How To Ruin Organic Farming


This is supposed to be good news. Our dear government has finally recognized that organic farmers are at least as deserving of bribery as all those sinful chemical farmers. After all, industrial agriculture gets $17.2 billion dollars in direct payments every year so surely a little bit of money ought also to go to holy, humble, horse and hoe husbandmen who also help keep the world from starvation. In fact, organic farmers now have their very own farm subsidy program under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to the tune of $50 million bucks. Ain’t that wonderful?

I will go as far out on the end of my bucket loader as I can and bet even money that this is the beginning of the end of organic farming. Government learned a long time ago that farmers, like everyone else, can be persuaded to do what the government wants done by handing out money. The result? Since government subsidy programs got serious about 70 years ago, the number of commercial farmers has plummeted from over 12 million to something less that one million. That’s how helpful the payments have been. Then along came small organic farmers who although unsubsidized for the most part, began doubling and tripling in number with each passing year. Whoa. Can’t have that, for heaven’s sake. That might mean that government subsidies don’t really help farmers. Maybe, perish the thought, government doesn’t know how to help farmers. Or, perish two thoughts, maybe government doesn’t really want to help farmers but just wants cheap food so the people can afford to buy more SUVs. Any trend toward farmers becoming successful without government subsidies has to be stopped. Uncle knows how to do that. Offer them money.

If you think I am only joking, examine the rules of this new game. The fifty million dollar “Organic Initiative” subsidy is to help organic farmers, and I quote, “implement conservation practices on the farm.” Hmmm. Isn’t every real organic farmer already doing that? Isn’t that part of any proper definition of organic farming?

Rule number two: “Conservation practices that farmers have already adopted are not eligible for payment.” Amazing grace. If you have already been doing what every responsible farmer should be doing, you don’t get any money, sucker. This isn’t the first time for this. A few years ago I learned about another government giveaway under the Conservation Reserve Program that paid farmers who stopped cultivating land next to creeks and rivers. Great. I had taken my creekside acres out of cultivation years ago. I triumphantly stomped into the Natural Resource Conservation office, and gleefully applied for my payment. The girls in the office, who must daily endure frustrated farmers grudgingly applying for their farm welfare payments, studied me over the rims of their glasses, wondering if it was safe to give me the bad news. They read me the rule: “Conservation practices already adopted do not qualify.” If I wanted a CRP payment, and I’m not joking now, I would have to plow up my creekside land, put it to corn for two years, and then put the land back to pasture! (This particular rule has been changed since then although not completely.)

Rule number 3: “Only organic and transitional farmers are eligible for Organic Initiative payments.” Aha. Pretending great solicitude for organic farmers, the government has finessed its way into being the arbiter of who is “organic’ and who is not. All of us involved in organic farming know how in the past the government has been partner to several attempts to water down organic rules to help large-scale farmers qualify. Now organic farmers will be more willing to go along with government definitions because they are all on the take. As for “transitional,” I am reminded of the alcoholic who insists he is going to quit drinking and to prove it, he now skips his usual brace of triple martinis on Sundays.

And finally, rule number 4: The NRCS ranks applications for Organic Initiative bribes on the basis of “predicted environmental impact.” Obviously the bigger the concentrated animal facility or the cultivated grain farm, the more will be the predictable impact if the situation is improved. Guess who will get the lion’s share of the money. Get big or get out. Goodbye, organic farmers.


True to the title of this blog, permit me to be a bit “contrary” to the prevailing thought here…

There are government programs that are seemingly designed to pummel you into dust if you don’t do bigger and better the same thing that everyone else is doing, then there are programs that I think are truly useful.

Perhaps it’s just a 49th parallel thing, but here in British Columbia, we went through a program called the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). We went through an inch-thick workbook with a local contracted consultant, and identified several key areas where we could improve the environmental aspects of our farm.

This assessment is confidential, and not reported to the government, except to the extent that we apply for funds to correct deficiencies. It includes things like keeping stock out of streams, having a containment for compost leachate, proper handling of “waste products” (what are those? :-), etc.

One program we did was pest control fencing. (I’m not sure why that’s in the EFP, except we had to submit a fencing design that preserved wildlife corridors.) We were able to recover about 67% of the cost of erecting 2,400 feet of deer fencing, increasing our deer-proof area from 1,600 sqft to nearly four acres. That feels more like a hand-up than a hand-out.

Another program that we would like to take advantage of is related to fire safety. We make biodiesel in a barn that is used for other purposes, we store the methanol we use to make biodiesel in that barn, and the biodiesel produced goes into a 1,200 litre tank right outside the barn. The EFP says such flammables cannot be stored closer than 10 metres from any structure, and that they must have a spill containment capable of handling the contents of the largest tank. So they will pay 67% of the cost of the community biodiesel brewing and filling station we’d like to establish this year. If we keep it under 10 square metres (107 sqft) we don’t even need a building permit.

Such small, minimally intrusive programs can be an asset to the small “beyond organic” farmer. Some would say we taint ourselves by taking *any* government money, but I don’t see how improving our fire safety and saving our market garden from deer (in a way that allows them transit through the area) does that.

In general, I agree that the programs Gene describes are detrimental to the small, truly sustainable farmer. But let’s not tar all programs with the same brush. (Unfortunately, it looks like the EFP is not funded this year, due to budget problems brought on by the recession. Our community filling station might have to wait a spell.)

This is the first time I’ve written here to respond to something. I have dial-up out here in the boonies and can’t stand to be on the computer too long. But I have to tell everyone that this is some of the best conversation I’ve had in a long time. Being a small organic farmer in a small community, I feel pretty much isolated from others that share my views of agriculture. When the USDA took over the “word” organic, I knew it was time to move on. Walter is right. It’s amazing how much food can grown on a small piece of land and even as small as we are, we always have left-overs. It would not take that much to produce real food for local communities. Even cities could be fed by small and medium-sized plots. Here is an example of the idiocy of current agriculture. Farmers from Ohio took a trip to Egypt (via our tax dollars, I’m sure) to find an outlet for their wheat. They made connections with a large bakery that makes primarily bread. This company has the wheat shipped to them in Egypt. This is where it gets even more interesting… They grind their own flour. They have such an excess of flour, they now have made connections back in the good ol’ USA to ship the flour back over and sell it to places, such as KFC. I can’t remember the other places, but there were 2 or 3 places they ship to. This is nuts. Ecologically and philosophically NUTS! If someone in Ohio is growing enough wheat to ship to Egypt and have it ground into flour and ship it back to the States …. then we apparently have some excess wheat here we could grind OURSELVES and sell HERE! Sheesh! Anyway … thanks for everyone who writes here. You give me some hope and sanity…

“If we as organic farmers can’t afford to make a living without the assistance from the government then maybe we should find look for another line of work.”

That’s all well and good if you are only thinking of yourself. What happens in the post-peak oil world? Some of us are building sustainable models so that we can actually feed people without using tractors and other high-petroleum-input tools. There are at least three approaches available right now. 1) The agroecological approach (integration of science and indigenous culture methods), 2) the ecological economic approach (input/output analysis using calories/BTUs/KWHs/joules as a metric that crosses all platforms), or 3) a new approach tailored to your own climate, soils, and human skill levels.

At least for me, it is not very interesting to rehash the modern business model. What is needed is a postmodern business model. In implementing this, you should expect to be a “Cassandra” and not make a living during the transition period. Gene L. has hit that one right out of the ball park. However, organic certification is finished. The next step is growing more food than you can sell. This stands the current business model on its head. [Modern business model = grow what you can sell.] However, if you grow more than you can sell AND we get a crash in the near future, you will have more wheat and potatoes and rutabagas, etc. to feed the hungry masses. If you can grow food, you have an obligation to produce more. It’s time too step up to the plate. I give away thousands of dollars of food away every year. It is really not that difficult.

Speaking from an organic farmer’s perspective; Assuming from what I have read we all pretty much agree that these government programs are to help big agriculture. Most organic farmers fall well under definition of small farms and from what I have read and of course through my own experience within these governmental guidelines most organic farmer will be weighted down in paperwork and the gray area’s within the guidelines. Organic farming is changing and will continue to change as long as there is a dollar to be made. The powers that be will also continue to dilute the standards and will continue to push the smaller farmers out. History shows us as written in Gene article that government assistant and agriculture had proven to be an economical, environmental and marketing death sentence. Not unlike most social services in the country we the recipient become slave to the master.

We have been farming organically long before certification was introduced and believe me, most of us shouted high and loud for government recognition…we wanted to standout and protect our endeavors from cheaply grown, toxic food…right? So in that we open the gate and now we cry foul when the big guys have both the capital and the leverage to take the prime market not to mention the $$$. Over the years most organic farmers I know are moving farther away from mainstream market shares and are more and more relying on direct marketing…selling the goods and services to consumers that personally know their farm, the farmers and trust their growing practices. A few hundred dollars here or there from the government can’t, won’t and will never be the answer in building a solid organic farm business. If we as organic farmers can’t afford to make a living without the assistance from the government then maybe we should find look for another line of work.

I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The kinds of organic farmers who are are and have been doing organic farming right are the kind of people who know better to do stupid things to get the money, and can make a profit without it (thankyouverymuch).

The kinds of “organic” farmers who’re just conventional farming warmed over are, well, “organic” farmers who’re just conventional farming warmed over. This is all same-stuff-different-day.

Jan, Way to go. Most enlightening. If you really want to roll your eyes in desperation, check out how EQIP has supplied tons of money to very large CAFO’s to “help” them “manage” their manure. Even that I can handle, but then the university experts come out and say how much more “efficient” large scale animal operations are. They don’t even count in this kind of money the government forks over to “manage” their manure. Gene Logsdon

Thanks, Gene … for getting this information out into the public domain. Against my better judgement, I did look into the program to help purchase a hoophouse. It’s true, we have to qualify (by some point system) for the EQIP program first and then apply for the money for the hoophouse. Don’t expect to be building it this year and possibly not even for fall crops. But, the amount of money available here (in Ohio anyway) was like .47 per square foot up to 2100 square feet of space. Well, I was just thinking a small hoophouse … maybe 20×36. When you do the math, this is only around $340, which wouldn’t even cover the costs of shipping the materials. I suppose it might help a little, but I don’t consider that doing anything significant for small market growers. Of course, if you’re doing the whole great big hoophouse (oh, yeah … get big or get out…) it does help somewhat more. But you have to be already willing to commit $5000-$6000 to get any benefit from this program. PLUS, you have to “qualify” as Gene says for the EQIP first and my agent said it isn’t a “given” that you will be accepted. Thank god I didn’t pursue it … I really don’t want to “answer” to someone else about what I’m doing on my own land out here. The pioneers of organic don’t need to be told how to take care of their land, for pete’s sake! This “incentive” is just another drug … JUST SAY NO!!!!

I’m sure that’s what they all did to.

Glad to see you are finally geting wise to the “certified organic” trap. So “. . . this is the beginning of the end of organic farming.” Bosh! The end of organic farming started in 2000 when the government finessed all those earnest but deluded farmers who thought government-mandated 3rd-party certification was to their advantage. There are 4 levels of risk management.
1) Grow your own – you still might have some blips (like your neighbor’s rose dust blowing onto your tomatoes) but you will have more control.
2) Buy from a farmer you trust – not as good as growing your own but giving you more diversity and more quantity.
3) Buy from a 3rd party and trust that they are providing quality food – organic certification, corporate reputation and trust in your local supermarket/co-op are all the same.
4) Don’t worry about it and just buy food. If you adopt this attitude you might as get a burial plot early while they’re still cheap.

Organic certification was never about food safety, but only about marketing. If you don’t believe me, look at Gwen Ifil’s interview with Dan Glickman on the Lehrer News Hour from 2000 (transcript available on the web). Back where I grew up (dairy farm in southern Minnesota) we used to say, “If a man from the government says he wants to help you, it’s wise to run away in the other direction.”

thetinfoilhatsociety February 1, 2010 at 2:30 pm

It just goes to show what I suspect those of us who try to live a more sustainable, lower impact live already knew: Profit, and sustainable, really aren’t compatible. Subsistence, and sustainable, are. Selling your surplus to get what you can’t produce really doesn’t qualify as profit in my book; it’s part of the cycle.

Hi Gene, I saw “Mall*Wart” on a T-shirt in the Funny Times catalogue. Haven’t bought one, probably won’t, but it stuck with me.

Here’s a bunch of sources for bumper stickers and T-shirts with that message:

Jan, where did you get that Mall Wart? I like that. I’ll bet anything MallWart outgrows itself. Gene
Kyle, Yeah, and I bet most of those billionaires have never worked on a farm ever. I wonder how many of them are bank executives buying up farm land with their stimulated bonus pay. Gene

“Get big or get out.”

How about, “Get big, or get small!”

If you don’t want to be an industrial farmer, you need to become an artisanal farmer, with lots of unusual, value-added products, such as Gene’s “garbage bag and plastic baseball bat threshed” fresh bread. Or grass-fed, hand-milked, un-pasteurized cheese. Or offbeat, wildcrafted jams and jellies. (Our hawberry/rosehip jelly sells like hotcakes! And we throw it in the Quisinart with some bland farmer cheese and presto: organic wild-crafted chevré! Our customers love that we sing to the goats while we hand-milk, too.)

This can work because a lot of people out there are tired of Mall*Wart pseudo-organic food. They want to buy from the guy down the road, not from Organic MegaCorp, 3,000 kilometres away! There is a revolt afoot, and it doesn’t involve government hand-outs.

But it means that a farmer can no longer afford to be horizontally integrated, as in beans one year, corn the next, selling everything wholesale to the “co-op.” (Yea, right; you’ve been “co-opted.”) It means the artisanal farmer will be vertically integrated, with a small commercial kitchen, capable of changing recipes with the seasons. “Sorry, we don’t sell garlic-scape pesto in November, but here, try some six-month-old Stilton that just came out of the root cellar!” It means the manure from your milk goats goes on the strawberry beds from which you supply strawberry-flavoured kefir — delivered in genuine Mason jars. (“If you don’t bring the jar back, I can’t give you any more kefir.”)

The small farm life works. Your gross income is way lower, which means the bank won’t lend you money — what a blessing! But your expenses and your taxes are lower, too, and you get a healthy, balanced diet out of the deal. (Even organic soybeans gets old after your 365th meal.)

I remember when I was a kid, having guests over. My dad would look over the table, pointing at stuff: “Salt, pepper, coffee… everything else came off this land!” That’s the future for those who aren’t willing to “get big or get out.”

I won’t argue with anything you said Beth, I agree completely, neither am I advocating “mailbox farming”.

I’d like to see a truly sustainable, resilient food system developed along the lines of what Mr. Logsdon wrote about in “All Flesh..” and what John Ikerd writes, among others.

It’s the getting from here to there that is the problem and of course it’s all politics. The list of allowed non-organic substances in “organic” food has grown from 72 to 245 over the last 8 years along with a general relaxing of the standards as the big guys bought up the little guys and Laissez faire attitudes ruled the commons.

But last year the proposed additions to the list were two – that seems like a good thing.

Welfare for landowners is bunk. Backing to help establish a hoophouse business here, experiment with killed cover mulch or zone tillage there or the kind of grants SARE makes are good if for nothing else to show people that they really can raise a crop without without Monsanto and Dow and, and…

Organic commodity crops will be the norm one day, I’d just as soon we get there willingly instead of finding ourselves simply unable to afford the fuel and magic grow juice. Uncle Sugar is going to quit subsidizing big ag about as fast as big oil – so my thought is the little semi-sustainable guy should get some too.

The more the government gets involved the worse farmers will be.

People have good intentions however the best intentions is to just leave things be.

While this is certainly not ‘good news’ in the traditional sense of the phrase, I too feel that a lot of us crotchety types (young and old alike) are not pursuing organicism with the intention of making ultimate profits. Government subsidy doesn’t do much to hurt backyard farmers who are working together in small communities toward economic and environmental sanity. While this new load of crap may lead to a thinning of the ‘professional organic farmer’ crop, and while this is a major loss to the American agricultural system, Heaven knows that there will be plenty of level-headed folks around to ride out this nonsense.

Actually, Mike, my experience is that many people in government are well-meaning and want to do the right thing. Problem is, they are woefully ignorant, trapped in the bureaucratic silos and in too many cases, under the thumbs of the people who are in government service because their only interest is in feeding from the public trough. I did a graduate fellowship with a woman who was the medical director for MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid). She fought for issues of medical quality in the program for almost ten years, and she said trying to have a conversation with the trough-feeders was like trying to talk to aliens. She finally left, but is still in public service working to make things better in public health.

Gene, you’ll be happy to know that at least 50 billionaires have managed to qualify for the Conservation Reserve Program, which should probably be re-named the “Joe Stalin Commemorative Looting and Artificial Starvation Program”:

Ah, The Evil Government Conspiracy. Not a very contrary opinion…

My opinion is whatever it takes to help people move toward the better direction is a good thing but I guess it comes back around to what you were talking about in the “Culture Wars…” post.

I’ll let you know after I find out more about the Hoophouse program. Sorry for the long url…

Hear, hear, Theresa! In fact, this stubborn independent curmudgeon is now figuring our how she and her family can live a life entirely based on barter; if you don’t take money for anything you raise, you don’t qualify as a business–gets you out of the NAIS, among others. Besides, sleeping with the government (i.e. taking their money), just leaves a girl feeling used!

Seems to me that the subsidies (whether directed at conventional or organic farmers) don’t actually help the farmers. They serve to drive the prices down, because the farmers are all in competition with each other and getting the same sorts of subsidies. The farmers can afford to get low prices when they’re subsidized. And who benefits from the low prices? The big processors — ADM, Cargill, and now their industrial “organic” subsidiaries. The US taxpayer is filling the trough of these corporate hogs. I think they’re about fat enough to be sent to market, myself.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House January 28, 2010 at 11:33 am

Heaven forbid that farmers be individuals who actually think for themselves and saddle their own broncs. Don’t ask what your government can do for you, ask what you can do for yourself!
If those said organic farmers take the govt money they get what they deserve. Hopefully there will be enough of us stubborn, independent crumudgeons that will hang in there.

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