Presentation at the Upper Midwest Organic Conference – Organic Farmers and the Feds: Can This Relationship Be Saved? 1993

Roger Blobaum, Upper Midwest Organic Conference, Sparta, Wisconsin, March 6, 1993

The title I have selected for this talk, “Organic Farmers and the Feds:  Can This Relationship Be Saved?”, describes in many ways the difficult political situation we face with organic agriculture today.

Getting the feds and organic farmers together in 1990 wasn’t easy.  It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. It had many of the characteristics of a shotgun wedding and when it was over, there was no honeymoon.  Although these two have tried to work things out, they have been on the verge of a breakup ever since.

I remember testifying for the organic standards bill and telling the Senate Agriculture Committee that “we don’t want the U.S. Department of Agriculture any more involved in organic agriculture than what is absolutely necessary.” That was the position taken by the newly-organized Organic Farmers Association Council and almost every other organization that supported the legislation.

I was testifying on behalf of a national consumer group that was advocating, and mobilizing public support for, policies that would 1) help farmers move away from chemicals and adopt organic methods, and 2) help build consumer demand for organic food. We had made the Organic Foods Production Act a high priority and had just completed a national petition drive. I presented petitions that day that contained more than 136,000 signatures gathered at health food stores, food co-ops, and other places where organic food is sold.

I don’t think farmers fully realize the change in political climate that is the result of the strong desire on the part of consumers, environmentalists, animal welfare advocates, and others to change the way our food is grown.  They put a high priority on any kind of change that will cut chemical use.

Their organizations wield increasing influence over agricultural policymaking.  The significance of this is described in a quote from a National Council of State Legislatures report:

“Agriculture is no longer the dominant interest group influencing farm policy . . . its representatives now must vie with more powerful constituencies of consumers, environmentalists, urban interests, and others for control over what traditionally has been agriculture policymaking.  In short, agricultural policy is being transformed to incorporate additional goals of resource conservation, environmental and health protection, and sustenance of family farms and rural communities as explicit objectives.

This new constituency joined up with new organic farmer and organic food industry representatives late in 1989 and pushed the organic legislation down the throats of both the House Agriculture Committee and USDA.  Both had fought hard to weaken or defeat it.

I can’t tell you how good it felt to see the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and his cronies, rolled on the floor of the House by more than 50 votes in an historic roll call.  It was their only defeat in more than a week of debate on the 1990 farm bill and was especially embarrassing because it came, of all things, on an organic amendment.  This vote is seen in Washington as an indicator of the potential clout of a new and growing coalition that will influence farm policymaking in the future.

It is difficult to hold a coalition together after a bill is passed and to keep applying the political pressure needed to have it fully implemented and funded. We have that problem now with the Organic Food Act.

The Organic Food Act Working Group, which started working on the legislation in 1989 and provided much of the political clout needed to push it through Congress, has lost its edge.  I want to take a moment to call the roll of these groups.  You may not recognize all of them.  But I can assure you, based on first hand experience, that they are friends of yours and of organic farmers everywhere.  They know the legislative process, they know the political personalities, and they know how to fire up the grass roots.

The names on this organic honor roll include Consumers Union, Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, National Audubon Society, Consumer Federation of America, Institute for Alternative Agriculture, Bread for the World, Public Citizen, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Farmworker Justice Fund, Center for Resource Economics, National Coalition Against the Mis-Use of Pesticides, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and the National Cooperative Business Association.

One of the important byproducts of the fight over organic standards is much increased awareness and understanding of sustainable agriculture issues by groups of this kind.  They developed this expertise while educating members of Congress about organic farming and while heading off USDA’s attempt to derail the legislation.

Several of these organizations compromised on issues that were important to them and walked the extra mile to get the Organic Food Act passed.  We can count on them again in 1995 when this legislation comes up for reauthorization and there is an opportunity to deal with some of the flaws that have showed up.

There has been some dissatisfaction with the progress being made by the National Organic Standards Board, which was appointed by an Administration that was unenthusiastic about organic agriculture. The apppointments came a year late and the funding needed to support the board’s work has been denied by the appropriations committees of Congress.

Organic farmers are concerned, and rightly so, about the fees that will be imposed to pay for USDA’s accreditation activities.  Small organic farmers, in particular, feel vulnerable and apprehensive about what may eventually be required.

All of us were dismayed by the compromises that had to be made when the organic legislation was passed. The organic research title was scuttled, the organic promotion program was dropped, and the proposed transition label pilot projects were cut out.  I won’t get into all the specifics about these problems now because a panel on organic standards and federal policy is scheduled later today. It will provide an opportunity to ask questions about the implementation problems we are wrestling with now.

Another source of apprehension and disappointment is the way agriculture policy is being ignored now in Washington.  Bill Clinton did not talk about agriculture’s problems, or even mention sustainable agriculture, during the campaign.  It did not receive any attention during his Economic Summit in Little Rock and it wasn’t mentioned in his State of the Union address.

He appointed a Secretary of Agriculture who voted against the Organic Food Act, showed no interest in the sustainable agriculture initiatives put into the 1990 farm bill, and has done nothing since to help get them implemented and funded.  One of his proposed solutions to the recent Jack-in-the-Box hamburger episode in Washington State is to irradiate meat to make it safe to eat.

Mike Espy is the only USDA appointment so far, another indication of how this new administration views agriculture. Organic advocates who visited USDA this past week reported that they could not find anyone in a responsible political position to make appointments with.  Bob Bergland, the agriculture secretary who opened USDA up to organic farmers in the late 1970s, reported this week that half the offices in USDA are locked because the Bush people have left and the other half are open and being run by Bush holdovers.  There also are reports of rows and rows of carts full of unopened mail.

It is time for us to rally the troops, to fire up the grassroots, and to bring organic farmers, the organic food industry, and the consumer, environmental, and other pro-organic groups back together to deal with this.

Our shared interests extend well beyond setting organic standards.  We were forced during the debate on organic standards to focus on the marketing of organic food and a response to growing consumer demand.  That alone will not take us to where we need to go.

We need to step up our effort to press the traditional, and more powerful, arguments for organic agriculture:  environmental protection, enhanced soil health and fertility, safer and better tasting food, protection of farmworkers, humane treatment of livestock, resource conservation, rebuilding rural communities, and telling the truth about the real costs of chemical farming.

The broad coalition we put together in 1989 will be restored and revitalized if we do this.  We must see ourselves as the advance party of an ever-expanding movement that potentially is extremely attractive to the general public.  Our shared vision must be the transformation of agriculture and the development of an Earth-friendly food production system totally in harmony with nature and one that meets the challenge of sustainability.

As you may know, the National Academy of Sciences is expected to release a landmark report in a few weeks on the adverse impact on children of pesticide residues in food. The chemical companies and others are gearing up to discredit this report because they expect it to be a bombshell.

The response from the consumer side is being coordinated by Mothers and Others, a coalition that includes many consumer and environmental organizations and groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility.  I attended a strategy session of this group last week and was pleased by what I heard.  This group is telling the large environmental organizations that have worked hard on this issue:  Don’t react by insisting on more regulation of farmers. Support the sustainable agriculture initiatives in the 1990 farm bill instead and do everything possible to publicize alternative agriculture and organic farmers.

Many of us have been urging environmental groups to be positive and work for incentives that help farmers convert to non-chemical methods, remove barriers to adoption of these methods, and reverse policies that penalize farmers who adopt environmentally sound practices.  I believe progress is being made.

Most of you are probably aware that the Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups in the Midwest and elsewhere have started a process that will develop new proposals on sustainable agriculture for the 1995 farm bill.  It began with grassroots workshops all across the country in January and February.  Those in Wisconsin were held in Durand, Mount Horeb, and Milwaukee and were co-sponsored by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and the Wisconsin Rural Development Center.  A long list of proposals was developed out of the Wisconsin meetings.

One theme that was consistent was dissatisfaction with Washington in general and USDA in particular.  One proposal, for example, called for tying the salaries of USDA employees to the parity index.  Another called for a whole-herd buyout of USDA bureaucrats.

Last weekend representatives of all the SAWGs plus a long list of representatives of consumer, environmental, animal welfare, and similar groups met for two days in Washington to discuss these new approaches and set up national study committees.  Academics recruited to do data gathering and policy analysis also were there.  The meeting was filled with enthusiasm and electricity as the many groups searched for common ground necessary for coalition building and committed themselves to this effort.

Fred Kirschenmann told me afterwards that he believes this meeting will be seen eventually as an historic turning point and one of the most significant agricultural events ever held.  I have to agree because I believe the coalition route is the only way we will ever get agriculture turned around.

To give you a better feel of what this process is all about, let me touch on a few of the proposals that were identified and discussed:

—Legislate a set-aside for commodity checkoffs that would take assessment dollars provided by organic and sustainable farmers and give them to organizations and institutions doing research that responds to the needs of organic and sustainable farmers.

—Take farm program money now used to idle cropland and use it instead to reward farmers who rotate crops, adopt rotational grazing, and use other methods that reduce or eliminate chemical use.  This would provide supply management and encourage environmentally sound farming at the same time.

—Deal with lack of responsiveness of the Agricultural Research Service, land grant universities, and others to the needs of farmers in transition by giving farmers vouchers that they can assign to organizations and institutions that do the kind of research organic and sustainable farmers need.

—Provide cost-sharing assistance to organic farmers to help pay the cost of certification. This would go to farmers who have a farm plan approved by an accredited certifier.

Every time there’s a farm bill, the Washington think tanks supported by foundations and agribusiness turn out slick reports that call for retaining the status quo.  This sets the agenda for farm bill hearings and debate.  Sustainable agriculture advocates have come into the process late with little research and analysis and, as a result, have operated at a great disadvantage.

The new process now underway, with its emphasis on input from the grassroots and our own data gathering and analysis, will enable us to help set the agenda and counter the forces that oppose change.

I was involved in the Earth Summit process much of last year at the United Nations in New York and later in Rio as a member of an international sustainable agriculture task group.  More than 300 members of organic and sustainable agriculture organizations from around the world succeeded in getting sustainable agriculture commitments written into Agenda 21, the Earth Summit’s plan of action.  I was inspired by the almost unanimous agreement in the task force on the principles of sustainability and on what needs to be done to transform agriculture around the world.

I want to share one important thing I learned with all of you.  Organic and sustainable agriculture advocates from other nations, and especially from developing countries, emphasized that it will be nearly impossible to reverse agriculture policies in their countries until the transition to sustainable agriculture takes place in the United States.  Their governments, they reported, see American agriculture as the model and reform is not seen as a viable alternative.  So what you are doing, whether you realize it or not, has international implications.

I hope you realize that what you are doing on your farms, against all kinds of odds, is vital to the future of our country and to the Earth itself.

I have always believed that for every problem we identify, there is a solution out there somewhere that needs to be found and replicated and nurtured by public support and public policy. Organic farmers provide the solution to agriculture’s problems. You are the vanguard of the future with your models of farming developed at the grassroots.

I want to conclude with a tribute to you and your efforts from Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry:

“Organic farmers are connected by a sort of network that one travels by hearsay and friendship.  By now I have encountered a good many of them, and have been impressed as often by the excellence of their character as by the excellence of their farms.

“They are people of principle, both stubborn and adventurous, independent enough to trust their own experience and strong enough to hold in considerable isolation to truths not officially or popularly favored.  Their farms stand for their principles and prove them; one has only to notice their example, or their examples, to understand that conventional agriculture has founded its scientific proofs upon shallow assumptions.”

On behalf of all of us who admire and applaud you, I hope you realize that the methods you practice set the standard for the kind of agriculture we need and eventually must have.  We offer you our encouragement, our respect, our continued support, and our thanks for all that you do.