INSIDE ORGANIC: The Search Is Underway for the Missing Organic Farmer Voice (March 06)

  by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · MOSES Broadcaster · March-April 2006


A new nationwide search is underway for the missing political voice of America’s organic farmers.

The fact that an authentic organic farmer voice is usually missing when political decisions impacting organic food and farming are made is getting increasing attention in the organic community.  Organizations that support organic agriculture have been willing to try to speak for them in Washington and elsewhere.  But they would much prefer that organic farmers get organized, select representatives, and speak for themselves.

Recent serious discussion focuses on the possibility of establishing a national organic farmers organization.  But this is a daunting challenge for the 9,000 or so organic farmers that are certified, plus possibly that many more that are not certified.  These totals include many organic farmers in both categories who are not interested in politics, or in getting organized, and don’t want to have anything to do with government at any level.

The search for an organic farmer voice is gaining new attention at this time primarily because several 2007 farm bill proposals that may impact organic agriculture are being discussed.  New Congressional authorizations are needed for organic research and other organic programs carried out by federal agencies. The farm bill process also provides a legislative window for adoption of new organic initiatives.

Two organic farmer organization initiatives have been launched over the last few months.  The Organic Farmers Research Foundation (OFRF) has announced its Organic Farmers Action Alert Network and is soliciting members from a list of about 10,000 organic farmers.  It also is attempting to get buy-in from organizations, such as the Practical Farmers of Iowa, that include both certified and non-certified organic farmers in their membership.

It is unclear whether the network would represent OFRF in supporting its own research and other legislative initiatives or whether it would attempt to speak for organic farmers overall.  It also is unclear how organic farmer policy positions would be established and how organic farmer representation in Washington, which requires some presence on Capitol Hill and can be expensive, would be paid for.

The other initiative, launched by a task force supported by a committee of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, does not yet have a specific organizing proposal.  It was proposed by Tony Kleese, executive director of Carolina Farm Stewardship and former chair of the Organic Certifiers Council, and has led to a series of conference calls and other communications.  This initiative, still definitely a work in progress, is aimed at getting all organic farmers, certified and uncertified alike, to work together to develop a national organic farmers voice.

A discussion paper that Klees is circulating for comment calls for establishment of the North American Association of Grassroots Organic Organizations (NAAGOO).  Its stated goals include “speaking as one comprehensive voice in the federal and state organic agricultural policy areas.”

OFRF has particular legitimacy because its bylaws require more than half of its board members to be certified organic farmers.  Although Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) also has bylaws requiring a certified organic farmer majority on its board of directors, it has focused on information and education and has been cautious in regard to getting involved in national political activity.

Farmer dominated entities like Organic Valley and other organic farmer cooperatives and organic marketing associations like Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) also are potential leaders in providing a political voice for farmers.  Organic Valley and OFARM have not developed a joint political agenda or staked out any political turf.  But they are jointly sponsoring a farm bill session in LaCrosse the Wednesday night before the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association, made up of five state “NOFA” organizations, has recognized the need to participate in organic politics and is widely viewed as having provided an effective political voice for many years.  Elizabeth Henderson, organic farmer and regional CSA leader, is a strong and respected voice for organic farmers.  Her work dates back to 1989 when she was a leader in organizing the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC), the only national organic farmer organization that has been able to successfully impact organic farming policy.

OFAC was established at a national organic farmer assembly in Leavenworth, Kansas, that was organized to give organic farmers their own voice in the development of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act.  This legislation, proposed late in 1989 and strongly supported by the organic industry and a coalition of consumer, environmental, and other organizations, was seen as potential trouble by the organic farmer groups that participated.  This perceived threat, more than anything else, was what held this new organization together and enabled organic farmers to influence the outcome.

The organic farmer organizations that came together in OFAC lacked the financial resources needed to keep it going after the early 1990s.  These small organizations had enough problems staying financially afloat themselves.  Some foundation funding was obtained, but not enough to cover meeting costs or even to maintain a part-time staff.  However, even as it became clear it could not survive as a viable organization, its printed brochures still bravely billed it as “The National Voice of Organic Farmers.”

Many of the OFAC organizations and politically seasoned leaders were absorbed in 1992 in the newly-organized National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.  They provided leadership in establishing the Campaign’s Organic Committee and, beginning in 1997, a national steering committee to help coordinate national organic policymaking.

Further erosion of organic farmer political participation and influence came when the final OFPA rule prohibited organic farmers from serving on the boards of their own certification organizations.  Most of the successful U.S. certifiers had been organized by organic farmers and provided organic education and advocacy programs and attempted to influence national organic policy.  Kleese notes in his paper that many organic grassroots organizations dropped their certification programs as a result of the rule and are still struggling to redefine themselves.

“The role of these organizations as the collective voice of organic farmers in their communities has been fragmented and in many cases lost,” the Kleese paper states.  “Contributing to this loss of the collective voice has been the fear that organic would abandon its grassroots core values as the government and big agribusiness got involved . . . many of the original organic farmers and consumers who started the movement are walking away from it.”

This loss of an organic farmer political voice has impacted both grassroots organic organizations and larger certifiers as well.  The USDA organic rule has effectively neutered certifiers as an organic farmer voice and most, with a clear need to protect their USDA-granted accreditation, are giving organic politics a big miss.

So, what is the next step nationally?  There is some interest in a national summit of organic farmers and other stakeholders similar to the 1989 Leavenworth assembly that resulted in the launching of OFAC.  But many questions remain.  Who would decide who gets invited to a large national meeting and who would fund it?  Would it include all organic farmers, certified and non-certified alike, as well as the consumer and animal protection and other organizations that have supported organic farmers for many years?  How would consensus be reached on both policy and political strategy?

It seems unrealistic to suggest that organic farmers would attempt to move forward politically without participating in national political coalitions. It is well established that no organization is big enough or influential enough to get anything done in Washington without participating actively in coalitions.  The best and most obvious fit would be joining with the politically-savvy consumer organizations that consistently support organic farmers and organic integrity in the marketplace.

A more urgent question is what would be a good first step for Midwest organic farmers interested in developing an organic farmer political voice? One possible first step could be organizing a Midwest organic farmer caucus made up of a politically savvy core of experienced organic farmers in the region.  Its main purpose would be finding out what organic farmers in the region really want in terms of a political voice and what they are willing to do to support it financially and otherwise.

The Midwest has a sizeable number of organic leaders with national political experience who could provide caucus leadership.  Ron Rosman of Iowa is the past president of OFRF.  Jim Riddle of Minnesota is the past chair of the Organic Standards Board and Bill Welsh of Iowa and George Sieman are former NOSB members.  Chris Blanchard of Iowa is the past president of MOSES.  Carmen Fernholz is the vice president of OFARM and a long-time NFO leader.  Harriet Behar served on the OFAC board. And there are many others.

The opportunity to discuss various ways to develop a national organic farmer voice is provided by the meeting on Sunday, February 26, of the Organic Committee of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.  The first two hours of this open meeting at the Radisson Hotel in La Crosse have been set aside for input from Midwest organic farmers and others on the farmer voice issue.

It is important to remember that all this is not new. The question of who legitimately speaks for organic farmers was singled out as a hot and unresolved issue in 1993 in a small magazine called the “Organic Farmer.”  “Many of the pronouncements issued. . . are prefaced by the author saying, more or less, ‘I know lots of organic farmers and most of them agree with my position’,” the reporter wrote. “Too often, however, anyone who takes a viewpoint opposed to the speaker’s is accused of not really representing farmers.”  There was no consensus then about who speaks for organic farmers and now, 13 years later, there still is no consensus.  Surely we can find a way to do better.


by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the March/April 2006 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service