Looking Back on More Than 20 Years of Growing the Organic Farming Movement
An Interview with Bob Scowcroft, Founding Executive Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation
As the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) wraps up the celebration of its 20 year anniversary and looks back on the many milestones it has achieved, the man who was responsible for taking the foundation from seed to success, Bob Scowcroft, is also wrapping things up—retiring and passing the torch to the next generation of leaders.
There are few people more recognizable in the organic movement than Bob Scowcroft. As the first executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and the founding executive director of OFRF, he has dedicated most of his life to empowering organic farmers. Under Scowcroft’s leadership, OFRF has awarded more than $2.5 million in grants to support more than 300 organic farming research projects. OFRF was also the central player in development of USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative, a program providing competitive research fund awards of up to $3 million. Additionally, throughout the years Scowcroft has been a key liaison and advocate, engaging with those in the media and government to help them understand the importance of organic agriculture.
While Scowcroft’s shoes will be hard to fill, it’s time for a new leader to take OFRF into the next phase of the agricultural revolution. After a nationwide search, Maureen Wilmot, who previously was the organization’s deputy director, has been appointed to this important role.
As Scowcroft enters the next chapter of life, he may leave behind the day job, but he still hopes to inspire future generations, through volunteer work—or maybe even an autobiographical book. Always a captivating storyteller—we all look forward to that day! In the meantime, Scowcroft chatted with Organic Processing, offering a little “preview” to what might end up someday being a bestseller.
OP: What is the story behind the development of OFRF?
Scowcroft: At the time I was working with Friends of the Earth and one of my first projects was to help ban the herbicide Agent Orange. Early on a number of farmers asked, “Why are you trying to ban these chemicals? Why don’t you be for something instead? There are thousands and thousands of chemicals out there and it will take you multiple lives to get them all off the market. Why don’t you be for organic farming which eliminates all of them?”
This seemed like a good idea to me. So I wrote a letter to support the 1980 California Organic Food Act, which was the first organic food law ever written. By the early-80s, I was much more involved and helped support the Organic Research Act, which later became the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Act.
Then I was invited to Natural Foods Trade Show in Anaheim and I set up a card table and raised almost a year’s worth of my salary there. After about four or five years, I had 1300 natural foods stores who were putting up posters and handing out brochures promoting organic farming.
In late ‘87, the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) decided to move from being a part-time staff and volunteer operation to having a full-time executive director and professional staff. I applied and became CCOF’s first executive director.
Almost immediately there were enforcement issues and the CCOF board voted to write a state law that would address these issues. Meanwhile, there was also a growing federal interest in standardizing the organic law. Around this same time, the Natural Resource and Defense Council (NRDC) released a report on 20 agricultural chemicals. Because I’d worked with this organization during my days at Friends of the Earth, they asked me to review the briefing papers and put my reputation on the line as to whether organic really was the answer. At the time, most of the environmental community viewed organic as a fad or not a viable means to grow food.
The NRDC’s leadership agreed that organic could be a solution. Within the next year, working with the NRDC, CCOF engaged in rewriting the state law and drafting a federal law. There was a 60 Minutes report on the issue of pesticides and word started to spread. Celebrities such as Meryl Streep even stepped forward to testify to congress on the issue. On the Donohue Show, when Streep was asked what we could do about the Alar scare, she said, “I know what I do. I go search out and buy organic food.”
That interview practically broke our phone. We were on the national news and calls came in to CCOF from around the country. We went from about 180 farmers in our program to close to 700 farmers in about six months and we had to double our staff to address it.
The problem was that we weren’t going to see any money from these new growers through the assessment system for two more years, and yet we needed to make payroll and serve all the growers who were joining up. So I went out and reconnected with some foundations I had met during my days at Friends of the Earth and asked if they would consider funding CCOF and our educational work. One of the first I visited was the Columbia Foundation in San Francisco, and the director there said, “No. You’re an ag trade association. We can only fund non-profit, tax deductible and exempt organizations. Why don’t you go found a sister organization and if you do we will be proud to make the first grant.”
I went back to the CCOF board and two farmers stood up and said, “Well that’s a good idea. Let’s create an Organic Farming Research Foundation and you can be the acting director until we raise the money to give it its own place and space.” And the CCOF board voted yes.
Over the next two years while still working full time at CCOF, I helped raise almost $200,000 to support CCOFs educational work and build the OFRF board. Around the second year, we started making on-farm organic research grants. Farmers experiment all the time and need some funding to do this research. With all this, OFRF decided to hire an executive director. When OFRF posted the job announcement 56 people applied for a position that was nothing more than a P.O. box and answering machine. I applied and got the job and, as they say, the rest is history!
OP: How has OFRF evolved over the years?
Scowcroft: There were just two of us in the beginning—Erica Waltz, a former Friends of the Earth employee, and me. We grew pretty quickly, and in ’93 the two of us held the first Organic Business and Regulatory Conference, now called the Organic Summit. Taking a risk, we rented most of the Clairmont Resort in Oakland Hills and attracted almost 200 people to learn about organic farming systems.
We began to get involved with policy issues in ’95 with help from Mark Lipson, one of CCOF’s first employees who is now working as the Organic Farming Specialist for the USDA. With funding from some restricted grants, he studied the USDA’s grant making program for organic pertinence—to see if there was any governmental support for organic farming research. This project led to a 60-plus page booklet called Searching for the “O Word.” We discovered that out of more than 30,000 USDA research-focused, on-farm grants, only 34 had organic pertinence! That led us to advocate for policy initiatives to ensure that a fair share of our federal dollars was devoted to organic research.
Our grant program and policy work led us into a more aggressive positioning toward the Farm Bill and we wrote the appropriations language to fund the Organic Research Act. That eventually raised $3 million a year for organic research. Last time around, we wrote the renewal of the Organic Research Act and lobbied for mandatory support of almost $100 million, $20 million each year.
We then worked to help open other doors within the USDA. Through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, $50 million a year went to help farmers transition to organic or to improve their organic operations. With the most recent Farm Bill we also saw more organic data collection coming out of the Economic Research Service and, for the first time, the Ag Census surveyed all the organic farms out there.
The other key moment through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, was what we call the “State of the States,” where we analyzed all the land grants in the U.S. for organic pertinence and found that out of the 800,000 research acres in the land grant system, only 180 acres were certified organic.
OP: What was the inspiration for developing the Organic Farmers Action Network (OFAN)?
Scowcroft: As we worked on the Farm Bill, it became very apparent that the most authentic voice in any of these conversations is the organic famer him- or herself. And so we created OFAN to deliver their voice directly to congressional offices. We now have several thousand organic farmers and hundreds of supporters ready to write and communicate to Congress. A few times a year we fly some of these representative farmers to Washington to testify in front of the House or the Senate. On our website we have a small story about farmer Dale Coke who testified about food safety and how one size does not fit all. Having
a scorched earth policy around a farm so that somehow a pathogen won’t get on the farm makes absolutely no sense to an organic farmer who lives by the biodiversity around his fields.
OP: OFRF is working on two big projects right now including a white paper that highlights the multiple benefits of organic agriculture and a five-year research initiative known as “Seed Matters.” Can you tell us about these projects?
Scowcroft: Regarding the Seed Matters project, we were the recipients of a grant made by the Clif Bar Family Foundation. This effort brings together collaborators to work on a variety of perspectives relative to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Clif Bar Family Foundation supported the Center for Food Safety’s advocacy to stop the introduction of GMOs until health and safety tests have been done and it has also brought in the Organic Seed Alliance to find more farmers to grow and save organic seed, find heirloom seeds and to breed seed for traits that work well in organic systems. Lastly, the foundation brought in OFRF to re-grant monies in support of organic seed researchers. Overall, $500,000 was pledged to these three groups over five years.
As for the Multiple Benefits research, this represents the next great stage of OFRF’s development and is going to run for many years, we hope. The idea came from a board member Tom Dobbs, a professor who had spent his sabbatical in Europe studying at various universities. Dobbs mentioned that in Europe groups were researching the multifunctionality of organic systems and the benefits organic provides other than just good organic food. He pointed out that other countries were even using this research to develop organic action plans and he wanted OFRF to take the lead on this in the United States.
So two years ago we put together a multiple benefits plan and strategy. We have since hired two very esteemed researchers to do an analysis through a North American perspective, looking at peer reviewed and published research that documents the multiple benefits that organic agriculture provides to water, air, surrounding communities and economic vitality. If you start looking at agriculture by how it benefits not only farmers, but communities, then you begin to see why it is important to invest in a farming system that sequesters carbon, cleans the water, retains the soil, provides salary instead of hourly wages and that helps rebuild rural communities.
Phase one is to do the economic analysis, and then we’ll offer a number of policy and research recommendations. Phase two is to blanket the U.S. with these recommendations and use the tools we have to see that land grants begin to fund local multiple benefits research projects. Additionally, we will work to see that the USDA begins to integrate its agencies in a more systematic method to draw out multiple benefits, and finally charge the consumer with purchase power.
OP: What do you think are the most important issues to focus on in the future?
Scowcroft: Organize your grass roots, and then organize them again. The shifting sands of national politics has already taken a dramatic turn, and I think we’ve had the most success when people wrote letters, emailed comments and then bought certified organic food from their local farmers and local stores.
I think the organic industry is about to experience a wave of attacks. These challenges could include a lack of support from the new House of Representatives or funding cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, which would then allow more serious toxic chemicals to be used. We could see the acceleration of genetically modified organisms—never mind introduction of nanotechnologies and synthetic biology products into our foods and environment. I’m a bummer at dinner parties, let me tell you!
New tactics are going to be required to respond to these threats. This requires a toolbox of social media and public transparency. Today there are social media tools and websites—emerging media that search out and put a spotlight on the shenanigans of the biotech industry and others.
Another important thing to keep in mind as we head into the future is that all of this work to promote organic agriculture did not happen in a vacuum. People have to become philanthropically inclined. We probably get 700 to 1000 gifts here a year, yet there are over 24,000 people on our lists. We don’t get government money. While we have some amazingly generous supporters, we need to catch the attention of many more. Everyone who believes in organic agriculture should give something—whether it’s $10, $1,000 or $10,000. Get creative—some companies do promotions through Facebook, create matching programs or donate a percentage of sales of a product. It all adds up. When more people give more often, it helps grow our movement. When it’s time to hit the barricades, you want to look at people all around you who said, “Yeah, I gave, and I’m here to stand by you.”
OP: You have often mentioned how we need to welcome the next generation of new organic activist. What can today’s leaders do to encourage new leaders?
Scowcroft: New leaders get involved when people at the top step aside to let them lead. The next pioneers are the ones that are going to take organic from 4 percent of the marketplace to 50 percent. These pioneers are the ones that are going to deconstruct the agro-industrial system that has created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, polluted our ground water and are now messing with the very genes of life. We need to find these leaders and empower them to lead this movement.