Saturday, January 13, 2007

Beyond Organic

Organic wasn’t such as bad thing ten or twenty years ago. Then the government got involved. That wasn’t such a bad thing either, except that lobbyists for multinational ag businesses were able to control the way USDA certification was written and cajole it to serve their interests. The real fallout from their efforts is just now being felt and I contend that organic certification will not mean anything in 10 years. Organic food will be just another commodity item in stores.

We’re already seeing it as the premiums growers used to get are disappearing, and the produce shelves are becoming dominated by strictly organic produce and commodity prices. Where I come from we call that commodification. If organic is no longer value-added, then the cost of the paperwork and expensive production techniques cease to make sense, except to those that controlled the process: i.e., large agribusiness.

For a farmer like myself, who is admittedly not organic and doesn’t really want to be, we need to figure out what the next steps are. I originally started this blog to debunk the whole idea that organic was the end all, beat all to food production. Let's explore the concept of what’s Beyond Organic?

Last week I was in Manhattan and I visited several stores to see what was on the shelves. Many of the supermarkets have made a verbal commitment to local. Some have even been leaders and exemplary businesses over the years. But lately most have started to act more like trend-surfers than businesses with missions beyond pure profit. For example, my visit revealed very few local apples or cider on their shelves. There was plenty of west coast organic apples and gobs of overpriced fruit drinks and waters. But where was the local? Remember New York is the second leading apple producing state in the US and apples store great through the winter, so availability isn’t the issue. For us growers, especially here on the east coast, there is very little incentive to enter the organic market as we see prices shrink and a diminishing commitment to local after “the season.”

I’ve set my sights on implementing a production system that takes us beyond organic and allows us to compete in a way that can’t be taken away from us. I don’t know what that system is going to look like exactly, but more than likely it will be a combination of many different styles of production that will include traditional, organic, biodynamic, and whatever else I can beg, borrow, and steal from the myriad styles that are out there. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have done this, but back then it all meant something. We’re now looking to redefine a method of ecological growing that means something to the trade and the consumer, and the only way to do that without having it co-opted by the big guys is to develop in concert with the fact that we are local. Nobody can co-opt our geography, especially if we define the concept of what local means first.

In the early 1990s there was an attempt by a researcher at Cornell to develop something called the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ). It was underdeveloped and never successful, but it always struck me that what we really needed to do with our production systems is to develop an algorithm for calculating a whole-farm EIQ.

Production systems have to be analyzed by more than just what we spray or fertilize our plants with. We live in a complex world and it shouldn’t be a bad thing to utilize technology and science as well as certain pagan rituals in how we grow crops. The goal should be to have the least negative impact on the land, communities, and regional food systems as possible.
Beyond Organic lies in a production system that is a complex and challenging as nature itself. As I develop this new production system, I'll make sure to keep everyone informed. But I don’t think we’ll ever actually “get there.” Farms are complex, biological organisms that include people, buildings, tractors, and plants. They evolve and change every day. There’re a new set of problems and challenges to contend with all the time. Our production systems should mimic and work with that reality….naturally. In this case, philosophy trumps recipes and that's just something a 1000 acre farm in California can't deal with.

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Anonymous Celeste Cleary, said...

A few years ago I was preparing the New Paltz Area Farms Map for publication (see link) and I wanted to include not just the farmstands, u-pick orchards and farmers' markets but also shops and restaurants that sell and use locally-grown produce. I was kind of shocked to learn the health food stores in our area weren't carrying anything locally grown whatsoever.

And ShopRite had bins of apples with signs that said "local" -- but their idea of local, I was told, was anything grown in New York State OR any place contiguous to NY! So even Canadian apples would qualify as "local".

11:45 AM  
Blogger Debbie said...

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis. Seeing players like Wal-Mart enter the organic field does change the original intent of many organic buyers, which included supporting local farms and considering the overall environmental impact of their choices.


9:51 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I am curious at to what you see as the objective for all this. Is it to protect revenues for small (local) producers, provide low-cost food to consumers, produce healthier food, or mitigate negative environmental impacts? I would like to raise a couple points. First, I like the idea of supporting local farmers, but does local even exist anymore? I would think any definition of “local” would have to account for the sourcing of the inputs, including labour. It would also have to account for where the produce is sold (distance from growing) and this would most assuredly be an arbitrary line. Does “local” have anything to do with ownership? Is it ok for a large multi-national corporation to own 1,000 small local farms? Finally, must the farmer’s own business plan have some reasonable limit on their own growth of production or profit? I certainly don’t have the answers for these questions, but I do think they will be important components of any solution. Any legally defined production system can be undercut be lowering the costs of production and the path to lower costs is increased economies of scale.

The second issue is more personal. I have always resented that “healthier” organic food carries such a high premium with it. Until recently, organic foods were mainly reserved for the wealthier segments of society, while the poorer population was stuck with the less healthy (perhaps dangerous) traditionally produced food that had been commoditised. If the large corporations can provide cheaper, healthier organic food, then why is this bad? I think it should be a goal not only to provide healthy food, but at low cost to the consumer as well.

In my opinion, the solution will rely more on changing consumer preference and buying habits than on developing a lock-tight production system – and this will be driven largely through pricing, especially achieving the low pricing that customers prefer. The global experience is that small farmers are more efficient in producing high-valued output on small areas of land, while large farmers are much more efficient at producing high value per unit of labour input. Are the local producers really concentrating on their comparative advantage?

6:06 AM  
Blogger Mike Biltonen said...

With regard to Celeste's comment, it is true that Local needs to be defined and marketed in a way that organic was being marketed at the front end of its entry into the marketplace. Where to draw those lines is critically important, since access to markets is important to many farmers and distance can be an issue. We want to include not exclude to the degree that each farmer/farm is an important part of thei rlocal community economy as well. But when someone is growing hundreds or thousands of miles away with no regard for their local ecoonomy, then that should not be considered local. Clear labeling at store level based on a definition shuld absolutely be a part of the process.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Mike Biltonen said...

Wth regard to Eric, my response is more complex. First, the cost of organic produce has probably been more in line with real cost of food than we see with conventional produce. The low cost of conventional produce is artificial because of national food policy. More importantly, if low cost food comes at the expense of local farms, is that a reasonable premise for low prices?

Second,production systems should adhere to the use of local resources as much as possible. But my business would be forced to close if we were required to use ONLY local labor or local grass seed, or energy. Hiring enough local help is nearly impossible; our energy is produced way off site; our tractors are made in Italy; etc. There are certain hurdles that are impossible to overcome immediately. In that light, our production system--and by that I mean everything we do--should be based on an adherence to a philosophy rather than an absolute requirement to source everything local or perish.

Finally, comparative advantages. Do we focus on them? Yes. Do we still participate in a global economy? Yes, as well. Small farms must balance two contradictory situations, whereas large, multinationals must only figure out how grow as cheaply as possible, often with little regard to local communities. Small farms in fact have this as a integral part of their philosophy. But when consumers still complain that local food is too expensive, I reply that local is the conscientous choice, not the cheapest.

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