ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Gretta's Film on Flooded Organic Farms

Here's the short film of the flooded Midwest farmers by Madison filmmakers Gretta Wing Miller and Aarick Beher, who talked to some of those mentioned in the  post I wrote on the floods.

Gretta informs she explored the organic farms previously in a full-length documentary called "Back to the Land...Again," released in 2006. I haven't seen the doc but it's touring with the intriguingly named Rural Route Film Festival.

And now, without further delay, the short:


Farmers, Flooding and Whole Foods' Mea Culpa

By Samuel Fromartz

You probably saw the pictures of flooded farms, overflowing rivers, and the rain that swamped the Upper Midwest last month.

What you might not know is that organic vegetable farmers in the region had severe losses. I knew one of them, Jack Hedin, who owns Featherstone Farm, in southeastern Minnesota.

His farm is nestled in the Wiscoy Valley, beside a tiny stream called Money Creek, literally ground zero for the storm. When it rained, and kept on raining (a total of 26 inches), the creek overflowed, swamped fields, flooded a packing shed and cooler and washed out roads. A levee in the nearby town of Rushford gave way and the town was devastated.

Reached on his cell in a field, Jack told me he lost $200,000 worth of crops – and not just in his fields. (The image at left shows a flooded corn field at Featherstone).

The day the rain began to fall, his crew had picked 10 pallets of cantaloupes and put them in a cooler. But the power went out overnight during the storm and by the time he rigged up a generator the next day, the melons were rotten.

In nearby Wisconsin, Richard de Wilde of Harmony Valley Farm, told me his organic vegetable losses reached $750,000, or about two-thirds of his annual produce revenue.

Featherstone and Harmony Valley are relatively large organic produce farms in the upper Midwest, selling to co-op and Whole Foods stores as well as through their CSAs. (The image below shows washed out top soil at Harmony Valley Farm). The region is home to one of the highest concentration of organic farms in the nation.


They weren't alone with losses, just the biggest. Two others, Avalanche Organics and Driftless Organics, were also hit. You can see a short video of the farmers by Madison filmmaker Gretta Wing Miller here.

The floods came at a particularly devastating moment, for the end of August marks the height of production. Before then, farms are running up expenses. But around the first week of September, the harvest comes in and so does the cash.

Hedin had drawn down $89,000 on a working credit line and was planning on repaying it with the fall harvest. He pared expenses, cutting his crew to 11 workers from 19.

While many of Hedin's fields were under water, a number on dry, higher ground had made it through without damage. He figured he had about $90,000 in crops remaining, but they had to be picked if he was going to make that money.

Retailers Respond

In the days after the storm, co-op supermarkets called up and started buying. Some took mark-ups of only a few cents per item, emphasizing that the produce was coming from badly hit farms. A non-profit called Sow the Seeds Fund, spearheaded by the co-ops and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, also started a fund-raising drive to raise money for the farmers.

Whole Foods, a big customer for these farms, initially took a different tack, placing a moratorium on purchases because of concerns about food safety.

Bobby Turner, Whole Foods VP of purchasing in the Midwest, told me he first looked into the issue after a store customer sent an email asking if the produce was safe. He talked with another central produce manager as well as USDA officials. Based on these talks, the company decided to ban all produce from the flooded counties until the farms carried out what's known as a USDA GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) audit of their fields, at Whole Foods' expense.

The fear was that stream water containing potentially toxic e. coli (from nearby dairy farms) and banned pesticides would have flooded the fields, contaminating the produce.

It was around this time I got a critical email from a farmer outside the region (yes, farmers talk to each other) describing Whole Foods as a "fair weather friend." Jim Slama, an organic and local food advocate in Chicago, with the non-profit, Sustain, told me he heard similar complaints and began working the phones with contacts at Whole Foods.

The farmers were cognizant of food safety concerns, but they argued their fields on higher ground had not flooded, so a need for a total purchasing ban was overblown.

De Wilde actually tested his fields for pathogens and got two positive hits for e. coli contamination, but it was only on rotted crops in flooded areas next to a stream.

All his other fields and crops tested negative.

Turner soon flew out from Chicago to visit the farms, walking the fields and learning the extent of the damage. He realized the moratorium had been enacted too quickly. Within a day, Whole Foods reversed itself and was buying again.

"We could have been more compassionate, and more communicative," he said.

Writing Checks

De Wilde said his 875 CSA customers who get a box of produce a week will absorb about one-third of his $750,000 loss, in the form of smaller boxes.  (This demonstrates the viability of the CSA system, in which the customer shares the farmers' risk by paying up front for a full season's worth of goods. They get the bounty, or shortfall.) His CSA customers remain fiercely loyal, in fact, they've gone beyond loyal, and have raised $25,000 for the farm.

He, alone among the farmers, also had crop insurance but it only covered $100,000 in losses.

Local co-ops in the Twin Cities are also seeing a rush of donations to help the farmers. Barth Anderson of the Wedge Co-Op in Minneapolis told me the store had raised about $10,000. One customer even wrote an $800 check at the cash register.

Whole Foods is donating $25,000 to Sow the Seeds and will match another $10,000 donated by customers at the cash register.

"Whole Foods is back to buying everything we have, there's no arguing about price, and they're telling us, 'We want to be aware of any surplus product you have,'" Hedin recounted.

Silver Lining?

The crisis may have a silver lining, since the farmers and Whole Foods are discussing three issues that are central to ensuring a sustainable supply of local food:

  • Long-term commitments. Farmers have been planting crops based on verbal pledges from Whole Foods. Turner admitted, "that doesn't work if the manager leaves and we don't know what was agreed upon." Now they plan on sealing contracts discussed in the winter, with some built-in flexibility on both sides.
  • Pricing. Local farmers will never match California producers on price, because the growing season is much shorter and more variable, labor is more costly and farms are smaller. Whole Foods and the farmers need to agree on prices that work for both sides and are appropriate for the particular farm.
  • Quality Standards. If Whole Foods wants to get the best local produce, it may need to consider a wider range of standards, rather than grading to a blemish-free standard on items such as heirloom tomatoes.

Turner said the company is cognizant of these issues and committed to sourcing from these farmers. He said the company has appointed a manager in charge of local foods, who ironically began work just as the storm hit.

The bigger question is whether these farms will be in business the coming year. De Wilde thinks he can squeeze through the crisis and Hedin is also optimistic, but he's not sure how he'll handle his debt. I've heard other farms are struggling but no one has dropped out of the race.

Through all of this, one thing is certain: good partners - and fanatical customers - are key.

Image credits: Featherstone Farm, Harmony Valley Farm via the Wedge co-op.

© Chews Wise 2007

Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

By Samuel Fromartz

Organic food is often portrayed by its critics as a low-yielding farming method that undercuts the main goal of food production – feeding the world.

These critics also argue that if organic farming were to grow much beyond its tiny elitist niche, forests would have to be plowed under because a much greater land mass would be needed to make up for far lower crop yields.

Pretty sad picture isn't it? Organic farming is portrayed as an inferior agricultural method that ends up raping and pillaging the natural world.

The only problem with this argument is that it doesn't square with the facts. (Nor with the actual picture if you check out the organic wheat field pictured above that was part of a USDA trial).

Although many studies have countered these arguments, three recent ones deserve notice.

First, researchers at the University of Michigan recently published a new study in the Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems that evaluated 293 studies comparing conventional and organic farming.

They found that in the developed world, such as the US, Europe and Japan, organic farming methods yielded slightly less than conventional methods.

But importantly, in the developing world, where food-scarcity is most pronounced, organic methods were actually two- to three-times as productive as conventional agriculture.

Farmers in poorer nations often could not afford the chemicals and fertilizers that are required by high-yielding seed varieties. By farming organically, they could enhance soil fertility by composting waste sources on their farms.

The researchers write that organic farming could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.

"My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture," said Ivette Perfecto, a professor at University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a principle on the study.

She added that the idea people would go hungry if farming went organic was "ridiculous." (You can listen to a brief interview with the researcher).

Another report out of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Iowa is also significant, for it demonstrates the long-term yield potential of organic methods.

The now nine-year-old trials "convincingly show greater yield, increased profitability, and steadily improved soil quality in organic over conventional rotations," the Leopold Center stated.

The longest running rotation of corn, followed by soybeans, oats with alfalfa, and then another crop of alfalfa, produced 188 bushels per acre of organic corn in 2006. The traditional corn-soybean rotation on conventional fields yielded 177 bushels/acre – a 6 percent deficit from the organic fields.

In soybeans, the organic fields produced 45 bushels per acre in this long rotation, compared with 43 bushels on conventional plots.

Over eight years of data, here's the average corn yield in the various methods:

  • Conventional corn, soybeans rotation, 160 bushels per acre of corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats mixed with alfalfa rotation, 150-1/4 bushels/acre corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats mixed with alfalfa, alfalfa rotation, 160-1/4 bushels/acre corn

Those include the first three years of the organic transition. If you back those years out, and only look at the organic fields post-transition you get these average yields:

  • Conventional corn, soybeans rotation, 173.2 bushels per acre corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats with alfalfa rotation, 162 bushels/acre corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats with alfalfa, alfalfa rotation, 176 bushels/acre corn

The study shows that well-managed organic crop rotations, which are key to organic farming practices, actually lead to slightly higher yields than conventional chemical methods and rotations. And in the current ethanol-infused corn boom, farmers are forgoing the traditional corn-soybean rotation and growing continuous corn on corn, which requires a greater amount of chemical fertilizers to keep the yield up.

Finally, organic farming gets criticized for its tillage practices, which critics say leads to soil erosion and leaches nitrates into groundwater. These critics say conventional "no-till" farm methods, associated with genetically modified crops and heavy doses of herbicides, are superior.

But again, the facts point to a different conclusion. USDA researchers report that organic farming methods actually produced healthier soils than no-till conventional methods.

In a nine-year study at the Henry A. Wallace Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, USDA researchers found that the addition of organic matter in manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.

In a final three-year study, corn was grown with no-till practices on all plots to see which ones had the most productive soils. The organic plots had more carbon and nitrogen and yielded 18 percent more corn.

Needless to say, critics won't be convinced by this evidence. But then neither do those who continually assert, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that global warming doesn't exist.

We know better.

Where Does Your Food Come From?

The supermarket, of course. The BBC reports:

The Linking Environment and Farming organization found 22% of 1,073 adults questioned did not know bacon and sausages originate from farms.

Some 47% of people did not know farms produced porridge's main ingredient.

I guess we have quite a ways to go in bringing awareness of food and farming into the mainstream, though this survey was surprising to me. Forget about the debate of local and organic, people don't even know food comes from farms. (Via Gristmill).

Eulogy for an "Organic" Mega-Dairy

The suspension of a mega-organic dairy in California continues to generate attention, with the most recent from a neighbor who had the foresight to take video of the operation and post it on her blog, Rebuild from Depression. She also has a very insightful post about the operation that I recommend others to read.

What this work shows is that producers and consumers are very interested in transparency and, with the use of the Internet, will out those producers who are skirting the regulations. This is what transparency is all about and what underpins organic and sustainable foods.

Without further adieu, on to the video eulogy. (Note on video: It views better if you download the whole thing before playing unless you have a fast connection). 

Questions Linger on Sour Organic Milk

Carol Ness in the SF Chronicle has a good follow-up to our breaking story yesterday about the Vander Eyk dairy being stripped of organic certification in California. This is a very significant enforcement action in the organic world, though it begs a few questions.

  • Why did QAI certify the confinement dairy in the first place? Did it ever meet the organic regulation?
  • Will this signal a trend or aberration?
  • Will this mega-farm be able to get recertified?

If confinement dairy practices aren't corrected, then the next phase will be to design an additional label for organic milk that truly reflects organic practices such as pasturing - a prospect that is now being floated. That would be a shame and a cause of additional consumer confusion but that will happen if the USDA's National Organic Program does not move forward with a pasture rule that would outlaw these kind of operations.

Bananas with a Face

Dole Organic began putting a little sticker on its bananas earlier this year, allowing consumers to see where the fruit was grown. I blogged on this months ago. Now they've taken the program further, allowing for interaction with the farm. Dole has posted an email one customer wrote and then an amazing number of responses from workers on the banana plantation in La Guajira, Colombia.

Photos: Dole Organic

Among a few choice quotes:

"I evaluate the agronomical practices at the banana fields. Your letter made me feel that my work is appreciated. Thank you very much!" - Dulcinis Atencio

"You said you will keep us in your mind every time you eat an organic banana, we promise to keep you in mind every time we pack your bananas. Thank you for your letter." - Midelfi Mejías

"Everything started with this small sticker with the three digits... It is hard to believe that this tiny piece of paper created a beautiful link between you and all of us in Don Pedro ...I put the stickers on the organic bananas." - Tatiana Barros

OK, I know this is PR. I know the statements come through the company. I know this reveals little about the actual operation. But the appreciation expressed by the workers was pretty amazing, as if they were finally recognized for growing food! What a thought.

I encourage people to read this new experiment in the farmer-consumer connection over thousands of miles. Thanks to Luis Monge, regional certification officer for Dole's Organic Program, for the shout out on this development.

Should Organic Livestock Have Access to Antibiotics?

By Samuel Fromartz

Hue Karreman, a prominent veterinarian who works with organic dairy farmers in Pennsylvania, has published a highly provocative essay on arguing that organic livestock farmers should consider the use of antibiotics in rare instances – a practice currently banned by organic regulations.

"In essence, when it comes to an individual animal needing truly prompt, effective treatment for a serious infection on an organic farm, the US organic rule may compromise animal welfare," he writes.

His argument opens up a Pandora's box in organics, since the label for so long has been associated with "antibiotic and hormone-free" production methods. Surveys show those labels are a major reason organic milk is so popular with consumers. It is growing at about 20 percent a year.

While I don't expect the prohibition on antibiotics to change soon, Karreman makes an interesting argument – and one not particularly new. (He made the same point when I was working on my book and I include it in chapter 6.)

The main issue with antibiotics is their overuse, which allows bugs to build up resistance. This renders the drugs impotent in humans as well. But Karreman finds the one-time or rare use of the medicine distinctly different from the regular "sub-therapeutic" use of the drugs in livestock production, which is the main cause of rampant overuse.

One reason these therapies are so popular in conventional farming is that the animals suffer from diseases associated with confinement, or a poor diet. The low-forage diet in feedlot beef production, for example, increases the fat content in the muscle, but it also raises the chance of acidosis - or stomach acidity - which in turn is associated with disease. One way to reduce those diseases is to administer low levels of antibiotics, a common practice.

Ideally, organic animals avoid those pitfalls by grazing an adequate amount of time on fresh grass and avoiding the stress of a high-production regime. (Organic dairy cows, for example, produce less milk than conventional animals).

But what happens when an organic animal gets an infection? Currently, under organic production rules, the farmer is required to treat the animal with approved methods (that include herbal remedies, homeopathy, even acupuncture, all of which can be quite successful). But if the animal does not respond to approved therapies, the animal must be given antibiotics and then removed from the organic farm. They can never return.

Karreman believes this end-result puts farmers in a bind. The animal may suffer if the farmer waits to see whether it can heel without antibiotics, yet, if they administer the drug right away they must sell the animal. "Who is to say what medication will be used and when will it be started in the disease process?" He asks.

The issue this raises, of course, is whether organic milk will be able to maintain its distinct identity in the marketplace if antibiotics are allowed.

And like other parts of the organic regulations, would opening the door to rare use of antibiotics invite more extreme practices, such as the sub-therapeutic use that is so objectionable? If you consider the ways the rules have been bent on issues like grazing, that is not unlikely.

Karreman has been one of the few, if not the only one within the organic industry, to stick his head on this issue and make this proposal. At the very least, he faces an uphill battle.

Price War Coming in Organic Milk?

One question I have had was whether the coming glut of organic milk will lead to lower prices for consumers. Well, the company that owns Horizon Organic, the largest organic milk company in the nation, thinks the answer is yes and that admission sent the stock of parent Dean Foods down nearly 10 percent today.

According to a report in Bloomberg News:

Dean Chief Executive Officer Gregg Engles said organic milkoutput may surge 40 percent this year, creating ``a wall'' of supplies that will prompt rivals to try ``to stimulate demand through lower prices." Dean Foods, the biggest organic milk producer in the U.S., will counter with increased investment in Horizon Organic, its most profitable brand, Engles said.         

What is less clear is whether organic dairy farmers will take a hit and suffer lower prices at the farm-gate. I've heard that Organic Valley is holding the line on prices and have also seen other anecdotal reports that processors are trying to hold back supplies. ''We don't want to harm the viability of organics and the price point that farmers need to make a decent living,'' Organic Valley CEO George Siemon told the New York Times.

Why are supplies jumping 40 percent in a year? Because farmers had until last June to begin the year-long conversion to organic production before more stringent rules took effect. As a result, many jumped into the market at the same time and now all those supplies are starting to come on line.

- Samuel Fromartz

Senate Hearing Abuzz on Bees

By Samuel Fromartz

The Senate Agriculture Committee held another in its series of hearings on the farm bill Tuesday, with the focus on specialty crops. But it was a beekeeper from Waxahachie, Texas, that caught my ear.

Mark Brady, who has raised bees for 30 years, told the panel about the recent and sharp decline in bee populations - so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) - and mentioned some chilling figures:

  • that a third of all food crops rely on bees for pollination;
  • that California almonds - 80 percent of the global crop - require more than 1 million bee hives for pollination.
  • that the American honey bee population has dropped 30 percent over the past two decades;
  • that domestically produced honey accounts for only 31 percent of all sales, a figure that has been steadily declining.

The question, of course, is why have the bees been disappearing?

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, asked whether cells phones might be a cause.

"On the cell phone issue, we took all the phones away from the bees," Brady quipped. But he quickly turned serious and mentioned concerns about "cumulative low-dose pesticides" that sit on pollen and nectar and which bees bring back to their hives. He noted that the EPA has studied pesticides that kill bees immediately, but it hasn't looked at low-dose toxicity.

"One of the things we're looking really hard at is the cumulative effect of pesticides," said Brady, who was representing the American Honey Producers Association. As bees work during the summer, they pick up pollen and nectar and store it in the hive. When the weather turns colder, the bees consume what's in the hive. "That's one of our big concerns - that there may be pesticides in that pollen," Brady said. "We're beginning to wonder now if that's causing a delayed effect on some of these colonies dying."

The New York Times had a report on the issue Tuesday, delving into a number of potential causal factors, including pesticides.

Among other theories, Brady also mentioned "stress" as a cause, since bee colonies are transported across the nation to pollinate crops in California; the introduction of foreign bees for the first time in 85 years (to make up for population declines); or a combination of factors leading to a tipping point.

Brady made clear that there is no definitive answer to the question, which is why he was appealing to the panel to increase USDA funding on bee research by $1 million. It seems a small price to pay when the pollination of apples, avocados, oranges, melons, broccoli, tangerines, cranberries, strawberries, alfalfa, soybeans, sunflower, cotton - in all, some 90 food and fiber crops - are at stake.