Gary Bourgeault has owned and managed several businesses and has been a financial adviser. In his spare time, he loves writing about music.
Future Challenges of Sustainable, Organic Farming and Food
There's been a lot of pent-up frustration in regard to sustainable farming and food choices among farmers and consumers. Laws favoring big ag and big business make it extremely difficult to compete on the farmers' side of the issue, and in some cases consumers aren't allowed to buy the type of food they want.
One of the most well-known farmers in the world, Joel Salatin, has laid out his views and insight into where he sees small, sustainable, local farming going, as well as the growing resistance to stifling regulations that favor big ag. He also reveals what he sees the sustainable industry itself needing to do to adapt and respond to changing consumer demand.
Regulations Discriminate Against Small Growers
Before getting into the most recent challenges associated with regulations and how they stifle sustainable, small farmers, I would highly recommend Joel Salatins' excellent book on the subject, called Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front, which provides readers with an enlightening and entertaining look at the reasons Americans aren't given the freedom to choose the food they want to eat.
The book is a good foundation to work from as we talk about things that have played out since the book was written.
The Food Safety Regulatory Structure
As for the current food regulatory environment, it increasingly favors large ag because when the market is looking for things like jerky or summer sausage, etc., it lands the small farmer or producer in the "food safety regulatory structure."
" . . . food safety regulatory structure which is highly, highly, highly prejudicial against small outfits. And so the infrastructure requirements, the HACCP plans, the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, all of the compliance and licensing issues; temperature readings, thermometer, all of these things, the paperwork, are just horrendous for a small outfit that can't spread those costs over a tracker trailer load of stuff."
He went on to say he isn't exaggerating concerning the 200 hours in manpower it takes to fill out the paperwork to make just one product compliant with regulations.
He concluded, "It's quite another to have that spread out over half a dozen little local artisanal guys that are producing 2,000 pounds a year. And that's why I have really come to the conclusion that any regulation that is scaled prejudicial is a bad regulation. At its basic level, big ag and its political allies have rigged the playing field to significantly favor large farming operations at the expense of small farmers."
The bottom line is these rules are made in a way that makes it impossible for small growers to legally bring their food to market. This has resulted in growing resistance and civil disobedience to regulations that disallow freedom of food choice.
Local Resistance in Maine
At the federal level, the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) under the Obama administration made things a lot worse. When that was put in place, it made things even harder for sustainable farmers.
Salatin said, "[T]he cost of compliance is escalating—the amount of paperwork, the amount of licensing, the amount of testing and procedural stuff that's happening on farms—is through the roof."
The conclusion drawn is that things are getting worse at the federal level. The good news is that, at the local level, resistance is starting to emerge and gain traction, led in part by the decision by Sedgewick, Maine, to pass a food sovereignty law in 2015.
The Food Sovereignty Law in Sedgewick
According to the law, if someone wanted to engage in food commerce with a neighbor, they had the legal right to do so. It also said the government had no say in the matter, and bureaucrats didn't need to be involved in the process.
Inspired by the actions taken by the township, six other townships in Maine rapidly passed similar legislation into law. Predictably, this resulted in the state entering into the fray, and eventually the federal government. After some resistance from the state, it capitulated and passed legislation that the governor at the time signed, which was in alignment with the laws at the local level.
The feds heard about it, and the USDA got involved and threatened it would "pull all of your federally inspected slaughter houses and food processing plants." The federal government threatened to pull out if the law remained in place. As of this writing, negotiations are still ongoing over the law.
Resources and Resistance
In response to the inevitable threat to states and localities by the federal government over freedom of food choice, a non-profit legal response has risen called the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which is now located in 40 states.
Along with and conjunction with that, people are taught to use their smart phones or video cameras to record what happens when the SWAT teams show up and start confiscating and destroying their food that was stored in freezers.
With the Internet and variety of social networking sites, it has created a growing backlash against the government raiding citizens that want the freedom to choose their own food source and food they want to eat.
I think the outrage and resistance will continue to grow, even as the government uses media outlets to demonize alternative food sources by making them appear unsafe. It does this by pointing out the rare instance where food may be bad. But when you consider the food from mainstream agriculture and restaurants that buy food from them resulting in people getting sick, and in some cases, dying, it's readily apparent there is nothing that will ever be perfectly safe in this world.
That said, sustainable farmers and producers, have a very good track record in regard to safety, when compared to their big ag counterparts.
Why Can't We Make Our Own Food Choices?
The truth is, if people want to buy food locally, there shouldn't be any reason why regulations and bureaucrats should get in the way. As it is, we're treated as bubble-babies or infants that don't have the ability to assess risk and make decisions based upon our conclusions.
As a matter of fact, when we choose local produce from trusted sources, we are far more apt to get higher quality, better tasting, healthier and safer food than we get from mainstream outlets.
How many people, after all, get sick or die from growing produce or meat in their own gardens, yards, or small farms? It's rare that it happens with small, sustainable farmers as well.
Breakdown of the Organic Certification Program
On the organic side of the issue, Salatin noted that the official organic certification program in the U.S. has broken down. One thing he pointed out was the fact soilless systems are now included as organic produce. The original purpose was to ensure the soil was handled correctly. Now that hydroponic systems are labeled as organic, the process is now considered as being grown in soil. The U.S. is the only country in the world that certifies hydroponic growing as organic, according to Salatin. He added that the U.S. is pressing other countries to do the same.
Consequently, the credibility of the idea of organics has taken a hit in the U.S. and in some other places around the world. The good news is, as usual, the private sector is starting to take action and design its own organic certification programs. The problem there is some have different standards, and the growing number of them are confusing consumers.
Making it more confusing, one private certification organization called Beyond Organics has created the program as an add-on to government certification, meaning you have to first be certified by the government, and afterwards go through the certification process with Beyond Organics. Having an alternative certification process separate from the government is a good thing now that the original intent has been diluted, but for these new private certification organizations, they're going to make it harder for consumers to know which one to trust. And a confused consumer, in many cases, doesn't buy, or goes the path of least resistance, which is to buy food with an organic label, regardless of the metrics involved.
Muddying the Definition of "Organic"
I know the frustration of that from a little different point of view, as I used to own a greenhouse business that grew specialty fruits, vegetables, herbs and meat. One of the places I sold at was a farmer's market, where the rules stated any produce or other items like bread sold there, had to be grown or cooked on the person's property. As I got to know the sellers, I found out, other than one grower that did grow a little bit of what he sold, the rest simply bought food from wholesalers and resold it at the farmer's market. I literally was the only seller that grew all of my own produce being sold there.
The point is with differing standards and definitions of organic being used within the certification process, the meaning of organic in its original sense no longer applies. This frustrates growers that have a commitment to growing quality food on a sustainable basis that coincides with the definition agreed upon in the past.
Other Challenges in Sustainable Farming
One of the tougher challenges in the sustainable food business is the emergence of Amazon (AMZN) and it leading the retail industry into more convenient shopping experiences. Even some people which like local organic farming options have gravitated toward using Amazon as their supplier of choice. That was exasperated when the e-commerce giant acquired Whole Foods.
That said, in regard to produce many people still prefer to look at and handle it in person. But since organic produce is usually higher priced, it caters to higher income individuals or families. That means the smaller sustainable farmer must find ways to make it easier for consumer to buy their produce or meat. This is especially true with millennials who prefer the convenience of delivery.
Is Delivery a Solution?
There will always be a significant percentage of consumers that want to buy their fresh food in person, but the ability to shop online and have it delivered, or in many cases, picked up at a physical location, has changed the game. It can't be ignored if many in the industry want to survive. As a matter of fact, many people won't even drive on a road that isn't paved, so if a farm has a dirt road of some sort, people have refused to drive on it to get local organic food.
A lot of people want to buy quality local food, but growers will have to come up with ways to make it more convenient if they want to compete in the new age of online ordering, delivery, or pick-up. One thing I would do if I was still in the business would be to get a dependable Uber driver to deliver.
It may seem cost-prohibitive, but when you check out delivery costs of produce, that is an area that locals could compete in. People are already, in many cases, paying for delivery, so why not put together a list of customers that are willing to buy if you deliver, and design a map for the purpose of reducing the cost of delivery. In the age of Uber and similar services, it wouldn't be that hard to do.
What Growers, Farmers, and Consumers Can Do
Whether you're a farmer or a customer who buys from local farmers, there are ways we all can help.
One of the key things local growers and farmers can do for customers is to let them know the battle being waged against local food producers. This will not only educate them as to what's going on, but also generate support for what you're doing. That not only creates a potential ally, but a potential customer.
Encourage People to Cook at Home
Another thing is to encourage people to increase the amount of time in their kitchens. It's understandable that this is a difficult task. After all, there's a reason food shows and food websites and blogs are so popular: it's become a way of connecting with good meals without partaking in making them.
One good thing there is it can be pointed out how fun the kitchen can be these days with all the many gadgets developed to make tasks easier and more enjoyable.
What that does is encourage us to buy more quality food that we know where it comes from. It also of course supports local growers and the local economy. Pointing out the health benefits is another must for all to consider.
Make Farms a Fun Destination to Visit
Also what can be done is for farmers to make their land more of a destination. I know where I live, in the fall growers have different things consumers can do while they shop for pumpkins, gourds, winter squash, and other things in demand that time of the year. People go and spend more time at the farms or yards, and that always results in them spending more on average.
It's a good thing for us to get out and search out our local area for great produce. In our area there are a number of fruit orchards, a large blueberry farm, and numerous small farmers that grow and sell various vegetables and fruit like watermelon.
Farmers and growers need to give potential customers a reason to come to buy things where they're grown. Providing secondary sources of activities or interesting things will make it a destination, rather than thought of just another place that people have to buy their food at.
Another thing for consumers to consider is if you have a relationship with local growers, by which I mean you buy from them, if times ever get tough you shouldn't have to stand in line to see if they'll sell to you.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to both farmers and consumers, it's a good thing for growers to encourage their customers to grow something, and even give them some advice on the easier things. That gives us a taste of fresh produce, making us desire more.
As the government attempts to strangle small farmers with draconian regulations that make it almost impossible to profitably compete. That combined with the trend toward online ordering and delivery, and the accompanying convenience, makes it a necessity for sustainable farmers to adapt to the new realities.
One of the more important things in my view is the rising resistance to the regulatory environment where local governments are enacting their own laws to combat laws at the federal, and sometimes state level.
There are even some localities that are creating subscription-based clubs that sell to one another. No one that isn't a member is allowed to buy. Some of these clubs even have store fronts they sell out of to their members, and there is little, if anything that can be done to stop them.
That's probably where the market is likely to go if people want legitimate organic produce they can buy from local farmers and growers they know and trust.
This rogue tendency for civil disobedience in regard to food will only grow, and once sustainable farmers can figure out ways to make it more convenient for their customers on the ordering and delivery side, it's going to increase in size and intensity.
In the end, we should all have the right to buy food from whom we want, and to restrict those options by introducing regulations that stifle and strangle small, sustainable farmers, is starting to create a backlash that people are creatively responding to.
Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on January 29, 2019:
An important and well-written article. Thank you!
Mary Wickison from USA on January 01, 2019:
As a small farmer I can relate to many things in this article. I sell locally, and there are no restrictions on my business. I am in Brazil, and there are many small businesses that scratch out a living by growing and selling.
It's a balancing act for keeping the customer safe and farmers in business. Too much red tape, isn't good for anyone.