Having spent the first 19 years of my life in Iowa, I am keenly aware of the juxtaposition of big Ag and small family farms. For the most part, Iowa is a vast rolling landscape of corn and soy, planted and harvested by one agricultural soldier with his tractor, GPS, and a battery of inputs. In places like Kalona, Iowa, it's the Amish community farms with draft horses and wide-brimmed hats. Their small family plots produce vegetables, corn, eggs, milk, and delicious cheese curds.
Both models can be certified organic if the inputs and practices align with the regulations.
As the demand for certified organic continues to surge, large-scale organic production fuels the growth of the burgeoning $50-billion industry. What are the challenges and benefits of Big Organic and Little Organic? Does size really matter for the movement?
Michael Pollan was one of the first to speak about the rise of Industrial Organic. In his celebrated book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he voiced concerns that the expansion of Big Organic would lower food quality, weaken standards, and hurt small family farms.
His ponderings on the subject sparked a long-smoldering philosophical fire, kindled with the writing of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA).
Many of the early organic authors of the OFPA had only small organic examples to guide their views. New technologies and larger scales of production were in their infancy. Demand was small, and production was as well. Soil, cover cropping, and fallowing of fields were the basic understanding of organic production; there were no alternative growing practices.
The Amish community in Kalona is perhaps an extreme example of Small Organic, but this determined group of 90 producers is affected by the presence of Big Organic. They struggle competing with big dairies and layer operations whose large volume has created a glut of organic milk and organic eggs.
This competitive price issue occurs across the country in many sectors of organic agriculture. It’s hard for small growers to compete with the efficiencies of large production systems. Small growers are driven by the whims of the growing season and cannot meet year-round supply demands.
I now live precariously close to the Salad Bowl of the World, which leads the nation in organic vegetable production. California State Assemblymember Ann Caballero recently said that “If Monterey and San Benito counties were its own state, organic production would be ranked number 4 in the nation!”
In this fertile coastal valley, many large growers have adopted organic practices.
This expansion has lowered prices stimulating exponential organic growth in Wal-Mart, Costco, and of course Whole Foods.
More consumers across the nation are able to find and afford organic food as a result.
Vic Smith, CEO of JV Smith Companies, manages thousands of acres of both organic and conventional vegetables in Colorado, California, Arizona, and Mexico. Vic commented that “Big isn’t bad, it’s how the players act. There are big organic producers who care about what they are doing.
One of our main growers, Israel Morales, is amazing. He is 71 years old, works 12 hours per day, and he knows everything about the soil, the plant, the roots system, and the local environment. He farms 2500 organic acres near Soledad, CA and has an amazing productive ranch. He is the story of Big Organic, and he was the inspiration for all of our operations.
Conventional can learn about how to develop soils, which is the key to a holistic farming process and philosophy.”
Vic went on to note that “You’re never going to meet the potential demand for organic until you develop systems and production capabilities. In the west, you must farm at least 2000 acres to have any kind of scale. We are able to achieve the quality and the yield so we can offer a more economical price. We have the mechanical expertise, the scalability, and equipment to develop the ground.
It’s not the size of the operation but the passion and commitment you have for organic that’s important. We care about the triple bottom lines: People, Planet, and Profit – that’s our philosophy and in our mission statement.”
Yet Small Organic has an important place in the organic food movement. Small local farms can develop niche markets that promote their philosophy enabling a premium price for their products. They help consumers understand where their food comes from and educate them on the meaning of organic. They reduce shipping distances to their consumer, minimizing the environmental impact.
Small organic producers invigorate local and regional economies, creating vibrant local food systems.
Miles McEvoy, the past Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, had some pearls of wisdom on the importance of diversity in organic production.
“We all need to listen to each other and continue to be open to all voices within the organic community. Not to characterize people as not being part of the community because of production methods. There is an incredible diversity of people around the world that come in all different sizes of operations, ethnic backgrounds, political and religious diversity. We should be embracing and listening to the different perspectives so we can support our global community and create as much organic production around the world as we can. We need more successful organic farmers and more consumers who can buy these products no matter what their level of income is.”
The coexistence of Big and Small Organic is complicated and controversial. There are benefits for the organic movement and consumers if both exist—in harmony. Although economic inequalities arise from economies of scale, small producers can thrive by producing value in the locality, seasonality, and deliciousness of their products.