The “usual rules” don’t apply #Ventura

What are the two competing visions for the future of the American food system? Just about anyone will tell you that we face a choice between a system that must be either small, organic, and localized, or large, corporate, and globalized. Nearly all national conversations about food observe these rules. Those are your choices… A or B.

But do the “usual rules” always apply? I think they are an oversimplification even at the national level, but they are certainly not accurate in Ventura County. Yes, we have some very small, organic, locally oriented farms. And we have some very large conventional farming operations with a global customer base.

But we have plenty that don’t fit the mold. We have very small conventional farms with global distribution. We have large, “corporate” farms, that have developed local supply chains for their organic produce. Ventura County has huge diversity in our crop mix, but it is matched by the diversity of our business models.

A case study: The most capital intensive operation in Ventura County is actually organic. They are international and “big business” in many ways, but they are also family owned and operated. Growing their crops within a greenhouse, they are able to meticulously control their inputs, but it certainly isn’t “natural” or “traditional”. On a per acre basis, they use more water than any other farm in the area. On the other hand, they are vastly more efficient, and deliver much more produce per gallon delivered. So if we want to talk about their operation, we can’t have that conversation within the “usual rules.”

Like the county around them, they play by a different set of rules.

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#Soil Carbon in Saticoy

I’ve been doing some reading recently on the topic of soil organic matter, most notably in the book The Soil Will Save Us, by Kristin Ohlson. There’s a lot of discussion about sequestration of carbon in the soil, and what agriculture has done in the past and may do in the future to affect that amount. But much of the discussion relates to large-scale Midwestern farming – rangeland grazing and grain production. It doesn’t speak to Ventura County agriculture. How are we faring?

At our farm, we have had a covercrop program going in our orchard for 10 years, and it made me wonder… was there a good way to see a measurable difference for our efforts? Subjectively, we’ve been very happy with our results. Our program has prioritized erosion control and soil structure. We’ve never worried our soil carbon content. But a big part of a soil’s structure is determined by the organic material within, and organic material is a pretty good proxy for carbon. (Direct measurements soil carbon are apparently expensive and not that reliable.) Since we’ve been trying to add biomass, we must be adding carbon, right?

Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at some numbers.

We haven’t regularly tracked our soil organic matter, but a fairly recent lab test shows us ranging between 5.5% and nearly 7%. (6.94% to be precise.) Unfortunately, we took no baseline measurement before starting the covercrop experiment, but I was able to find a figure to represent our soil in a “natural” state. According to the Web Soil Survey of the Natural Resource Conservation District, the Pico and Mocho series soils such as those at our Saticoy farm typically have only 2.5 – 3% organic matter.

5.5 to 7% sure beats 2.5 to 3%!

It would seem that we are holding twice the organic matter (and presumably twice the carbon) in our soil that existed in nature. I’m actually not that surprised to see an improvement, although double was unexpected. Orchards, even without covercrop, have much heavier vegetation than would exist here naturally, thanks to irrigation. That plant material that my family has been producing over 130 years is reflected in the organic content of our soil.

I’d love to have figures for other orchards in our area, and better data on our soil circa 2005, prior to the reintroduction of covercrops on our farm. If I were writing a PhD thesis, I’d need more data. But for a farmer looking for validation of his practices, this looks pretty good to me.

The FTC and Local Food

December 1st may have been a big day for the local food movement, but it passed without much notice. What happened that day, you ask? That is the day that a new set of guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission [Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (16 CFR 255)] went into effect. Specifically, these expand “Truth in Advertising” laws and create a much higher standard for endorsements. These stricter standards apply both to the “generally expected performance” of the product and any “material connections” between the parties involved. Also the new rules make clear that they apply to all forms of social media, not just traditional advertising. 

How it impacts the local and sustainable food movement:

This is a highly interconnected movement. In this context, how can “material connections” be defined? Applicability is clear in cases where money is involved. But what about endorsements on a personal blog, or a plug on Facebook? On both the for-profit and non-profit sides of the local food movement, people recognize the value of social media to spread the word and cross-promote friends and business partners. Since the users of social media recognize it as having advertising or marketing value, in due course it is probable that the FTC or a plaintiff’s lawyer will as well.

Who gets to speak? In the traditional top-down world that the FTC is used to regulating, the authority to speak on behalf of the organization is typically pretty clear. The new rules expressly hold employers liable for the endorsements of their employees, even if the employee makes the statements on her own blog or Facebook page. Do interns or volunteers within your organization provide “endorsements” to other businesses or advocacy groups?

The other potential vulnerability is in the poorly defined language that is common within discussions of sustainable foods. Take the word “sustainable” itself. While the word is clearly defined in many venues, it is not always clear that it can be applied to a particular product or practice without a large dose of opinion. Likewise, the words “healthy” or “local” are open to interpretation. “Organic” is clearly defined and has clear applicability. But even here there is danger, since benefits beyond organic status are often implied if not explicitly stated. Can these statements live up to a higher burden of proof?

Finally, the new guidelines mandate that the “advertiser” create policies and training for employees, and have a structure in place to monitor compliance. As a practical matter, this is likely to be another case where a small producer may find compliance more difficult than their larger, more traditionally structured competitors. 

Now don’t get me wrong… I believe in accountability and transparency as much as the next guy. But I am concerned that the eventual implementation and enforcement of these rules may have a particularly severe impact in a movement defined by a network of non-traditional business relationships, multiple communication paths via social media, and product claims that may be difficult to quantify. My hope is that we can create and adopt practices which the FTC will accept and others can model, before an unreasonable interpretation is imposed upon us.

Dilemma or Delusion?

 I have followed with interest a debate which has been bouncing around between Facebook, Grist and the American regarding organic versus conventional agriculture.

Links to the relevant articles here and here.

At the risk of being attacked from both sides, I would posit that neither is quite right, and yet both are correct. Does that sound like a political BS non-answer? Let me dig my hole deeper…

 “Conventional” farmers and those on that side of the debate often claim that “organic farming can’t feed the world.” To date that is correct. But that does not mean that it may not be true at some point in the future. But first organic/sustainable food systems will have to overcome some very serious obstacles about scale, efficiency and distribution models.

Organic advocates often point out that agriculture as practiced today will be untenable for the next 100 years. This is also correct. But they miss the point that farming is no more likely to remain static in the coming century than it was in the last. The usage of no-till practices, covercrops, and highly efficient means of irrigation are on the rise, and these innovations are coming from the ag community.

It is my belief that we are in a period of convergence between the two. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, the book at the center of this particular exchange, Michael Pollan examines one transitional model: the so called “Industrial Organic.” I think that this a good example of the blurring of the line between the two camps. I also believe that there is another possibility… Let’s call it “Artisanal Conventional.” What of a farm that sells produce both into mainstream channels as well as to local consumers and food artisans, yet will still use a little conventional fertilizer when called for? (Disclosure to those who may not know me: this is my model.)

There are an awful lot of farms that fall into a gray area between the two poles, and at the further risk of seeming self-serving, I do believe that it is in the middle, and not at the extremes, that we will see the future. And I do believe it is one we will be happy with.

A final anecdote: Yesterday I was at a meeting of sustainable food systems types in Los Angeles. It was mentioned in passing that another member of the circle who was not present at the time was going to be attending a $1000 a plate fundraiser. This was accepted as proof that his organic business model must be working. Indeed it seems to be. But from my small semi-conventional farmer perspective it seemed to me that his ability to do this had more to do with an operation that is roughly 50 times my size, than the fact that his produce is organic. I don’t bring this up to complain: I cite it as evidence that the usual big/small, conventional/organic dichotomies that we so quickly embrace in these debates are not always that well reflected in reality.

The Question

I’m really looking forward to almost everything about tomorrow night’s Outstanding in The Field Dinner at McGrath Family Farm. Phil McGrath is our local “local-food rockstar” here in Ventura County, and it might be unsettling to have to share his spotlight, if I didn’t already know what a great guy he is. Phil, I’m pleased to be your opening act.

I always look forward to any meal with Tim Kilcoyne from Ventura’s Sidecar Restaurant, so no issue there. I’m also looking forward to the event itself, since I have read and heard about the great job the Outstanding in the Field crew does.

I said “almost everything”, because the one thing I’m not looking forward to is The Organic Question. You see, I’m not an organic certified grower, and I don’t plan to be… certainly not by tomorrow night. For a lot of local food enthusiasts, though, organic certification is considered the entry-level criteria for sustainable agriculture. Given my penchant for complexity, I don’t see the issue as being nearly that simple. But tomorrow night, I will be asked The Question, I will answer truthfully, and I will watch the flicker of disappointment wash over the face of the guest.

So here’s the long answer that I will probably not have time for tomorrow night. I don’t believe that organic certification means that much in the context of sustainability, either in economic or environmental terms. Certification is about compliance with certain standards, which have some relation to (but do not define) sustainability. I’m more interested in the philosophy that guides sustainability, and on that score I feel pretty comfortable. I embrace the organic philosophy of feeding the soil, not the plant. In other pieces I’ve outlined our use of composting, mulching and cover-cropping, so I won’t repeat them here. We have utilized beneficial insects as part of an Integrated Pest Management program for three generations. With any chemical application that I may need to make, I give a good deal of weight to potential impacts on my own soil-ecosystem, let alone the larger environment. And it is my belief that a farm managed with natural or organic processes, with an occasional chemical boost when necessary is a perfectly justifiable and sustainable proposition.

It’s really all about moderation, isn’t it? I enjoy a cold beer (or colder limoncello) occasionally, without feeling like I’m risking alcoholism. A good cheeseburger from time to time is not going to be the death of me. Now if I lived my life on nothing but Slim-Jims and cheap whiskey, then I’d have a problem.

People typically think of the food world as being bi-polar: virtuous, small, local, and organic farms on the one extreme, and greedy, global, corporate factory farms on the other. In his book, The Ominvore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan explores a third option: the so called industrial organic model. In this model a conventional mindset and retinue of cultural practices is employed using organic inputs to create food that is legally organic, but is philosophically indistinguishable from conventional farming. It is this model that has made Wal-Mart the largest retailer of organic food in the world.

I’d like to think I’m part of a fourth model: organic and small in philosophy, but open to the benefits of conventional agriculture when needed. So if a little herbicide will knock down a morning glory patch without hours of hand tool and weed- whacker work, I’ll do it. And if a little extra nitrogen helps get young trees off to a good start before winter, I’m OK with that too.

Maybe if the wine really gets flowing, I’ll get to have this conversation about the deeper aspects of sustainability. But I might have to talk with my mouth full.

Common Ground?

A few thoughts that might provide a “strawman” for the Ventura AFA’s discussion on fumigants (Not in any particular order):

Organic and sustainable are not the same thing. While any use of chemicals, including fumigants, is not inherently unsustainable, lower usage will tend to enhance sustainability.

AFA values clarity and consistency in applicable pesticide regulations, but we recognize that current regulations, labels and science will likely change with experience and new data. Our understanding and awareness of certain impacts will evolve over time, and our best practices will co-evolve with them.

 Sustainability is based on best efforts to reduce or eliminate secondary impacts from their use, and consideration for alternative methods if practicable. Further, sustainability is not an easily identifiable end point: it is a process of continuous improvement.

Legal action may be appropriate as a means of getting redress from bad actors or pressuring regulatory agencies and policymakers, but AFA calls for safe harbor for responsible growers using approved legal practices.

AFA recognizes that all human activities carry with them certain impacts, and this includes agriculture, both conventional and organic. The challenge before us as stewards is to continually seek to minimize our impacts while still deriving the needed benefits.

Conventional agriculture is not something categorically wrong that we should seek to eliminate completely, such as violence, or racism, or disease. While seeking to reduce negative impacts, we must also recognize the positive benefits that society has received from agriculture.

The bundle of technologies and practices called the “Green Revolution”, were generally accepted as a complete package during the “Better Living through Chemistry” era of the 1950’s. That experience has shown that some of these have had differing impacts and levels of effectiveness. The task at hand is to “unbundle” these technologies and practices and keep the best, rather than reject the whole package.

Fumigants (as with many other chemicals) are potentially harmful materials that require training, professionalism, concern for others, and strict compliance with applicable guidelines to be used responsibly. AFA does not endorse careless, sloppy, or illegal usage of restricted materials.

Encourage further research and extension in the areas of alternative applications methods, materials, and cropping strategies.

In order to allow growers more choices of economically viable crops and practices, AFA should continue to promote a greater diversity of markets and distribution channels and support mechanisms such as land trusts and  conservation easements to ease economic pressures that limit farmer’s options.

 

Are Organic and Sustainable the Same Thing?

Often in discussions of sustainability, and the words “organic” and “sustainable” are used interchangeably. But these are two very different concepts, and confusion on this point is a factor that many people cite when expressing concerns about embracing “sustainability.” How do these differ?

 

First some definitions:

 

Organic: Only naturally occurring, or naturally synthesized, materials and compounds are used in agricultural production.

 

Sustainable: Those agricultural practices which we do today, must not preclude others from performing them in the same way in the future.

 

As we can see, these are greatly different. But to summarize the crucial difference, “organic” relates to inputs, while “sustainable” relates to outcomes. “Organic” is a relatively simple, black and white term. One either meets a verifiable set of standards, or one does not. “Sustainability” on the other hand is an extremely broad, and chaotic concept, not easily defined except in hindsight.

 

Are these simply semantic distinctions? Surely organic is just the first step to sustainability, isn’t it? The answer in both cases is “no.” Several examples could illustrate the difference, but since the AFA mission is to preserve agriculture in perpetuity, let us look at history’s all-time leading farm-killer: soil erosion. (The other leading farm-killer? Insufficiently protected personal property rights, although this is counterintuitive to those who would seek to save farms by diminishing these rights. But that is a topic for another day.)

 

The loss of productive topsoil has plagued us from the Fertile Crescent through to the American Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Agriculture cannot exist in perpetuity without addressing this issue. Much work in the field of sustainability has been done to advance “conservation tillage” and “no till” soil conservation practices, and significant successes have been made in soil retention and soil health over the past few decades. At this point we arrive at this tale’s central irony: these practices require greater utilization of herbicides than conventional tillage. And the practices that brought desertification to the Middle East and nearly to the Mid-West? These were organic, although the term was not in vogue as there were not yet chemical alternatives.

 

It is not my intent to claim that this proves that chemicals are good, and organic is bad. The evidence does not support the claim. But it does make the case that sustainability is a much more complex concept that organic, and that the right chemical used in the right way is consistent with sustainability. If we are to succeed in our daunting mission to preserve agriculture in perpetuity, we must be clear in our concepts and our words, and not leave unexplored options that may hold the key to success.