Preserving Family-scale Grain Farming

[This article was previously published in the spring issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Anne Ross, JD
Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: Adobe Stock

Over the past few years, imports of organic corn, soybeans, and other grain have soared, an escalation attributed to shortfalls in domestic production.

The majority of imported organic corn and soybeans are used for livestock feed. Amid concerns in recent
years about the authenticity of imported organic grain, coupled with domestic farmers being squeezed out of the market, conventional approaches to “organic” grain production have emerged.

Enter Pipeline Foods, LLC. Pipeline identifies itself as the first U.S.-based global supply chain solutions company focused exclusively on non-GMO and organic food and feed.

The company has acquired feed elevators, is building a state-of-the-art grain terminal in North Dakota, and plans to invest an additional $300-$500 million in its plan to build organic supply chains.

As consumer demand for organic food grows, similar corporate models that vertically integrate all stages of production and distribution under centralized management will emerge. Pipeline contends that consolidating grain processing and distribution using this model of control creates a more sustainable organic supply chain.

This integrated model is reflective of the experience in the conventional marketplace that has crushed family-scale farmers.

Are large-scale production and integration models inherently incompatible with the ecological and social values on which organic agriculture was founded?

Will smaller organic producers who gave life to the organic movement also be squeezed out by corporate, organic agribusiness with centralized control over distribution channels?

USDA organic standards clearly include ecological values like biodiversity, soil fertility, and crop rotation. And the social and ethical values essential for sustainability have traditionally been championed by the organic farmer, unmotivated by corporate investments.

Larger-scale integrated models impose increasing competitive pressure on the family-scale farm infrastructure of organic production.

Independent producers find it difficult to compete with corporate-owned brands that can achieve an economy of scale, have the money to invest in advertising, and initially subsidize price-cuts on organic products with sales from conventional sales.

Differences between the two organic styles, corporate profit-centered producers and the local family-scale farmers that market cooperatively, become even more distinct as more integrated corporate business models emerge.

Merle Kramer, organic grain marketer for Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative, puts it this way, “There are two organic food systems, one rooted in original organic standards and local/regionally produced food and the other a conventional production model driven by oversupply (including fraudulent organic grain from overseas), consolidation, and subverting organic standards.”

Defenders of organics must consider how conventional models in organic food production ultimately affect the principles on which the organic movement was based and how these values can be safeguarded.

Consolidation of supply chains leaves organic food production, just like conventional agriculture, in the hands of a corporate few and leaves foundational principles of organic food production, like ecology, social justice, and sustainability, vulnerable to material erosion.

When organic models of food distribution start to look more like their conventional counterparts, consumers should take heed and support their local organic food economy to prevent local farmers from being forced into integrated models or, worse yet, forced off the farm.

Consumer dollars exert marketplace pressure and ensure a family-scale farm infrastructure thrives. The educational materials Cornucopia provides are designed to help consumers make informed choices about authentic, organic options and provide consumers with a pipeline of their own. This pipeline is to local, authentic organic food, and the family-scale farmers who work tirelessly to produce it.

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