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Resolving False Promotion of Organic Farming as better than Conventional Farming in the Marketplace

I get questions from farmers all the time about how to deal with customers asking them if they are organic or not. This is especially troublesome for many who need to apply pesticides to control insects for which there are no organic controls, for those that use a mix of organic and conventional practices, and those who use no pesticides but do not want to be certified organic. Glen Koehler from Coop Ext did an admirable job in laying out why some farmers do not, or cannot become organic....pronewengland.org/INFO/PROpubs/Profile/WhyAren'tAllMaineFarmsOrganic.doc In addition, most consumers do not have an accurate view of organic farming practices, as some organic pesticides have very detrimental effects on the pest and soil complex as much as some conventional pesticides. A local NYTimes article also explains some of this confusion as well in the marketplace.....http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/weekinreview/22bittman.html?em. So my questions for you all are, 1) how do we deal truthfully with the issue that organic farmers use dangerous pesticides as well, and 2) how do we bring conventional and organic producers together to jointly promote BOTH methods as OK, and promote LOCAL as a potentially better approach than pitting one set of production practices against another?.........

Tags: Conventional, Market, Organic, Pesticides

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I can only approach this from my vantage point of 29 years of small scale organic truck farming.

To answer questions 1: In any such discussion, we must first remember not to consider unequal things as being equal. To lump the pesticides allowed under organic practices with those allowed under the Dept of Ag's so-called "Best Management Practices" is to obfuscate what consumers are really talking about. Organic farming does not use carcinogens, nerve poisons, endocrine disruptors, teratogens, petroleum derivatives, mercury compounds, genetically engineered life forms or the like. Most pesticides allowed in organic farming are either derived from living things or are pure elements or simple compounds. Yes, some of them are "dangerous", but not like guthion, mancozeb, alar or BT corn.
Yes, there are many misconceptions about the particulars among consumers, both pro organic and con. But, on the whole, I think most have got the gist of the difference pretty well understood. They understand that organic = hype = higher cost and many are beginning to reject the sector of the marketplace that uses such an equation. They understand that organic = less poisoned, which in most cases is quite true. They reject the pontifications of government bureaucracies which have declared that diethylstilbestrol, thalidomide, DDT, and a host of other drugs, herbicides, and insecticides are "perfectly safe" or "economically justified".
So, conventional farmers need to recognize that there is a growing awareness among consumers about these things that will not be changed by any amount of high priced slick PR materials from Bayer, Monsanto, Sygenta, BASF and their former employees at USDA.
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Let's REALLY deal truthfully about the difference between chemically-based and life-based agriculture.

Question 2. All over Maine, conventional and organic farmers work together all the time, trading info on varieties, sources, and farming techniques, setting up together at farmers' markets, promoting their produce as local and helping to educate the public about the importance of being aware of the effect of where their purchasing dollars are spent. In truth, conventional and organic small farmers have more in common with each other than with the greater part of the non-food-producing population. But the two sides don't have to agree with each other about the value of chemical or organic farming practices. The value of spending money with local people who produce items locally is not only something that organic and conventional farmers can agree on, but has far broader appeal among local small businesses (who also have their divisions to plague 'em). Our best bet in the ag sector is to combine forces where practical with the local sectors of the non-ag economy who are themselves in the midst of a re-awakening of their own identities. We can then present to shoppers a truly workable buy-local-only lifestyle option everyone can be proud of because it is bootstrapping our economies back to life again.
Thanks for engaging here Tom.

Let me start by saying, although you may think me a bureaucrat, I have been operating or working on farms and nurserygreenhouse businesses for 34 years, so I must have a few more gray hairs than yours....Although you have more hair in general than my balding head! I have employed organic and conventional farm practices, and have done considerable research on organic alternatives to certain fruit pests in my career. I do not see black and white, I see shades of gray (no pun intended).

On your comment....."we must first remember not to consider unequal things as being equal."

Unfortunately, my feeling is that many organic farming practices are JUST like conventional farming, including use of nonrenewable petrochemicals and plastic, using excessive soil destroying cultivation for weed control, organic pesticides that are broad spectrum and kill beneficials. etc etc.

"Yes, some of them are "dangerous", but not like guthion, mancozeb, alar or BT corn".

Tom, at least you recognize that organic pesticides are dangerous. The positive attributes of some of them are good, but so are some of the conventional pesticides better on the environment than their organic alternatives. It is easy to pick out dangerous man-made chemicals, but so I can also do so with, say, Rotenone. And, worse of all, when organic dairy cows get sick, sometimes they have to be killed because infections get too bad, when some antibiotic use could save them more humanely.

My point being that we could go back and forth about the pros and cons and pick out conventional farmers who are bad managers and organic farmers that cheat the public......that is not where my head is at in this discussion.

I have to disagree that the general consumer understands the details or nuances between different production practices. They don't. They listen and are impacted by the extreme viewpoints, on both sides.....And while you rail against government bureaucrats and big business, conventional farmers rail against extremist environmentalists and organic zealots who also sell the public bad advice and fearmongering. And that is what I am getting tired of......

I, too, run a farm operation, and use organic and conventional practices. So, does that make me a "bad" person half of the time? A business to be shunned? Should consumers be afraid of my products because I use conventional pesticides responsibly along with my poisonous organic controls of copper and rotenone.... At least in my business can I be considered more environmentally sound than my organic counterparts because I do not use gas sprayers or pumps?

That is why I am writing this discussion. You see, I am having a problem with extremist organic folks knocking the conventional farmer and his/her ways in order to make it seem like the organic folks are better. I think that does a disservice to the Maine farming community as a whole. I, too, know and get along with organic farmers and conventional farmers. I want them all to be successful......I think, from the farmer perspective, we need to stop those who use fearmongering, the twisting of the truth rhetoric (on both sides), stop supporting the extremists on both sides, and just get down to supporting each other, like you outline so beautifully in your answer to the second question.
Hi John!

In your first e-mail you say "how do we deal truthfully with the issue that organic farmers use dangerous pesticides as well." More accurately, it's that organic farmers MAY use dangerous pesticides as well. On our farm we use Bt, Entrust, Safer Soap, and Sluggo, none of which, too my knowledge are a problem, especially since for the most part it's one application per year, or less. Many of us beleive that we HAVE in fact taken extra precautions by growing organic, not just for the person eating the food, but also for all the emloyees every year who hand harvest the stuff all day long all summer. Those are the people I really think about. I don't exactly know what conventional farmers use these days because I have never grown in that manner, but I do know that if I go to the New England Vegetable Conference I will hear about A LOT of different chemicals that could be sprayed on vegetables. I think I have every right to say that I am organic, especially since many people want that. It does take a ridiculous amount of explaining to many consumers, yes we do use some pesticides, yes we do fertilize the fields. Some people think I just put seeds out there and it happily grows. I see that type of education to the consumer as my burden because I sell this type of product. I fully understand that we need the conventional growers - without them I'd be driving to Massachusetts every time I needed a tractor part because there's not enough organic people to support dealers for all the supplies we need. And you know that Ralph and I have always tried to support all local growers, so I know you're not talking about me. That being said, I'm certainly going to promote what I do because I belieive it's better, but I try to do so by making positive statements about what I do, not disparaging statements about conventional growers. I also promote local in general by pointing out that I go to the dentist here and have my car repaired here, and none of that money stays when you buy product grown a long way off.

There are some conventional practices that bother me - the new soil fumigant for strawberries that has been linked to thyroid cancer - I know someone who has had thyroid cancer, that's scary. The aerial sprays on blueberries downeast that end up in people's wells - the law in Maine is very clear that you do not have the right to degrade your neighbor's water. It is appropriate to be concerned about some of these practices. It is also right to be concerned about rotenone, but MOFGA personnel have been discouraging the use of Rotenone for years. Have the county extension agents been doing the same on the blueberry fields?

With regard to letting cows die rather than giving antibiotics - that is NOT ALLOWED under organic rules. You have to treat the cow and sell it into a conventional dairy program. If you know of someone who lets the cow die, I would suggest that you report them to MOFGA Certification Services because it's not only a violation of the rules, it's wrong! Or let me know and I'll report it. Plus it's dumb. You can still get some money for a conventional cow, but a cow that died has no value.

The ones that bother me are the ones that say, well, we're not certified organic but we use ALL organic practices. To me, that's not fair. I spend a lot of time and money to be certified, and I follow all the rules to the best of my ability. For someone to say they are equal to that when they may not even have a copy of the rules to know what to follow seems extraordinarily unfair, and it seems unlikely that they are following all the rules. It is also illegal to say you are organic if you sell more than $5000 of product per year and don't certify. But having spent the time and money, and knowing that it's what many people want, you're asking a lot of me to ask that I don't promote my business based on what I do. You are right that the actual practices of any two farmers within either system can vary dramatically from OK to not OK, but it's really hard to have that long of a conversation about it with your customers.

We've been feeling like the market is getting saturated at our price point, and your e-mail seems to validate that conclusion. A few years ago there was enough room for everyone, and new people could easily displace produce from California. It is starting to seem like there's more fighting to take market share away from each other, and whether that's done by undercutting prices, or convincing people to support the poor new guy, or that your farm is better because you're a non-profit (how many farms make PROFIT anyway?), or bad mouthing conventional farms, it's not very helpful to the over arching goal of feeding Maine people Maine grown food. The question I've always used is "what can I sell you that you're not already getting from another local farmer?"
Lisa,

You said stuff that exactly demonstrates my points as to why I do not understand why the radical organic folks rail against the conventional ones (which causes confusion in the marketplace and in the halls of the legislature).

1. If you have a badly infected cow (mastitis), you send it to a conventional farm to “save” its life, because without the antibiotics and place for that cow to go, it would die a miserable life and that would be against the philosophy of the organic movement for humane treatment of animals.
2. Without the mass of conventional farmers in Maine (who produce approx. 95% of the products grown in Maine) organic farmers costs would be even higher as the infrastructure for organic farmers (suppliers, tractors, chemical dealers) DEPENDS on conventional farmers staying in business.
3. If Rotenone is that bad that MOFGA discourages it’s use, why doesn’t MOFGA go to the Pesticide Control Board to have it banned or controlled for use, much like MOFGA wants other products used by conventional farmers banned?

Some radical organic types still cling to the hope that we should be able to get all farmers to be organic in the future, both in philosophy, lifestyle and production practices. OR, at least keep all the conventional farmers from using the latest technology (gmo seeds etc) to keep them less competitive and perhaps put them out of business.

However, what you described makes my point that we, in fact, need each other, and I try to make the point that, when it comes to plastic, soil cultivation etc, conventional and organic farmers are very much the same.

Yes, the organic market is getting crowded in Maine, at least in the small markets. Only 7% of Maine’s 500,000+ families have the income levels to sustain the high prices necessary for organic products. And the tourist industry only creates a certain level of seasonal demand. I think it is different in the supermarkets, but we do not seem to have the wherewithal to form larger cooperatives to move volume through the stores. As you know, some independent growers are trying to tap into that market.....

AND HERE IS THE MAIN POINT OF MY DISCUSSION….There is plenty of room on the store shelves, and consumers within the middle income levels that would not pay for organic, to purchase conventional fruits and vegetables in season from small family conventional farms who are scratching out a living just like the organic farmers …and to make them (the consumer)healthier for it, rather than pushing them to purchase out of state or more processed products.…I am dismayed that some of those consumers are made to “feel bad” and get stressed about purchasing those local products because they have heard somewhere that the conventional farmer uses all these bad chemicals etc etc etc…..I am dismayed that those farmers have to “defend” themselves against this perception when, in fact, their fresh vegetables and fruits are WAY more healthy for folks than those shipped in long distances, more processed products, etc etc…

So, is there a way to get us all to come together on this subject, and promote LOCAL is BEST, regardless of organic or conventionally grown? Well, based on our discussion so far, I think it is heading towards the status quo, as you are right that the term “Organically Certified” does have an official government blessing and marketing support. And, I for one, am a believer in free enterprise and the ability of one business to distinguish its products from another to get a competitive edge……………

And politically MOFGA and Conventional Trade associations do have lobbyists paid for by someone to continue to push their agenda so the political atmosphere probably will not change in the near future……. I just hate to see all the wasted time and money.....when Mainers need to get fresh fruits and vegetables and meats from ANY farmer, and we need to support BOTH conventional, sustainable, organic and "other".

Perhaps conventional farmers who feel their product is just as safe, and who feel that their product is grown in just as safe a way, should get the government to develop a special designation for them as well………or to fight back and expose some of the hypocrisy of the organic production practices in this state in order to gain back some competitive advantage……... I am not in favor of that, but see that as a possible reality of the push and shove going on in Maine...... Any other thoughts before I close this discussion and move on?……………
John,

I'll skip to the "main point of the discussion" (although I like the question about MOFGA and rotenone - good point)

My conventional friends at the farmers' markets do not have prices that are low enough that they could sell to grocery stores at the wholesale price necessary to be competitve with Californa produce. All I ever see in a grocery store are Gillepie's (Libra Foundation) and Spear's. Both of these are huge vegetable farms by Maine standards. They do some of the typical "farmstand vegetables," like tomatoes, peppers. corn and zucchini, all of which hold better than lettuce, bunched beets or carrots, chard, etc. I have never seen those types of vegetables from a local grower in a supermarket. So three things - people the size of Gillespie and Spear have some pieces of more specialized equipment than we do because they have so much acreage and can therefore have a lower cost of production; two - they have too much stuff to get rid of at farmers' markets where the price is better; and three - at this point the amount of anything Maine grown on that outside cold wall in the grocery store is negligible which leads me to believe it would be very hard to do those items cost competitively here. Three years ago we planned to sell a few products for our local Hannaford, and felt that we could grow organic at a price that would be competitve with Cal. conventional. The local store people were thrilled. We filled out the forms with corporate, upped our insurance, and waited. And called and e- mailed and waited. And then did it again. They never, ever contacted us. I can't risk part of my income on sales to a client who is non-responsive. Last summer we talked to regional Whole Foods people about other products and got the same response. Very enthusiastic, even came out and visited and said how excited they were, and then nothing, not even a returned phone call. I can't afford a client like that! Shaw's just cut to the chase and wouldn't even let us fill out the paperwork. We are one of the larger organic vegetable farms, and we could probably be competitive at a few items. When we start on these cooperative sales deals, whoever does the sales always seems to want to make more money than I do, and eventually tries to talk down my price . And they don't really need to sell MY products the way I NEED to sell my products, so the sales is not as good as I can do on my own. It would be silly for me to give up control of the sales for my business to someone who tries to lower my prices and doesn't sell stuff as well as I do. It would be really silly to give that control away knowing that the intended client is someone who won't return phone calls. That sounds like a good way to be out of business quick.

Most farmers of all types that I know need to do direct marketing. There is not enough money in this business for most of us, organic or conventional, to lower our prices to any level that can go through a distributor. Lowering them enough to go through a distributor and end up at a chain grocery store is about three steps too low on price for the people I know to continue farming. The first rule of sustainable business is "make enough money to do it agian next year." Getting stuff into grocery stores MIGHT be feasible if we could sell direct to the grocery store, but I'm not holding my breath for that. And just to be clear, I am speaking from my own experiences, this is how it has worked out for me.

You say that the organic market is saturated. I think it pushes on the small scale coneventional market. Most new farmers are organic. By and large they go to farmers' markets and start CSAs. More farmers' at a market means more competition for everyone, which is good to a point because it brings more customers in, and then it's too much. The CSAs and farmers' markets both compete with the produce stand that's been there for years. I believe you are hearing disparaging remarks because the new farmers are trying to get business at that price point away from old farmers. I don't believe that conventional vs. organic is the issue as much as it's an easy way to market against other local farmers. We get marketed against by new organic farmers with the pitch "help us out and buy from us because we're new OR buy from us because we're a land trust farm and are morally superior." What I'm trying to get across here is that we're feeling the push, too. You've heard it from the conventional people you know, I'm telling you it's not just them. However, before any of us can work toward the next lower price tier I believe we need appropriately sized affordable equipment for harvesting and we need the corporate level of grocery stores to allow enough autonomy to their local stores that they really can buy directly from us, as the produce managers would like. Again, this is my personal experience which means it's true, but it is only one person's experience. Above all, the prime directive needs to be, "I want to sell you whatever you're not already getting from another local farmer."
Just a quick self-defense against Lisa's bash of produce distributors. There are many positive attributes to what Crown O'Maine Organic Cooperative is doing now and continues to try to do for Maine farmers, both organic certified and not. High farm-gate prices are one of them - getting Maine grown and made products successfully on Whole Foods shelves is another. We continually have to champion prices on farmers behalf, and have tightened the belts of our costs to the point that most people cannot believe we can survive on the mark up we charge. As a distributor, we are trying to reinvent one component of the local food system - especially for those farmers who cannot access farmers markets and do not live in Maine's
'money belt'. We hope we're improving our own operations, as well as the movements'. MARADA, CROWN O'MAINE ORGANIC COOPERATIVE
Much of this discussion is based on a marketing practice that is in my opinion fundamentally flawed. I have been selling produce in Maine for over 20 years, almost exclusively in a 25 mile radius, though also to restaurants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The concepts of "local" and "organic" were integral to my business plan long before they were co-opted as marketing buzzwords. I gave up the "organic" label not because I don't believe in it or don't practice it, but because it was degraded by the influences of government and big ag and because it has in many cases become a marketing tool more than a philosophy. The premise that organic practices - as defined by Federal rules - are as dangerous as "conventional" ones only strengthens my argument; any farmer who is purporting to do things organically yet is potentially causing harm to either his customers or the environment clearly isn't in it for the purpose of being environmentally benign, or to create the most beneficial nutrition, or to promote a more local food network. When making money becomes the primary goal, everything else becomes suspect. When creating quality is paramount, the market and the money are clamoring for it, even in difficult economic times. I don't grow produce to sell to poor people, I give it to them. I grow produce for rich people, and their money flows through me to local businesses who hire local people - it's the same concept as giving someone a fish or giving them a fishing rod. Until Maine growers recognize that trying to compete in oversaturated markets with underfunded customers is unsustainable, the local and organic precepts will continue to be both misused and ineffective. Yes, an argument can be made that "local" is "better" than "organic", but aren't we talking about marketing here, and not, in fact, principles? The way to success and sustainability is through effective education and honest dealing, and has little to do with the way that we label our products if that label comes to be meaningless except as a sales pitch. Making money isn't the primary reason I grow vegetables, and yet it is a substantial percentage of my income. Being organic is fundamentally important to me, but jumping through hoops to have the government grant me its' blessing of certification means nothing to me, or to my customers, who know my product and my philosophy. Defending practices that harm the environment or consumers is to my way of thinking philosophically corrupt, and creating this kind of antagonistic approach between different labels serves no one. Getting bigger in order to compete is also unsustainable; needing more land or bigger and faster equipment indicates that the grower is trying to participate in a market that is larger than the "local" label can support, or than they as one entity (one man, one farm, one state) can credibly or practicably participate in. Needing more income because you need to spend more on fuel indicates to me a disconnect between the theory of being organic (or for that matter, local) and the actual practice. Creating and running a business that is locally sustainable, environmentally benign, and acceptably profitable is hard work, and compromises have to be made all the time, but the solution lies not in creating conflicts between differing practices, but in finding ways to work that reflect Wendell Berry's concept of "solving for patterns". Much of the energy devoted to the debate between "organic" and "conventional" could probably be better spent hoeing.
I'm not sure there's a simple solution to your problem. It has taken years to get people on board with the idea of organic, and I think it's going to be an even bigger uphill struggle to get people to move back to vegetables. Your questions, especially #1, suggest that you feel some frustration at the labeling "organic," because there are still some things such growers can get away with. My response, would be to stop worrying about what people can get away with and encourage face-to-face interaction.

To my mind, part of what the organic movement has missed completely is that beyond organic, we need to move back into our communities. Issues between sellers and other sellers and sellers and customers can be resolved, then, through the powerful medium of community discourse. Instead of trying to "market" our way to healthy, we can "discuss," and "explain," our way to healthy whether that's organic or not. Perhaps that's wishful thinking, but for me it's not. I've moved to a community in the sub-1,000 population range, and our farmers' market pulls from a population of less than 10,000. When I buy something, I converse with them and I know I'll see them again. If I find out they are chem-farming and stripping the land, well they wont last long as a diversified farm or as a community member. Problem solved.

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