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Organic Conference urges poitical involvement
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The reauthorization of the Farm Bill in 2012, organic agriculture’s position in an increasingly biotech agricultural environment, and the importance of citizen activism were common themes at the 23rd Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse last week.

The conference, the largest of its kind in North America, was attended by over 3,300 farmers and organic advocates. Attendance was up 10-percent from last year’s conference. It featured presentations by leading policymakers, educators and farmers from throughout the organic industry. There were also many workshops on all facets of organic advocacy running constantly through the two-day conference. The event featured a large trade show and numerous social events.

MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service), based in Spring Valley, Wis., has hosted the event since 1999.

Even though organic farmers are only a small percentage of the farmers in America, organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace. The organic food industry has grown between 17 to 20 percent a year for the past decade, only slowing down slightly during the economic recession. While total U.S. food sales were nearly flat in 2010, the U.S. organic food and beverage industry posted sales of $26.7 billion, a growth rate of 7.7 percent.

New markets continue to open up for organic food, including a new partnership announced February 15 between the U.S. and the European Union. This agreement is an understanding that certified organic products from America could now be sold as such in Europe, potentially boosting U.S. markets. The combined value of the organic sector in the U.S. and the E.U. is currently $50 billion and is rising every year.

However, there are serious threats to organic farming now with more threats on the horizon. The organic industry hopes the 2012 Farm Bill, as well as legal action, will address these threats.

Serious threats

The USDA’s approval without restrictions in 2011 for the planting of GMO (genetically modified) alfalfa is seen as a titanic threat to organic agriculture, especially to meat and dairy operations. 

The multinational corporation Monsanto has created a “Roundup Ready” alfalfa that is resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Farmers can plant this GMO alfalfa and then spray their alfalfa fields with Roundup to kill weeds, but not kill their alfalfa crop.

Alfalfa is pollinated largely by honeybees, which travel indiscriminately from GMO to non-GMO fields. The modified DNA proteins of GMO crops can be transferred on the honeybees during the pollination process, therefore “infecting” the non-GMO alfalfa. This process is called GMO drift.

A federal class-action lawsuit brought in 2011 by a consortium of farmers against the agricultural and chemical company Monsanto was dismissed on Monday, Feb. 27.

The farmers (known collectively as the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association) brought the legal action because of concerns that Monsanto could sue them if the company’s patented strains of soybeans, corn or alfalfa appeared in their fields. Such lawsuits against farmers by multinational biotech companies, such as Monsanto, have already occurred, when legally patented seed strains appear in a farmer’s fields outside of legally agreed to “rules of use.” This class-action lawsuit is likely to go to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and will continue to be a key issue in the agricultural arena. 

There are also concerns with herbicide and pesticide drift between organic and non-organic fields. The drift could compromise the sale or use of the crop as certified organic. While the crop may have been raised to organic standards, herbicides and pesticides might appear in testing because of wind or waterborne drift or other environmental factors.

Chris Blanchard, an organic produce farmer from Decorah, Iowa and Co-Director of the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, described GMO, herbicide and pesticide drift as a “major threat to organic farming, with no real effective way to control its spreading.”

Because it is agreed that we live in a “polluted world,” there is a thresh-hold of acceptable contamination levels in certified organic food. However, if the level of contamination is excessive, organic farmers could lose their certification or have to dispose of their product. To compound the problem, the current farm insurance system might not adequately cover organic operation losses in these situations. Organic farmers often have to pay additional fees because they farm organically, and then only receive conventional prices when there is crop failure. Insurance reform is needed, according to some organic producers.  

Citizen advocacy

Margaret Krome, a member of the Wisconsin Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and Policy Director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, is an advocate of citizen involvement in political decision-making that would work to protect organic farming. She was a keynote speaker at the conference.

“Grassroots power is important,” Krome said. “It is our muscular engagement that brings needed democracy to agriculture. A responsible government is us. We must have the vision for change.”

Krome distributed thousands of “story collection sheets,” on which attendees at the conference were asked to describe their experiences with organic agriculture issues. She promised that she would share those stories with policy makers and politicians whose decisions directly affect organic farming. 

“Our movement can’t afford the cynicism that says that government doesn’t matter,” Krome said. “We depend on having the support of members of congress. It is important to ask our members of congress to do things for us.”

Wisconsin U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, another advocate of organic agriculture who was in attendance at the conference, agreed with Krome.

“It’s very important to stay in touch with us (the politicians),” the senator said. Among the many voices that lobby in Washington, Kohl related that it helps to hear the voice of organic farming.

“Because I have been so well informed by the organic movement, it has been a lot easier for me to support things that we can do in Washington to support organic farming,” Kohl explained. The senior Wisconsin senator is the Chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

“We have taken our cuts,” said Margaret Krome, referring to organic agriculture programs. “It’s time we cut no more.”

Conservation critical

Krome, Kohl and others at the conference stressed the importance of conservation programs in the farm bill and in state and local legislation.

Title 2 of the farm bill focuses on farmland management practices that encourage environmental stewardship. The EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) are two programs crucial to conservation efforts, according to Krome. Both programs have already weathered cuts and reductions.

Harriet Behar, an organic farmer from Gays Mills and MOSES Organic Specialist, stated that, “conservation is beneficial to the entire regional ecosystem, by protecting and enhancing soil and water quality.” Behar went on to say that conservation should be a priority, or there would not be a thriving agricultural economy in the future.

Senator Kohl called conservation an important investment, especially during uncertain financial times.

“As grain prices rise this is even more important, as farms make difficult choices about whether to abandon conservation projects in order to bring more land into production,” Kohl said.

Kohl vowed to work closely on the Farm Bill with Iowa senator Tom Harkin and Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow to “make sure conservation moves forward and not backward.”

The organizers and keynote speakers at the Organic Farming Conference also called for citizen action in agriculture, including in education and community outreach.

Youth involvement

Keynote Speaker Curt Ellis, the director of the film King Corn, gave a presentation at the conference on Saturday emphasizing the importance of the involvement of young people in agriculture, specifically in organics and small-scale sustainable and community farming.

Curtis explained that the average age of the American farmer today is 57, with a 30-percent increase in the number of farmers over the age of 75 and a 20-percent decrease in the number of farmers under the age of 25 in the past year. Retiring farmers represent the changing of hands of close to 70 percent of American farmland in the next 10-15 years, according to Curtis.

With this in mind, Curtis believes that young people need to be mobilized into agriculture, and that America’s “factory model” of farming needs to be replaced with an educational “schoolyard model.” He believes that the factory farming model of America has failed, and that it doesn’t make any sense to keep using a failed model over and over expecting different results.

“The assembly-line mentality in agriculture has become a disassembly-line for rural America,” Curtis said. He illustrated his points with stories of factory farming operations in Iowa that surround dying communities where people live in food deserts.

Ellis introduced a number of members of the first class of the program “FoodCorps” at the conference. Ellis co-founded the nonprofit organization FoodCorps in 2011 as a response to the national epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes-related disease. Working across the country, FoodCorps members conduct nutritional education, build and tend school gardens, and promote local food in school cafeterias.

“It’s slow work,” Ellis said of FoodCorps, “but if we can do it, then we can change the lives of 32 million kids…and of the farmers who would be a part of the $10 billion industry that is school food.”

Positive future

The threats to organic farming are serious, but so is the success of organic agriculture, according to MOSES Executive Director Faye Jones.

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find organic food anywhere,” Jones said. “But in twenty years it will be everywhere.”

Jones described the way organic agriculture demanded high standards and regulations of itself, which helped to ensure its sustainability.

Soldiers Grove-area organic dairy farmer and organic certifier Dave Engel is concerned with the threats posed to organic farming, but won’t let them get him down.

“If all the programs and policies went away today, the organics movement would keep going,” Engel said. “Organics is a process…it’s not a production plane, it’s a process plane. Because of this, it’s going to keep going.”

The Upper Midwestern United States, specifically the Driftless Region, is considered the heart of organic farming in the United States. The Gays Mills area has been active in what is now know as “organic” food production since the early 1970s, with Engel being one of the first Organic Valley co-operative members in the 1980s.

Engel’s sons, Josh and Noah Engel are co-owners with Mike Lind of Driftless Organics, a fresh produce operation in Star Valley located near Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove.

“In the end, our diversity of crops and our farming practices are our insurance policy,” Josh Engel explained. “We work to grow high quality and healthy food and find that there is a market for that. There’s room here (in Gays Mills) and opportunities for organics. The community is already established.”