What’s eating the organic label? Thetford farmer organizes symposium on the Chickenization of Organic

The food industry has some 1200 lobbyists on Capitol Hill and spends about $350 million a year on shaping opinion in Washington.

Dave Chapman started Long Wind Farm on two acres in East Thetford back in 1984. From early beginnings as a vegetable farmer with oxen, he made the transition into producing organic tomatoes under glass, providing delicious tomatoes from March until December. 

He joined the wave of organic farmers in Vermont who had convened as a group under organic farmer and visionary Samuel Kaymen in 1971. Kaymen proposed “a revolutionary movement for a new society” that went back to society’s roots — people working the land together, respecting, nurturing, and restoring the health of the living soil. The work of Kaymen and others led to the founding of 17 farmers’ markets across Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as wholesale produce marketing co-ops, a root storage co-op, and more. The emphasis was on local networking and regional self-reliance.

Fast forward to the 2020s, and things have changed. Supermarkets that used to feature local organic vegetables now sell competing organic produce from California, Mexico, and beyond, some of it grown by soil-less hydroponics. Dave Chapman has had at least one supermarket cancel his contract to supply local organic tomatoes.

Welcome to the nationwide consolidation of the food industry that is hollowing out the organic movement and re-defining the meaning of organic. Dave is well aware of this. In 2018 he was a founding member of the Real Organic Project, a national, farmer-led, organic certification program covering 1,100 farms, to ensure that what consumers are buying is actually organic. In addition, the Real Organic Project offers podcasts by notable organic farmers and food system experts on their website.

Real Organic’s latest offering is a two-session symposium featuring incisive excerpts from Dave’s interviews with notables like organic farming icon Elliot Coleman, food writer Michael Pollan, law Professor Zephyr Teachout, and other experts.

Many challenges are undermining the meaning of “organic.” For example the National Organic Program and its certifiers are not enforcing organic grazing standards, allowing competition from non-organic farms. This led to mass closures of truly organic dairies and a greater consolidation in the “organic dairy” industry.

Organic farms are losing markets faster than ever before and are blindsided by the rock-bottom prices they are getting for their produce. That is in spite of the record-high retail prices that consumers pay at the supermarket. The culprit is market consolidation under a few mega corporations — the so-called “chickenization” of organic, named after the consolidation of chicken production under meat giant Tyson Foods, globally the second-largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork.

There’s a game book for this. It works through the formation of trade associations that gather together groups of small farmers. But the trade associations are funded by mega corporations and, in fact, have come to work for them.The result is that the small farmers become indentured to the corporations. As Zephyr Teachout explains, this has allowed a handful of big players, the likes of Tyson and Pilgrims, to preside as middle men between farmers and the marketplace. Sadly, organizations that were once organic movement stalwarts, like the Organic Trade Association and CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) that certify organic farmers, have been co-opted by this mechanism and are not resisting contract farming. 

The chicken industry is a good example of contract farming and works like this: the farmer contracts with the corporation, which becomes the sole source from which the farmer buys feed, equipment, lighting, heating, and watering systems. In fact everything has to come through the corporation, which profits from the sales to these captive customers. When farmers harvest their product, they sell it to the corporation, but they cannot predict the price. Prices are set through a “tournament system” that pits farmers against each other in a contest to see who can provide, in this example, the fattest chickens most cheaply. The farmers do not get to talk to one another or share production methods. They do not know if they are winning or losing in the tournament system or how much money they can expect to help pay off their debts, often in the millions of dollars, that are invested in the chicken barn, equipment etc. Farmers are also aware that if they speak out they are likely to be penalized.

Farmers live under constant duress in this system. Tomato farm worker Gerardo Reyes-Chavez noted that there has been complete stagnation of farm workers’ wages because the concern of corporations is only to use their purchasing power to obtain quality produce — for him it is tomatoes of a certain size and stage of maturity —  at the lowest possible price. Thus a bushel of quality tomatoes (32 lbs) sells to the corporation for 45-50 cents. At that price, a worker has to pick almost two and a half tons of tomatoes in a ten-hour workday, almost twice the quantity of tomatoes required thirty years ago, to make the equivalent of minimum wage.

Small farms that are trying to survive and compete often end up scaling up production and lowering sale prices to get a big contract. But at the end of the day it can cost more to grow their produce than what they can sell it for. The only thing they have control over is how much, or how little, they pay their workers. Thus wages have changed little since 1980, and most farm workers earn less than $12,000 a year. As Gerardo puts it, the extreme poverty of the workers is directly connected to the extreme wealth at the top of the system. Seventy-five percent of workers in the food system suffer from food insecurity.

In spite of this, there doesn’t seem to be enough organic food to meet the demand. One solution to providing this is simply to re-brand foods that are not really organic. Thus consumers are now faced with confusing labels, like “all-natural” and “sustainable” that can include genetically modified foods. The term “climate smart agriculture” is used to sell produce grown with chemicals, and “regenerative agriculture” has been co-opted by agricultural corporations. The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows food grown by hydroponics to be labeled “organic,” possibly due to the outsized influence of Driscolls that sells 70% of all “organic” berries in the US. (They claim they grow “containerized” berries, thus not exactly hydroponic). Organic agriculture used to mean food produced in soil, with an appreciation of the mutual support between the roots of plants and the soil microbiome. In hydroponics that does not exist; the roots dangle in a vat of chemical nutrients. 

As Eliot Coleman puts it, “You can’t monetize soil bacteria, but you can monetize ‘organic.’” 

Can non-contract organic farming survive in the current scenario? Dave pointed out that it is virtually impossible for small farms to sell, for instance, to a chain like Whole Foods, because all such transactions are at the level of the corporation’s Global Buyer. And it’s also impossible to sell to the regional warehouse or the actual supermarket without permission from the Global Buyer. The same is true of Walmart, which has become the biggest player in the food industry. Nationwide, 25-30% of food dollars are spent at Walmart, which engages in the same contract farming practices as the other food giants. In fact, according to Austin Frerick, an expert on agricultural and antitrust policy, a farmer may only sell 30% of what they produce to Walmart. Any more than that would cause them to go bankrupt. Zephyr Teachout pointed out that food corporations do allow small farms to operate — in a fraction of the marketplace that’s about 3-5%. That way, mindful of monopoly laws, they can point to it as evidence that they do not control it all, though in reality they could crush small farms at any time. 

Not much can be done about this without a mustering of political willpower. However, don’t expect action anytime soon. The food industry has some 1200 lobbyists on Capitol Hill and spends about $350 million a year on shaping opinion in Washington, such as the “organic” label for hydroponics. In that metric, they outpace even the defense industry. 

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