Archive for the ‘Local Food’ category

Farmers On The Climate Frontline

July 5, 2022

When The Progressive magazine asked me to write about how farmers are addressing climate change, it posed an interestings challenge: Farming practices are both an accelerant and a retardant of a warming Earth.

Factory-style farming gets the blame. As I explain in the April-May 2022 issue:

“Corn is the problematic linchpin of factory farming. It is the nation’s biggest cash crop, and it dominates the richest farmland in the Midwest. Heavily dependent on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, corn poses a major water pollution problem. Researchers blame nutrient-rich runoff, draining through the Mississippi River from the Upper Midwest, for a vast ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, did the accounting and found that the federal subsidies for corn production totaled an astonishing $116.6 billion between 1995 and 2020. This is a testament to the powerful agribusiness lobby to which both Democrats and Republicans pledge fealty.

“Only 10 percent of the annual corn crop actually becomes human food; even then, it’s mostly sweeteners and refined oils used in making highly processed items. About another 40 percent feeds cars and trucks in the form of federally mandated corn-blended ethanol—a “renewable” fuel whose purportedly favorable environmental impact is fiercely disputed.

“The rest of the corn becomes livestock feed and is mostly consumed in huge factory-style farms called CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations. This is how most of our beef, pork, and milk is produced, and these industries cause huge environmental problems of their own.”

The bulk of the story deals with what farmers are doing right.

If you know the issue, you won’t be surprised to learn how Wendell Berry, the great chronicler of rural life, points the way. To learn more, please follow this link.

The Crisis In Organic Farming

April 6, 2022

I’ve been writing lately on farming for The Progressive magazine. This story appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue. (Yep. I’m late in posting it.) It details how the organic industry is overpowering the organic movement, which I argue is bad news for duped consumers and hardpressed family farmers.

The irony is that core problem traces back to the creation of the National Organic Program (under the U.S. Ag department) in 1990. A 12-year battle ensued over what exact criteria had to be satisfied for a farm to be federally certified as organic.

I write:

“Those certification standards—barring the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other synthetic inputs; requiring pasturing for farm animals; establishing a three-year protocol for converting conventional farmland to organic status; and a lot more—were nothing less than transformative.

“What had been a growing but idiosyncratic and fragmented movement—at least twenty-two states had their own rules for organic labeling—became a single national market with standardized rules. This led foreign farm operations to seek USDA certification so they could sell their goods stateside.

“Organic food sales exploded. By 2011, sales hit $25.1 billion, and by 2020, sales had more than doubled to $56.5 billion. In 2021, the USDA counted more than 28,000 certified organic businesses in the United States. Another 17,000 foreign operations were certified as USDA organic.

“But far from it being the glory days of the organic food movement, this is a time of maximum danger. A perfect storm of problems is challenging organic’s primacy in producing healthy food. And organic food, once a culty and idealistic passion for both farmers and consumers, is increasingly just another cog in the agribusiness behemoth.” 

To read more, please go here.

Down On The Farm

June 10, 2020

I’ve always admired the farm journalist Pete Hardin. (See my profile here.) He’s sort of the I.F. Stone of the barnyard. A detailed-oriented reporter with a controlled sense of outrage.

I felt honored when he asked me to write a couple of short news pieces for the May issue of The Milkweed, his iconoclastic monthly dairy report. One was an update of  my Wisconsin Examiner story on the travails and recent success of the Organic Valley farmers’ co-operative. The other was an “inside baseball” piece on how the co-op did business with the faultering Dean Foods’ milk operation.

Pete isn’t big on posting ungated Milkweed stories online. So, if you’re interested, check out the PDF.

How Best To Protect Organic Integrity?

March 10, 2020

Big question. No clear answer.

And that’s a huge problem with the ongoing crisis in organic farming.

How best to protect organic integrity — fight to enforce the original (and now degraded) federal  standards or push for new voluntary standards as a supplementary label?

Opinions are divided.

This is part II of my Wisconsin Examiner series.

Mark Kastel, a passionate organic farming watchdog, lays out the crisis that is chipping away at the moral high ground occupied by organic food.

Consumers pay a premium price for federally certified organic farm goods, he says, not just for the selfish reason of protecting their own health from chemical additives, but also because “they believe they’re doing something good for society.”

Mark A. Kastel OrganicEye (via Kastel)
Mark A. Kastel
OrganicEye (via Kastel)

“They believe they’re supporting a more environmentally responsible way of farming. A more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And they believe economic justice for the farmers and for the farm workers is built right into that higher price.”

All that is jeopardized, Kastel warns, when consumers learn things, like, a single milk-processing plant in Colorado, supplied by 5,000- to 15,000- cow factory farms, is shipping certified organic milk all across the country. That milk is faux organiche argues, and “undercuts real organic farms” in Wisconsin by cheating on the federal organic rules.

“When consumers find out that these cows have short, stressful lives just like cows in factory farms — that doesn’t sound like they’re paying for more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And when they find out the people milking these cows are mostly hard-working, exploited immigrants living in trailers, they don’t feel good about that either.”

The crux of the problem as Kastel and other critics see it: “The factory-farm milk from the 15,000 cow dairy shares the same green and white organic label as milk coming from a 50-cow family farm in Wisconsin.”

To read more, please go here.

Organic Valley At The Crossroads

July 28, 2015

The Organic Valley farmers coop has been a huge success. With national sales hitting almost $1 billion, this upstart challenger of conventional agriculture has helped create a massive consumer market for chemical-free farming. Small family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation have gone organic because of the premium prices their milk, eggs and meat attracts in the organic marketplace. But in researching this story for The Progressive magazine I found the coop in a surprisingly precarious position. I write:

Surging consumer demand for organics has created supply shortages for dairy products, and immense opportunities for profit. That has attracted some of the nation’s largest American food corporations to step up an already sizable investment in organics. These aren’t people motivated by protecting the environment, says David Kaseno of the National Farmers Organization. They are “people who think: ‘Hey we can make a lot of money in organic milk.’”

The $46 billion merger of Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Co. in March will prompt its rivals to bulk up by buying fast-growing organic food labels, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News predicted. The food giants already produce a stunning 70 percent of the items stocked in a typical co-op grocery, says Philip Howard,a Michigan State University professor who tracks corporate consolidation in the organic world.

For organic industry observers, this poses stark questions for Organic Valley: Is it smart enough and big enough to compete with the corporate giants? Will it yield to the temptation to compromise organic standards to maintain market share? More to the point, will it hold on to its all-important dairy members, who have been abandoning the co-op for the significantly better pay offered by some Organic Valley competitors?

This is the paradox of Organic Valley: At a moment of great success, it faces something of an existential threat.

To read more, please go here.

I interviewed a ton of people for the story, including Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Some of this views can be found in the story. I wrote an online sidebar that touches on other matters. I suspect that some people will be surprised at his positive impressions of Walmart. You can read about it here.

I also wrote about the Organic Valley coop for Isthmus. You can find those earlier stories from 2007 and 2008 here and here and here.


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