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Standing in the parking lot of a 205,000 square-foot salad processing plant in northern California, one warm fall day in 2003, I saw how far organic food had evolved. A chilled 16-wheeler had just arrived from the fields and a fork-lift was busy unloading the truck and stacking bins of freshly cut baby lettuce. Workers ushered the bins into a giant vacuum-cooling tube, taking the produce down to 38 degrees, and then into the refrigerated plant, where three mechanized lines with cascading water plumes washed, spun and then dropped the salad through a chute into plastic bags. They were among the 22 million servings of organic salad that Earthbound Farm, the third-largest organic food company, with more than $360 million in sales, dishes up weekly for sale around the country. Those who supplied this plant farmed big tracks of organic acreage, because this 24/7 farming model only works on a huge scale.
What had brought me here? I had been an organic consumer since the mid-1990s, driven more by a passion for good fresh food and a cooking Jones than by any deep concern about nutrition, pesticides, the environment or the plight of small farmers. But the more I bought, the deeper I wandered into this world, first seeking out quality produce at markets like Whole Foods, and then branching out to a local farmers' market where I met and befriended farmers. One couple, Jim and Moie Crawford, of New Morning Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, who have farmed organically for 30 years, began to provide my seasonal produce and helped bring the philosophy of organics into focus. With a background as a business journalist, questions naturally arose about what I was eating, where my food came from, and how organics had evolved from a scrappy back-to-the-land movement into a $14 billion industry. This led to the book project that became Organic, Inc. published by Harcourt this spring.
I not only wanted to explain the organic method to lay readers, who, like me, were only dimly aware of what it meant; I also wanted to find out what was behind the more recent conflicts that had arisen from the stunning success of organic food. So I went back to the early British pioneers, who in the 1920s articulated a post-industrial response to chemical farming, and then dove forward into the more recent growth of the movement since the 1970s. I focused on stories of people like the Crawfords, who were instrumental in bringing local foods to my city in Washington, D.C.; met Jim Cochran, one of the first strawberry farmers on the central coast of California to go organic, bucking two decades of intensive chemical use in the industry; visited with the founders of the biggest organic food companies, like Earthbound and White Wave, the maker of Silk soy milk; and began to look deeply at organic regulations, the battleground for many of the current conflicts.
One abiding question I had was, What drove farmers to try the method, the entrepreneurs to build a natural foods market, and consumers like me to buy the food?
What surprised me was how varied the impulses behind the movement were – no singular political, ideological, religious or agrarian idea defined it, though many intersected. It was a way to go back to the land, to help small farmers, to keep chemicals out of the food supply, to heal the environment, to create an alternative food system, to change the current food system, to go forward with agriculture, to go backward with agriculture, to live on a sustainable footprint, to change society at large, to pursue nutritious food, to create local food markets, to create mass market products. Idealism and opportunism both played a role.
One reason organic food succeeded was that it appealed to such a wide range of people, from fundamentalist Christians to vegetarian Buddhists, from rural right-wing libertarian farmers to left-wing liberals in San Francisco and New York. Like jazz improvisers, each had a unique take on the fundamental organic equation that linked soil, food and health.
Earthbound and its ilk, then, were just one strand in this cacophony. A lot of people have witnessed the rise of companies like them and summed up the progression of organic food as one of compromise, sell-out, and rise of the Organic Industrial Complex. Other organic idealists looked at the same picture and saw what they had sought all along – the triumph of organic food among mainstream consumers and the conversion of farmers to more environmentally sound organic practices.
What I saw was a paradox. Organic food was envisioned from the beginning as an alternative to conventional industrial agriculture, but the pioneers were so convinced of their vision that only growth could bring validation; growth that came from convincing more people to eat organic food and more farmers to switch to organic practices. (This was J.I. Rodale's mission in publishing). Ultimately, the success of organic food overwhelmed the ability of the small-scale model to feed it, which is why companies like Earthbound grew so dramatically once demand took off.
At the same time, after deriding organic food as the "lunatic fringe" and "the muck and mystery school" "incapable of feeding the world," the mainstream food industry woke up and saw a growth market expanding at 20 percent a year in a business that at best ekes out 2-3 percent gains. That is why the largest dairy company in the nation, $10.5-billion Dean Foods, bought Horizon and Silk, the two biggest organic brands. Organic food thus was embraced by the very food system it was supposed to replace. This identity crisis – and the meaning of organic foods as an "alternative" – has produced many of the conflicts today.
At the same time, there are also very real battles over organic regulations. Witness the recent certified organic feedlot dairies with 5,000 cows, which stretch the meaning of "access to pasture" laid down by regulations. But curiously, Big Food is not always the foe when it comes to organic regulations. Why kill the golden goose? It's not in a company's best economic interest to do so, especially with so many media savvy public-interest groups watching every move. That is why, for example, Horizon Organic supported a more strictly worded pasture standard and Earthbound lobbied against the rewriting of the organic law in Congress this fall. Integrity is what gives value to the organic brand and many, though not all, big companies, know it.
Although there is a worry that corporate organics will mean the death of the small farmer, I found the market wasn't a zero-sum game. Some in California were incensed about the way Earthbound built its business and said they could not compete in organic lettuce any longer. But these farmers weren't on 5-acre farms, but had 500 acre tracts. In organic salad mix, the market had bifurcated between big and small players, just as it has in the rest of agriculture. The toughest spot to be was in the middle, too big to depend on direct sales, but too small to make it in wholesale markets. At local farmers' markets, California farmers sold salad mix direct for about $4-5 a pound, undercutting Earthbound's bags in the stores by nearly half with a much fresher product.
Whole Foods Markets expanded rapidly in the Washington, D.C., region, with more stores here than in any other part of the country stocked full of California organic produce (and a growing local supply). But this growth brought more consumers into the fold, raising awareness; a number of them, like me, traded up to farmers' markets. Jim Crawford told me he has been able to sell as much as he has grows. Though he disliked Whole Foods, because of the troubles his co-op had in selling to the behemoth, he told me they had created new customers for his market. Demand was never an issue. In fact, demand often exceeds supply, leading to the type of shortages and higher prices now evident in organic milk. While a third of American consumers buy some organic food regularly, it still represents only 2 percent of all food sales, 1 percent if you include the money spent eating out. So there's still a lot of upside, whatever your ilk: CSA or Safeway.
The root strength that has sustained organics came from the raucous culture that built this movement and market, one in which consumers, farmers, entrepreneurs, environmental advocates, nutritionists, agrarians, certifiers and chefs all participated. They didn't always see eye to eye but that was the point. All came together and hammered out the meaning and method of organic food in a way that worked – and stayed true to the philosophical underpinnings. That should be recalled whenever an interest group comes up with a singular vision for organic food, for that path leads to weakness.
The biggest danger organics faces now is that these conflicts within this cantankerous coalition will lead to schism, so that organics loses the Democratic culture that has served it so well in the past. If that happens, if one interest group, or one line of thought, or one vision about what organics should be triumphs, then we will be left with a monoculture.
And wasn't that the enemy all along?
Copyright © Samuel Fromartz, 1994-2006 All rights reserved