Big-Picture Partnerships Benefit Small Family Farms and Processors
An interview with Bob Scowcroft, Executive Director, Organic Farming Research Foundation
When the Ecological Farming Association (EFA) presented in February one of its four 2006 lifetime achievement awards in sustainable agriculture to Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), he said, “We work for change, not for the spotlight. This award is the organic icing on the cake.”
Akin to winning an organic Oscar for farming, the EFA Steward of Sustainable Agriculture award, known as the “Sustie,” was founded in 1988 to recognize long-term contributions to sustainable agriculture and the establishment of the organic industry. And while this organic icing is indeed sweet recognition of Bob’s extensive work in the nonprofit world, first with Friends of the Earth, then as director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and now as the director of the OFRF based in Santa Cruz, CA, this respected organic farming advocate knows that it takes a lot to produce that organic cake. Good partnering and communication between growers and processors is essential to increasing and sustaining acreage dedicated to organic agricultural products, making raw materials and ingredients more available to the industry and spurring industry growth for all businesses.
A well-respected authority on the organic industry in the media, Scowcroft has seen the industry grow during his 29 years of involvement. Through his current work at OFRF, the first and only nationally recognized organic farming foundation, he has been instrumental in providing information on organics to farmers and media outlets.
Organic Processing Magazine recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Bob talking about what efforts can be made by companies in the processing link of the organic supply chain to support organic family farmers and the real-world mutual benefits of building these long-term partnerships.
OP: What are some of the challenges faced by small family farms today?
Scowcroft: Small family farms are very rarely single crop growing operations, so first and foremost among their challenges is to have a complex understanding of between seven to 20 different commodities. In addition to achieving expertise for multiple crop types and their seasonal, soil, climate and other growing requirements, these farmers must gain all of this knowledge on their own. Not only do organic farmers not get any of the government subsidies that are available to their conventional counterparts, but by and large, neither can they obtain information on organic agriculture from these agencies. Organic farmers can’t call the local USDA Agricultural Marketing Service staff for price points on processed tomatoes. They can’t call the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) for export data or to find a particular pest management protocol for foreign exports that would be allowable under organic conditions. Organic farmers have to pay additional money for their certification but they cannot call their extension agent for organic pest solutions or information on soil fertility concepts.
In addition to these challenges, organic family farmers also have to become marketing experts. This means that they need to find the farmer’s market, the natural foods store, and the wholesaler or processor near them and understand what each one of those market outlets needs, from packaging to data collection to timeliness of delivery, in order to sell into those systems for their economic survival. Then, they have to do this year in and year out with new competitors and new commodities coming onto the scene—and again, they have to do this on their own.
With all of these barriers in place, many of us in the organic industry think that the fact that organic only costs 10 to 20 percent more on average than conventional products is a remarkable testament to the brilliance of the organic family farmer in this country.
Part of what OFRF does is to address the abysmal lack of organic research and educational information available to farmers and the organic community in general. One of the things we point out is that organic farmers don’t get their fair share of the resources that they support with their tax dollars. Currently, we’re getting just 0.35% of the agricultural tax dollar for organic. That $3 million in annual monies allotted for organic research should be around $20 million, given the current size of the market. Although there are now staff in USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) who conduct economic- and trade-related organic research full time and several agriculture research scientists focusing on organic full time, compare that to the tens and tens of millions of dollars going into genetic engineering technology research annually.
At OFRF, we’ve organized family farmers to respectfully request their fair share of organic information relative to the commodities they are growing. Organic food businesses should be on board with getting this information, too, since they are also paying tax dollars into the system. The lack of information on organic clearly impacts companies that are processing organic products that have to do their own research and development with little government assistance or education on technological advances for the organic industry.
OP: How can organic product manufacturers support and benefit from the development of the next generation of organic family farms?
Scowcroft: Good organic processors should think about diversity and their own food security to keep growing their businesses. The organic family farmer may not provide 100 percent of the material a processor needs to make a finished product, and at first glance it might seem too challenging for the processor to work with multiple family farms to procure the necessary volume of raw materials or ingredients needed. However, the fact is that having several organic family farms as the backbone of the processor’s operation makes very sound long-range business sense.
Organic processors who work with more than one organic family farm to obtain raw materials for their finished products often see it as part of their mission to develop strong partnerships with these suppliers. The benefit of this diversification approach is that if one farmer in the network experiences bad weather or a pest infestation one year, manufacturing can continue uninterrupted since the other farms in the processor’s supply chain can come through on those raw materials or minor ingredients.
Also, organic family farmers have to think about profitability, so one of things processors can do to encourage development of the organic family farm system is to pay farmers a fair price and offer them stability. For example, one of the great benefits of participating in an organic co-op is that it is a business model that offers farmers high prices year-round so they don’t get into seasonal peaks and valleys. So, if the price goes way up, processors can bank that profit to pay the farmers in down times.
Ultimately, developing long-term partnerships that show mutual respect between the family farmers and the surrounding communities, state and region will in return produce loyalty to organic processors and their pricing needs as well.
I would suggest that every company with an organic program should have at least one staffer who networks with the organic research community and keeps current on the organic policy activities associated with research. If an organic product company expects to grow then one of the staff should be able to sit at senior management staff meetings and tell them what scientists are available to address particular organic production or processing problems that the company may be experiencing—either have these experts on contract or their websites bookmarked and know what scientists are working in our field.
The power of communicating industry’s needs to Congress is still strong, even for issues that are below the radar. By and large, organic is still below the radar when you think about global warming or foreign wars. However, a letter on corporate letterhead to your representative and senator saying that your company provides 209 organic industry jobs in their district, that your company pays ‘X’ amount of taxes and that you don’t understand why your company still can’t any accurate information on relevant organic research, economic and policy topics may garner results.
Every organic company also should have some component of philanthropy as part of their business, whether supporting organic scientific or policy re-search via national groups like OFRF, or via regional and local organic groups. Again, companies are beginning to understand that long-range planning and investment in the organic infrastructure will benefit them down the road. This is the “community” part of organic that is still viable and important to celebrate.
OP: Will we see impact from these types of industry efforts in the near-term?
Scowcroft: For the foreseeable future our government is going to be operating under red ink and the fight for government dollars will be over a shrinking pie. Our political argument is to increase the slice of that shrinking pie for certified organic. Organic businesses must play a role in this, and perhaps their philanthropic effort will be to hire a lobbyist to watch all the organic policy-making language, or maybe that philanthropy will center on young farmer training. However this is accomplished, everyone involved in producing and maucturing organic goods should make an investment in organic scientific research and regulatory policy-making activities if we are going to grow this industry. We can’t depend on others to do this for us.