Thursday, January 13, 2011

Our Editorialized Opinion

The agriculture trade show in Augusta is an annual trip for at least one of us to get us off the farm and out of a routine of office work and make-believe with Flora (not simultaneously unfortunately!)
As a trade show there are lots of ag. vendors there: everyone from the tractor guys at Windy Hill Restoration, to the Premier fence guy (famous at the Common Ground for his sheep dog demos). It is a venue also for lots of agriculture organizations to gather and have annual meetings, and little workshops and it often feels like a mini-conference, and its free! Tuesday is MOFGA's day (among other organizations) so it is a good time to see friends who live and farm far away from Scarborough.
This year was interesting in that a very divisive presentation was planned by the Farm Bureau of Maine. Micha Popoff is, I guess, a "pundit". He wrote a book called Is it Organic? in which he dives into lots of anti-organic, (sometimes) right-wing topics. The Farm Bureau invited him give the key note speech to kick off a program called "Convergence=Sustainablity". To add to the acrimony, the presentation was scheduled at the same time as MOFGA's annual meeting.
This whole dust-up was reported in the Portland Press Herald.
Well the national discussion on the civility of political discourse, has finally reached Maine. Or at least it has reached Broadturn Farm. Today there was an Opinion/Editorial in the Press Herald:
""Is Organic Farming Really Everything its Advocates Claim?" We'd love it if you read it and then read our responses.
(Sorry for the overuse of web-linked phrases!)
Here is Stacy's and next is mine, (John's) (because if you're a regular reader, we know you have your favorite writers!)

Dear Mike Bedzela,
As a young farmer with a mere 10 years of commercial growing experience here in Maine, it is evident to me from your piece Maine Voices: Is organic farming really everything its advocates claim? that there are a few misconceptions you have about MOFGA, organic farming and the farmers who choose to certify their work.

MOFGA is held to the National Organic Program (NOP) standards through the USDA, a federal program that mandates the specifics of organic certification in the United States. Each region has a certifying body for example, Northest Organic Farmng Association (NOFA) represents New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey. Prior to national standards, MOFGA worked as a state level certifying agency without federal oversight. When a piece of literature published by MOFGA states a method for responding to an illness within a flock or a pest in the field, this is derived from the national regulations published by NOP. If you have issue with these regulations, you need to address them on the federal level, which is another opinion piece all of its own.

When you speak of the use of pesticides, you are correct about all commercial growers needing the same training to use products in the field. The Maine Board of Pesticide and Control regulates the use of all products used in commercial agriculture. They help to educate farmers about safe practices, including organic growers. They visit farms annually, including certified organic farms and require farmers who are spraying products on their fields to obtain a pesticide handlers certificate, available through a one day workshop, renewable every 3 years. The products used by organic growers are approved by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) based on multiple criteria, including persistence in the environment. In addition to concern for proper application rates and material handling the Maine Board of Pesticide and Control is concerned with worker safety. Once a field has been sprayed, each pesticide requires a certain waiting period before re-entry into the field. The longest listed time for any of the products routinely used on organic farms is 24 hours. It is important to remember that anything in excess, whether derived synthetically or from a naturally occurring source is toxic.

Pesticides are only one issue to consider when we discuss the differences between farming practices. Use of herbicides to control weed growth, petroleum based fertilizers and sewage sludge used to promote fertility are all prohibited under the NOP standards of practice for organic certification. As a result of this, organic farms have increased expenses in the form of labor and fertility.

In an anecdotal review of local market prices, I would argue that organic farms do not have a 100% mark up in regional farmer’s markets. Although the price per product is often a bit higher, it rarely approaches a 100%. If we compare prices at a large retailer, often the percent difference is increased but remember to consider the scale of these farms, the commodities market for agricultural products and the purchasing power of the retailer.

As to the issue of the recently attempted convergence, it is important to mention that the annual meeting for MOFGA has been scheduled the same time every year for at least the last 10 years that I have been attending. When you want to encourage conversation, it is important to ask oneself if you are looking for dialogue or not. If there is a desire for a true convergence, using MOFGA as an avenue to alert certified growers to the time and place of the event is crucial. Scheduling the event at a mutually convenient time is essential. Carefully choosing speakers and combining them with skilled facilitators to manage conversation would create a safer space for all parties to bring their ideas to the table and be present to hear and be heard.

The reality is that any small scale family farm in Maine who is marketing products to their local community is working hard, creating jobs and providing a healthy alternative to processed food. There are many right ways to approach growing food. Exploring ways to move all of us forward collectively allows the rising tide to lift all boats. If Maine is going to feed Maine than we need many growers committed to farming and consumers willing to partner with us supporting the work with their fork. Most small scale commercial farmers, whether certified organic or not, would agree that they are doing their best to be stewards of the land, choosing to farm because of the honesty of the work and connection to the land certainly not for the money. As a member of MOFGA, a certified organic farmer, and a mother who needs to put food on the table 3 times a day I’d welcome more conversation about how we can all move forward together. We all need sound business practice and marketing skills that will promote our farm products in our local communities to keep our farms solvent. Maybe next time there might be a bigger effort to have representation in the planning stages from individuals familiar with a variety of aspects of all the farming communities in the state.

I wish you the best in your farming endeavors. Your choice to farm is noble and your community will be better for it.

************Whew! that really got her riled up! Here is John's which, because of its brevity might stand a chance of publication.

Organic agriculture has been exponentially growing in popularity and availability over the past decade. The more market share certified organic products take from the conventional producers, the more likely a hostile response is to be found coming from those representing the old guard of agriculture. In response to Mike Bedzela’s Maine Voices: Is organic farming really everything its advocates claim?, the dichotomous language surrounding organic and conventional agriculture has always been present. Small scale organic producers such as those represented by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association have always positioned themselves in opposition to synthetic, chemical-based farming practices. The only difference between Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring and what Mr. Bedzela characterises as the “whining” of organic farming advocates, is that conventional agriculture now perceives organic as a potential threat in the marketplace. In actuality, Maine will need all of its farmers if we are to approach an increased marketshare of Maine grown products being consumed by Maine’s residents.
Intelligent readers need not be reminded of the very real benefits of foods produced without chemicals which persist in the soil, and on food crops. They have heard many times of the deleterious effect to wildlife, fragile ecosystems and farm workers exposed to even low levels of endocrine disruptive herbicides and pesticides.
Mr. Bedzela correctly identifies some issues which make a convergence between organic and conventional agriculture particularly challenging. Biotech’s genetically modified seeds and wind-borne pollution (corn pollen from BT corn for example) pose a blanket threat to any farmer choosing to opt-out of chemical-based farming practices. It is an important dialogue to have, but it is impossible to have unless the relevant voices are invited to the table.


  1. John, thanks for responding to my editorial.

    Your comment, "hostile response is to be found coming from those representing the old guard of agriculture" is extremely ironic! I actually come from years of experience at an organic farm. Our one-acre vegetable patch here in Standish will be anything but "conventional."

    You cannot claim that "all farmers" will be needed while you simultaneously vilify those farmers and their methods as "deleterious," "synthetic," and "hostile."

    It is MOFGA that has its priorities mixed up, not conventional farmers.

    Mike Bendzela

  2. Why is it that conventional farmers have such a problem with organic food? Why is it that they are constantly bemoaning the price when, clearly, there are customers willing to pay (seen the full parking lot at Whole Foods lately?) Could it be that organic farmers are actually an economic challenge to conventional farmers? The consumer will determine whether or not organic farming is a viable way to produce food and, at least right now, a lot of consumers are going organic.