Starting a dialog on scaling up organic

The following is based on a workshop, Scaling Up Organic: Into the Mainstream or Around the Margins,” held at the 2016 Ecological Farming Conference, in which Lipson, Cook and Batcha were panelists. Combined, they have spent approximately 100 years devoted to organic food and agriculture, working in non-profits, businesses, government,and education. The original workshop recording is available from 

Stakeholders within the organic agriculture sector often debate the questions of scale. How big are our businesses? How many organic acres, products and sales are there overall? Is it better to be big or small? When is big necessarily bad?

And what are the benefits with increased size? Or the drawbacks? Who gets to decide and have a voice? How do we preserve and transmit our goals as we grow and bring in new players to our sector? Can we as a community have a deliberate and strategic approach to growth?

Looking at scale

Our perception of scale is often relative to our point of view and the perspective of time. In the early years as organic farmers, two of us remember when 25 new acres of organic ground could be a threat to our position in the marketplace. Now, the largest organic farming entity in the country is a strictly farmer-owned cooperative with 1,800 members and $1 billion in sales!

Organic agriculture’s farm print—which has grown steadily from the late 1970s—still represents only 1 to 2% of U.S. agricultural land. In the big picture, that is pretty small-scale. In domestic fruit and vegetable production, organic is closer to 10% of production. That’s bigger, but not very big, particularly for many of us who would like to see organic choices available to a broader spectrum of consumers and farmers.

Why increase the scale of organic?

As active participants in the organic movement, our goals all along have centered on reducing the harm caused by conventional agriculture. The acute and chronic poisoning of people and the planet which moved each of us to action starting in the 1970s is still with us. We know organic farming can be beneficial to the planet and to the people who work in farming. We know organic food can make a difference in the effects of a child’s diet. We know a lot more about the impacts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used heavily on the vast majority of U.S. farmland. We—and a wide range of scientists—recognize that pollinator losses have reached a crisis. The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone and others continue to grow. The social injustices of pesticide exposure impacts are a fact that we cannot ignore.

We believe that a lot more domestic production of organic crops and ingredients is urgently needed. The alternative, as one of us puts it, is that organic is just private school for food.” We’ve heard that sort of accusation all our careers, and have pushed back by working to get more domestic organic production and make organic products more accessible. That’s not possible if we say that we’ve already gotten too big.

We each started our push for organic by resisting pesticide-based agriculture. The climate emergency and need for deep carbon soil sequestration are now other urgent reasons for scaling up organic farming—not necessarily in bigger operations but in getting more to join us—to reach this goal.

How to bring change

Is organic already too big? Does the presence of large marketers mean that organic has lost its way?”  In going from 0.1% of U.S. farmland to 0.9%, did we somehow betray our mission?

We three each have things we would done differently along the way to where we are now, but we agree there wasn’t a hugely different model that we could have followed. Growing and moving food require being in business, being in the marketplace. There are lots of different ways to do it. We emphatically agree that we need to use all the levers of change we can get our hands on. We need a diversity of business sizes, of market channels, of products and production strategies.

Bringing in new players

How to bring in new players is a huge challenge for the organic industry. We can’t just exclude new companies, and we can’t prevent mergers and acquisitions. We need to convert both farms and farmers. We must do more to transmit and cultivate some of the goals and values that organic is rooted in. We agree that it is possible to do that, and some of that gets done successfully. We also agree that the organic community is not as consistent and effective in helping educate others about these values and goals as perhaps we should be.

At the same time, we need to encourage and welcome new players who want to support the overall goals that U.S. organic agriculture is founded upon. Unfortunately, we recognize that is not always the case in our communities, whether at the local farmers’ market or in the global supermarket.

The scorched-earth tactics targeting larger-scale companies adds a huge amount of risk to what is already a risky proposition when they enter the organic market. We can and should scrutinize new players and their actions, but we don’t even get that opportunity when there is a certainty of hostility for engaging at all.

We need to dramatically increase the ranks of organic farmers, not just replace our generation of pioneers. Young farmers in particular have to see expanding market opportunities and a welcoming community if they want to convert a family operation. Organic groups should be much more present at Future Farmers of America, for instance. That’s the way we will keep the diversity of scale and region in organic production.

Moreover, we need better tools to evaluate increased scale. One step would be to measure the performance of organic companies’ practices relative to the deeper goals and values that organic agriculture is based upon. And, we can encourage more transparency at each level of the supply chain.

The idea of scale” does not have to be a tug over big versus small. Instead, we can brainstorm on ways to foster a more open attitude and a more inviting prospect to new players while reinforcing the values that we are in this for. //