Farming Purists Look ‘Beyond Organic’

Print More

Farmers market in Des Moines

Wheatsfield, a natural food coop in Ames, Iowa, is buying more local produce such as Onion Creek Farm's heirloom tomatoes to meet a rising demand. However, Wheatsfield still prioritizes certified organic farmers, paying up to 20% more for their produce. - Photo by Donna Schill

For nearly a decade, the word organic has stood for all that is wholesome and pure to the health-conscious consumer.But an emerging movement of farmers who consider themselves the real organic purists are saying their methods go “beyond organic.” Although still in its infancy, adherents to beyond organic methods are enlivening the debate about the effectiveness of the government certified organic program.

And now, a new report by a presidential advisory group has raised alarms about some of the same environmental issues that devoted organic farmers worry about, and it urges people to eat organic food to minimize health risks.

The report, released in May by the President’s Cancer Panel, warned that federal regulators have greatly underestimated the risk of environmental cancer caused by pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics.The Cancer Panel cannot be lightly dismissed. It is created by federal law and comprised of members appointed by the president. It reports to him on progress and problems in implementing the country’s national cancer program, according to the National Cancer Institute’s website.

The May report, in a challenge to arguments saying there’s no proof that certain chemicals cause cancer, faults the government for loose regulation of the 80,000 chemicals in use that have largely gone unstudied and unregulated.

The report was co-authored by Dr. Lasalle Lefall Jr., a surgeon and oncologist, and by Dr. Margaret Kripke, professor of immunology for University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Both have devoted much of their careers to cancer research.

With health descriptors like poison-free, free-range, cage-free, grass-fed, Certified Naturally Grown, and now, ‘beyond organic’ used in natural food stores and farmers markets, the days are gone when people could grocery shop without being asked to make technical and even philosophical decisions.

A subculture evolved

The organic movement, which was once a subculture in the United States, has been transfigured into an industry with growing popularity. The government created a federal standard so that all farmers claiming organic practices had to prove their validity. The standards were implemented in 2002, and the national program now oversees nearly 100 domestic and international certification agencies that inspect livestock, produce and processing operations to determine whether they meet standards.

From 2000 to 2009, organic food sales rose from 1.2 percent to 3.7 percent of U.S. food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. More significantly, organic fruits and vegetables total 11.4 percent of fruits and vegetables produced and sold in the United States.

But in recent years, questions emerged about whether the term organic became less meaningful as it became an industry with federal standards. Michael Pollan, a journalism professor and director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, studied that issue in his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Pollan has written about nature and culture for 25 years. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, along with three more of his books, made the New York Times’ best seller list.

Concerns that government and industry standards have declined arise from efforts to loosen them. The National Organic Program and advisory board constantly refer to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 while forming regulations, a uniform set of rules consistent with the practices of the most devout organic growers. But when it came time to launch the program, the USDA altered the rules to allow human waste for manure, irradiation and genetically modified seed. The public protested, and the standards were changed. Yet distrust of USDA certification has resurfaced as the industry grows, becoming more susceptible to profit motives.

Big business absorbs organic brands

Moreover, mainstream food companies, eager to enter a market where products sell for a premium, started acquiring organic food brands. Kellogg, for example, owns Kashi Company, which brands itself as “passionate about good all-natural food,” and Boca Foods Company, with its meatless fare, is owned by Kraft, facts not readily available on the website of either company.

In order to meet the growing demand for organic, the industry has begun in some ways to mirror conventional food production. Synthetic chemicals approved by the organic program are widely used in certified food processing and many organic animals are raised in confinements eerily similar to conventional facilities.

A sign at Yoder's Natural Farm in Bloomfield, Iowa. - Photo by Donna Schill

The Organic Trade Association, representing many companies in the organic industry, has pushed to allow these practices. In 2006, it helped to pass a controversial amendment to the Organic Foods Production Act allowing the use of synthetics in organics and loosening restrictions on organic feed for dairy cows. With strong objection from the Organic Consumer Association, this amendment represented a growing rift in the organic community.

Aurora Organic Dairy, a member of the Organic Trade Association, is one of the largest organic dairies in the country, marketing its products as small-scale and pasture-raised. In 2007, the USDA investigated Aurora’s large confinements, finding 14 “willful violations” of standards, such as using nonorganic cows to produce organic milk.  Aurora never lost certification, but instead agreed to come into compliance.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, reopened a lawsuit in September that had been filed by a group of dairy consumers against Aurora for allegedly engaging in deceptive marketing.   The organic program wrote an access-to-pasture rule with specific grazing requirements, to go into full effect in June of 2011, but how it will be enforced is yet to be seen.

Organic purists find model farm.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes this type of production as ‘industrial organic,’ a type of large-scale farming driven by profit that conflicts with the purist’s definition of organic. Pollan juxtaposes ‘industrial organic’ with ‘beyond organic,’ a term he learned from Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farm in Swoope,Va. Salatin sold pasture-raised beef and chicken within 50 miles of his farm and had chosen not to become certified organic. Pollan visited and reported on the humanely-treated animals, a beautiful farm, and customers who kept coming back for more.

Clearly, Salatin chose a term that resonated with other farmers, for many have co-opted the term ‘beyond organic’ for themselves. However, beyond organic’s meaning can vary. Beyond organic farmers vary in their methods—although many overlap—but they share a common sentiment that organic certification does not cover all issues of production on a farm.

They say they go beyond certification by either employing biodynamic practices that focus on biodiversity and minimizing off-farm inputs, using bio-intensive practices where farmers learn to naturally increase yield on small acreage or by using several other practices [see chart].

There are many passionate certified organic farmers who incorporate these methods as well, but because they’re not required for certification, a wider range of practices is seen across the organic industry.

Farming variety beyond organic’s yield

‘Beyond organic’ farmers go to farmers markets throughout the state as do certified organic and conventional growers. The USDA reports that about 4,000 new small farms were established in Iowa between 2002 and 2007, suggesting a rise in locally-produced food. Instead of corn and soybeans, these farmers reported growing apples, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Most of the produce was sold directly to the surrounding community.

Organic farmer Doug Webster gives a tour of Rolling Prairie Acres in Sigourney, Iowa. - Photo by Donna Schill

Tanya and Doug Webster, a couple in Sigourney, Iowa, used a family inheritance to transform a hillside into their farm, Rolling Prairie Acres. They consider their work ‘beyond organic,’ priding themselves on a variety of heirloom vegetables and fruits, laying hens, goats, pigs, and even their own bees.

“You can raise one hybrid tomato organically on all of your acres but there’s no diversity,” Doug said, surveying two of his four young children tending their own garden plots on a July morning.

Fanning herself with a sunhat, Tanya thought about what their little hillside has created.

“We’ve been blessed with all this genetic diversity and far be it from us to throw it away,” she said. “Variety is the spice of life, and the more spice we can offer the better, the better, the better.”

The Websters, like so many farmers in Iowa, sell their produce locally and are not interested in becoming certified organic. Out of more than 20,000 farms claiming to be organic nationwide in the 2007 USDA Organic Production Survey, nearly 6,000 were not certified, according to a follow-up survey in 2008.

“I’d rather be reading my baby a bedtime story than doing some ridiculous paperwork,” said Tanya.

It’s this very sentiment that exasperates farmers like Andrew and Melissa Dunham of Grinnell Heritage Farm. The Dunhams grow 10 acres of certified organic vegetables, proving there’s no such thing as too small to certify.

“I think most of the people who say that organic doesn’t mean anything or that it’s too much work have never even tried it,” Andrew said. “It’s a cop out.”

Some hope that as the USDA refines its standards, ‘industrial’ and ‘beyond’ will meet somewhere in the middle. But if these grassroots farmers’ stubbornness is any indicator of what’s to come, expect to see both sides represented at next year’s market.

(Donna Schill has been working with ‘beyond organic’ farmers since June gathering footage and research for her masters project at University of Iowa’s School of Journalism.  Keep reading to find out if ‘beyond organic’ will survive another season.)

Going Beyond Organic

The life and ways of beyond organic farmers may sound agriculturally puritanic. But on farms, beyond organic methods can be more stringent than government certification requirements. Some of the ways farmers feel they go beyond certification are by:

  • Employing biodynamic practices, where the focus is on biodiversity and minimizing dependency on off-farm inputs;
  • Using biointensive practices, where farmers learn to naturally increase yield on a small acreage;
  • Relying less on fossil fuels. Part of the organic philosophy is to leave the land in better shape than it was before. Since pesticides are made from fossil fuels, certified organic already reduces its carbon footprint by not using them. ‘Beyond organic’ farmers tend to have more local suppliers and customers and use less tractor power;
  • Raising animals in pastures or being animal welfare approved;
  • Using a refractometer to measure nutrients, an instrument that measures the dissolved solids in a food item, believed by some to be the best indicator of quality;
  • Selling food within 50 miles of the farm. ‘Beyond organic’ farmers feel that food should be grown on small farms close to where it’s consumed, conserving energy and picked at peak of ripeness;
  • Treating farm workers fairly. Some ‘beyond organic’ farmers feel that the lack of provision for social justice is another flaw in the USDA standards;
  • Encouraging wildlife on the farm, simultaneously restoring natural habitats while growing food.

Sources: Interviews with beyond organic farmers; Demeter-USA; Ecology Action of Willitis,CA; Animal Welfare Approved, Alexandria,VA.