Times they are a changin’: Product aggregation, and the Organic standard

Winter has always been a time for deep reflection for me. Winter encourages travel with all of the holidays, and thus more time on the road to think in silence.  Winter generously provides us shorter daylight hours, which for me, has allowed more time to read, to tend to the wood stove, listen to podcasts, get more sleep, and leave room in my day to reflect on my dreams.

I just received the latest issue of The Natural Farmer, put out by NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association). NOFA, a member supported organization, puts on two big conferences every year for gardeners and farmers alike, as well as countless other workshops hosted by farmers and homesteaders all over the state of Massachusetts and beyond.

In every issue of The Natural Farmer, they pick a theme. And in this one, there was a special supplement included on Organic Aggregators. The headline, “CSAs, Aggregators, and Hubs, Oh My,” got my attention. Cotyledon Farm’s primary source of income is it’s CSA, or farm share program, and anytime I see writing about CSAs-it’s usually about the trends of the industry, and I am always surprised by how fast things are changing. Cotyledon Farm plays a tiny part in the grand scheme of CSAs, let alone “Organic” production in Massachusetts. However, we are all affected by the tides of industry.

Two things I want to address: Aggregators and…Organic. I will link to the relevant articles once I gain access to the electronic version of the newest issue of The Natural Farmer. In the mean time-I’ll give you a quick synopsis of the situation at hand.

You may have noticed an influx of CSAs, Farm Shares, and organic, local food boxes available to you online, often delivered to your door. You have a million choices available to you-vegetarian, add bread, cheese, coffee, fish, mushrooms. Some of these aggregators include organic produce, as well as a number of other non-organic products. Some of these aggregators use the term local, while purchasing food from an extremely large geographic area. Advertising solicits an environmentally friendly, socially-responsible decision is being made here.

One thing is for certain-consumers want to support local farmers, and are making efforts to do so.  But, often consumers are not so certain how to measure their impact, and whether or not their dollars are actually going directly to farmers for their products.  I think this one line in the article sums it up, “Now that local food has become big business, there is no limit to the possible competition.” It’s true, for example, that both Target and Walmart are attempting to enter this “market.” It’s become fashionable to buy local. Just like Organic has. (more on that soon) Ugh. Fashion can be great-when it’s done mindfully.

So friends, when you think local-and see it as a grocery store, or in an aggregate box-ask yourself who you are paying for this product, and for what, exactly, are you paying? Consider delivery, packaging, cooling as well as the potential multiple middle men that are charging for their services and goods. But what’s happening as this “value” (aka convenience) is added to the original products of fresh produce, fish, meat, etc. is that what is available to be paid to the farmer is diminished.

We want consumers to be satisfied, and sometimes convenience really does satisfy, and I get that:  access to a traditional CSA and attending farmers market isn’t always possible for busy families.  But also, what I really want, is to run a fiscally sound, community-based farm that allows me and those who work with me, to have a decent quality of life, and for that, we need devoted community members willing to directly support the CSAs and farms. Think about this: as quality of life diminishes for just about anyone in the US, usually, it indicates a greater reliance on convenience-items to get through the day. Convenience items tend to be less nutritious, more expensive, and cause more trash to enter the waste stream. Do you see the cycle? It is not one of elevating our fellow citizens and local businesses to the level of self-sustaining, I can assure you of that. It detracts from that possibility.  So, your contribution and participation really make a difference!

Directly supporting farmers can mean joining a CSA, shopping at local farmers markets or farm stands, as well as mobile markets, where you can buy directly from organizations that support farmers directly. Now, in Massachusetts, consumers who have access to EBT benefits will receive dollar-for-dollar matches of their purchases up to a certain amount, based on family size-somewhere in the ball park of $40-80/month. Thanks DTA! You can also help advertise for your local farmers and markets by sharing on social media (it helps if you go!) and when you do join a cSA, paying the maximum amount you can afford when given the choice of a sliding scale.  And if you’ve got the cash-pay for someone else’s share.

Alright, so for the organic piece-the Organic industry-not one we are directly a part of-but important none the less for our members and consumers at large who strive to eat responsibly, and often choose products under the Organic label because they were told that it is safer for their families, and for earth’s natural systems.

The news it’s two-fold. One. one of the founders of the National Organic Standards Board, Francis Thicke, resigned after 30 years.  Here’s his final statement.  It’s a doozy, and well worth the read. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back this time was hydroponics. Organic certification will now include produce that was grown hydroponically. I’ve got plenty of opinions on hydroponics, and I’ll save that for another day.

Two.  There is an ongoing, and worsening trend in the “Organic” industry:  the total lack of transparency, around the Organic standard, particularly for consumers.   Sadly, it’s almost not news anymore.  From the sounds of it, it has been a long, slow, and painful burn that led to Thicke’s decision. And frankly, I am disgusted, too, at the status of the organic produce industry.  I knew there were problems. Btu this brings it to a whole new level.

As Thick points out, there are now “organic” chicken CAFO’s (confined animal feeding operations), “organic” dairy CAFO’s in the order of 15,000 cows! Imported “organic” grain to feed these “organic” animals lack actual documentation proving they are in fact certified,  with some shipments proven fraudulent. Great.

It’s apparent now that the USDA, an extraordinarily powerful pro-big agriculture lobbying group, funded by the government, is increasingly leveraging its power over the NOSB. Now, Thick is proposing the idea of an add-on organic label to help ensure the integrity of the actual Organic standard.  Like, “This one is for sure organic.” An interesting twist is that organic farmers have now created the Organic Farmers Association (OFA) to better lobby for their interests in an all-too common industry-led interests game.

So when people ask, are you Organic? I sometimes shudder, thinking to myself, “God No!” But really, I say, yes, but we are not certified.  We go above and beyond what is now considered organic.  Sadly, I am not sure if that is saying much anymore! In my opinion, the organization is is entirely too unreliable to even bother to consider applying. It’s bureaucratic, expensive, inherently time-consuming and above all else-will most likely not benefit me, the land, or the business at all.  Of course, the practices of organic agriculture are of course-entirely respected. It’s the industry that mucked it all up. I use only OMRI certified soil amendments and fertilizers, fish fertilizer that is analyzed and guaranteed to have no heavy metals, and simple products like neem oil, hydrogen peroxide, castille soap, and the like, that I would put on my body-can also be used to protect plants from pests when used responsibly.

For large farms who want to gain access to larger markets, sell at grocery stores, and other retailers that won’t get a chance to explain what I am commenting on here-it makes sense.  You have to have the label if you want to be recognized as organic. But unfortunately for them-and anyone who reads about the organic industry-my faith in this so-called gold standard is diminishing.

Until next time, Rest well and enjoy the days ahead!


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