Editors' Note: This piece has been corrected.
Morse Pitts has been cultivating the same land in New York's Hudson Valley for 30 years. His operation, Windfall Farms, is the very picture of local, sustainable agriculture. From early spring to late fall, the farm's 15 acres are luxuriant with snap peas, squash, mint, kale, and Swiss chard. Its greenhouses burst with sun gold tomatoes and an array of baby greens. Pitts, who is in his 50s and is tall with gray hair, doesn't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any genetically modified seeds. He cultivates biodiversity, not just vegetables.
Twice a week, he hauls his produce 65 miles south to Manhattan to sell at the lucrative Union Square farmers market. His converted school bus runs on biodiesel he makes from used vegetable oil, which he is also trying to use to power his greenhouses. Pitts does a brisk trade; demand for his produce is high, and the way he farms is increasingly valued. Since the mid-1990s the number of farmers markets has shot up 300 percent, and the organic sector has seen annual double-digit expansion.
But despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that's not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can't afford to.
Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure -- bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market -- holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who've gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.
What makes Pitts' situation untenable is that he earns just $7 an hour -- even though he is well respected in farming and culinary circles and praised in the pages of Gourmet by the likes of Alice Waters, the doyenne of the local, organic movement. It's no secret that local small farmers charge more than the supermarket chain, and Windfall's prices fit the caricature of well-grown food as a high-end niche market: His eggs sell for $14 per dozen while some of his greens go for more than $40 per pound.
If Pitts could boost his own pay, he'd be in a more stable position, but he can't. And he's not alone. Small farms rely on off-farm sources of income for 85 percent to 95 percent of what they bring in. Medium-sized operations, ones that earn between $250,000 and $499,999 in annual sales, rely on off-farm resources for almost 50 percent of their income. This means that most local unconventional and organic growers don't even come close to earning a living from being farmers.
When the eco-friendly, food-savvy Obamas rolled into D.C., they sparked hope for a renovation of the nation's agricultural priorities. The first family promptly ripped up a plot on the White House lawn, and at the urging of Alice Waters, planted an organic vegetable garden. Michelle Obama invited local school kids to collect its first harvest. Wholesomeness and health were the message -- eating right, being environmentally responsible, enjoying nature. It looked like non-industrial food was poised to finally reclaim its place at America's dinner table.
But, as George W. Bush's before it, President Barack Obama's Department of Agriculture is doing little to ensure the survival of Pitts and thousands of other holistic local farmers. Obama is making some changes at the USDA, but they're the type of improvements that appear larger than they really are. Sustainable agriculture proponents don't want to complain because finally they're getting something. But these incremental changes won't be enough to ensure farmers can stay on their land and sell their produce at reasonable rates. Neither will they clear the path for a new generation of farmers to participate in remaking the food system.
While the public and organic advocates may be wooed by feel-good photo-ops, the fact is Obama has yet to get his hands dirty and truly commit to reforming the industry. The stakes are high: Unless the administration takes immediate steps to remake oligopolistic, fossil-fuel reliant, scorched-earth agriculture, the small farmers meant to lead the way will remain critically endangered.
Reforming agriculture won't come cheap. Most organic consumers know premiums for cleaner food are 10, 20, 50 percent -- and can reach 500 percent or more -- but this produce is also demanding for farmers to grow. It's so expensive because the caretaking of natural systems is more labor-intensive than industrial agriculture, which engineers its way to productivity. Many organic farmers must rely on hand labor to bring in crops and keep fields free of weeds and bugs without using sprays; more workers mean costly payroll taxes and unemployment and workers' compensation insurance. What's more, these growers are typically located in areas near urban markets, where high real-estate values mean hefty mortgages and taxes.
Holistic livestock farmers face a similar set of economic strains. David Huse raises cattle in New York's Cobleskill Valley, just south of the Adirondack Mountains. He doesn't send his steers to factory feedlots and industrial meatpacking plants; he doesn't pump them full of hormones and antibiotics. Instead, he lets his animals graze on the area's diverse array of grasses, then processes and sells the meat locally. Like Pitts, he struggles to stay afloat even though his holistically raised product retails at considerably higher prices than the conventional stuff.
Factory steers finished at "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs, can be fit for slaughter in just 12 months, whereas pastured cattle can take 30 months before "harvesting," a considerably larger investment per head. On top of that, slaughtering and packing are substantially more expensive and less accessible for the small farmer sending through a few animals a week than for big industrial processors that kill hundreds or thousands a day. Aside from economies achieved with scale, operating costs are disproportionately higher for local houses thanks to food-safety rules designed to contain dangers created by factory husbandry -- -E. coli most notably. USDA meat-processing guidelines are tailored to high-volume packing plants, such as those owned by giants ConAgra and Tyson. As a result, ever more mom-and-pop slaughterhouses are being forced out -- and, unable to shoulder the capital costs, new ones can't open.
According to Eric Shelley, who runs a slaughterhouse that doubles as a schoolroom at the State University of New York, Cobleskill, "All the costs of running a slaughterhouse are basically the same whether you're a small plant or a large plant. But if you're a large plant, those costs get diffused, spread out." Small operators have to buy the same gear that the big places do, such as stainless-steel equipment and high-end stun guns, saws, and knives. While it makes sense that anyone handling food should have the most professional tools, these industrial accoutrements can easily exceed what a small facility will ever need. They also typically drive the cost of opening a USDA-approved local slaughterhouse to well over a million dollars, creating serious barriers for potential newcomers.
As we stand in a field with his cows, Huse tells me about the "bottleneck" with the area's slaughterhouses -- he can raise the animals, but getting them under the knife is a real problem. His farm, Stonebroke, uses an abattoir that's one of just two remaining regional facilities. Eleven small houses used to dot the area, he explains, but in the past 20 years, nine have shut their doors. "USDA makes it so hard to operate; many slaughterhouses are guys who are 60 to 65 years old, and they just get tired and quit and no one takes their place," he says. "Why would they?" This means it's harder for local farmers to get slots for their animals, and slaughtering costs are higher than ever. Huse pays his slaughterhouse about $500 per steer to kill, butcher, and pack each animal. In contrast, he says, slaughtering and processing cost the big corporate meat companies $50 per head of beef at one of their factories.
Once the meat and vegetables are ready to go, unconventional farmers must cope with a marketing and distribution system that's woefully inadequate, creating inefficiencies that drive up costs. If Pitts and Huse used industrial methods, they'd be better able to tap into the USDA's knowledge base and resources. Instead they're pretty much on their own.
This year Stonebroke is hoping to break even. When I ask what will happen if it doesn't, Huse replies, "I could never do this if we had a mortgage payment." His parents bought the place in the 1960s, he explains. "My father is retired, and he has a pension," which subsidizes the operation. "I'm not crying poverty; it just hasn't worked out the way I thought it would."
The grim reality for small, unconventional farmers started looking a bit brighter when Kathleen Merrigan, a veteran of sustainable agriculture, joined the USDA as deputy secretary. Merrigan played a central role in drafting the country's organic laws in 1990, when she was an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. At the USDA, she has set out to give organic a higher profile at the agency and to beef up oversight.
After a thorough and damning audit, Merrigan is revamping the USDA's National Organic Program -- the division that oversees certifiers, interprets the often vague standards, and enforces the rules -- which was neglected and corrupt during the Bush years. She signed on Miles McEvoy, a knowledgeable and experienced proponent of clean farming, to head the program. The new USDA leadership has doubled NOP staff in the past year and increased its budget from $4 million to $7 million. Now the program can actually perform some of its duties. McEvoy has at last exercised the office's enforcement powers, for the first time bringing criminal charges against an organic grower who flouted the law. (Under Bush, other producers had been caught but never prosecuted.)
Beyond NOP, Merrigan has initiated Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, an effort to connect farmers and rural communities with consumers and educate people about where their food comes from. In addition, food stamps are now accepted at farmers markets, and the first lady's Let's Move initiative vigorously promotes eating fresh vegetables and fruit. Today's USDA is more receptive than ever to sustainable agriculture, but what does that really mean for unconventional farmers trying to make a living?
Many sustainable agriculture advocates say they must remain pragmatic; if they seek changes too forcefully too fast, Big Ag will eviscerate them. "The carrot is better than the stick" is the dominant logic; that's how to not lose the ground you've gained. Merrigan may want to move more decisively, but if she causes too much of a ruckus, she's replaceable. Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at Iowa State's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says the small shifts at the department have been big enough "that Big Ag is rising up, the blowback is already starting."
No sooner had the organic seeds been planted in the new White House garden than the Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as Obama's secretary of agriculture. Vilsack is a two-term former governor of Iowa, the country's biggest corn producer and its second-largest farm-subsidy recipient. In an April letter to the new agriculture secretary, agribusiness-friendly senators Saxby Chambliss, John McCain, and Pat Roberts opposed even the meager support the USDA is giving small unconventional growers. "American families and rural farmers are hurting in today's economy, and it's unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs," the senators wrote. A follow-up missive to Obama from a larger group of senators reiterated this point. Even the smallest change must be stanched before it takes root.
Thanks in part to many high-ranking appointees Obama has installed, no agricultural revolution is in the offing. The government continues to channel public resources disproportionately to conventional growers -- benefits that then flow to the corporations from which they buy their seeds and chemicals and on to agribusiness processors in the form of cheap grain. When Vilsack got to D.C. he copied his boss, jackhammering a patch of concrete at USDA headquarters to plant certified organic vegetables and calling it The People's Garden. While it was interpreted by some as a symbol of his commitment to sustainable agriculture, the gesture was just as readily criticized as green-washing.
Vilsack is a Big Ag man, and as head of the USDA, he commands a $134 billion annual budget that includes agriculture subsidies, the National Organic Program, and food-stamp and nutrition programs. A longtime ally of genetically engineered agriculture, as governor, Vilsack picked a fight with biotech companies because they were not planting their untested genetically modified seeds in the state -- he didn't want to miss out on the action. More recently Vilsack proclaimed that rural growth must rely more heavily on expanding exports of commodity crops, agribusiness-monopolized biotech, and biofuels, most of which in the U.S. are refined from genetically modified corn.
Both Obama and Vilsack are ardent champions of biofuels, a boon for agribusiness and biotech but a disaster for family farmers and the environment. A 2008 report in the journal Science concluded that producing and burning corn ethanol can release more carbon dioxide than filling the tank with gasoline. And despite an initial spike in income, farmers growing corn for fuel have seen their profits plummet almost back to what they were before the crop-based renewable-energy boom of 2005-2006. Nevertheless, public money keeps flowing. As reported in an analysis by Friends of the Earth, under current biofuels mandates, subsidies for "green" transportation fuels will reach $120 billion per year by 2030, costing taxpayers $420 billion in the next 10 years. (The group also found that if Obama implements his proposed increases in biofuels use, taxpayers and consumers will have paid more than $1 trillion into the ecologically disastrous industry between 2008 and 2030.)
Obama has assigned a slew of biotech-connected players to other key posts, such as the chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Office, Islam Siddiqui. Previously, Siddiqui was vice president for science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, the U.S. agrochemical industry trade group. (CropLife harassed Michelle Obama for not using "crop-protection chemicals" on the White House vegetable garden.) When Roger Beachy signed up to work for Obama, he remained on the board of the Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit plant-research center that partners with the biotech and agribusiness giant Monsanto. Beachy comes with serious biotech street cred: In the 1980s he worked with Monsanto to develop the world's first genetically modified food crop (a virus-resistant tomato). Beachy now heads the USDA's newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a body within the department charged with allocating agricultural research funding. Currently organic gets just 2 percent of all USDA research funds -- the other 98 percent goes to advancing industrial methods. It's a safe bet that Beachy won't be changing this arrangement anytime soon. Further, USDA resources for organic farming are under constant pressure, and not just by agribusiness and its handmaidens in Congress. In his 2011 budget, the president proposed an overall scaling back of organic research dollars.
Another Monsanto-connected appointee, Michael Taylor, is a senior adviser to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. Taylor has been a lawyer for Monsanto and more recently was its vice president for public policy. And he did a previous stint at the FDA in the early 1990s, when he helped earn approval for the use of Monsanto's notorious genetically modified growth hormone for dairy cows, rGBH -- now found in most U.S. milk -- without labeling. With such an active revolving door, Monsanto seems to be the agricultural equivalent of Goldman Sachs.
These appointments ensure that agribusiness, specifically biotech, stays central to U.S. policy both domestically and internationally. They also ensure that small farmers -- the heroes of the sustainable-food movement, a self-proclaimed core issue for this White House -- pose no real alternative to agribusiness. It's not just that biotech and biofuels rely on unsustainable, chemically saturated, water-guzzling agriculture; they also reinforce the economic model that strangles the small locals.
When asked by a reporter how it was possible to extol organic and industrial farming simultaneously, Vilsack replied, "I have two sons and I love them both." Obama and Vilsack seem to think they can nurture sustainable, small-scale farming while still giving big agribusiness their all. As Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis puts it, "Obama said he wants to double exports in the next five years -- when he's talking about ag exports, he's talking corn, soy, commodity crops. How can you do that and still support sustainable ag? You can't."
Two efforts at reflection on this state of affairs are currently underway. Last year Vilsack conducted a series of meetings in rural communities to discuss what might revive livelihoods and populations better than the existing farm program. But dig a little deeper, and the disingenuousness becomes clear. Earlier this year Vilsack wrote in The Des Moines Register that rural communities will flourish first through expanded exports (read: industrial commodity farming), then with increased production of biofuels (ditto). He talked up farmers selling credits on the carbon market; such credits can be derived from farms that use genetically modified seeds and are doused with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Vilsack's only mention of local farming was to note that it will be a source of food for rural schools and hospitals.
In addition to Vilsack's rural tour, the USDA is partnering with the Department of Justice on a series of workshops to engage farmers and ranchers in conversations about the effects of ownership concentration in agriculture and livestock processing. This is the first time the government has openly talked to farmers about Big Ag's anti-trust activities. While significant, workshops aren't quite appropriate -- indictments are.
Obama seems to want to boost visibility and demand for organic food, but his policies don't offer meaningful support for the people who grow it. Doling out a few million dollars to clean up organic certification or connect local farmers with existing USDA programs is farcical and tragic -- at current levels it would take 50 years of USDA organic research spending to match what it laid out for conventional ag research in 2010 alone. Meanwhile, rural farm populations continue to decline. Less than a quarter of all U.S. farmers are under the age of 45.
While he welcomes recent shifts, Bob Scowcroft, head of the California-based Organic Farming Research Foundation and a seasoned crusader for biodiverse cultivation, says the changes made during the president's tenure have been "within the context of the other 96 percent of agriculture, which is conventional" -- organic makes up almost 4 percent of the market. "The administration isn't promoting organic over conventional agriculture; they're dedicating more resources, but it's not stopping them from continuing farm subsidies, trade policies, and research and education that promote conventional ag" -- the kind that keep ecologically sound small farms hamstrung. Obama's allowances for alternative agriculture simply can't match the scope of economic pressures on local organic growers.
The transformation of the food system to a healthier enterprise for people and the planet requires far more decisive action. Imagine a USDA that poured its influence, budget, and know-how into advancing a wide range of biodiverse cultivation methods and extension programs appropriate to various regions; adopting safety rules tailored for small dairy-, meat-, and produce-processing facilities; supporting energy-efficient, community-oriented distribution and marketing networks; and implementing tax structures that made it easy for sustainable growers to hire and keep workers and maintain lasting access to good land. In theory, the Obama administration could help a new generation of holistic produce farmers get started and stay successful, and catalyze a wave of new local slaughterhouses.
Until the administration decides to step up, life will remain rough for established growers like Pitts and Huse, not to mention the next cohort of small farmers. Unconventional operators continue to rely on inherited land, free and low-cost labor, and off-farm income. And if all that fails, there's no safety net. Pitts has been looking for a new location for Windfall Farms for more than four years. Recently he sent me a text message explaining that he sees no other option than to sell his land and transition to something else.
"Turns out," he writes, "my dream of leaving a farm for the next farmer was kind of silly."