I attended the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food And Farm Association recently and as usual it really lifted my spirits. We are so barraged by doom and gloom these days as presidential candidates yell insults at each other, that we tend to over-emphasize the bad news and ignore the good news. In farming, mainstream agriculture is mostly full of bad news right now, but although I sympathize with the farmers caught in the jaws of a declining industrial agriculture, that is sort of good news to me. For instance a report just out says that a huge corn-ethanol plant in Kansas is declaring bankruptcy and leaving millions of dollars it owes grain companies unpaid. That’s bad news but good news in the sense that farmers just might start to realize what a bad idea it is to grow corn for ethanol especially on hills and prairies where annual cultivation is very destructive. Ironically, the farm paper, Farm and Dairy, recently quoted Monte Shaw, head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, saying that even though Iowa has the highest production of ethanol from corn (3.8 billion gallons per year) “we still have excess corn.” Think of how tragic that is and yet how it might bring some sanity back into commercial farming.
But all I heard at the OEFFA conference was good news, even jubilant news as the pioneers of a new kind of farming march forward into a future we have no name for yet. One dairyman told me it was “just embarrassing how much money I’m making right now.” He is a certified organic milk producer on a small farm with a relatively small herd, his land planted mostly to grass and clover, growing the grain he needs for his cows, not having to buy outside organic grain which is selling around $10 to $12 a bushel.
In fact the organic farming news is so good even big agribusiness companies like Cargill are reportedly getting into it. Some organic farmers and their organizations are worried that the demand and high prices will mean overproduction. In his speech, John Bobbe, director for Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, worried that the high demand for organic food has conventional farmers “considering organic for the wrong reasons.” It could mean a collapse in organic prices similar to the one in 2008, he said. Right now, a large quantity of organic grain is being imported. Tim Boortz of NForganics was even more pointed in his talk at the conference. “You can’t go into organics because of price. You have to believe in the institution of it.” I know that’s true from personally observing some years ago several eager beavers who “went organic” only because they thought they could make big bucks. They soon got out of it. Organic farming requires long-term, idealistic steadfastness.
Michael Kline, who works for Organic Valley, one of the larger milk marketers, was particularly upbeat. Right now there is more demand for organic dairy products than Organic Valley can supply, he told me, and the number of farmers transitioning into organic production is increasing dramatically. I know one very good reason for this. Organic Valley’s butter is the best I have ever tasted. Carol, my wife, who is much more discerning about such matters, agrees. It is not available in any of our local stores, which is an example of the challenge Organic Valley is trying to cope with. It can’t keep up with demand.
I asked Michael about the possible dilemma on the horizon of glutting the organic market. Aha, Organic Valley has thought of that already and has built in controls in its contracts with farmers to counter that situation should it arise. It is too complicated to detail here and I wasn’t taking notes, but I plan to get with Michael in the future and spell it out here because overproduction has always been agriculture’s biggest challenge.
What is so striking to me about OEFFA members is the wide disparity in their backgrounds. As I sat there signing books, I was approached by a doctor who grows open pollinated corn. Another man whose main profession I forgot to ask about, wanted to talk about religion even more than he wanted to talk about farming. A retired philosophy professor plopped a whole box of my books on the table for me to sign. A young farmer described how he grows sorghum and sells the syrup as one of his main crops. A farm wife told me her other job was doing design work for a magazine. A food gardener who said he was an animist, wondered if, from my writing, I was too. Several young couples were very excited about getting into small scale, artisanal farming like cheese making and growing salad greens in hoop houses. The only farmers that I didn’t see were the “real” ones who raise thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. When one of them shows up at my table, I’ll know for sure that a new era of farming is on the way.