by JOEL SALATIN
“Wal-Mart is the largest vendor of organic products.” This headline began appearing in news outlets about five years ago and announced a major change in the integrity food game. Hailed by some as a major positive breakthrough, others, like me, see it as a new threat to the ecological farming movement.
In a recent farm tour, I surprised myself by saying to the assembled group: “industrial organics is now just as big a liability in our food system as Monsanto.” The statement came on the heels of questions regarding why our farm was not certified organic or any of the other certifications currently lauded as third-party verifications for animal welfare, fair trade, or Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).
At the outset of the organic certification movement, I remember suggesting that what we really needed to certify was the reading material next to the farmer’s toilet. All of us involved in the fledgling clean food protocols realized that this was more of an idea, a lifestyle, a worldview, than it was a list of dos and don’ts. And yet the do and don’t list is exactly where the idea went with the passage of the National Organic Standards.
Although it took awhile for the federal government’s ownership of the word organic to sprout legs in the food and farm culture, it certainly did …big legs. In the past five years, I’ve sensed a major shift in the organic market that does not bode well for the local integrity food movement built on neighbor trust and transparency.
Recent shenanigans from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), from stacking oversight toward industry representatives in defiance of the enabling legislation’s clear intent, to eliminating the mandatory sunset clause for questionable substances indicate a profound adulteration of the organic idea. Constant litigation and exposure by the watchdog outfit Cornucopia, as wonderful as it is, seems to do little to arrest the juggernaut of adulteration within the industrial organic fraternity.
As I travel around the country and talk with farmers, I sense growing resentment toward the industrial organic community and increased marketing difficulty. Those of us who championed clean food and farming systems several decades ago hoped that by now our relentless education about local food would raise up a veritable army devoted to domestic culinary arts. We thought people would abandon prepared and processed food and rediscover the spiritual and intellectual
delight of the lowly kitchen. And we thought farms would replace Disney as a family destination.
We thought farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, direct farm marketing and local collaborative distribution venues from buying clubs to food hubs would start to spell the end of the nameless, faceless, global, opaque supermarket system. But alas, that did not and has not happened.
While it seems blasphemous to impugn the accomplishment of organic Wall-Streetification, someone needs to scream: “The emperor has no clothes!” What appears cloaked in goodness actually plays into laziness, ignorance and illegitimacy. Those are strong words. Mark Kastel, founder of Cornucopia, likes to use the word scofflaws. It’s a great word, and captures the overall effect of industrial organics quite well.
While thousands of independent, transparent, visitor-welcoming farmers vie for the few customers who care about the land and the integrity of their bodies’ fuel, industrial organics siphons off market share. For those of us trying to form non-Wal-Mart alliances, who do not look forward to the day when drones deliver to our neighbors organic factory-farmed chicken from 1,500 miles away, a new, aggressive marketing position is necessary.
To be sure, plenty of people will think those of us who dare to question the progress of Wal-Mart becoming the biggest organic vendor are smallminded and just contrarians. They’d rather we be holding a praise service instead of a grouching party.
But the trends speak for themselves. CSAs have flatlined. Anyone involved in non-supermarket integrity food sales is feeling pinched. On our own farm we’ve lost restaurant accounts to a new competitor called Shenandoah Organics. With a pile of venture capitalist investment money,
government grants and tax concessions in their hip pocket, these folks have procured a defunct mega-processing facility. They’re using empty Tyson, Perdue and Cargill factory chicken houses to grow — you guessed it — organic chicken.
Their labor is the same as their regular industry counterparts, which is to say it’s not from the community. When a business can’t hire its neighbors, what kind of neighbor is it? You see, government organics does not speak to labor issues. It doesn’t speak to business issues. Much if not most of the grain is coming from other countries. Organics does not speak to dietary acquisition.
And what about the organic requirement that these birds interact with grass sometime in their lives? Ain’t happening. Look at their website — you won’t see anything except factory houses and factory chickens. I don’t know if the farmers are getting paid. But this kind of greenwash cleverspeak is why Consumer Reports can’t find any differences between organic and conventional.
The government organic standards are minimalistic and non-comprehensive, but people don’t realize the level of non-compliance and compromise within the industry. What are those of us who use local feed sources and are religious about salad bar pasture with portable shelter supposed to do? Are we supposed to welcome this unseemly turn of events with open arms, as if this dumbing-down of J.I. Rodale’s term organic is really a step up?
The very notion that we can buy Horizon organic ultra-pasteurized shelf-stable milk would curdle the heart of Rodale. Such a product flies in the face of everything he tried to encompass in the idyllic world of organics. Was Rodale too dreamy? Absolutely not. He was just getting started. Were he alive today, he certainly would be refining and pushing limits, much like is currently occurring at the Rodale farm where innovative cropmulching non-tillage systems lead the world in soil building protocols.
But government organics makes no distinction between plowing and mulching systems. It makes no distinction between chickens that see grass and those that don’t. It makes no distinction between cows that eat grass and those confined in a feedlot. It makes no distinction between a farm reliant completely on emulsified factory-farmed manure for fertilizer versus one that uses a complete holistic diversified multi-speciated symbiotic relation-centric approach.
Many would suggest that farmers like me are just troublemakers who need to get with the program. But what if I don’t like the government industrial organics program? To be sure, it includes a lot not to like. The progression of the government organic program is clear: a steady and dramatic shift from small, localcentric farms to larger, global-centric farms. The pounds of food sold under the certified organic label are shifting dramatically toward centralized outfits owned by mega-empires of dubious loyalty to integrity food.
The recordkeeping and paperwork requirements to stay in the program become more onerous by the year, forcing many smaller outfits to abandon certification. As a farmer, I’d much rather spend more time doing farming better rather than spend that time dealing with bureaucrats and checking boxes. The system tends to attract farmers who enjoy paperwork more than actually producing something.
Codifying organics is problematic. I have neighbors who use chicken manure to fertilize non-GMO grain. They aren’t certified organic. Under industrial certification, if I purchased certified organic corn from Argentina then my chickens could be certified organic. But since I’d rather buy from neighbors who invite me to visit their farms and whose income patronizes businesses in my community, I can’t be certified. The fact that my chickens get a new salad bar on pasture every day, requiring no fans, no concrete, no expensive housing and enjoy bugs, worms, sunshine and fresh air — that doesn’t even matter to the certification folks.
Some of this is inflammatory to the government organic crowd, to be sure. But what is a local-centric, transparent, visitor-welcoming farm supposed to do about the dramatic inconsistencies and opaqueness of the system? Are we supposed to shut up and sit down? Are we supposed to dance around the fire as if we’re all in the same tribe, wanting the same things, singing kum-ba-ya?
All certification programs whose existence depends on sign-ups, either economically or emotionally, will eventually compromise standards. Growth requires recruitment, and additional recruitment incentives making it easier to get in. The only certification programs that work are paid for by the client, not the provider.
Let’s look at this from the customer standpoint. Here’s the real rub. Folks who sincerely mean well, who want to do the right thing, patronize the right folks and do good for their bodies, the land and their communities, bought into the organic idea. But with standardization came confusion. From natural to grass-fed to free range to pastured, the average buyer — even an educated one — has no clue about the various nuances of farming.
Many of these nuances, including the processing side, have important ramifications. For example, I don’t believe it’s healthy for anyone to kill animals every day. Even the Biblical protocols for the priests of the Levitical code demanded a rotation for the sacrifices. The fact that some of us do all we can to slaughter animals onfarm, with indigenous help, as only one small part of our farmwork, is not a footnote. It’s part and parcel of a holistic idea, an organic idea.
Under industrial organics, the processing system spits out and uses up people just like the Tyson counterparts. In the end, we could say that the certification process puts more emphasis on earthworms than people.
In marketing, branding is a foundational principle. The place to start with branding is differentiation. Without uniqueness, you don’t have a brand. Anyone trying to market must bring distinction to their product, their story, their protocols. This is why beyond organic became a buzzword for those of us dedicated to moving beyond the minimalistic paper-pushing boxes of government organics.
But people love convenience. Now that Wal-Mart carries organics, people feel like they’re getting the real thing by shopping there. But it’s a false brand, a false hope. Factory-farmed organic chickens are not like pastured chickens in taste, texture and nutritional profile, whether the pastured chickens eat organic feed or not. If you care about processing protocols, small transparent direct-marketed outfits rise to yet another tier of differentiation.
Those of us who three decades ago carved out a space for our products by describing factory farming, chemical nuances, externalized costs and drugged chickens now must exercise those same educational tools to carve out a space separate from industrial organics at Wal-Mart. It’s a daunting task because folks buying organics think they have religion but it’s a fake. At least Monsanto doesn’t purport to have religion, to stay with the analogy.
In fact, it’s easier to explain how your church can help someone if they’re completely unchurched than it is to convince a person in a bad church to switch to a good church. This is the situation in industrial organics and it is the new challenge of the local integrity food movement.
The hurdle is teaching without whining. Customers don’t like to go to the whining farm. That’s no fun. And yet with Wal-Mart on target to build another 250 stores this coming year, it’s imperative that a distinction be made between imported Chinese organic apples and the apples available at the local farmers’ market or in the CSA share or at the on-farm store. Many times these local uncertified apples actually adhere to more nuances of the idea of organics than their certified counterparts.
We’re in a day of licensing and moving rapidly toward a police state. As a culture moves from faith to fear, from trust to paranoia, the first reaction is licensing and certification. But once that proves its failure, they move back to community. In the clean food movement we are in that licensing phase right now. It’s the phase that precedes the realization that the policing fraternity is rotten to the core.
That means we must amass and report the abuses and hypocrisies of the industrial organic world. From mega-takeovers to outright fraud, as practiced especially in the organic egg industry, we must expose the scofflaws to our customers, in our social media and in our seminars.
For mild-mannered aw-shucks farmers, this is not a role any of us enjoy. But if we don’t protect our brand, nobody else will. Be assured that industrial organics will be more than happy to encourage factory farming as opposed to pastured livestock. Industrial organics will be fine with “no animals on produce farms” and other nuances of the Food Safety Modernization Act. From chlorine drenches to onerous traceability requirements even in neighbor-to-neighbor transactions, the industrial organics agenda is strikingly similar to the old-line bad guys.
Here are some marketing ideas to help independent integrity farms to stay in business:
1. Loyalty cards. Customer retention is far more valuable than just about anything we can do. More and more people buy where loyalty programs reward patronage. A discount after buying X number of times or X number of dollars is a way to show that we’re a viable business and keeping up with trends, without compromising one iota of product integrity.
2. Aggressive social media, including pictures. Take aerial pictures of your scofflaw competitors and post them on social media. Look at their websites. A large egg outfit in the Midwest is right now recruiting farmers to build $800,000 factory houses surrounded by 50 acres of pasture to run 20,000 debeaked hybrid organic layers. You don’t have to know much about chickens to know that this is not the real deal, but our customers don’t know. Name names and be explicit.
3. Go easy on “they’re bad guys” and heavy on “we’re good guys.” Customers can only handle so much negativity, so use just enough to make the point before shifting your emphasis to the positivity of what you’re doing.
4. Farm visits. Something magical happens when people come out for a visit. This is something that direct-market small farms can do that the big guys can’t. If you have “No Trespassing” signs at your farm gate, shame on you. Nothing differentiates the good guys like transparency and customer access. Plan events, barbeques, free hikes, anything to get folks out. A genuine farm visit is transformative for customers; get it done.
5. Nutrition testing. The cost of nutrient analysis is coming down. Buy something from your competitor and send it and your counterpart off for nutrient analysis. You can’t test for everything; pick the one(s) most likely to show differences. Few foods show up pastured differences like eggs. The difference between grass-finished beef and organic grain-finished is unbelievable, like 300 percent more riboflavin. Hammer this home to your customers.
6. People component. The overall business model of industrial organics is the same as Wall-Streetified anything. Explain the way your production is handled, how people are treated who handle it, and the way you set up job descriptions or rotations. Eclectic work, where people do many different jobs in a day, reduces or eliminates repetitive motion disorder, monotony and depression. The human element can be enough to bring people out of Wal-Mart.
7. Side-by-side comparisons. One of our farm’s restaurant clients contemplating shifting from pastured noncertified broilers to industrial organics conducted a formal chef-oriented taste test. Pastured won hands down. When the local supermarket began carrying organic eggs, I broke them out at farmers’ market on a saucer … next to ours. The differences were off the charts and passers-by quickly sized up the value of pastured eggs over the industrial organic type. Interestingly, all the time I was doing this, not another single vendor at the market would copy it. Perhaps they were afraid I’d buy their eggs and do the same.
8. Price. Several years ago, before Wal-Mart dominated the organics market, our side enjoyed the early easy years. I’ve got news for you: the honeymoon is over. Gone is the day when a great local integrity farm could name price and never worry about inventory. Long gone. The market is becoming more crowded and the Wal-Mart phenomenon is siphoning off customers. We need to become efficient, to form farm teams, to collaborate in sales, distribution, processing, infrastructure, equipment and buying inputs. The market is no longer underserved; it’s over-served. While industrial organics continues to enjoy healthy market share growth, the integrity local share is flat or dropping. We must diligently do our gross margins and be smart about investing, product mix and efficiency. Anyone who thinks industrial organics wants to coexist with local integrity food is living in la-la land. We’re not the same. The inherent spoilage and bureaucracy of industrial organics is making this sector less competitive with lean, local competitors. Exploit this. A couple of years ago our farm printed a price comparison of several key items and showed how we were cheaper or at least identical to the imported organic (in some cases, not even organic) fare. It was extremely well-received. And yes, we named names and put down the prices. Customers loved it.
9. Volume. Don’t construe this point as joining industrial organics. The idea here is that we need to be willing to reach a critical production point that enables us to talk credibly with larger buyers. A $2 million direct-market farm can afford a few people; enough so the farmer can take a vacation. It’s a farm that can create an enviable succession plan. It’s a farm with standing in the community. Don’t aspire to be a $2 million farm; just don’t be opposed to it. I meet many farmers who despise scale so much that they sabotage expansion success. If growth comes to you due to faithfulness and integrity, thank God for the blessing and pray for enough confidence and creativity to hang on for the ride. It’s okay. I give you permission to be wildly successful.
10. Participate in every retail interface that competes with supermarkets. For sure, some local-oriented grocery markets exist. Our farm collaborates with these. But large chains are part of the problem, not the solution. Coming on strong right now are electronic aggregators. With online virtual shopping, these outfits routinely underprice the high overhead bricksand-mortar storefronts. Form partnerships with other local integrity farmers who already have a client base. Partner up with complementary products so their customers can do a one-stop shopping experience. The more items available in a spot, the more convenience.
11. Value add. Take what you’re growing to another convenience level. Sad but true, today’s discriminating food buyers want Integrity Hot Pockets. We can either fuss at them or offer to meet this need. Retail food trends indicate that integrity convenience food is by far the most aggressive marketing trend in America. Whole meals are taking the foodie world by storm. It’s disappointing that all these folks have not discovered their kitchens like we hoped they would 30 years ago, but since they haven’t, it’s up to us to meet them where they are. Food trucks, recipes, and cooking classes all fall under this category. Take as much as you can to its most convenient level. That’s what the cheap industry has been doing for a long time. The difference is that we won’t take out all the nutrition.
12. Coaching. We live in the era of the coach. Life experience coaches, wellness coaches, nutrition coaches. We’ve added a lot of coaching to the old standard athletic circle. Position yourself as the fount of farming, food, wellness and nutrition information for your customers. Explain to them that it’s really not about reading labels; it’s about knowing the foodscape. Walking in the fields. Picking the wildflowers. Attending a beekeeping workshop; petting a cow; fishing in the farm pond. A label can never convey those things, but your local integrity farm can. In fact, you can explain that by not participating in the government organic certification program, you have more time to research important information for them as their food and farming coach. Ask them: “Which would you rather me do? Fill out paperwork and talk to bureaucrats on the phone, or protect and produce your food supply?” Don’t present yourself as opposed to industrial organics because you’re a curmudgeon; instead, present it as a strategic investment in them and the community.
With these marketing strategies this new tension and competition from Wal-Mart industrial organics offers us a place to thrive as a point of differentiation and integrity. It will be challenging and not as comfortable as things were a few years back. But it’s there to capture; let’s do it.
Joel Salatin operates Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his family. He is the author of several books on ecological, family-scalefarming, including The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, Pastured Poultry Profits and Fields of Farmers: Interning, Mentoring, Starting, Continuing, available from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore. The Salatin Semester DVD & Book set, a complete home study course in Polyface-style diversified farming, is also available from Acres U.S.A. For more information on Polyface, visit polyfacefarms.com.
This article appears in the December 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.