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Central Massachusetts Growers Take On Monsanto Corporation

Monday, August 12, 2013

 

In a David v. Goliath setting, Central Massachusetts growers face off against corporate giant Monsanto over GMOs.

Julie Rawson of Barre’s Many Hands Organic Farm and Frank Phelan of Worcester’s Living Earth grocery store have two deep passions: local and organic food; and healthy and sustainable communities. For them, the two pursuits go hand in hand. They also share a pair of deep antipathies: the powerful, influential chemical and agricultural industries known as Big Chem and Big Agra – which have become one and the same in recent decades.

Julie’s husband, Jack Kittredge, also shares these passions and antipathies. In addition to helping run Many Hands Organic Farm, he’s one of the leaders of a national campaign against Big Chem/Big Agra’s Monsanto and its patenting and sale of genetically modified organisms.

GMOs produce mono-cultures of fruits and vegetables, which are much more vulnerable to widespread virus and disease. Biodiverse cultures – the heart and soul of Mother Nature - avoid the widespread phenomenon due to their very biodiversity. The rapidly growing global and domestic use of GMOs was driven home recently by Mother Jones in World's GMO Crop Fields Could Cover the U.S. 1.5 Times Over.

The organic-farming movement – both locally and globally - is freaking out over GMOs. Groups such as Occupy Monsanto are fighting back, with a public action schedule for September 17. Beside being one of the biggest purveyors of GMOs, Monsanto – with an R&D facility in Cambridge - controls 40 percent of the conventional seed market in the U.S. and 20 percent of the worldwide market, including organics and heirlooms.

Julie Rawson, Frank Phelan and Jack Kittredge may be David to the Goliath represented by Monsanto and its bottom-line-driven brethren. But they are hopeful and confident – legal and consumer rocks in sling – that they and their local, organic and sustainable allies will someday slay these Anti-Green Giants.

Putting up their legal dukes

Local, organic farming has taken root and is growing in Central Massachusetts. When the Regional Environmental Council held its first Slow Food Gala at the College of the Holy Cross in 2005, it was able to locally source – that is, within 100 miles – only a small portion of the organic food served during that event. Last year, the amount had risen dramatically to 95 percent.

Organic food is not just for hippies any more, says Frank Phelan, manager of Worcester's Living Earth, a 42-year-old independent grocery store.

Working soiled-hand-in-gardening-glove with REC to preserve and protect Greater Worcester’s local, organic diversity, is Worcester Roots Project. Its Toxic Soil Busters program mediates inner-city soil so that REC's Youth Grows program as well as other neighborhood residents can grow organic gardens in toxic-busted soil - or, at least, in raised boxes that sit on still-toxic soil. Meanwhile, REC continues to expand both its Community Farmers Market and its Mobile Farmers Market.

This helps to explain why local, organic farming is now facing competition from Big Retail. In what some regard as oxymoronic, Walmart is getting into organic food - raising serious questions about whether the price-squeezing behemoth is truly going green or merely greenwashing. Charming charlatans of the “Mad Men” world use greenwashing to promote a false or misleading perception that an organization’s products, aims and/or policies are truly environmentally safe and sound.

Amid the raging debates over GMOs and greenwashing, two wheat growers in Washington state recently sued Monsanto for the allegedly unauthorized release of genetically modified wheat. Their legal action followed by just days a similar suit filed against Monsanto by a Kansas farmer. Monsanto responded by saying it had tested more than 30,000 seed samples in Oregon and Washington state and found no evidence of GMO contamination. However, several plant scientists reportedly questioned Monsanto’s test results.

In 2011, Public Patent Foundation, which represents several chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, including NOFA-Mass., sued Monsanto over its patents on genetically modified seed. This June, a federal Appeals Court - agreeing with a federal District Court - found that NOFA had no legal standing because its claim was "hypothetical," and dismissed the suit.

Last month, a group of biotech-seed companies launched GMO Answers, an online forum to defend GMOs. The effort is funded in large part by Monsanto. This is the same Monsanto that gave us the now-infamous Agent Orange, one of the herbicides and defoliants used by the U.S. military as part of its chemical-warfare program during the Vietnam War.

This is also the same Monsanto that future GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as a then-consultant, helped to rescue from financial and scandal troubles a quarter century ago, by getting the chemical maker to diversify into agriculture. Monsanto sells $1 billion worth of herbicides every three months, with weed-killing Roundup its top brand.

As The Nation reported during the 2012 presidential campaign in Mitt Romney, Monsanto Man, “The Union of Concerned Scientists criticized the absence of independent and long-term research findings on [GMO] safety, charging that we are placing ‘a huge wager’ on this little-examined technology.” The article noted that, 14 years earlier, Monsanto’s then-communications director, Phil Angell, summarily dismissed the concern. “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job,”Angell told Second Nature author Michael Pollan, for a 1998 New York Times article titled Playing God in the Garden,

However, that does not quite jibe with reality. As the Nation reported 14 years later, while then-GOP nominee Romney was campaigning for the Oval Office, “Monsanto pressured the Reagan administration, starting during the Bain years, to develop a friendly regulatory framework it could exploit as a seal of approval.”

With well-funded, well-connected foes such as Monsanto, Central Mass. organic farmers need all the legal, political and consumer support they can muster. And they aren’t shy about a good, old-fashioned rumble in the fertile soil of public debate.

Hope springs eternal for organic farmers

As America’s local, organic farmers take on Big Chem/BigAgra in the courtroom, a ray of hope shines on America’s organic farms and ranches. But the days of bountiful harvests and flowing profits remain elusive for most of them.

Between 1990 and 2007, the relative amount of agricultural output in each of the six New England States has remained fairly constant, according to an interactive infograph that GoLocalWorcester created through Gapminder USA. Vermont continued to generate the largest amount of revenue ($758 million in 2007) as well as the largest amount of revenue per capita ($1,220 in‘07). And Massachusetts stayed about the same, with the fourth-largest revenue amount ($602 million in ‘07) and fifth-largest revenue per capita ($93 million in ’07). Click the photo above for an interactive graphic.

Our country’s organic farms and ranches had higher average sales and higher average production expenses than farming operations overall, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2008 Organic Production Survey. This was USDA’s first wide-scale survey of organic producers, and it was done in direct response to growing interest in organics among consumers, farmers, businesses, policymakers and others.

The USDA survey counted more than 14,500 U.S. farms and ranches that were either USDA-certified organic or were exempt from certification because their sales totaled less than $5,000. These operations comprised 4.1 million acres of land, of which 1.6 million acres were harvested cropland and 1.8 million acres were pasture or rangeland.

While all 50 states had organic farms or ranches, nearly 20 percent were in California. The Golden State also led the nation in organic sales, with more than $1 billion – or about one-third of all U.S. sales. In Massachusetts, organic sales totaled a mere $15 million – less than one-half of one percent of the national amount.

America’s certified and exempt organic farms also had average sales and production expenses that were higher than those of farms overall. Organics averaged of $218,000 in sales, compared with $135,000 for all farms. Production expenses averaged $172,000 per organic farm, compared with an average of $109,000 for all farms.

Nearly half of America’s organic producers sold locally - with 44 percent of sales taking place 100 miles or less from the farm. Nearly 83 percent of organic sales were to wholesale channels, including processors, millers and packers. About 10 percent of sales were directly to retail operations, including supermarkets. Only 7 percent of sales were directly to consumers, via farm stands, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture and other arrangements.

The organic farmers who responded to the USDA survey said they faced various challenges, including regulatory, production, management and marketing issues. Despite these challenges, more than 78 percent said they planned to maintain or increase their organic production over the following five years.

Never been a way to get rich quick

While most of America’s organic farmers and ranchers express hope for their future, it may only be wishful thinking. As Julie Rawson, of Many Hands and NOFA-Mass., observes, too many of our public servants are owned and operated by Corporate America.

She and Jack Kittredge, Julie says, “have always been happy to break even. We made a decision a long time ago that we weren’t going to be full-time farmers.” In addition to their farm duties, she organizes and runs NOFA-Mass. and her husband takes on public-policy issues such as GMOs. Even if market demand allowed them to farm full-time, she doesn’t think they would do so because they like to “act in the larger world in organic farming.”

Many Hands itself also acts in the larger world of organic farming, as one of the few national providers of organic lard – pig fat. “We have a very active business, selling lard to people,” Julie says with a laugh. Thanks in large part to this rendered reward, Many Hands does about $100,000 a year in overall business. While Many Hands sits on 55 acres of land, only a small portion of it – about seven acres - is farmable because of the property’s typical New England landscape of “rock, tree or swamp.”

For her and Jack, Julie says, it’s important that their farmhands “have a real living,” which at Many Hands means $8 an hour for high school students working summer jobs and $15 for long-time staff members. Some of the workers are former prisoners for whom Many Hands, she says, is “a stepping stone to getting them back on their feet. … It’s very hard for people to make it in farming. It’s definitely very hard for people to make it as a farm worker.”

That said, Julie is heartened by the response of local restaurants, grocery stores and individuals to local, organic produce. “There’s been a real, nice interest in organic and local agriculture over the last 10 years. I think it’s been really blossoming. The problem is, the cost of production is very close to what you can get for the food. So Living Earth, for example, can’t charge an arm and a leg for food because people won’t go there.”

Julie doesn’t see the cost-competitiveness of local, organic farming improving much over the next few years, thanks to a national farm policy controlled by Corporate America. “I think the major obstacle is our federal government, which is in bed with the chemical companies, the pharmaceutical companies, Big Ag and the [federal] Farm Bill,” she says. That controversial legislation “is all about supporting multi-millionaire farmers either to not farm or to get really, really low prices for their food. As long as we have a policy in our country that supports GMO agriculture [and] large-scale agriculture, small farmers, whether they’re organic or not, are going to struggle to make it.”

One key reason is that America’s small farmers do not receive federal subsidies - as Big Agra does – which would enable them to sell their produce as much lower prices. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), is committed to helping reform federal farm policy -- with the interests of small farmers and consumers in mind. Pingree, who addressed NOFA’s 2012 Summer Conference at UMass-Amherst, has been pushing for passage of the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act. Her comprehensive package of reforms to agriculture policy aims to expand opportunities for local and regional farmers and make it easier for consumers to have access to healthy foods.

Pingree’s bill died in committee in 2011, and she reintroduced it last April as House 1414. It looks to be DOA. GovTrack gives her latest version a “1 percent chance of getting by committee” and a 0 percent chance of being enacted.”

Julie Rawson isn’t surprised. “This country is owned by the rich people and it’s run by the rich people. They’re the ones that are getting the money for everything,” she says, adding, “If you look at farming in this country, it’s never been a way to get rich quick. Whether it’s organic or [some other niche], it’s a labor of love.”

No longer a hippie, commune concept

Living Earth is one of the many Central Mass. grocery stores that provide retail space for this labor of love. And Living Earth does so for more than just the love of it.

The 42-year-old local, independent grocery story was founded and is owned and operated by the Maykel family, which also founded, owns and operates five-year-old Evo, a restaurant located in the same building as Living Earth.

Living Earth’s entire produce section, which represents about 15 percent of its overall business, is organic, as is about 70 percent of the store’s grocery and dairy inventory, according to Phelan. During the growing season, he notes, Living Earth “a good amount” of its organic produce and dairy inventory is from local farms – meaning those within 100 miles of Worcester.

Many Hands is one of several local, organic farms that supply Living Earth with produce. In fact, Many Hands, which has been doing so since 1984, was the first NOFA-certified organic farm that Living Earth did business with. These days, Living Earth partners with several other local, organic farms, including Bird of the Hand Farm and Orchard in Sterling, from which it buys organic apples and ginseng roots, and Robinson Farm in Hardwick, an organic dairy operation that supplies Living Earth with raw-milk cheeses. Another local supplier is Kittredge Farm in North Brookfield, which is owned and operated by Dan Kittredge, Julie and Jack’s son.

The Central Mass. demand for local, organic food “has certainly grown over the past 20 years,” Phelan says. “I’d say it’s at least doubled.” He ”sure hopes” the demand will double again over the next decade or so, he says, “because small, family farms are really important to the community, important for land conservation and certainly important for the quality of the air, the water and the land around us - if they’re going through organic processes.”

Phelan is hopeful because local, organic food is now attractive to much more than just a small, narrow demographic. “It’s not this esoteric thing like it was 30 years ago, [when] people would attribute it to the hippie, commune concept. Now, it’s much more mainstream,” he says.

Of course, certain produce, such as citrus and stone fruits, is not indigenous to New England, so we shouldn’t expect to be able to buy local, organic oranges and plums during the winter months.  And most organic apples sold in New England come from the West Coast, which gets much less rain and, as a result, much fewer mold, fungus and insect problems. The typical West Coast fruit, he observes, is “the classic, teacher’s desk apple.”

This is why some of us fickle foodsters turn up our noses at cosmetically blemished apples, which New England produces much more of than the West Coast. “Slowly but surely, people are changing their mindset about that, too, but we’re not there yet,” Phelan says. “It gets back to that local thing, where people want to connect to where their food is coming from.”

And then there’s the deep, not-always-rational national debate over raw milk. Cheese that has been made from raw milk – milk that’s processed as little as possible – and that has been aged for 60 days or longer, can be sold in Massachusetts. In Mass., farmers can sell raw milk as long as the sale takes place on their farm property. However, they are not permitted to either sell raw milk in grocery stores or deliver raw milk to consumers' homes because of concern that lack of pasteurization will result in infectious microbes. This, even though today’s the typical dairy farm has sanitary and storage conditions that are vastly better than during the 19th century, when pasteurization was introduced to dairy farming. House 717, introduced by Rep. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), would give Mass. farmers a safe way to deliver raw milk directly to consumers' homes, although, bizarrely, they'd still be prohibited from selling raw milk to grocery stores, to sell to consumers.

Despite these obstacles, even large, chain supermarkets are starting to go local and organic with their produce. “As people become more aware of what’s in their food and what’s on their food,” Phelan says, “more and more people are leaning toward the organic movement.” He attributes this tipping point to the consumers now having much more knowledge and information, due largely to the Internet. “People have become more educated and more concerned about the food they consume,” he says.

Perhaps the physical and mental toil of tilling the tough New England soil - which Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge regard as a labor of love - is about to be transformed. The resulting harvest could well become a labor of healthy, sustainable and profitable capitalism for Many Hands and many other Central Mass. organic farms.

Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.

 

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