Thursday, August 18, 2022

Nature of growth

Organic farming advocates face business acquisitions, struggles for fair trade and cooperation, increased demand for organic products

December 2, 2008

From left, Student Organic Farm production manager Tomm Becker, Aquinas College graduate student Rob Nussbaumer and environmental studies and applications senior and student farmer Holly Markham wash and pack vegetables into bins in preparation for the arrival of Community Supported Agriculture members.

Photo by Nichole Hoerner | The State News

If you check out, you are greeted with a screen that looks like a field. There’s green grass and bright blue skies, there’s fun and bright colored trees in the background and before you know it, two containers of Odwalla fruit smoothie drinks appear.

So you become curious, and click on the “Who we are” tab. And you’re greeted with a colorful, carnival-esque factory that is supposed to be where Odwalla products are made.

Across the screen, a message appears. “Odwalla is a juice company that has for 25 years lived by three key principles … Make great juice. Do good things for the community. Build a business with heart.”

But the funny thing is, Odwalla is actually owned by the soft-drink mogul Coca-Cola Co.

Odwalla was purchased by Coke in 2001 for $181 million. Now, less than 5 percent of Odwalla’s ingredients are organic, according to MSU assistant professor of community food and agriculture Phil Howard.

“By becoming part of Coca-Cola, they were able to tap into the distribution network and be literally everywhere, but at the same time — this is a company that used to support a lot of organic farms by sourcing organic products,” Howard said. “Now, it’s just a national product and most of the ingredients aren’t organic.”

Howard’s research focuses on the consolidation of organic farming, as well as on the food system. In terms of consolidation, more independent organic farms are being taken over by large companies, leading to fewer companies controlling the industry.

Of the largest food processors in North America, about one-third have acquired organic companies, Howard said.

“It’s important to realize that there’s a fairly small number of people who are making a lot of important decisions about our food — in terms of what is being grown, how it’s being grown and basically who gets to eat,” he said.

“I think some of that is a little bit hidden from us, because when we go to the grocery store we see these hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of brands. And what’s not apparent is a lot of times a lot of the brands are owned by the same company.”

The industry at home

Despite the rapidly changing organic industry, local farms are not considering acquisition an imminent threat.

The MSU Student Organic Farm is in its fifth growing season, and farm manager Corie Pierce said demand for fresh organic products is still high.

“Just the overall demand for organic products is what has been helping the farm grow and is why the farm is actually here,” Pierce said. “The consolidation of the organic farm industry is a result of a big demand of organic products … but what we’re seeing is the demand for local products.”

The farm grows about 80 different vegetables, 30 different flowers and 30 kinds of herbs, in addition to many different fruits and berries.

Pierce said farmers must understand their market in order to be successful.

“You need to understand your market and how to access your market whether you are doing CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers markets, selling directly to restaurants or grocery stores and you need to really understand how to price well,” she said.

“You need to be a good business person, you need to basically do everything — be a good grower, be entrepreneurial, be able to change when needed.”

In order to help with marketing, Local Harvest is a directory that offers a free listing service to farmers and farmers markets. With about 15,000 farms listed, director Erin Barnett said their goal is to help independent farms stay in business.

“It’s a good time to be a small farmer, because customers are seeking their products out and are willing to go to farmers markets or join a CSA, or in other ways deal directly with the farmers,” Barnett said. “That trend is happening alongside the consolidation trend … as the word gets out on organic food, more and more people are demanding it and they are demanding things that are not in season locally.”

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Howard has been buying organic and participating in CSAs for about 15 years, and does so for a variety of reasons.

“One is to support a type of production system, which is more ecologically sustainable, that pays more attention to improving the soil,” Howard said. “Even though my research is looking at the entrance of large corporations throughout the organic food system, a lot of organic farms locally are small, family farms.

“So when I buy directly from them at a farmers market or as a member of the CSA, I know I’m supporting a small, family farm.”

While he shops organic and considers it a more-sustainable production system, Howard said there are still shortfalls in the organic standards.

“There’s a lot that was left out of those in terms of the social justice issues and in terms of fair price for farmers and farm workers,” he said. “There’s not a lot in the organic standards on the treatment of animals, although some of that is beginning to be addressed. I think organic is a good first step toward a more sustainable food system.”

Growing into organic

During the summer of 2007, and after she graduated from MSU with a journalism degree, Ashley Symons found a listing on for a job in Massachusetts. It was a marketing position at the worker-owned cooperative Equal Exchange.

The cooperative partners with farmers to support a fair-trade and organic food system — a way of life relatively unfamiliar to Symons before she began working there.

“It’s definitely been eye-opening,” Symons said. “I’ve learned so much since I started working here just over a year ago — from where food comes from, from what it’s like to be a farmer, specifically small farmers, and just issues related to trade and the food system.

“I was one of the people who didn’t really think about it that much. … Now I’m just learning about all the complexities and how I can educate the public through my writing and through things I might do.”

Working at Equal Exchange has been a lifestyle change for Symons, especially the more she learns about the social justice issues surrounding fair-trade food.

“It’s expanded my worldview even more thinking about how what I eat and drink every day affects the lives of the people who produced it,” she said. “That hadn’t really occurred to me, and that we do really have a lot of power as consumers and we should voice that power with our everyday actions.”

One of her most powerful experiences thus far was a trip to Peru in September. Part of her job is to get to know the partners in the cooperative, so in a remote area of Peru, Symons was able to meet the farmers and help them pick the coffee off the trees. The employees from Equal Exchange who went also learned about how the beans are processed, dried and then shipped.

“I was just shocked at (the fact that) this is the path that the coffee must take just to leave the mountains,” she said. “I knew we worked with small farming communities, but these are very remote — that’s not necessarily the case for all our partners, but at least for this community.”

The trip was everything she expected — and more, Symons said.

“I was not anticipating the warm welcome that we would receive,” she said. “We would pull up to one of the communities and the whole town would be lined up on the side of the streets. We shook every person’s hand and every woman gave us a kiss on the cheek.

“It was so heart-warming to have that reception. It was verification that my work means something and they are grateful for this partnership.”

Symons was able to meet with Howard during the cooperative’s annual retreat this summer, which Howard spoke at. His work coincides with the cooperative’s mission to build a greener food system. Symons was especially impressed with Howard’s information graphics that outline the consolidation of the industry.

“You might think, ‘Oh I’m buying organic, it must be good,’ but then you see that it’s owned by Kraft or Coke — it just makes you rethink everything,” Symons said. “And I think that’s good that it is provoking questions and now is the time to really think about who you support with your dollars, especially in this economy. Do you want it to be Coca-Cola or do you want it to be an independent company with strong social and environmental values?”

Howard said he found the worker-owner cooperative infrastructure to be unique and a positive aspect to Equal Exchange.

“I think they are great,” Howard said. “It’s amazing they’ve been able to survive in an industry that increasingly has attracted the interest of a lot of much bigger multinational corporations.”


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