August 31, 2018 | By Sulav Paudel

Next Generation 2018 – The Plight of Small Organic Farmers

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2018 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 27 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2018, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.

At a time where the organic market is booming, where consumer demand for organic products is increasing worldwide, it may sound bizarre to hear that small organic farmers are struggling greatly. However, it is true, at least in the United States.

Organic farming is as old as agriculture. However, the history of the modern revival of organic agriculture dates back to the first half of the 20th century at a time when there was a growing reliance on new synthetic and inorganic methods. In a developing country like Nepal, where I am from, the organic movement is still in its infancy, but I have always believed that organic farming is the “holy grail” of sustainable agriculture. I thought this was a universal belief, but to my surprise, when I came to the United States, I learned that a large number of small-scale organic farmers in the United States are struggling to survive within a system that supports large-scale operations. Additionally, the new regulations have diluted the spirit of “organic,” as much of the produce sold under the organic label is produced under near-conventional conditions.

With the mantra “feed the soil, not the plants,” the organic food movement has progressed over the course of its more than seventy-five-year march from the agricultural margins to supermarket shelves in Whole Foods, Walmart, and others. Largely focused on maintaining soil fertility to produce healthy food and a healthier environment, the philosophy of organic agriculture was a departure from industrial agriculture, where synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were degrading food quality and the environment. Organic farming in the United States currently has a dual structure: a) smaller, lifestyle-oriented producers, and b) larger, industrial-scale producers—and within this structure, the small farmers are fighting hard to make a living. Fitzmaurice and Gareau, in their book Organic Futures: Struggling for Sustainability on the Small Farm present a compelling case about how new organic regulations have allowed entry of largescale actors, thus making it increasingly difficult for small farmers to remain economically viable. Most of them have to supplement their income through other activities to make ends meet financially, in addition to many additional problems small farmers struggle with on-farm: the cost and burdens of organic certification; the price of land and other on-farm inputs; and the costs of controlling pests and disease, among other challenges.

Locally produced organic foods from a small family farms is not common anymore. A recent study from the University of California suggests that almost 80 percent of organic food sales involve large corporations, which is an anathema to the fundamental principles that the movement founded upon. Sealed-off from the environment, enormous quantities of organic produce grow in mammoth greenhouses and large industrial buildings. Meantime, consumers usually do not pay much attention to brand names, outside of the “organic’ label. A 2012 New York Times article suggests that between 1997 (when regulations were proposed for the organic industry) and 2002 (when those rules became law), thousands of small independent organic companies in the United States were acquired by largescale organic producers. Moreover, these corporations have assumed a powerful role in setting organic standards. While the big business argues that the enormous demand for organic products requires a scale, many organic purists are of the opinion that the rise of corporate ownership has corrupted the organic food business and has taken away the aesthetic advantage of family-raised, locally handled organic food.

Against these odds, there are still a good number of farmers doing well. Targeting niche marketing, growing and selling wide varieties of crops, adopting integrated approaches, building local community relationships and, tapping the growing consumers’ interest in eating local food has helped several farmers in the United States to remain in the forefront of the local movement. To promote small organic farms, I strongly believe that there needs to be, a) refashioning of the community supported agriculture (CSA) model to serve as a locus of civic activism, b) expansion of school to farm initiatives, c) labelling schemes that address social and economic concerns beyond the ‘organic’ label, and d) expanded federal and local government support. Otherwise, the future of the small organic farms seems bleak.

 

 

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