Natural Foods Merchandiser

Should there be a limit on the size of organic farms?

No, it's not about size

Bob Anderson has more than 35 years of hands-on experience in all aspects of organic agriculture, organic processing, organic certification, marketing, government relations and international trade. He also serves as an adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program, Foreign Agriculture Service and U.S. Department of State. Until 2000, he was president of Walnut Acres Organic Farms.

As one of the veterans of the organic movement, I can still say that I am as passionate about improving the soil, growing good crops, producing whole foods and preserving our environment as I was 40 years ago. I take great pride in the successes of the organic industry today. Who would have thought that we would be seeing continued double-digit growth, expanded opportunities for commodity and specialty crop producers, as well as an overwhelming demand for organic dairy, meat and poultry products? It was only in our wildest moments that we dreamed that we would be welcomed into mainstream supermarkets and conventional agricultural circles. And that it would all be supported by a National Organic Program that assures consumers they can buy organic foods with confidence.

There are those who think organics has sold out because it has become too big. I believe that it isn't about size. The scale of production is a question for each operation based on its agricultural resources, the products it produces, where it is located and the markets it serves. And big is very different geographically—it might be 20 acres of vegetables in Rhode Island, 200 cows in Pennsylvania or 2,000 acres of wheat in North Dakota.

Being bigger doesn't automatically imply that a farm is bad. This debate isn't about size; rather it is about good agriculture at every scale. I believe the true measure should be: Is it good agriculture, are the farmers good stewards of the land, do they produce good products and are they contributing to sustaining their communities and improving the environment? In my experience, small agricultural enterprises are not the sole practitioners of good agriculture, nor are they always the best stewards of the land.

For me the question is, is converting land to organic practices a good thing? I say yes! Organic agriculture dramatically reduces pesticide loads on the earth, lowers hormone and antibiotic levels in our foods and eliminates tons of herbicides in our water.

I agree that the organic marketplace is rapidly changing. As mass marketers embrace organic products, we are already witnessing the repositioning of the organic industry to meet new consumer demands, and this is a global and local phenomenon. And while not everyone is in it for the same reasons, the rising organic tide is floating all boats.

I'm heartened by the abundance and diversity of organic products in the marketplace. Ultimately, this will offer organic foods to broader segments of consumers and provide the opportunity for more people to make new, good food choices. We now have the ability to make organic food decisions from the local to the global level. My family chooses to eat local, organic, seasonal vegetables, fruits, meats and regional specialty food products. And we are truly grateful that we can enjoy organic products from around the country and the world from people we trust, respect and know are doing good work.

We have the opportunity to guide our industry as it spreads its wings. It is up to us to insist that all organic agriculture improves the soil, grows good crops, produces whole foods, sustains communities and preserves the environment for generations to come. Changing the way food is grown on our planet, locally and globally, is a good thing.

Yes, farms have natural limits

Elizabeth Henderson farms at Peacework Organic Farm in New York. She is a founding member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Massachusetts and serves on the governing council of NOFA-NY. She writes frequently on organic issues and is the lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 1999).

If you think of an organic farm as merely a crop production unit following the National Organic Program rules about what materials may be used, an organic farm could be any size. Since the 1920s, however, people around the world have based organic agriculture upon broader principles of health and social justice. Using ecological practices is essential to an organic farm, but that is only part of the picture.

To sustain healthy soils, a farm must use good rotations, cover crops and composting, and avoid monocropping, or devoting large numbers of acres to only one crop. A diversity of crops combined with wild areas allows a farm to depend on natural balances for pest and disease control. Hundreds of acres in one variety of one crop invites pests and pathogens. To sustain living ecological systems, the farmer needs to observe fields daily to remain in close contact with the ever-shifting realities of nature. Effective organic management requires many eyes per acre. Buying bagged fertilizer, such as Chilean nitrate, even if the NOP allows it, does not contribute to the recycling of a farm's nutrients. Keeping animals confined in barns or cages does not allow them to live out natural and healthy lives.

To be socially sustainable, a farm must achieve dynamic equilibrium, a resilient balance of change and stability. The prevailing business model that counts constant growth as success pushes farms into relentless and predatory competition with neighbors, which results in someone facing failure and collapse. For agriculture to be viable, farms need one another; they need cooperation, exchanges of labor, inventions and scientific discoveries, and a local infrastructure that provides necessary services, materials and research. Family-scale farms are deeply embedded in the local economy, buying from and selling to other local businesses, keeping money circulating among neighbors.

To be fair, a farm cannot be structured like a corporation in which top executives earn hundreds of times the salaries of the lowest-paid worker. Depending on undocumented and poorly paid farm workers for labor is neither fair nor sustainable. To run well, an organic farm requires the creative participation of everyone who works on it. A farm that merits the organic label provides dignified and healthy work to farm owners, their families and hired farm workers, and trades fairly with customers, whether through direct sales or under contract with processors or retailers.

Farming according to these principles imposes natural limits on the size of organic farms. Sustainable management is site-specific; there is no recipe you can simply follow. Each farmer applies the principles according to the ecology of the farm and its neighborhood, the crop mix, the market, and the talents and resources of the farmer and the other people involved in the farm. Unlimited growth is like cancer: though a natural process, a destructive force. To be healthy, a farm must achieve a balance of tradition and change and development in the quality of life for the farmer and all the creatures above and within the soil upon whom the farm depends.

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