, and the funding institutions that enable our important work advancing organic agriculture.

We have long been dedicated to working in concert with the entire organic community to, as our mission states: “Foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems.” It is our way to help ensure that the organic industry as a whole will continue to grow.

Maureen Wilmot
Deputy Director
Organic Farming Research Foundation

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