There’s a tectonic shift under way in organic agriculture. An organic label was once a way for smaller farms to find a market niche with produce free of synthetic chemicals.
But as the demand for organic produce and other products has grown, large farms have started muscling in, sparking intense competition for space in farmers markets, health food stores and chain supermarkets.
The shift toward big organic has farmers feeling like they must choose between the principles of healthy eating and environmental stewardship that sprouted the organic movement and federally sanctioned organic certification, which is essentially a marketing program.
The federal standards are based on those created by farmers 36 years ago, but to organic true believers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program is at best flawed and at worst, a sham.
The standards allow some naturally derived chemicals and about 140 synthetics. The USDA gets blamed for turning a grass-roots movement into a program to benefit giant farms and stores that want to sell “organic” products with synthetic ingredients and import organic-labeled products from other countries, including China.
“High standards keep family farmers in the game,” said Liana Hoodes of Pine Bush, the organic policy coordinator with the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. “When standards are pushed down by the marketing end so more products can be produced, that hurts family farmers.”
The rules do have defenders.
USDA officials say they’re fair because they treat all farmers the same. And the rules promote crops grown with minimal environmental impact or pesticide residues, said Sarah Johnston, an organic specialist with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
“The various and sundry details may be less important than the overall rules,” Johnston said. “We should fight for the important issues and not condemn (the law) in its entirety for its smaller imperfections.”
Five years after the organic standards were adopted, mid-Hudson farmers are still struggling to find their place in the market. Some have turned their backs on it, some have decided to join a system they can’t beat, and others are looking to get their own small slice of the organic pie.
Organic dollar signs
Ulster County farmer Steve Clarke embodies the debate in organic culture. He’s a family farmer but he doesn’t grow organic apples to protect the environment or produce healthier food.
He does it for the money.
And in a culture that stresses eating locally grown food, it’s impossible to buy Clarke’s organic apples in the mid-Hudson. They go to New York City, with its larger, built-in audience.
“The people buying organic are willing to tolerate less perfect fruit,” he said. “Americans have become used to perfection, and (for most people) that’s the standard.”
Clarke converted 5 acres of his orchards to organic in 2000, but the organic trees had “always been a stepchild part of the operation. What changed my mind last year was the broker who offered me $25 a bushel.”
That’s twice the going rate for conventional apples and it inspired Clarke to grow his first batch of organic Gold Rush apples to survive the summer without the disease that had plagued previous crops.
But the success came at such a cost that Clarke says he still relies on his conventional crops to pay the bills. He thinks organic is the future but isn’t convinced it’s the future of his farm. There’s just too much risk involved without use of the modern weapons against pests and disease.
“I’m learning how to produce a quality crop,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes from here.”
A local icon makes a compromise
A winner of a McArthur Genius Grant for her efforts to get organic produce to low-income seniors and families, Cheryl Rogowski doesn’t seem a likely candidate for government certification. But when she begins harvesting next year, the Pine Island farmer’s potatoes, pepper and pick-your-own flowers will have the USDA seal of organic approval.
After eight years of growing organic, she feels like she has no choice. Until she’s certified, Rogowski can’t get on health-food store shelves. She has to label her produce as “naturally grown.”
“People want to see that one word, ‘organic,’ ” she said. “When I hang that shingle up, it will allow me quick, easy access to more consumers.”
But she worries about participating in a program that could lessen the environmentally friendly methods of true organic farming.
Organic produce costs more because it traditionally has been grown by highly diversified farmers without the benefits of mass production.
“Before the government took over the program, organic signified a small farm, a family farm, someone working in harmony with nature,” Rogowski said. “Now, it’s hip to be green and everyone on the consumer side looks at the cost of organic.”
The government’s desire to drive up organic market share worries some farmers because they see a link between lower standards and lower prices demanded by big stores.
“The larger entities with the deep pockets have the potential to influence policy,” Rogowski said. “The more power someone has, they can change something based on their needs and desires. It’s a very real danger.”
The ornery farmer
John Gorzynski stripped the word “organic” from his farm the moment the federal regulations were issued and replaced it with “ornery.”
And he’s still angry about it.
“It was one of the most heartbreaking things I had to do,” he said recently, standing in a field of kale and cabbage on his Cochecton Center farm. “The word organic has no integrity. I do.”
Gorzynski got his first organic certification in 1979, when it was still a hodgepodge of state regulations created by organic farmers.
For years, those farmers lobbied the federal government to adopt uniform guidelines so a farmer selling to different markets wouldn’t have to get certified for each new customer. The idea, he said, was to help small farmers, not threaten them with competition from foreign countries and processed products made with 70 percent organic materials.
“It’s more difficult now to define organic than it was when we were first trying to figure out what the word means,” he said. “Now we have to have a knockoff of a knockoff? I don’t think so, but some people do think so.”
So he dropped out of the certification program.
Gorzynski no longer runs a farm market, but has enough wholesale customers to survive without the organic label on the more than 600 varieties he grows on 52 acres.
“I don’t care about my business. What I care about are the young farmers who have no choice but to be certified,” he said. “The old people set this up so the new people could take advantage of it, but the government took it away from us.”
Matt King is a reporter for the Times Herald-Record. Reach him at [email protected]