Organic farmers struggle to keep their roots

Warren Weber's little piece of paradise is framed by soft-shouldered coastal mountains and bisected by a shady grove of eucalyptus trees.

Yet when he stood before his newly acquired piece of earth on the outskirts of this hippie hamlet in 1974 and told a state agricultural adviser he wanted to become an organic farmer, the answer was not encouraging. The adviser looked at the long-haired, former University of California-Berkeley doctoral student of Shakespeare and said, simply, that he couldn't help.

More than a quarter century later, organic farming is on the verge of going mainstream. The US government is about to issue its first ever set of governing regulations for the industry, and American consumer demand for organic foods is rising sharply.

Still, pioneers like Mr. Weber are not entirely sure whether a dream is coming true or turning sour.

Weber's story, like others, tracks American acceptance of something that was once a counterculture oddity: the notion that healthy food and a healthy earth were mutually dependent.

At the same time, it's a story of the costs of getting absorbed into the mainstream and, in the eyes of many, proof of the old adage "be careful what you wish for, because it may come true."

Organic farming was about more than just not using pesticides or harmful chemicals, say its early adherents. It opened a niche in agriculture for small family farms at a time when conventional farming was getting larger and ownership more remote. Organic farming also pushed food production back closer to home at a time when global distribution networks were expanding.

Today, both the "localness" and smaller scale that exemplified organic farming are under threat, say industry experts, partly because of its success.

While more than half the nation's organic farms still generate a modest $30,000 or less each year in sales, the size necessary to compete has steadily increased. That's because the industry has drawn the attention and investment of large conventional farm interests. And as they enter the market, they're squeezing smaller operators.

The prospect that small organic farms will decline just as their conventional counterparts did earlier "is a big concern," says Michael Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International in Pittsboro, N.C. "Organic farming is a small-farm success story, and we don't want to lose that," he adds.

That's why organic farmers and organizations like RAFI are looking closely at the new USDA standards, and fighting to make sure they're not disproportionately burdensome to small farmers.

The spread of farmers' markets across the country is one response to the increasing geographic separation of consumers from their food. But maintaining the local emphasis that was so important during the early days of organic farming is an uphill battle, say analysts.

"We live in a global economy, whether we like or not," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, an early supporter of US standards.

That organic farming is here to stay now seems beyond doubt. Just as environmentalism has moved from the political fringe to a centrist social value, organic agriculture is no longer a counterculture experiment.

During the past 20 years, organic-farming revenues have climbed from $70 million to nearly $7 billion annually, say experts in the field. And sales, according to the Data Monitor research firm, will double over the next four years. While organic foods still represent a tiny share of the overall food market, the sales volume is large enough to have attracted major agribusiness interests.

The growing popularity of organic foods in the US, as well as Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and the need for greater uniformity on what the term actually means have led to the push for USDA standards.

The USDA's first set of proposed standards in late 1997 set off a firestorm of disapproval because it allowed practices - such as use of genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and sewage in fertilizers - that many in the field saw as anathema.

Revised rules, which the USDA expects to finish next month and begin implementing through the rest of this year, have drawn a far more favorable response from the organic-farming industry. Ultimately, organic food will carry labels ensuring that USDA standards have been met.

Right now, a patchwork of state and private certification programs define what constitutes "organic." The system worked when the industry was small and the actors few.

"Everything today is about standardization," says Weber, whose thin frame and oval sunglasses still better fit the image of a Shakespearean scholar than a hands-on farmer. "And that's what's happening with organic farming," he says with an air of resignation.

Weber grows salad greens on his 100-acre plot here and on another 100-acre farm in southern California. He was one of the first to provide the organic salad mixes now a staple in many homes and upscale restaurants.

To restore some of what he thinks is being lost, he has begun conversations with his county about ways to encourage a greater connection between local organic farmers and their community. The idea is to restore the link between local farmers and local consumers that used to be so strong, says Weber.

Organic farmers, like many social innovators of the 1970s, are suspicious of their modern acceptance, particularly when it involves big business and the federal government.

"There is certainly a strong sense that we've been co-opted," says Brian Leahy of the California Certified Organic Farmers.

But whatever innocence or idealism has been lost, there have been gains, too. Adds Mr. Leahy: "Every acre not sprayed with phosphates is a cause for celebration."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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