In “Dispatches From the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.

Olathe corn. Photo: Stephanie Paige Ogburn
This Olathe Sweet Corn is regionally renowned, entirely local, and grown entirely conventionally and industrially, meaning farmers use large amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Its locality has become a selling point; should this be the case?
Photo: Stephanie Paige Ogburn

A few years ago at farmers markets here and around the country, most customers would ask a farmer how she grew her vegetables and herbs. Eaters were concerned about organic growing habits and pesticide use on farms, and inquired about the methods used to grow the produce they were purchasing.

Nowadays at market, almost no one asks if Dragonfly Farms is certified organic. (We’re not, but are pursuing Certified Naturally Grown status.) They don’t even ask if we use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.

Consumer priorities, and the questions buyers ask, have shifted. Now the main farm-production question I hear is related to place: “Where is your farm?”

Customers used to worry about how food was produced; now they worry about where it is from. This switch is both interesting and somewhat troubling. It’s interesting in part because it shows how the power of one captivating idea — local — can quickly eclipse the power of another — organic.

Colorado peaches. Photo: Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Local has become a selling point not only at farmers markets but also at mainstream, corporate grocery stores like City Market, owned by Kroger.
Photo: Stephanie Paige Ogburn

It’s troubling because, from the perspective of a movement against agribusiness-as-usual, organic farming has a lot more substance than local does. The organic farming movement has a history of opposing and actively questioning the status quo of Green Revolution — style, high yield, industrial agriculture. The movement largely formed itself in opposition to the Green Revolution, drawing on the strength of pioneers like Sir Albert Howard, Jerome Rodale, and the publication of books like Silent Spring in the early 1960s.

The organic movement confronted industrial agriculture’s use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that devastated local ecosystems. It addressed the health of migrant farm workers and the health of people who ate foods with pesticide residues or milk with growth hormones. Organic growers tried to imitate natural systems on their farms, and the science of agroecology grew out of this movement. The goal of early organic movement farmers was to one day feed the world through a system of cultivation that paid attention to landscape, ecology, and human health. Today, movement-style organic agriculture in the United States has largely disappeared, and its substitution, from a perspective of ecological or moral consumerism, has become the term “local.”

I could write a whole post, or even a book, on why and how this happened, but a significant part of organic’s decline is tied to the federal regulation of the term “organic” and the accompanying commoditization of the term, which distanced it from its movement origins and turned it into just another grocery-store label. The affiliation with the United States Department of Agriculture, and the USDA’s subsequent misguided approach to managing the organic program, caused many to lose faith in organic; at the same time, the strengthening of the term organic by making it a legally definable set of practices caused it to lose its power in the marketplace of ideas.

Let me be clear — I’m not holding present-day organic up as a model of engagement with the larger industrial system. The part of organic I miss, the part that specifically addressed problems in the larger industrial system, fell by the wayside a while ago, as soon as organic agriculture became primarily associated with commodities and consumption. After this happened, it was easily supplanted by another morals-based purchasing option — local food. That is, once the organic movement had become largely dissociated from organic products, the product (an organic widget versus a nonorganic widget) became the most important aspect of organic, leaving it vulnerable to being replaced by the next fad in eco-consumption.

At this moment, the rallying call within the alternative agriculture movement is the push for local food, which does not mean nearly the same as organic. The switch from a focus on organic to one on local, which I’ve watched happen over the past few years, causes me some consternation. My primary worry is that a local-oriented, consumer-based movement seems to avoid engaging with many of the problems associated with the industrial food system that organic as a movement specifically sought to address. Unlike organic, which did address flaws in industrial ag and then seemed to lose that critique once it became primarily a consumer movement, local has always been a consumer movement, and has never interacted much with the big picture of industrial ag. Thus, while many consumers seem to agree that it is “better” to buy local than not, most people do not seem to have thought through why this is, exactly. And therein lies the problem.

For me, there are a few important reasons for buying locally. Food is fresher and tastes better. Buying local food supports the hometown economy. Buying locally shortens the commodity chain, which opens up space for consumers to hold producers accountable for methods of production (which can range from use of pesticides to paying their laborers a fair wage). It also enhances the chance that producers will be fairly and adequately compensated for what they produce. (Think about the percentage of a dollar a tomato grower at farmers market keeps for a pound of her product versus the percentage a coffee farmer from Guatemala keeps for a pound of hers.)

These are my reasons for buying local food. If you ask lot of people at a farmers market, possibly the majority, why they buy locally, they will likely speak about freshness, and then say that it is better for the environment, mentioning something about food miles.

The concern with food miles is tied to climate change, with the general idea being that it takes less energy to produce and market food locally. Thus, fewer greenhouse gases are emitted buying a local apple than an apple from New Zealand. This, generally the primary argument for local agriculture, hinges upon an association with the transportation of food over long distances and climate change.

I find this problematic, mostly because a focus on buying locally avoids a critique of industrial agriculture from all perspectives except that of transportation. Theoretically, then, if one grew apples in Connecticut, using tons of pesticides (and believe me, tons of pesticides are used on apples), and employed poorly paid, undocumented workers who were exposed to said pesticides, but sold them within Connecticut to local consumers, these apples would be “better” than organic apples shipped from New Zealand.

Recent studies have questioned the true advantage of local from the climate-change perspective, noting that some regions have better growing conditions for certain products and thus use much less energy in their production, depending on season and how the products are shipped to their end markets. There’s a good encapsulation of these studies at Environmental Defense Fund’s blog, and Ethicurean has also tackled this topic. I’m not particularly interested in debating whether local food is more climate-friendly than regional or even internationally traded food, however. What concerns me most is that the alternative food movement has dropped out of its engagement with the way most of the food in this country is grown. I’ve watched this happen, as organic first became just another marketing sticker on a product, then faded into obscurity as local become the latest alt-ag end goal.

As this happened, the alternative food movement set up a system where the small percentage of people who shop locally happily buy their produce at the farmers market, while 99 percent of America’s farmland remains planted in genetically-modified crops, gets regularly sprayed with a chemical cocktail of ecologically devastating compounds, and produces the sort of food that turns children into Type 2 diabetics.

How can the alt-ag folks regain their critique of industrial agriculture and actually begin changing the system? I believe the movement is going to have to take the very difficult steps of moving outside the rather comfortable zone of being primarily a market-based movement, that is, one based on changing the system by relying primarily on consumer purchases to send a signal to producers to change. Sure, that type of movement has left us with a growing percentage of organic farmland, but farmers are also putting more land into industrial ag production too, taking marginal land out of conservation programs as commodity prices rise.

Right now, industrial ag seems to run around in its own world, planting more corn and soy monocultures, causing nitrogen runoff that ends up killing the Gulf of Mexico, and advocating for a bigger and better Green Revolution to solve the latest food crisis, while the alternative food movement happily twirls to the beat of its own drum, and the two never meet.

An obvious point of engagement was through the farm bill, which, sadly, utterly flopped in terms of any sort of reformation of the system. So what now?

From a producer standpoint, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of options. We grow organically; we sell locally — yet industrial agriculture persists and grows. That’s why I feel as if alternative ag needs to move outside of the producer-consumer sphere, outside of the marketplace, and back into the realm of policy, activism, and direct contact with the forces of agribusiness.From where I sit, that means getting in touch with some Colorado and southwestern groups who work toward making our regional forms of industrial agribusiness better, and helping those groups grow in strength — through donations, volunteering, letter-writing — whatever it takes. Here, industrial ag mostly revolves around the production of cheap beef, so that’s the force that I’ll be working to change. I challenge readers to think about where they can interact with the forces of industrial ag — and then to go forth, and engage.