Last week I went to California for the 2010 Eco Farm Conference -- a three-day organic farming extravaganza featuring big names (and big influences of the organic agriculture movement) such as Wes Jackson, Frances Moore Lappé, Deputy Security of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, and a ton of folks who are part of an ever-growing and expanding movement for healthy food and a sustainable planet. But make no mistake about it -- this wasn't no utopian hippy fest (at least not all of it.)
I came to Eco Farm looking for some inspiration, but also as a skeptic. As both an editor of farming and food books, and a young farmer myself -- I was psyched about the three days of nonstop grad-school-ish conversation and networking, but worried about the elitism of the "organic" movement. And sure, there was a lot of self referencing, but you learned about people, and fast. At workshops: "I farm X, Y, and Z. What brings you here?" At meals: "I farm X, Y, and Z. What brings you here?" At the dance and the movie screening and on the way to the toilet: "I farm X, Y, and Z. What brings you here?" Turns out, though, most of the people there were hard working, sun-up to sun-down folks looking towards a future where people have more power over their lives.
At Eco Farm I met an entire family (three generations!) of organic walnut farmers, and a couple of "hermetic hippies" who had a small but working farm, and ran an illegal underground market/CSA (and refused to get certified, because it's too expensive.) I met a Canadian fellow who salvages cedar from beaches (and splits it along the wood grain) for custom furniture. I met a lot of women farmers. I met permaculturists and rice growers, orchardists and garden educators. Old timers and newcomers. Farmers and foodies. (And a lone conservative who came to the last banquet as someone's date and hurrah'ed the new Massachusetts senator…yikes.) Indeed, after three days of much needed West Coast rain showers and farm fresh meals in a dining hall filled with over five hundred like-minded, hard-working, truly Democractic thinking, healthy farmer folks, I was frothing at the mouth thinking about razor hoes, hoophouses, perennial vegetables, and the power of food to heal national wounds.
I expected the hippie contingent. Hell, people who were farming organic in the 60s and 70s are basically the backbone of this country's movement. I expected the social justice activists bringing some much needed perspective on the politics of food, and what kinds of people (wealthier, whiter, landowning) have access to healthy meals (this, in fact, being one of the most important aspects of the food movement in general -- stopping hunger, democratizing food, and redistributing power.) I even expected the unfortunate and veiled cultural appropriation that subconsciously permeated the fashion and spiritual energy of the retreat. (Which is to say, yes, I oiled my feet in a yoga class and dance-chanted to my Cherokee ancestors from the North and South.) What I didn't expect, however, was the dominating corporate influence among the home-growers and anarchist farmers. I didn't expect to leave the conference feeling deflated and powerless after days of uplifting, anti-corporate brainstorming. Because Mother Earth wasn't the only thing watering the soil at Eco Farm 2010. Big business, too, came to rain on the parade.
Take, for example, the new administration of the Asilomar Conference Center, campy resort and host of the Eco Farm conference since it's beginnings. In the past year, the place was bought by Aramark, a food and facilities provider supplying businesses, courts, prisons, schools, and all sorts of other corporate institutions. The leaders of Eco Farm were really pissed about the new management -- they didn't get into too many details, but suffice it to say, the conference may be moved to another site next year. And so it began -- the opening plenary was rife with anti-corporate sentiment, and with good reason. Because, for one, with the rise of big business we've seen the rise in world hunger. The myth of "green" and "good" big business hangs over society like smog.
In fact, most of the conversation at Eco Farm was focused on the power of the organic movement to change the way the country treats its roots -- which is food, and people -- and yet the delicious local farm-donated meals we were eating were forked from the same plates that serve garbage to the incarcerated, a paradox that seemed fitting considering the theme of the conference itself: Where the Future is Planted. Because, folks, it may be planted in the produce aisles of the Wal-Mart that put your family feed store out of business. It's about exclusion masked as inclusion.
It was appropriate then, for the closing plenary session of the conference to be focused on the future of food. And the question up for debate was: Is small the only beautiful? And who better to speak on this subject than Eliot Coleman, farmer, author, and proponent of small-scale organic farming; Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside Organics, California's largest organic farm; and Gary Hirshberg, self-described "CE-Yo" (that's everyman terminology for CEO) of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt.
The hottest part of the debate sparked between Coleman and Hirshberg -- two East Coasters on opposite ends of the farming spectrum. And whoa nelly, did sparks fly.
Eliot Coleman, first of all, pretty much stole the show of the conference with his season-extension small-scale farming techniques and devotion to old-world organic practices he learned outside of the U.S. that go "deeper than just bottom-line certification." He talked about how small farms are relentlessly subversive and keep big corporations nervous because of the possibility consumers will become farmers, and won't need to buy a product. And while his idyllic farm in Maine may not be the reality of every one of our futures, it represents a counter-corporate model that needs more support in order to make change in a world that is far, far, far from sustainable.
Gary Hirshberg, in contrast, sells his certified organic yogurt in Wal-Mart. In fact, he's a big supporter of Wal-Mart. He's a big supporter of big business, and has perfected a rap on how BIG is going to change the world. Hirshberg's speech was successful in that he's basically a politician. He wooed the audience with his charm, his humor, and constant affirmation about all of his heroes -- the small farmers out there. He aligned himself with the entire movement around organic by using the classic stats that prove healthy food is better for everyone. He talked a lot about "our children" and "poor people" and "carbon footprint." It all sounded legit until you realize this guy's company is owned by the same corporation who owns Dannon and Evian (how can he be "for" the health of the environment when he's in bed with bottled water?) He kept talking about his friend Tom Vilsack and how they were just in the oval office talking to Obama about healthcare. He came across as a real leader, and agent of legitimate legal change. There were frequent smatterings of applause after he pressed each progressive talk-button.
But wait a minute. We had just spent the last three days talking about how to get more people farming, more farms in urban areas, healthy food to low-income communities, and how to decrease the negative impact of large scale agriculture (as Wes Jackson put it: The biggest enemy of the environment.) Now there's a bigwig on the podium telling us it's not farming, but buying that's going to save the world. Now, I'm not saying we have to choose one or the other -- big or small -- but what's the model we're striving for? What kind of society do we see ourselves becoming in the future? Big businesses and their CE-Whatevers bloating the economy? Or a culture of self sufficiency, ownership, and access?
What scares me (and I think it scared Eliot Coleman, too, or at least half of the people at Eco Farm who sat in their chairs, angrily shaking their heads) is that it's companies like Gary Hirshberg's that are making it impossible for small farmers to make their own yogurt and sell their own milk to their own communities. Stonyfield Farm Yogurt may have started as a small family farm, but as Eliot Coleman said, they "sold the cows" and became a proponent of the model that puts sustainable agriculture at dire risk. But Stonyfield does bring organic yogurt to urban places (far from farms), and they bring it to big stores. And thus they bring a healthier yogurt to the masses, which is great. They also keep conventional companies in check -- at least theoretically. For that, we can thank Stonyfield Farm.
The most worrisome part, however, is how easy it is to listen to guys like Gary Hirshberg, and be convinced there's real progress being made in the world. He uses all the buttons we want to hear about global warming, diabetes, saving our children. But what he doesn'tsay is that big businesses like his are putting small communities at risk by putting families out of business (at least the ones not part of his co-op), and risking the future of the family farm while claiming to be saving it.
I'm not saying there aren't farmers out there who don't benefit from the dairy co-op model. In the hurting industry, it's certainly a good thing for some (a dairy farmer couple I met at Eco Farm sell to the Organic Valley co-op, and told me they're one of few farms surviving these bad times.) But I don't want to make the success of a few farms cover up for the MANY more that have gone under because of the corporate model. (Gary Hirshberg even admitted himself that Butterworks Farm has the right idea, run by a husband and wife team in Vermont that has stayed small while still earning a profit.)
Hirshberg went on to say we are a culture of consumers, so we should just make that culture a "certified organic" one. He said the most important thing we could do was to be a conscious consumer, and to buy the right thing. He said we should embrace both big business and the small farm, and just be friends, but didn't go into detail about the negative side of big business, or how that model came into existence in the first place. Who's benefiting here? The people, or the shareholders?
I'm lucky. I live and farm in Vermont, a state that still has small towns, local food co-ops, and small-scale farms who operate on a local scale. I can sell eggs to my neighbor, or go in on a community cow. But where are small towns across the U.S. going? They're not prevalent, I can say that. They're disappearing. A Wal-Mart comes in, small businesses go under, and people who have no other choice are forced to shop there. We've robbed them of a choice to do different.
One woman asked Hirshberg (at the head of a gigantic line of questions which were turned down due to lack of time): "So what you're telling us is that we are a culture of consumers, not a culture of self-sufficient beings?"
And Gary Hirshberg said, "Yes." He said, "This is the reality of our world."
Good for him, I guess, for becoming a voice for all the other large-scale organic companies keeping hush hush about their corporate values. I hate using him as a scapegoat, because he's certainly not a bad person, and he's trying his best. But I also didn't elect him my leader. His reality may be that of a consumer, but that doesn't mean mine has to be, at least not forever. Unless of course, I lose my job, my (limited) funds, my access to land, and therefore all of my power. And yes, I buy blue jeans and leather shoes. It's cheaper to buy them than to make them myself! Which is a shame.
I'm not sure the directors of the Ecological Farming Association are on board with Hirshberg and the mega-coporate model, but he still got the last word. Are we to think the future is planted in a corporation? That our power as people lies with these men in suits? I felt like a CEO had taken my language and changed the meaning of all the words. Like "organic," for one. A word that started off substantial is now a label with regulations that cover only the bottom line, not the deep practice.
So while we're all talking about how far organic has come, we need to face the reality that it is in danger in an entirely new way.