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Archive for Sunday, November 5, 1989

ORGANIC AGRICULTURE

November 5, 1989

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"Organically grown" signs are sprouting like spring peas over stalls in farmers markets across the country, and Lawrence is no exception.

Organic produce and other food stuffs have become the fastest growing segment of the local farmers market for at least the past three years, said manager Kala Patterson.

In Kansas and nationally, growers and government officials are moving toward standards that will help consumers better understand what they're getting when they buy "organic."

And experts are debating whether the American system of food production and supply should be redirected to support organic or "low-input sustainable agriculture," called LISA. The term "low-input" refers to "inputs" like fertilizer that are purchased off the farm.

MANY EXPERTS already think organic agriculture is moving into the mainstream, according to speakers at the Missouri/Kansas Conference on Sustainable Agriculture and the Rural Economy last weekend in Kansas City.

Organic foods are the fastest growing segment of the food industry, said Ben Kjelshus of the Midwest Organic Marketing Project.

Bill Heffernan, professor of sociology at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said organic or sustainable agriculture looks like the best hope for revitalizing rural America and saving the family farm.

"Using the current system," said Heffernan, an expert on the agricultural marketplace and its impact on family farmers and rural communities, "all profit is moving out of rural America."

In the past eight or nine years, he said, some 200 different mergers have reduced the number of food processors to eight to 10 conglomerates that handle everything in the agricultural marketplace and wield enormous power over America's food supply.

AND WHAT had been a national phenomenon suddenly became international two years ago, he said, when foreign companies began buying into U.S. food processing firms.

"As long as rural agriculture and therefore rural America is tied to the world economy through conglomerates," Heffernan said, "it will be barely economically viable, and therefore not socially viable."

Fred Bentley, director of the Kansas Rural Center in Whiting, said northeast Kansas is ideally suited to developing sustainable agriculture and noted that historically, such farm practices can be clearly tracked in the Sunflower state. Environmental activists of the 1980s now support the techniques, as did organic farmers of the '70s, anti-corporation folks of the '30s, and Kansas Populists of the 1890s.

Bentley said the farm failures of the early 1980s refocused attention on the need for more sustainable agricultural methods, and dramatic increases in farm chemical use in the 1970s produced a corresponding increase in health concerns in the '80s.

NEEDED NOW, Bentley said, are the development and implementation of a comprehensive ground water protection strategy, more organic agriculture research at Kansas State University, more programs to show farmers how to grow crops organically and increased consumer education.

The Rural Center now has a LISA grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will fund some upcoming crop growing trials on Kansas farms.

Such "low-input, organic techniques are the keys to rejuvenation," Bentley said.

A recent National Research Council report supports that premise. In what experts consider a landmark recommendation, the report urges that at least $40 million a year up from $4.45 million in government funds be allocated to support low-input, sustainable agriculture.

WES JACKSON, director of the Land Institute in Salina, said the report, from a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that "rethinking how we farm and live has worked its way to the highest realms."

The report represents a "turning away" from chemical farming, Jackson said. "(It) says `quit subsidizing chemical use, quit disadvantaging the organic farmers.' We can withhold chemicals from fields and no one will starve. The Council says so."

The report, however, validates only large-scale organic farms because no smaller, family-size farms were studied, and proponents of sustainable agriculture say it must be based on family farms.

"There is more to sustainable agriculture than kicking the chemical habit," Jackson said. "Farming is a life, not just an occupation. We need to broaden and deepen the discussion on sustainable agriculture."

THE COUNCIL report will be translated into legislation for the first time with the 1990 Farm Bill, Jackson said, noting that the legislation "will have more environmental language in it than any previous (farm) bill."

Kansas officials will be pushing for the adoption of a federal standard for organic growers.

The Kansas Legislature's Special Committee on Agriculture and Livestock recently voted not to act on a state bill that would set Kansas standards for labeling organically grown foods in the hope federal action will be forthcoming.

The state board of agriculture has been gathering information on organic practices for some time, according to officials there, and some low-input research is under way at KSU.

MAX FOSTER, director of the laboratory division of the state board of agriculture and chairman of the board's internal working group on organic practices, said his group presented several options to the legislative committee for action on state organic standards, including the support of federal legislation.

Foster said probably two-thirds of the 50 states have some sort of organic program, but there is uniformity among them. He added that Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Sam Brownback will become president of the Midwest Association of State Departments of Agriculture in two years and may be able to influence federal action on standards at that time.

In September, the NASDA passed a resolution endorsing a national standard that was proposed by Texas, which has strict organic certification requirements.

IN THE MEANTIME, Kansas Organic Producers have joined with the international Organic Crop Improvement Assn., a private sector certifying agency, to implement a program in Kansas.

Certification, on a field-by-field basis, is good for one year, according to Joe Vogelsberg of KOP, who helped get OCIA involved in the state, in part because the international organization offered some measure of standard continuity.

"Consumers are demanding organic foods be certified," Vogelsberg said. "This is an easy way to add value to products."

Small farmers selling to consumers tell them the agriculture story, said Ronald Macher, editor and publisher of Missouri Farm. The farmer, the consumer and the community all three groups each have to understand how they benefit from a sustainable society.

"It's a long-term thing," Macher said. "The solutions to the farm problems are on every farmer's farm. What are the alternatives?"

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