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Can organic farmers survive their defenders?

Can organic farmers survive their defenders?

Defenders of organic principles have long criticized large companies for “gaming the organic system” by exploiting loopholes in the regulations to maximize production and profits. There is plenty of truth in that argument.

The federal standards enacted in 2002, for example, required that all organic cows have access to pasture, except under certain conditions, including “stage of production.” Some folks determined that lactation of dairy cows qualified as a stage of production. Viola, organic dairy cows could therefore be kept in confinement during their ten months of lactation each year, and turned onto pasture for the other two months.

This sparked a decade-long debate over tightening the access to pasture loophole. Advocates of small farms and strong organic standards carried the day, resulting in a new regulatory structure that requires every organic livestock producer to have a an extensive written, auditable plan documenting the percentage of dry matter intake received from pasture, the makeup of the pasture, soil types, and other factors.

The intent was to protect small organic producers. The impact may be the opposite.

The large companies have the resources to hire soil scientists, technical staff and others to make sure that they adapt to the new regulations. Small farmers—on the other hand—now have to handle a complex set of new regulatory paperwork while juggling milking schedules, ballet recitals and kids’ soccer practice. The thought of conducting even more recordkeeping at the end of a long day in the field is simply too daunting for many farmers.

Perhaps there is a fundamental contradiction between the concept of organic agriculture and federal regulations. Conventional agriculture tends to be very prescriptive. Got bindweed? Use Roundup. Got roundworms? Use Ivermectin.

Organic pioneers like Sir Albert Howard and Wendell Berry argued that there are no universal solutions to the issues within a complex biological system. Instead of relying on off-the-shelf tools, organic farmers would develop knowledge of their environment to adapt strategies and solutions appropriate for their climate, geography and land base.

Federal regulations, by contrast, require very prescriptive, uniform and enforceable standards. The flexibility of developing individual approaches is on the retreat in organic agriculture as producers now deal with the prescriptive, auditable procedures mandated by federal regulations.

Each violation of organic principles called out by the guardians of organic principles will likely result in a new addition to federal regulations that more tightly dictates how organic food must be grown and processed. 

I don’t know the solution to this paradox. But it’s time we start thinking about it.

Dave Carter studied journalism at University of Northern Colorado but found his true calling working with farmers and ranchers at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union for 25 years. He’s now the executive director of the National Bison Association.

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