Letter from Langdon: Look Behind the Label

Now that small farmers have done the hard work of proving consumers will pay for organic crops and humanely raised meat, factory farms are stepping in to reap the rewards. It’s a story as old as farming itself. 

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Every story of agriculture begins with hard work and individual sacrifice. It’s always been that way. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were given a garden filled with food. But, maybe because they had not worked or sacrificed something of themselves, they didn’t really appreciate what they had.

Then a low-down snake in the grass got them kicked off the farm.

Family farmers have been trying to restore Eden to its original pristine state ever since. But there are always two kinds of people involved. First are those who build things like farmer-owned co-ops, or commodity groups, for promotion, research and new markets. They do this with donated time, labor and risk capital.

And then there’s the second kind – the folks who come along later to reap the rewards after success has been assured.

The exception to that rule for agriculture are farm groups with a strong history of activism and comprehensive written policies originating with the general membership itself.

That’s why written policies are good, because many times they end up as law. But sometimes, once laws go on the books, they can be changed to reflect political reality of the day. That happens when big money outsiders bearing shiny red apples step into the garden for their personal gain.

That’s happened many times in the past, and before long we find ourselves kicked back into the wilderness.

I’m not saying modern agriculture is bad. But the Devil’s always hiding somewhere in the details. That’s the way it is for organic food. At first big business ignored it. When it didn’t go away they said organic farming is impractical – ”you can’t feed the world like that.”

When that didn’t work, they tried to weaken the rules legislatively so big corporations could use more organic labels in their products without really trying.  

Then they started reaping profits from organic products, but, some say, without really adhering to the laws and regulations that are supposed to govern organic production.  They get away with it because government doesn’t enforce the rules, according to a legal complaint.

The basic principle of organic farming is clear and based on integrity. That’s the way most farmers view what they do. But integrity has to be backed up with a trust-but-verify philosophy.

If only Adam would have asked Eve where she got that apple, or the garden had required tree-of-origin labeling.

That’s why certification is an important part of growing organic crops and livestock, because they have to be real and verified throughout the production cycle. Obtaining certification can be a lengthy and expensive process, beginning with the very soil crops and livestock occupy.

That soil cannot be contaminated with unapproved pesticides or fertilizers, the rules say. Records must be kept to show that no unapproved inputs are used in production of organic crops and livestock. All organic products must be segregated in their own storage areas well away from non-organic crops, along with plenty of other rules dedicated to keeping the whole thing pure.

The key to maintaining integrity of organic crops is adhering to the principles, and verifying that adherence with certified organic inspectors.

One of the ways big business has tried to enter their own organic products into the market has been through liberalizing rules as they apply to organic food and weakening inspections. Another way is by sourcing organic foods from opaque foreign countries, like China, where it’s difficult to know anything at all about products called organic.

In the past, unfortunately, many food manufacturers and retailers have been more interested in applying the organic label to their products than actually delivering the reputable goods organic labels promote. And simply avoiding products from unreliable sources like China is made even more difficult for consumers thanks to labeling laws that big business has tried to keep to a minimum.

Government can encourage small farms or work against them. A few years back Missouri’s Department of Agriculture had its own organic certification department with a modest budget of just over $100,000 per year. Established by Governor Bob Holden’s administration, it promised to facilitate organic certification for small operations throughout the state. That’s when I paid the $100 fee to begin organic certification on 15 acres of our sixth-generation farm. After filing required paperwork, we were set for inspection and certification by spring. While the cost to the state of its fledgling program would have been borne by fees paid by organic growers, newly elected Governor Matt Blunt erased Missouri’s organic program in the days immediately following his inauguration.

Since then Missouri seems to have joined the ranks of states leaning more toward industrial agriculture models.

All this is not to say that organic products available in stores today aren’t what the label says they are, but to point out the problems small growers face in keeping big business at a distance while relying on them as a reliable buyer and merchandiser of the crops and livestock small farms produce. And while anyone, on any scale, should be able market organic products providing they follow the rules, one simple fact in the very spirit of organic food is its integrity and personal attention to detail that generally speaking, only a dependable farmer can deliver.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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