The New York Times
Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolutionby Heather Rogers
In Green Gone Wrong environmental writer Heather Rogers blasts through the marketing buzz of big corporations and asks a simple question: Do today’s much-touted "green" products—carbon offsets, organic food, biofuels, and eco-friendly cars and homes—really work? Implicit in efforts to go green is the promise that global warming can be stopped/i>… See more details below
In Green Gone Wrong environmental writer Heather Rogers blasts through the marketing buzz of big corporations and asks a simple question: Do today’s much-touted "green" products—carbon offsets, organic food, biofuels, and eco-friendly cars and homes—really work? Implicit in efforts to go green is the promise that global warming can be stopped by swapping out dirty goods for "clean" ones. But can earth-friendly products really save the planet?
This far-reaching, riveting narrative explores how the most readily available solutions to environmental crisis may be disastrously off the mark. Rogers travels the world tracking how the conversion from a "petro" to a "green" society affects the most fundamental aspects of life—food, shelter, and transportation. Reporting from some of the most remote places on earth, Rogers uncovers shocking results that include massive clear-cutting, destruction of native ecosystems, and grinding poverty. Relying simply on market forces, people with good intentions wanting to just "do something" to help the planet are left feeling confused and powerless.
Green Gone Wrong reveals a fuller story, taking the reader into forests, fields, factories, and boardrooms around the world to draw out the unintended consequences, inherent obstacles, and successes of eco-friendly consumption. What do the labels "USDA Certified Organic" and "Fair Trade" really mean on a vast South American export-driven organic farm? A superlow-energy "eco-village" in Germany’s Black Forest demonstrates that green homes dramatically shrink energy use, so why aren’t we using this technology in America? The decisions made in Detroit’s executive suites have kept Americans driving gas-guzzling automobiles for decades, even as U.S. automakers have European models that clock twice the mpg. Why won’t they sell these cars domestically? And what does carbon offsetting really mean when projects can so easily fail? In one case thousands of trees planted in drought-plagued Southern India withered and died, releasing any CO2 they were meant to neutralize.
Expertly reported, this gripping exposé pieces together a global picture of what’s happening in the name of today’s environmentalism. Green Gone Wrong speaks to anyone interested in climate change and the future of the natural world, as well as those who want to act but are caught not knowing who, or what, to believe to protect the planet. Rogers casts a sober eye on what’s working and what’s not, fearlessly pushing ahead the debate over how to protect the planet.
The New York Times
Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine
“Heather Rogers reminds us with vivid examples that there's no way we can just subcontract our environmental conscience to the new breed of green marketers. We have a very narrow window to preserve some version of our planet, and we can't afford the kind of egregious mistakes this volume identifies with such precision. If it's too good to be true, it's not trueeven if it comes with a shiny green wrapper.”
Bill McKibben, author Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"With deft and adventuresome reporting from around the world, Heather Rogers looks beneath the surface of today's market- based "solutions" to our environmental challenges and skillfully distinguishes between reality and illusion. Business as usual won't do, Rogers tells us, no matter how much we green it."
Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff
"Heather Rogers brilliantly and lethally exposes "green" capitalism for the chicanery that it is. While it may be disappointing to find out that "organic" and even "fair trade" don't mean squat - not to mention, of course, "carbon offsetting," which turns out to be even stupider than it sounds - these pages make clear what the answer is: stop making colorful excuses for the system that's driving us off the cliff, and instead make shifts in our economic priorities to bring about real change. May Rogers's book guide our feet."
The Yes Men
"By going beyond exposé to analysis, Rogers gives a deeper assessment of environmental problems and solutions than the usual global-warming investigative book."
Rogers “exposes how the “green” movement is failing to live up to the promise of sustainability and stewardship of the environment when the solutions are hijacked by economic and political interests. [Her] clear-headed approach proves effective in uncovering the truths behind the mantle of greenwashing.”
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Close to Home:
Just as the summer sun rises, dozens of independent growers from the surrounding region unpack their trucks and vans and set up stalls to sell fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, cheese, bread, honey, and flowers. They’re at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, the gem in the crown of the city’s more than one hundred farmers’ markets, one of the biggest such networks in the United States. Some farm stands take up more space than others; some resemble lean-tos, with weathered sunshades pitched against box trucks lettered with names such as evolutionary organics . Other stands are sleeker, sheltered by new white canopies that cast an even, dispersed light onto the piles of fruits and vegetables on tables below: frilly squash blossoms, bright radishes, wild spinach, and heirloom tomatoes with their full flesh folding in on itself. This produce bears little resemblance to the standardized, homogenous grocery store fare. The variegated farm stalls line the western edge of this bustling urban plaza—the type of place where, in the years before agribusiness and processed foods, farmers and shoppers would have come for exactly the same purpose.
Farmers’ markets such as the one in Union Square seem to summon a feeling of ethical alignment, important amid today’s global-warming-conscious environmentalism: buying here means doing the right thing. At the market it’s possible to meet the people who grow the food, ask what methods they use, and directly support their efforts. Purchasing this produce then becomes a means of defending nature by supporting an agricultural system that’s more ecologically sustainable, one that rejects toxic agrochemicals, uses less energy, is less polluting, and promotes long-term soil health. Short of growing it oneself, the greenmarket is as virtuous as it gets.
In recent years, farmers’ markets have surged in popularity in the United States, up by more than 150 percent, from just under two thousand in 1994 to well over five thousand last year. In 2005 revenues from farmers’ markets topped $1 billion, while the following year overall U.S. sales of natural and organic products exceeded $17 billion. As of 2007 the global organic market was worth $48 billion. Greater public awareness of “food miles,” the distance groceries travel from field to dinner plate, and the greenhouse-gas-emitting transport this requires, has triggered an urgent call to eat locally. Surging interest in healthy food grown close to home coupled with fear over ecological disaster has brought down a cascade of criticism of industrial agriculture, or what is oddly referred to as “conventional farming.” Emerging from the storm are local organic growers, now cast as heroes who have the power to overturn the environmental catastrophe that is conventional agriculture.
Over the past half century the dominant food system in the West has based itself on a toxic model. Crops are grown on landscapes remade as flat expanses of biological minimalism, swept clean of most life-forms by use of petrochemical pesticides. These swaths are made to fruit at the behest not of natural cycles but synthetic fertilizers and profligate irrigation. (According to the Economist magazine, “Farming accounts for roughly 70% of human water consumption.”) Similarly, industrial farming has transformed animal husbandry into a practice more akin to mass assembly-line production. It is saturated with chemically engineered antibiotics and growth hormones that render animals so malformed—to bulk up quickly for higher profits—that the sheer weight of their musculature can make them lame.
The fallout from conventional agriculture can be devastating. Synthetic fertilizers typically contain high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, much of which eventually washes into coastal waters where it fuels rampant algae growth. Algal blooms colonize these aquatic systems, sapping them of oxygen, thereby suffocating fish and most other marine life. These mass underwater “dead zones” now plague large areas in the Gulf of Mexico, up and down the U.S. East Coast, the Baltic and Black seas, and are beginning to choke the waters off Australia, South America, China, and Japan.
In addition to flowing into rivers, lakes, and oceans, pesticides also linger as residues on food. A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey found that out of eight fruit and twelve vegetable crops assessed, 73–90 percent were contaminated by pesticides. And almost half of the items tested had residues from multiple chemicals, compounding toxicity. A 2009 study on whether organic food is more nutritious, and therefore healthier, than conventional edibles showed no significant difference between the two. However, according to a report in the Guardian (UK), the researchers perplexingly did not factor fertilizer and pesticide residues that persist on conventionally grown food into their calculations. The most commonly used agricultural pesticides wreak havoc on human health, affecting the nervous system, harming the skin, eyes, and lungs, causing a variety of cancers as well as genetic damage, and impairing reproductive organs and normal hormone functions. Rejecting the food establishment that aims to conquer ecosystems, today’s small farmers are building an agriculture that’s fundamentally compatible with nature.
But this change doesn’t come cheap. It’s no mystery that food raised locally and without chemicals, hormones, or antibiotics costs more, sometimes a lot more. Among the chemical-free growers at Union Square, one sells milk for $20 a gallon and eggs for $14 a dozen; another offers tomatoes for $5 a pound, and still another marks leafy greens at almost $20 per pound (in winter, the same vegetables raised in greenhouses can ring in at over double that). As for meat, one Union Square farm sells its naturally raised Italian pork sausage for $12.50 per pound. Compared to meat and vegetables at the conventional grocery store, the difference is staggering. A recent circular from the supermarket near my house advertises twelve eggs for $1.50, vine-ripened tomatoes at $1.99 per pound, and Italian pork sausage for just $1.99 a pound. The organic premium can start at 10 percent above conventional prices, but, as the comparison above demonstrates, the discrepancy can easily hit 500 percent or higher. While advocates and shoppers often believe that a revolution in food will be led by local farmers, many of these revered husbandmen and women don’t earn a living wage. Because their prices can be exorbitant, it’s easy to assume that unconventional farmers have healthy incomes; in reality, many of them couldn’t afford to buy the very food they grow.
Part of why organically raised goods are so expensive is that caretaking natural systems is more labor-intensive than industrial agriculture, which engineers its way to productivity. Richard Pirog, associate director at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, an Iowa State University research institution, explains, “Conventional farming is cheaper because it externalizes its true costs onto the environment and public health. Unconventional cultivation internalizes those costs so it carries a higher price tag.” Many organic farmers must rely on hand labor to bring in crops and keep fields free of weeds and bugs instead of using sprays; more workers and the time needed to manage them drive up costs. In raising meat, pastured animals can take considerably longer to fatten than those finished on grain. The average grass-fed head achieves its “kill weight” at around thirty months, whereas conventionally raised cattle can be slaughtered as young as twelve months. The more time it takes until slaughter, the more expensive each cut of meat becomes. On top of that, meat processing is substantially more expensive for the small farmer sending through a few head a week than it is for the big industrial packers, who kill hundreds or thousands a day.
Once the produce is ready to go, unconventional farmers must cope with a marketing and distribution system that’s woefully inadequate, creating inefficiencies that drive up costs. What’s more, these growers are typically located in areas near urban markets, where real estate values are higher, and so are mortgages and property taxes, thus contributing to heftier prices. All of this on top of the normal risks farmers endure: bad weather, pests, disease, and the more general vagaries of the market. So, despite the steep premium their products can garner, many small unconventional farmers face a myriad of economic pressures that can make for a seriously unstable situation.
Local, seasonal agriculture is firing up a new generation of food activists amid a flurry of enthusiastic press coverage from the New Yorker to Mother Jones, the New York Times, and an expanding slate of books. But what isn’t being talked about is that many of the small organic producers who are expected to lead the reinvention of the food system can barely make ends meet. How able are these frontline farmers to withstand, indeed transform, the industrial food juggernaut? Why would small organic family farms be able to hold their own against the agribusiness establishment when their conventional forebears could not? Even though it’s clear that alternative, organic farming is environmentally sustainable, it’s not certain that this type of cultivation is economically sustainable. While local organic growers are hailed as leaders of ecological salvation, they face a plethora of difficulties that make their existence startlingly precarious.
I meet Morse Pitts at Union Square on Wednesday, July 4, 2007, around 7 p.m. His farm stand is whittled down to just four card tables, each piled high with baby greens, arugula, squash, purple carrots, and Sungold tomatoes. Unusually, the market feels deserted—it’s a holiday and a gloomy rain has been falling all afternoon. Pitts stayed late because he’s hoping to make up for the day’s slow traffic, one of the risks of doing direct sales. His workers have been at it for almost thirteen hours, and now they’re ready to deal. “Buy one, get one free!” Kevin shouts, smiling. “That’s two for five dollars,” booms Tim, his coworker. “No pesticides!” announces Kevin. “No herbicides!” says Tim. “No homicides!” they chime together. They’ve done this routine before.
Some people approach the produce-laden stall with caution, or a tinge of suspicion. “How do I cook these? What are they?” one man asks holding a bag of snap peas tentatively aloft. Another woman wants to know what to do with the delicate nasturtium blossoms. The different types of leafy greens are more trustworthy, but many potential buyers still aren’t sure just what they’re looking at. I quickly realize that much of the work at the farm stand involves rather extensive public education.
A woman in office garb holds up a bag of young dandelion greens and asks Tim if they’re organic.
“It’s better than organic,” he quips.
“If they’re not certified organic, then I’m not buying them,” she says.
“Organic doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Tim says as he embarks on another series of lines he’s recited before. “There are no chemicals whatsoever used to grow these vegetables. But they’re not organic.” He begins to lay out the somewhat complex argument that, ever since the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over certification, organic standards have been watered down to such an extent they’ve become meaningless. Pitts is not officially certified as organic and has chosen not to be, as have between two thousand and thirty-five hundred other organic farms in New York State alone. But, as I will find out at his farm, he grows food in a way that is markedly more ecologically responsible and sustainable than is required by current USDA regulations.
Before Tim can finish his rap the woman’s attention falters and she walks away.
Eventually, Pitts and his helpers pack up the truck and we drive north out of town. As we cross the Hudson River, distant Independence Day fireworks decorate the gray night sky.
Windfall Farms is located on the edge of the small town of Montgomery in Orange County, New York, sixty-five miles from the city. Pitts has been planting its soil for twenty-seven years, all of it as an organic farmer. His family inherited the property unexpectedly when Pitts was a child. An uncle who’d passed away willed a neighbor the right to use this farm until he died, at which point ownership reverted back to the family. Pitts’s father, an engineer, hadn’t thought about the place in decades, so did not anticipate the turn of events and was surprised again when his son wanted to become a farmer. “Ever since I was little, I wanted to grow things,” Pitts tells me. “I transplanted mint in an empty lot when I was three years old, and it took!”
Pitts is in his fifties, isn’t married, and has no kids, but constantly surrounds himself with friends. He’s tall with gray hair and eyes that remain serious even when everyone’s joking around; although Pitts rarely acts silly himself, he deftly draws that quality out in others. Well respected in farming and culinary circles, Pitts has received a stream of good press over the years and is praised by the likes of Alice Waters, the Bay Area, California, chef who is widely regarded as the doyenne of the locally grown organic movement.
The bedroom I’ve been assigned is on the second floor of the rambling farmhouse. In the morning I wander down to the basement, where there’s a second kitchen, an office, and the refrigerated storage and processing facilities for the produce. It’s 9:30 a.m. and Pitts appears just as I walk outside to see what he and the workers are up to. We go back in for breakfast. I ask what they’re doing in the fields, and he says they haven’t started yet. The place is nonstop on Tuesdays and Fridays when they’re preparing for market the following morning. But it’s Thursday so things are relatively quiet.
Over the years Pitts has cleared a path for his business, one that would be hard to duplicate. Before he got into the farmers’ market, he sold produce to restaurants. At first it seemed like a good idea because it meant guaranteed customers. But, as he explains over eggs from his henhouse and toast made with bread and butter he swaps for vegetables at the market, this was not tenable. “Selling to restaurants is basically like making an unsecured loan to a shaky business—no interest—that maybe will be paid someday,” he tells me. After several years Pitts was owed $40,000 by twenty-five different establishments, so he decided to get out. He then managed, after years of wrangling, to secure one of the highly coveted spots at the Union Square market. Centrally located and at a major subway hub in Manhattan, it is the busiest, most profitable farmers’ market in the region. Now Pitts only sells at Union Square, and mostly to regular shoppers; he maintains just a few commercial clients, including the New York Museum of Modern Art (for its restaurants), and chefs who buy from his farm stand. No one ever gets more than a week to pay up.
To grow Windfall’s produce Pitts cultivates only 15 of the 140 acres he inherited. Just after breakfast he takes me to see the 12 acres planted across the road from the house. The air is heavy, sunlight still burning off the morning haze. The field is luxuriant with snap peas, fennel, basil, and Swiss chard. The vegetables grow in distinct parallels at some points, then in other parts of the field they interlace and overlap. Weeds are here, too, blurring the lines between rows; a reminder that the order cultivation asserts is only temporary.
As we walk deeper into the field, green gives way to rich brown-black soil. Here the activity is mostly taking place underground. Short stalks of corn are embarking on their ascent, but won’t be ready until next month. More carrots are planted beyond the corn, and under the dark blanket of earth are kale and a variety of mustard greens that will push their way up for the late summer and early fall. These leafy vegetables are best when it starts getting cold at night; the plants produce sugar as a protective measure, so their taste sweetens. “Just after the first frost is the best time to eat them,” I hear Pitts say one day at the greenmarket. The more distant edge of the large field was recently “disked” (plowed) and will get covered with manure from a nearby horse farm in the coming days. Pitts will then seed the area with a cover crop of buckwheat, which keeps weeds from sprouting, minimizes erosion, and can be turned into the soil to add nutrients, before the next seeds are sown. The horse dung is the only substance Pitts adds to his crops from off the farm, meaning he uses no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides.
After walking the big field we head back toward the house to check out the farm’s other three acres, stopping at the potato patch. Here Pitts is conducting an experiment with black plastic fabric that he wants to use to keep the weeds down. He’s planted a couple different varieties of potatoes along the edge of the sheeting to ascertain which will grow around the cover, and which will get stuck beneath it. The tubers that are reaching out, finding the sunlight on their own, are the ones he’ll cultivate next year.
This is how Pitts does things. “Trial and error. I farm through trial and error,” he tells me more than once. To build soil health, avoid using pesticides, and make the labor easier, he does complicated rotations and diverse plantings. He’s deciphered how to outsmart the bugs by growing crops in different places each year. He mixes seeds and tosses them into the path of the rototiller to see what will come up, like rolling dice. (While it may sound haphazard, the method, known as broadcasting, was forged by the Japanese natural-farming pioneer Masanobu Fukuoka over a half century ago.) By broadcasting one year Pitts discovered he could grow turnips sooner in the season than he’d realized, and by doing that, the harvest would come before a troublesome turnip-eating pest arrived. As with any type of farming, timing is key. Pitts races the weeds, planting certain vegetables so they grow taller faster, then he simply harvests from the upper areas. Planting more than he needs means the workers can pick what is easiest to reach without having to painstakingly search through dense leaves and pull weeds to clear the way. “We plant tons of stuff,” Pitts explains. “Growing it is not that expensive, picking it is. So we try to make that part as easy as possible.”
It’s midday and the laborers have arrived, about ten of them. They’ve eaten lunch but are out behind the house knocking around a soccer ball instead of working because a heavy rain is on the way. Many of these farmhands are from Mexico and have come to Windfall through Hector Gonzalez, who has worked here since 1993. As Pitts tells the story, Gonzalez approached him because he wanted a job at a place that didn’t use pesticides. For years he’d been working on another farm, also in Orange County, that gave him, as part of his wages, a house on the edge of its land. However, when the crops were sprayed, so was his home. Not only did he have to labor in the chemical-laden fields, but he and his family had to live in them as well. A few years after Gonzalez had begun working for Pitts, his sixteen-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Two years later he died.
Gonzalez oversees the field labor at Windfall. They do the harvesting, then wash and pack all the vegetables for market. The produce goes from the field to the customer’s hands in less than twenty-four hours. The converted school bus Pitts loads with vegetables and takes to market runs on biodiesel made from waste oil he collects at restaurants in Manhattan when he goes in each week. The biodiesel also powers and heats the farm’s greenhouses. Pitts is not a numbers guy—he doesn’t keep tabs on how much fossil fuel he isn’t using, how much CO2 he’s not emitting, or how much water he’s not polluting by farming and distributing the way he does. But he’s righteous about it.
Pitts is opinionated about official USDA organic because, in his estimation, it’s simply not good enough. “It’s just a list of things you can and can’t add to your crops. I take a whole approach to farming. It’s not some checklist I tick off,” he says irritably. Since the USDA fully implemented organic standards in 2002—a process that began a dozen years earlier and went through several contentious rounds—many farmers, precisely the type that consumers imagine when they see the organic label, reject certification outright. Growers who practice organic methods—chemical-free farming and grazing, complex crop rotation to build and maintain soil health, fertilizing with green manure (cover crops that allow soil to regenerate), low or no fossil-fuel consumption, and labor practices that are more socially just—now call themselves “beyond organic,” “unconventional,” “real.”
Many of these farmers are also critical of the process of earning USDA certification because it’s costly and time-consuming. They must keep detailed records on the planting and tending of each individual crop—the chard, the snap peas, the carrots, the kale—something that’s clearly inappropriate for a farmer such as Pitts, but highly doable for a large-scale operation. “If you have five thousand workers and one million acres, you can allocate one worker to spend all day doing paperwork,” Pitts tells me hyperbolically. “But on a small farm you can’t spend your day filling out paperwork, because then you’re not growing the food.” He is loath to do the complicated documentation of all his various plantings, such as the frequent rotations and broadcasting. It also costs hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to ensure the paperwork is in order and to pay the certifier, a sum many small producers can’t afford.
Another Hudson Valley grower, Ron Khosla of Huguenot Farms, further elucidates problems with USDA certification. Earning and keeping the seal is supposed to work like this: The farmer maintains detailed logs of planting, fertilizing, and pest, weed, and disease management. Once each year a third-party certifying agency hired by the farmer and licensed by the USDA dispatches an inspector to assess the farm and review its records. Then the inspector submits the report for evaluation by the certifier, and if everything is up to snuff, the organic seal is granted.
But, as Khosla explains, inspectors are only required to do what’s called a “visual inspection” of the farm. Khosla—who founded a peer-based certification program called Certified Naturally Grown and formerly served as a consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization—tells me of instances of inspectors visiting farms, yet never setting foot in a field. He knows farmers who’ve had auditors conduct visual inspections by peering at crops through living-room windows. Astonishingly, official USDA rules require no soil samples or chemical-residue tests on produce. That means any such tests are entirely at the discretion of the certifier. Because certification companies must bear the cost of running these tests, plus time for the added paperwork, they have an incentive to avoid it. Consequently, visual inspections are all consumers can rely on.
Because inspectors typically have such heavy workloads, Khosla explains, they may not always make it to some of the farms that bear the organic seal. Khosla also tells me how a certification company he contacted brainstormed with him on how to cheat. “It was incredible!” The bottom line: “Certification companies don’t want to pressure farmers because they don’t want to lose the business,” Khosla imparts. “The for-profit certifiers and the nonprofits, too, they don’t want to lose their jobs.” Being too strict could increase the risk of farmers switching to the competition. This capacity for fraud is another reason growers such as Pitts dismiss official organic.
Back at the Pitts farm, perched in front of the main house is a hand-painted sign that reads windfall farms . Underneath the name are letters that used to say organically grown vegetables . Pitts tells me that while he was away at a conference in California in 2000, the USDA announced the first phase of implementing federal organics standards. As soon as he heard, he called Gonzalez to repaint the sign immediately. With a few tight insertions and alterations, it now reads unconventionally grown vegetables .
Pitts doesn’t have a mortgage because he inherited the place, as the farm’s name suggests. So, unlike many of his fellow small-scale cultivators, he doesn’t have the burden of debt. Yet he is still facing circumstances that are driving him off his land.
Most significant is Pitts’s hefty property-tax bill. He tells me the Montgomery Town Council rezoned a large area as commercial about fifteen years ago, including Windfall and several other farms. The council realized they could shift to a more lucrative commercial tax base by taking advantage of the transportation infrastructure, which includes a major freeway, railway lines, and a small airport. But by encouraging a change in land use away from agriculture, the town officials have created an impossible situation for most local small farmers. Among the new neighbors is a manufacturer of medical and surgical supplies called Cardinal Health, which, Pitts tells me, built a single warehouse covering twenty-three acres. These operations generate considerably more income from their fertile Hudson Valley land than does farming, yet Pitts must fork over as much in taxes as his corporate neighbors. “It’s like you’re renting your own farm forever and the rent just keeps going up,” he says. “The tax system is thwarting people who want to preserve farmland.” Consequently, he laments, “Farms are just gone from here.”
To beat the precipitous taxes Pitts, too, must leave. For the past several years he’s been looking for a new farm, and while some prospects have been exciting, they’ve all fallen through. Finding the right spot is a tall order. Pitts has spent a generation building up his soil, and accumulating local knowledge of such things as weeds and bugs and weather patterns. Now he must go and begin again somewhere else, hopefully not too far away. At this point he could stop or be stopped by circumstance. No meaningful subsidies or supports exist for farmers such as Pitts, even though the environmental value of what they’re doing is indisputable. If he used industrial methods and doused his fields with chemicals to grow commodities such as corn and soy, he’d be better able to tap into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s knowledge base and resources. But as it is, he’s pretty much on his own.
As Pitts is showing me the squat, narrow greenhouses where he raises baby lettuces and tomatoes, the sky opens up, dropping long, full lines of summer rain. He joins several workers outside to secure things around the farm from the storm. A few of us shelter inside the sloping walls of one of the greenhouses. No one talks over the beating of the midafternoon rain. Looking up, I can see through the clear plastic roof as the drops hit, fleetingly puddle, then slip down the side.
The next morning the place is abuzz with activity; it’s Friday and a lot must get done before market tomorrow. I eat a breakfast of dandelion and mustard greens, Sungold tomatoes, and eggs we gathered yesterday while Pitts sits at the table wiping down the handwritten, laminated signs he uses to label his produce at the stand. Meanwhile workers bag lettuce in the basement’s refrigerated room. Gonzalez, who grew up tending his family’s orchard in Mexico, walks into the kitchen. “It’s too wet to hoe, and too wet to plant, but it’s good weeding weather, so perhaps we’ll do that,” Pitts says out loud. Gonzalez cuts Pitts off by gently casting his eyes down. It’s a subtle no. Gonzalez has other plans for the workers today, which he doesn’t actually articulate. It’s the nonverbal exchange of brothers or an old couple. Without discussion, Pitts consents.
The farm has six full-time workers whose starting pay is $7.50 an hour. A few of Pitts’s additional laborers, such as Kevin, who minds the farm stand, are volunteers. Pitts’s employee situation has gone through several configurations: early on he used interns, then local high school kids, then his sister Kathy brought in disabled people to work—“It wasn’t the right setting for them,” he tells me—then he went on to college kids from the nearby town of New Paltz, then Gonzalez arrived. Gonzalez, his brother and sister-in-law, and their relatives now fill many of the jobs on the farm.
At one point Windfall employed twenty-eight people, but the payroll taxes and workers’ compensation fees got to be too much. The only company in the area that offers workers’ compensation insurance once recommended to Pitts that he should stop farming organically because then he’d need fewer employees and that would lower his costs. Pitts sees the problem as being deeply embedded in current economic policy. “If you’re going to employ people here, the government will tax the hell out of you,” he says. “But if you employ slaves in China, they’ll reward you.” He also thinks agricultural policy is to blame: “Lots of little farms could meet the needs of the market. Why doesn’t this happen? Because the USDA thinks it’s good to stop farming, get people off the farm. This made sense during the Dust Bowl, but not anymore.”
Pitts tells me it can get tricky managing his employees—Gonzalez and his field hands are prone to working too hard, picking more than will sell at the farmers’ market. The extra labor drove his earnings down considerably last year. When I ask, Pitts tells me that in 2006, he earned about $7 an hour. That’s fifteen cents below New York State’s minimum wage. “It’s not a living, it’s a life,” he tells me. “You’re not gonna get rich, but you get to do what you love all day. And if you’re working on the farm, you’re not spending much money, so the money you make you can just put back into the farm. And believe me, the farm will gulp it all down.” Before leaving Windfall I ask Pitts how economically sustainable his farm is. “It’s basically not,” he says. “Anything can knock it over, it’s always hanging in the balance.”
The bus is crowded for 6 a.m. on a Monday, headed out of town. In the row behind me a teenage girl sleeps; the jacket she’d pulled over her head has slouched down around her shoulders. I disembark after two hours traveling north through the Hudson Valley to the town of Kingston, New York. Here I meet Joshua and Jessica Applestone, owners of Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, a butcher store located on the main shopping street. They have invited me to come with some of their employees to visit the farm of their main beef supplier, David Huse.
Fleisher’s sells meat only from animals grazed on pasture and raised without hormones or antibiotics. It’s a relatively young business and like farmers’ markets it’s part of the burgeoning network for nonfactory food. Fleisher’s buys carcasses from small farmers, cuts them into steaks and chops, grinds them into burgers and sausages, and makes soap with the leftover fat. The Applestones, both in their thirties, revived Joshua’s family butcher shop, also called Fleisher’s. Started by his great-grandfather in Brooklyn, New York, over a century ago, the original went out of business around the time industrial meat processing took off. By working with farmers such as David Huse, the Applestones aim to help build a lasting market for humanely raised, ecologically sustainable meat.
From Kingston we drive an additional ninety miles north in two separate cars. I ride with Joshua and his main butcher, Aaron. Jessica is in the SUV behind us with two employees and two interns (the unpaid labor of idealistic youngsters seems to be a key feature in the emergent clean-food movement). Joshua and Aaron, who exchange a jocular banter like old college friends, tell me about the trials of being butchers selling strictly grass-fed, nonhormone, free-range meat. One of the most difficult aspects of the trade is getting and keeping access to slaughterhouses. Because USDA guidelines are tailored to industrial meatpacking plants, Joshua and Aaron explain, it’s disproportionately more expensive for local abattoirs to stay in business, and far costlier for small farmers to process animals. Federal food-safety laws are written for—and often de facto by—big corporations such as ConAgra and Tyson, not producers such as Huse and Fleisher’s.
Joshua and Aaron also talk about how the art of butchering is being lost. What gets taught in agriculture schools these days is referred to as meat cutting. When animals are slaughtered and packed at large-scale, mechanized facilities, where most meat in the United States is processed, they get broken down into bulk parts, sealed in thick plastic, boxed, and sent to retail stores. Here, the meat cutter comes in. Unlike a butcher, a cutter only has to know which way to position the block of beef when running it through the band saw to shear off, say, a T-bone steak. Eric Shelley, who runs the Meat Lab at the State University of New York, Cobleskill, a schoolroom slaughterhouse, explains, “If people are under forty years old, they don’t know where the meat comes from on the animal. Traditional butchers know how to bring something walking in on its feet to something that leaves in a package that can go straight onto the grill.”
According to Joshua and Aaron, losing the skill of butchering reinforces our reliance on dirty factory-farm production. This is exactly what’s happened; as of 2000, the top four companies slaughtered more than 80 percent of U.S. beef, leaving few choices for processing meat outside the industrial oligopoly. By not knowing how to take apart an animal, we’re forced to get meat from producers that confine their cows, pigs, and birds, stuff them full of feed they can’t digest, and inundate their systems with chemicals including hormones and antibiotics. Fleisher’s aim is to fuel a transformation of the food system that’s crucial for the survival of ecological health, animals included.
We crest a quiet hilltop. “It’s right around here somewhere,” Joshua says from behind the wheel as Aaron inspects the cryptic directions written in black marker on butcher paper. Joshua and Jessica visited the farm this time last year, not long after they first started working with David Huse. Today’s outing is part of how they stay connected to the growers that raise the meat they sell. “That’s the whole point, to know exactly where your food comes from,” Joshua says. We head up the driveway past a small wooden sign that reads stone broke farms .
The Huse farm consists of seven hundred acres of mostly hilltop land just south of New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. Tall elms, oaks, and cedars rustle and shimmer when the summer breeze breaks through. The pastures are full of tall, pale grasses. Only a few houses dot the landscape. David Huse and his father have raised five hundred or so Angus and Hereford cattle here each year for the last four decades. Over that time they perfected their livestock, breeding solid blacks, white-faced blacks, and white-faced reds to achieve a specific musculature. Joshua, who was a vegan for seventeen years, effusively describes these animals as “walking blocks of steak.”
David and his father work their cattle farm themselves, occasionally hiring kids from the town down the hill to help with repairing equipment and other menial tasks. The elder Huse is from Kansas, and, according to David, “He was the first in his family who wasn’t a farmer, a preacher, or a schoolteacher.” David’s father left the family wheat farm to eventually become a vice president at Bell Telephone. In 1966 he bought this acreage for his retirement; that way he could be a small farmer with his own economic safety net. When the Huses moved here, David was still in high school. After earning his associate’s degree in animal husbandry in 1972, he joined his father raising cattle full-time.
The family house is a sprawling, two-story ranch-style homestead, built in the 1940s. Inside, the place more closely resembles a suburban dwelling than a farmhouse. Its decor is of a different time, like a Technicolor film from the 1960s that has faded but retains its elegance. The living-room furniture is arranged around a massive, spotless picture window that frames the view down onto the undulating Cobleskill Valley majestic with cumulus clouds of green trees.
It’s early July, the height of killing season. “We start slaughtering in June and continue through October. We do about three or four head a week,” David says as we pile into his truck to go see the “breeders” a few fields away. David Huse is of medium build, about six feet tall, and is at once grizzled and boyish. He has on muddy cowboy boots, coveralls, and a baseball cap that says nascar and has yellow lightning bolts that shoot from his temples. When I ask why he’s a cattle farmer, he comes back with “Everybody wants to be a farmer, now don’t they?”
We’ve driven the short distance to where the breeders and calves are chomping away in what used to be the front yard of a farmhouse. The white, two-story Victorian is burned out, just barely standing. The animals seem not to notice our arrival. Calves, all born about two months ago, stand close to their mothers, who graze in one big group. As they bite and pull on the grass, the brown and black lines of their backs move like the lapping of waves in a pond. Their hides are slick against the curves of their stomachs. Digested grass shit lands in clumps at their feet. Tails swoosh and swat at flies. Knees crook and hooves kick out, then drop back heavily upon the ground. Deep eyes stare not at us, but languorously through us.
What happens on a grass-based livestock farm is relatively straightforward: the animals graze. As for what the cattle eat at Stone Broke, fifty different types of grasses carpet the Huse acreage including brome, rye, timothy, bird’s-foot trefoil, and white and red clovers. “Whatever naturally grows up here is what’s best,” David says. “I haven’t used fertilizer in ten years.” As for how the animals eat, the Huses have adopted a system called management-intensive grazing, popular among all-natural grass-fed meat farmers. Put simply, management-intensive grazing entails herding the cows to a new field each day and using portable electric fencing to keep them out of the previously munched area so the grass can regenerate. This method safeguards against overgrazing, which is what happens when ruminants—mammals such as cows that chew their cud—are left to their own devices. Since new shoots of many grasses are sweet and tender, cattle will return to nibble at the same spots, preventing the emerging leaves from fully growing. Fresh blades are what nourishes the root systems, so if they can’t form because of too much grazing (and the continuous traffic that compacts the soil), the grasses will suffer. Overgrazing has multiple ecological effects: It destroys ruminants’ primary source of food, forcing farmers to resort to feed, the most affordable of which is grown using polluting, irrigation-intensive industrial methods. And, as grasses die off, a cycle of degradation sets in. Opportunistic weeds begin to take over, and runoff and erosion increase, all of which lead to further loss of the soil’s ability to support life. In the most extreme cases, this process can result in desertification.
By contrast, management-intensive grazing fosters a nutritive cycle whereby ruminants and their forage feed each other—with some gentle encouragement from the farmer. As cows eat, they move across the land distributing and planting grass seeds while fertilizing the soil with their poop. As the writer Michael Pollan puts it, “The coevolutionary relationship between cows and grass is one of nature’s underappreciated wonders.” The management-intensive husbandry comes in at this point to safeguard against overgrazing. Every day the Huses corral their beeves into a renewed paddock and pull up, then reinstall, the lightweight electric fencing. At Stone Broke it takes about three to four weeks for a field to rebound, then the cows are brought back for another feast.
When raised this way, cows become an impressively efficient way of turning grass into protein; the only energy source that’s needed is the sun. However, the situation isn’t so cut-and-dried. Even when they’re grass-fed, cows belch and fart a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane is over twenty times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, and livestock including cattle account for about 18 percent of global methane emissions. While raising animals as the Huses do eliminates many of the fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, soil erosion, and toxic runoff that result from industrially grown cattle and the feed they rely on, it is not a panacea.
Later that afternoon, David’s father appears along the road. He wades a short distance into a parcel of land a few hundred feet from where the breeders and their calves are still drinking water. He summons them. I can’t hear his call, but from behind I see his torso moving from the effort. First one, then another of the animals looks up and begins to lumber over. The dark bodies now head toward him in a flock, V-shaped and slow. In the restored field the tips of summer grass feather up almost to the elder Huse’s shoulders.
The Huses didn’t always farm this way. Although they’ve used management-intensive grazing since the early 1980s, it wasn’t until about three years ago that they stopped relying as much on grain to feed and finish their livestock. And it wasn’t until then that the Huses ceased sending their animals for standard processing. Stone Broke used to sell its cattle to Moyer Packing Company, an old-school conventional plant in Pennsylvania. David tells me he liked working with Moyer, but things got rough after Smithfield Foods Company, now the fifth-largest beef processor in the United States, bought out the regional slaughterhouse in 2001. Almost immediately, the new corporate owner started lowering the prices it paid for cattle. Because of the rampant consolidation in the industry, the Huses were virtually held captive. By 2002 the family’s revenue from selling its beeves had dropped to 1972 levels. “When you let that concentration happen, you get put in a place where you take what they offer or you go somewhere else, but there’s nowhere else to go,” David tells me. He says part of why they decided to switch to organic methods was to access a more lucrative market. The Huses now earn more per pound; however, they rely strictly on Fleisher’s. “I’m shipping to one little butcher shop, and if he closes, I don’t know what I’d do,” David says. This year Stone Broke is hoping to break even. I ask what will happen if they don’t and he replies, “I could never do this if we had a mortgage payment.” He goes on, “My father’s retired and he has a pension. . . . I’m not crying poverty, it just hasn’t worked out the way I thought it would.”
Ironically, a major obstacle unconventional farms such as Windfall and Stone Broke face is the outcome of the very success of organic. As demand for all-natural food has expanded beyond a niche market, to keep costs down and stay competitive, most higher-volume retailers and processors have stopped buying inputs in small quantities. At Whole Foods’ first store in Austin, Texas, opened in 1980, much of the organic fruit and vegetables on offer were from local farmers. But as the organic industry has ventured into bigger markets, it’s become much more expensive to manage accounts with, say, twenty growers than it is with one large farm.
A 2007 study of small organic farmers in California illustrates the point. Some growers said they struggled to attract and keep middlemen because their volumes were too low. Whole Foods showed interest in the berries of one cultivator, but because he couldn’t provide two hundred cases a week, he lost the deal. Unable to find an organic buyer to work with, more than one grower ended up having to off-load organic crops as conventional at a considerable loss. Each of those surveyed eventually gave up organic production. Some stopped farming altogether, and others went back to conventional because it was easier to sell and therefore more profitable.
Building an appropriate distribution network isn’t the problem; the barriers lie in keeping it open to small producers. Alternative farmers and retailers from the first wave of the organic food movement in the United States created such a system. Established in the 1970s and 1980s, it consisted of small regional circuits that ran throughout New England and many other parts of the United States. Among the early dealers was Norman A. Cloutier, a health-food-store owner in Rhode Island. In the late 1970s, he started a distribution company, Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc., and a few years later bought two key regional distributors in the Northeast. Over the ensuing decades Cornucopia aggressively pursued growth through a flurry of mergers and acquisitions of regional cooperatives and distribution outfits built up by small health food retailers and buyers’ groups. Today the company, now incorporated under the name United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), is the leading handler of natural products nationwide. UNFI boasts over twenty thousand customers including Whole Foods and Sodexo U.S.A., a major food-service corporation that supplies hotels, restaurants, and institutions such as universities. According to Samuel Fromartz in Organic, Inc., UNFI’s “purchase of the last two natural-food-distribution cooperatives, Blooming Prairie in the Midwest, and Northeast Cooperatives in New England [in the early 2000s], marked the end of any alternative distribution network.” The need to stay competitive in the marketplace compelled UNFI to buy out smaller firms and shutter any regional distribution facilities it deemed redundant, whether or not these lines were crucial to small organic farmers.
I sit shotgun with Huse in a John Deere four-wheel, all-terrain buggy. The jerky ride takes us downhill through a field to where a few dozen one-year-old heifers are grazing. They are perched on a slope bordered by trees, the lower branches of which have been pruned by deer into a perfect line hovering just above the darkness of the grove.
Even though he raises his cattle strictly on grass, infrequently supplemented in small quantities with organic feed, Huse hasn’t bothered getting certified organic—none of the meat Fleisher’s sells carries the official seal. As with vegetable farms, the certification can cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars each year and involves piles of paperwork that eat up valuable work time. Also, like Morse Pitts and many other nonchemical, holistic farmers, the Huses and Applestones believe that as organic has gone mainstream, it’s been stripped of any real substance.
As we mingle with the cattle, Huse and Applestone talk shop, that is, about killing and butchering. (Huse imparts to me that some people believe this shouldn’t be done in front of animals destined for “harvesting.”) “Around here there’s a real bottleneck when it comes to slaughtering,” the farmer says. Stone Broke uses an abattoir that’s one of just two remaining regional facilities. There used to be eleven small houses around here, Huse explains, but in the last few years nine have shut their doors. This means it’s harder to get a slot for his animals, and processing costs are higher than ever.
Before the biggest firms consolidated the industry, Huse would pay twenty cents per pound to process a beeve, and, he says, “You’d give ’em the hide for the kill fee.” That would have meant a $160 outlay for an eight-hundred-pound animal. Now, for the same service, he must fork over about $500. By contrast, Huse tells me, it costs the commercial companies just $50 to kill and pack a head of beef at one of their industrial facilities. Processing fees are so much more at the local operations because there aren’t enough of them to meet demand, and each one handles far fewer animals than the mega-slaughterhouses. Compounding this, small slaughterhouses must pay disproportionately more to keep a shop that meets USDA specs.
According to Eric Shelley of the Meat Lab, “All the costs of running a slaughterhouse are basically the same whether you’re a small plant or a large plant. But if you’re a large plant, those costs get diffused, spread out.” Shelley tells me that small operators have to buy the same gear that the big places do, such as stainless steel equipment, and specific high-end stun guns, saws, and knives. He mentions one required knife that goes for $3,000. While it makes sense that anyone handling food should have the most professional tools, these industrial accoutrements may well exceed what a small facility will ever need. They also typically drive the cost of opening a USDA-approved plant well over a million dollars.
Not long after visiting Stone Broke, in a regional newspaper I come across a profile of a farmer named John Wing, who’d built a new slaughterhouse in Benson, Vermont, five years before. Because of the area’s lack of capacity he decided to start processing his own animals. State inspectors convinced him to construct his place to comply with federal standards. That way he could help alleviate the region’s slaughterhouse bottleneck that stretched south into New York and Massachusetts. Although it would cost much more, Wing decided to take their advice. The facility is still running today, handling about one hundred animals a week, but the $1.75 million he spent to outfit the small plant put Wing through Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
Also contributing to these higher costs are meatpacking regulations adopted by the USDA in 1996. The first meaningful revision since the Meat Inspection Act was originally passed in 1906 amid public outcry stirred by Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, the updated rules ironically seem to work in favor of the largest corporations. Central to the USDA’s new specifications is what’s called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP (pronounced “hassup”). All meat processors regardless of size are now required to write a HACCP plan—“basically a book, it’s that detailed,” Eric Shelley tells me—which can be particularly onerous for small operators. The document covers a range of issues related to potential exposure of meat to unwanted contaminants, such as chemicals, pathogens, hair, and bits of metal, at all points throughout the slaughtering and processing chain. While such a plan is undoubtedly a good idea, the document requires specialized knowledge in engineering and science that most small-time butchers don’t have. So they must hire outside consultants to write their HACCP plan; this can cost thousands of dollars for the initial document, and even more for revisions, which are common. But that’s not all—HACCP requires constant documentation. Huse tells me it takes his butcher an hour and a half every day to fill out the paperwork. “USDA makes it so hard to operate, many slaughterhouses are guys who are sixty to sixty-five years old, and they just get tired and quit and no one takes their place,” Huse says. “Why would they?”
That HACCP better suits the bigger facilities isn’t surprising. Before being taken up by the USDA, HACCP was adopted and refined by the fast-food chain Jack in the Box. The company revamped its system in an effort to salvage its reputation after a 1993 E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak was traced back to the company’s food. The dangerous bacteria sickened seven hundred people across the United States and killed four, including children, and were linked to meat processed in large industrial facilities. According to Marion Nestle’s book Safe Food, the spread of E. coli coincides with the rise of factory farming. “The earliest case [of E. coli ] seems to have occurred in 1975, but the first reported outbreak occurred in 1982. . . . Outbreaks are increasing in frequency; there were 6 in 1997 but 17 in 1998.” As for why, she writes, “The most reasonable explanation involves the profound changes in society and food production that have taken place.” The changes have been dramatic indeed; in 2007 over half the cattle slaughtered went through just fourteen meatpacking facilities. Although HACCP introduces procedures that, when carried out well, could improve food safety, the regulations were shaped by and for industrial-scale processors to the detriment of their small-scale competitors, not to mention public health.
Frank Johnson’s farm is decidedly unassuming compared to Huse’s. It’s tucked in the valley on a much smaller two-hundred-acre parcel just outside the small town of Carlisle. The place is well-worn, unadorned. Off the main road, a dirt drive leads past a modest one-story, white house, where Johnson lives with his family. The main barn is across the drive from the house, and behind it are Johnson’s pastures. We walk to a field where the forty-five or so cattle Fleisher’s will be carving in the coming weeks are grazing on grass that’s a fluorescent green. Upon seeing the animals’ black bodies bulging with muscle, Applestone punches the air in excitement.
Johnson has salt-and-pepper hair and, unlike Huse, doesn’t look the part of a farmer. He’s wearing faded denim shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers. He looks like a suburban dad on a Sunday afternoon. He tells me he farms holistically “because you should leave the earth in better shape than when you got here.” Johnson is neither an eco-evangelizer nor a hippie who went back to the land. Huse shares these qualities. These men are straight-up farmers.
Johnson has known this is the life for him since he was a kid on his family’s dairy farm. However, when he was married to his first wife, he earned a living doing construction, he says, because she didn’t want him to work the land. But the desire to raise animals persisted. After Johnson divorced and then married a second time, he and his new wife, Judy Pangman—who wrote an authoritative book on chicken-coop construction—went into farming. About ten years ago they bought the “land base” of his family’s dairy farm, where the crops were grown. (The milking facilities are on the half that they didn’t buy.) They named their new place Sweet Tree Farm and have been paying the sizable mortgage ever since.
“Joel Salatin”—a grass-fed beef–farming guru—“says you shouldn’t have money tied up in land, but we have a mortgage. We had to,” Johnson tells me. “If you inherit the land, you’re in a really different situation.” So, to help service the debt, Johnson maintained an “off-farm job,” as they’re called, until just three years ago. And Pangman works full-time for an engineering company. “If it wasn’t for her income, we wouldn’t be farming,” Johnson says.
There is a tinge of shame in this admission, as is true with other farmers I talk to who must rely on external income to stay afloat. But, in reality, there’s nothing abnormal about it. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the average small farm earns 85–95 percent of its income from “off-farm sources” such as the wages of a spouse. Medium-size farms, ones that earn between $250,000 and $499,999 in annual sales, rely on off-farm resources for almost 50 percent of their income. This means that most small growers don’t even come close to earning a living from being farmers. Old news in many respects, but with an increasing emphasis on organic and local, the struggle of the small farmer is cast in a new light.
Needless to say, Johnson works hard. He raises his own animals, finishes the Huse cattle, does his own butchering, and brings Sweet Tree’s products to farmers’ markets twice a week, selling the goods himself. Before our group leaves, Johnson shows me a smokehouse he built last year. The idea was he could make smoked cuts, adding value to his meat, boosting his earning potential. But he hasn’t yet been able to use it because he can’t get USDA approval. Thanks to convoluted regulations, which he said Cornell University’s trusted extension workers couldn’t help him figure out, Johnson’s smoker sits idle.
As Johnson traces his efforts to make Sweet Tree more profitable, all the things he’s done to cut costs and be more self-sufficient, he says he’s getting worn-out. “That’s the point I’m at. I’m raising the beef, I’m doing the butchering, I’m smoking my own meat, I’m doing inventory, and the markets. If I try to do more, it becomes a snowball. I can’t say it can’t be done, I just don’t have the ambition to do it. I was always ambitious, but these last eight years, doing both the farming and the markets have really taken it out of me.” Throughout the visit Johnson tells me several times that he’s afraid he’s going to have to stop farming and go back to wage labor.
In the summer of 2007 I place a call to the USDA’s National Organic Program, or NOP, in Washington, D.C. Established in 2002, the NOP is the top body in charge of overseeing the organic system in the United States. A man picks up without identifying the office. I ask to speak to someone in communications. He tells me to hold on, then puts the receiver down and continues a conversation that I can hear and that my call has obviously interrupted. Several minutes later he picks the phone back up. I ask how many people are currently in the office. He says six. I ask what he knows about organic farming. “Nothing,” he tells me. I ask how long he’s been at the job. “A couple of weeks.” He’s a temp.
From its inception in 2002 through 2008, the NOP staff fluctuated between five and eight people even though the program has a heavy workload. Its duties include interpreting and amending the constantly evolving regulations and enforcing organic rules. The NOP is also charged with training, accrediting, and monitoring the independent third-party bodies that issue organic seals. Approximately one hundred third-party certifiers are registered with the NOP, which might sound like a manageable number. But those companies are in turn responsible for keeping tabs on thousands of domestic as well as foreign farmers and processors that sell in the American market. From early 2008 through the end of 2009 the NOP lacked a director, operating instead under an acting director, Barbara Robinson, who held another full-time job at the USDA. Meantime, the key post of head of Compliance and Enforcement sat vacant until late 2008. Among Compliance and Enforcement’s stated goals for 2009 was to “establish an internal management system” because, for the first time, the division had a staff.
The NOP’s funding is allocated with each new farm bill. Congress writes and passes the legislation every five years and has never set aside mandatory financing for the USDA’s National Organic Program. Instead, each year the NOP must slog through the appropriations process in the House of Representatives and the Senate, justifying its costs to politicians who hold its fate. Each successive farm bill sets a ceiling on how much the NOP can receive, but no floor—Congress is under no obligation to give the program any funds. Although lawmakers have never outright denied resources, there’s no guarantee the money will come.
The most recent farm bill, passed in 2008, raises the NOP budget from about $1.5 million annually to $3 million for 2009, and $3.8 million for 2010. This represents the first significant increase since the agency opened despite that organics have seen annual growth rates in the double digits for over a decade. Thanks to the added funds, and President Obama’s apparent support, the NOP is undertaking a reorganization to better carry out its tasks. Most significantly the new plan involves hiring additional employees—by summer 2009 the office’s numbers surged to an all-time high of fourteen—and at last a full-time head, Miles McEvoy. While some changes will doubtless result, the NOP nevertheless remains starved of the resources it would need to become a vital tool for promoting and supporting truly ecological agriculture.
Other facets of the most recent farm bill offer support for organic farmers, but the scales are tipped well in favor of agribusiness. The document tenders billions toward marketing, distribution, research, extension, and education for growers using conventional factory methods. The law also shells out tens of billions more dollars to subsidize industrial farms. The 2008 farm bill rings in at about $300 billion. From such largesse the plan sets aside a meager $78 million for organic research and extension over five years. A fivefold increase from the previous farm bill’s spending on organic research and extension, the sum nevertheless reveals that more biologically destructive farming practices still rank high on the USDA and Congress’s list of priorities.
What has come of the first wave of organic agriculture from the 1970s demonstrates just how hard it can be to survive while keeping a green commitment intact. Some holistic growers have stayed in business yet remain cloistered in the confines of “boutique farming.” Here they serve a limited consumer base that can pay prices prohibitive to most shoppers. Morse Pitts is a prime example; what he’s doing shows that alternatives are possible, but its reach remains confined. Another outcome is that a great many organic and natural food endeavors have simply gone bust. Innumerable small cultivators who hung on by a thread, not unlike Frank Johnson, couldn’t ultimately make it. Finally, some farmers decided to play by the rules of the market and go up against the big guys. As is true in conventional agriculture, with more competition comes greater pressure to streamline production to lower prices and create a more uniform, and shippable, product. Case in point is the Washington State–based Cascadian Farm, started three decades ago by back-to-the-landers looking for alternatives to the mainstream. One of its founders ended up taking the farm in a more commercial direction and, in the 1990s, sold out to General Mills. Some now criticize Cascadian Farm’s practices as following a less rigorous version of organic, having surrendered more holistic methods to tap bigger markets. Jeff Moyer, current chair of the National Organic Standards Board, the official body that recommends standards changes, spoke to this when he told the Washington Post, “As the organic industry matures, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find a balance between the integrity of the word organic and the desire for the industry to grow.”
Many Big Organic proponents argue that working on such a large scale pays off because it means a lot of synthetic chemicals that would have been used in conventional farming are avoided. Peter LeCompte, once a worker on a small organic farm who is now head of organic buying for General Mills, is a prime example. When I interview him, he tells me that even though he knows working for the establishment compromises him, it’s the best, and most realistic, option for widespread change he can see. Agriculture went toxic and industrial largely because doing so was most effective at beating rivals and fattening the bottom line. When producers try to achieve greater economies with organic, they often do so by swerving back toward less sustainable cultivation methods—that’s why LeCompte and his ilk must compromise. Ultimately, however, this incarnation of organic stifles biologically sound farming because it helps the major food producers maintain their dominant position; small growers can’t compete with firms such as General Mills in lobbying Congress for incentives and regulations to bolster their market position. Big Organic reinforces the political, economic, and regulatory apparatus currently in place that favors the most powerful food processors as well as the agribusiness elite. Meanwhile life remains rough for growers such as Pitts, Huse, and Johnson, and processors such as Fleisher’s. To get by, the unconventional operator must instead rely on the subsidies of inherited land, free and low-cost labor, and off-farm income. If alternative farmers and processors are too beaten down by the lack of resources for cultivation and distribution, inappropriate food safety rules, insurmountable debt, and inadequate pay, then, no matter how much we as consumers want local, ecologically responsible food, the people who make it may well go extinct.
© 2010 Heather Rogers
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