Alex Hitt Elise Margoles Harvey Harman Nena Woody Stanely Steve Moize

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Local Farmers, The National Organics Program, and Sustainability

Mesh also thinks that some farmers are blaming the USDA unfairly. "Some farmers are, what I believe, misdirecting some anger towards USDA when, in fact, it may be better directed towards retail consolidation. The fact that consolidation in the retail sector is what's caused them to lose access to markets." In the context of chain stores, regional buying centers, and national sales contracts, the days of the local farmer selling to the local health food store is little more than a pleasant memory in many communities. Local farmers find it increasingly difficult to sell their produce in grocery stores that either demand more than the farmers can supply, or can ship it in from California or Mexico at a cheaper cost.

Organic to...Moreganic to...Sustainability?

In the war over words, many local farmers are now identifying themselves as "sustainable", which doesn't require certification or come with a sticker. The word "sustainable", when used in a farming context, is widely understood to mean environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just. To truly be sustainable, all three criteria must be met.

The rise of farmers identifying themselves as "sustainable" comes in response to a growing sense that organic, especially since the arrival of the NOP, is too limiting in its scope. Explains Alex, "I think a lot of us, particularly those of us who have been in the business a long time, know that there is much more to what we do than just following this list of x, y, and z regulation. And some folks refer to that as more than organic, beyond organic, and what they're talking about really is a sustainable view of things. It has to do with jobs, and community, and environment and economic soundness."

Although for many people "organic" has become synonymous with "good for the earth", there are organic practices that are nonetheless environmentally destructive. Monocropping is one example. Monocropping, which involves planting huge hundred-to-thousand acre tracts of one crop, is a common practice among some of organic's large wholesalers. It can adversely affect soil health and alter natural systems that balance pest, insect, and predator populations. According to Steve Moize, "If you're a 500-acre monocrop certified organic farm, you're having to use migrant labor, heavy machinery, lots of - although allowed - agrochemicals…there's nothing, in my definition, sustainable or sound about that. That's the same paradigm, just cleaner clothes."

Long-distance shipping of farm inputs and organic produce also arises as a sustainability issue, especially considering this nation's dependence on petroleum - a non-renewable, "dirty" natural resource. Tony Kleese of CFSA agrees: "Shipping organic produce 3,000 miles across the country from California is not a sustainable system. And so we are trying to make it not only organic, but local and organic."

Kleese's goal is to create a regional, localized food system in which a year-round supply of organic food is grown in the Southeastern US for local consumption. He explains, "we can grow a year-round supply of food, we just have to get our act together and coordinate it, and set up systems to where it will benefit Weaver Street or Harris Teeter or whoever to buy [goods]…and not ship it all the way in from California."

Kleese doesn't see organics and sustainabililty as an either/or choice: "I think organic is a subset of sustainability…sustainability is a cultural paradigm." But he does see the rejection of the organic label, and of certification, as a threat to the progress that has been made.thus far. He says that when local farmers choose not to re-certify, it sends a bad message to their customers. "The customer walks away thinking 'you know, there's something wrong with organic. My favorite farmer isn't certified anymore'. And I think that has just put a nail in the coffin of organic…The bottom line is, this is a big, huge cultural shift, and I think we should all be part of it."


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