Organic agriculture is at a crossroads with an important decision to make. What began as a grassroots movement to oppose the conventional agribusiness model is now a multi-billion-dollar — and expanding — industry that has caught the attention of the biggest players in the food industry. As large-scale agriculture and big business move into organic food production, organic farmers and producers contemplate which road to take: do they turn around and stay true to the roots of the social movement and its principles, or do they take a seat at the table and ensure organic integrity in the future?

A community discussion tackled this question at the 2018 Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Organic Farming Conference on February 23 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Five organic farmers sat on the panel: John-Paul Franks, who owns Oak Ridge Farms, a 140-acre organic grain farm in central Indiana; Rodrigo Cala, co-president of Shared Ground Farmers Co-op and owner of Cala Farms, an organic vegetable farm in Wisconsin; Liz Haywood, the CEO of the People’s Food Co-op with locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin; Mariann Holm, an organic crop and livestock inspector and farmer in west-central Wisconsin; and Harry Bennett, market coordinator for the Kansas Organic Producers Association and founding member of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM).

The panel was moderated by Minnesota Public Radio News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar, whose current project, Feeding the Future, includes a group on Facebook to get conventional and organic agriculture communities talking to each other.

"The only way to compete with these big companies is to work together." — Rodrigo Cala

There are benefits and drawbacks to both paths, stated the community panel in agreement. With large companies and large-scale agriculture comes big money and access to much-needed funds for research and education, which is often lacking in sustainable and organic agriculture. Large companies also offer a greater potential to market and greater exposure for organic production. But with large companies and large-scale agriculture also comes big risk — risk of economic stresses that many farmers and producers sought to mitigate by turning toward organic agriculture, including consolidation and losing control over prices.

The largest concern voiced by the panel is losing the vision behind the organic and sustainable agriculture movement — agroecology and environmentally sensitive practices; economically viable farms; and social sustainability — to a profit-seeking market.

However, agreed the panel, the key for large-scale agriculture and the organic community to work together is to start talking to each other and to make sure that everyone who comes to the table gets a fair share. “The only way to compete with these big companies is to work together,” said Cala.

Is the identity of organic agriculture changing?

The identity of organic agriculture, stated the panelists, is rooted in being pro-environment, pro-people, pro-consumers and pro-community. These values are important to both the farmers and producers as well as the consumers. But as often happens, social movements are appropriated and transformed into profit-seeking markets, which can challenge a movement’s founding goals and values.

Consumer demand for organically produced goods has shown double-digit growth during most years since the 1990s, providing market incentives for U.S. farmers across a broad range of products, according to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Organic products are available in nearly three out of four conventional grocery stores, and certified organic acreage and livestock expand each year. U.S. farms and ranches sold US$7.6 billion in certified organic commodities in 2016, up 23 percent from US6.2 billion the year before, according to data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS).

Large food companies have taken notice and have bought into organic brands. As organic becomes more mainstream and more marketable, does this change the identity of organic agriculture?

“I would characterize it as organic migrating from a movement or a lifestyle or identity to a brand,” said Bennett who fears he already sees evidence of the movement losing its integrity from large companies buying into organic. “The way energy operates in our economy is dog-eat-dog, and you get squeezed out. We’ve seen that in conventional agriculture, and I don’t think we want to see that happen in organic agriculture.”

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The panel agreed that influx of organic products in the grocery segment is changing the marketplace. “We are celebrating that more people are eating organic,” said Holm. “But now Walmart has organic, Aldi has organic, and these big players are coming into our communities and our local co-ops are now struggling.” With grocery stores now carrying more organic products, continued Holm, people are skipping a step and connecting less with farmers at farmers’ markets. Organic farmers, as a result, are having to be more creative in ways to communicate and create a relationship with the consumers.

When asked the question, “Can large companies adopt the values of organic companies?” Holm stated, “No.” She explains: “People can adopt values, but I don’t think a corporate structure is the avenue for adopting values. Their sole purpose is money-driven profit.” 

Bennett also doesn’t see large-scale agriculture fully embracing organic agroecology methods or the cooperative community, relationships and transparency of organic farming, but, he said, “Anything is possible.”

How large-scale organic agriculture, organic community can work together

Is it possible for both large-scale organic agriculture and the grassroots organic agriculture community to co-exist to feed this growing market? As Franks noted, “Without the large companies, we might not be able to grow and meet demand.” The panel was cautious, but remained optimistic there is room at the table for everyone if a few things are considered first.

“Large companies coming into organic ag see the dollar signs,” said Franks, who helped his father transition his conventional farm into organic in 2003. “I’m not worried about them pushing people out, but I am worried about them pushing the price down, which could push people out.” He explained that if prices are pushed lower, the quality and value of his product will have to get more specialized for him to continue to make a living. Bennett agreed and explained that he has lived in a small agricultural community his entire life and has seen the end result of large agriculture in his community: farming was once the lifeblood of his community, and now the heartbeat is barely beating.

Organic farming must continue to be economically viable to keep people on their land, keep farms diversified and get younger people interested in farming. In order to draw more farmers to organic, explained Bennet, there needs to be more opportunities and “we need to have some say in how that capital is dispersed.” There’s room for creativity here, but there are values that must be in place, he added.

"We’re not coming to the table, we set the table, and yes, we should absolutely stay at it." -- Liz Haywood

“If they [large food companies] want to work with us, if they want us to trust them, they need to go to our co-ops,” said Franks, who explained that organic farmers have a stronger voice as a co-op, which could protect their values and keep they prices where they need to be for the farmers to make a good living and for the food companies to get a quality product. “Virtually any business activity can be put into the co-operative model,” said Bennett, who added the model offers responsibility and buy-in from shareholders. Co-ops pride themselves on selling more than just local groceries, added Haywood, who said that her local co-op's mission is commitment to a thriving local community.

The panel also stated that the USDA Organic label must be protected, keeping quality, transparency and advocacy at the forefront. “We have to hold accountable every single entity that is growing and producing using our label,” said Haywood, which is one way to “keep the culture in agriculture.”

The panelists agreed that although they are farmers and industry associates, they are also consumers, and they still have a voice and can vote with their dollars.

As for preserving organic agriculture values, the panel expressed that the consumers have voiced they want organic products with the organic principles and philosophy that founded the movement. “The pioneers of organic set the table. We’re not coming to the table, we set the table, and yes, we should absolutely stay at it. That is really the voice of the consumers,” concluded Haywood.