Bean There: The Great Organic Divide

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared on 22 March 2017.


It may surprise you, as it surprised me, to find out that farming is a political act. And like other forms of politics, it has opposing sides and competing interests as well as philosophical divisions. Quite a lot of drama, really, for people who chose the work because they really just like to mess around with plants and animals and don’t like following a dress code. (The sheep don’t care if I don’t wear pantyhose to the barn.) But how did we get to this point where farmers seem to talk more about their differences than what they have in common?

By Sennett, Tomas, Photographer (NARA record: 8464470) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Organic farm, Humboldt, CA, 1972 (Photo by Tomas Sennett, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons)


Protest movement

I am speaking about what has been a great divide between organic farmers and what you would call conventional agriculture. Without getting into a detailed history lesson, the modern organic farming movement came to prominence as a protest against the high usage of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides that had come to dominate Western agriculture after the post-war, ramped-up oil industry had cast about for ways to increase their profits. We had embraced the industrial and technological vision of the Green Revolution with its promise to efficiently feed a hungry world. The trouble was, even as we flung ourselves down that garden path, nature wasn’t having any of this and as the science of ecology responded and matured, serious farmers looking to shift their production methods began to emerge.

Not to say that organic production was exactly an innovation. Just ask the Mennonite farmers who haven’t changed their methods in several hundred years. It is a common conceit among new practitioners, alight with zeal, to think they have invented a new thing and to feel the urge to proselytize accordingly. It can get a bit tedious. Twelve years ago I sat at a kitchen table after supper with retired farmer, Murdoch MacDonald, who asked me to tell him what the deal was with organic farming, as he had been genuinely puzzled by the discussion in the news. I told him some of what I knew about crop rotation, weed and pest management, how the overuse of chemicals not only suppressed the beneficial cycles of plant and animal nutrition but could damage the soil structure and actually increase the pests. “That’s fine,” he interrupted, “I understand that. But what I want to know is, how is it different from just good farming?”

By Sennett, Tomas, Photographer (NARA record: 8464470) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mennonites at farmers’ market, Lititz, PA (Photo by Marjory Collins, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The answer is, of course, it isn’t. Newbies forget that traditional wisdom was around long before them. Still, it isn’t a matter of simple nostalgia. There were and are lessons to be learned from traditional knowledge and culture and the exercise undertaken from 1960 on to recover that knowledge has been invaluable. It has been further enhanced by a deeper scientific understanding of ecology, as it relates to the health of soil, plants and animals, and the mechanisms through which that is expressed. With that scientific backing and increased confidence, the organic movement has been highly critical of conventional methods. The organic certification process is touted as a rigorous defense and protection of the organic method and philosophy (it is certainly an expensive and time-consuming one.) But is this point of view justified?

I was certified organic for a number of years, so I feel I have an inside perspective. I certified more for philosophical reasons than the desire for the premium market price “organic” produce could then command. I still think it is a useful tool for third-party sales, but since I sell direct to market, “look-you-in-the-eye” accountability is worth more. My disillusion with the process began when the organic bureaucrats began pushing for federally regulated standards in response to large organic operations wanting to sell container loads to the US and Europe. These larger players naturally had more clout than small growers like me, who were largely disenfranchised by the new regulatory framework. Gone were the annual peer review meetings where growers in a certain area read and made helpful suggestions about each other’s farm plans before their final submission to the inspectors. The paperwork increased many times over. The cost went up. Way up. There was a pronounced shift away from encouraging improved practices to making lists of forbidden ones. There was less mentoring. There were more restrictions, not all of which made sense scientifically but satisfied the philosophical demands of a movement that was increasingly represented by NGO bureaucrats with little connection to actual farming.


Closing the circle

Before the Atlantic Canadian Regional Organic Network (ACORN) hired me for a contract as Atlantic Canada Seed Extension, I was told straight out that they were making a unique exception to their policy of not hiring farmers. At the time, I wanted that contract, so I refrained from telling them that it seemed a uniquely wrong-headed policy. There was a sour joke going around that the only people making a living from organic farming were the ones who just talked about it. Seeds, for example, were supposed to be sourced organically if at all possible, though at the time there was only a small selection to choose from. This was supposed to encourage people to “close the circle” of the organic sector, even though the minute amounts of residue that might exist from using non-organic seed couldn’t be detected, much less affect soil life. Much later, there was an argument that seeds of varieties produced under organic methods tended to do better under that production model than the varieties used in conventional systems, in terms of nutrient uptake, ability to withstand some weed pressure and things like that. There is some truth to this, but still, the varieties offered are few and growers in under-served and challenging regions continue to struggle with commercially available cultivars.

Another reality check for the bureaucrats and purists was the breaking news two years ago about higher than allowable levels of chemicals in supposedly certified produce. To be clear, higher than acceptable levels even for conventionally farmed produce were found in some of the organic stuff. To those of us who had stopped certifying in frustration at the increases in cost, paperwork and unintelligible standards, this was almost funny. Obviously, two things were going on, neither of which should have been a surprise. The first was that some people had cheated. Humans are humans and some of them cheat. The second was that the supposedly hard barrier between organic and conventional production was more permeable than we liked to admit. The organic crowd, having staked out the moral high ground for years, found the fall a bit bruising.

Organic produce, farmer's market, University of BC (Photo by Dllu, own work, [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Organic produce, farmer’s market, University of British Columbia (Photo by Dllu, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Magical thinking

There were other ways the organic sector’s devotion to its high ideals came under fire, particularly with regard to labor standards. Many farms made liberal use of free or nearly free labor through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and apprenticeship programs. These on-farm volunteers were, and often still are, sold a bill of goods about learning organic production methods. Hard to learn much while thinning endless rows of carrots in the rain. Farmers who used this labor rhapsodized about the healthy food and lifestyle these workers enjoyed in lieu of wages, ignoring the fact that the federal labor standards for agricultural workers dictate the minimum hourly wage, even for piecework, with hard figures on the maximum allowable deductions that can be made for meals and accommodation. Some tried to sidestep these by calling the work an apprenticeship, although apprentices in any other trade from pipe-fitting to carpentry get at least minimum wage—more if their employer is pleased with their work. Needless to say, any business whose viability is predicated on free labor is not inherently sustainable or moral. Yet many bright-eyed idealists from the city continue to work for free on organic farms in the belief they are furthering the cause.

There has also been a philosophical bias with regard to methodology. People who would never dream of asking me to believe in Creationism will solemnly avow scientifically dubious practices such as biodynamics and homeopathy. With the same respect I offer believers in “Intelligent Design,” I would politely say “Alright for you, but leave me out of it.” Yet, they are given a free pass on rationality in the form of efficacy tests by many organic proponents who seem to favor their own magical thinking over that of others. There may be some basis for an efficacy test on biodynamically made compost, but I suspect the value of that compost comes from the minute care given and attention paid rather than the arcane ingredients used in its production. I am a great believer in keeping an open mind. Just not so open your brain falls out. In any case, when personal beliefs drive the broader public discourse, we are on treacherous ground.

WWOOF encampment, San Francisco (Photo by Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA (WWOOF encampment) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

WWOOF encampment, San Francisco (Photo by Peretz Partensky, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This free-pass phenomenon is exacerbated by the shallow pool from which activist NGOs choose their executives. Advancement is often from within or bilaterally from similar organizations. Beth McMahon (no longer in the position) went from being executive director of ACORN to heading up Canadian Organic Growers. Theresa Richards, her assistant at the time, took over at ACORN (she’s still there). Beth also happens to be married to Matthew Holmes who was head of the Canadian Organic Trade Association until 2016.

No one, not even I, can criticize their commitment to the organic movement, but while friendships and similar personalities can mean smoothly working offices, the flip side is that this cozy corporate culture discourages dissent, and even critical thinking and leads, at a minimum, to stagnation. When it became known that I, a publicly known figure, would not be renewing my certification, I had no fewer than four representatives from the organic movement bureaucracy phone or write to ask me to reconsider my decision. One of them, a certification inspector, had me on the phone for an hour, setting up arguments to convince me to stay in the fold while I knocked them down, one by one. He finally told me he had to stop – he was starting to agree with me.


The trouble with quinoa

On the opposing team, conventional producers have been both resentful and jealous of the moral claims of the organic sector and have developed their own targeted public relations campaign about good, safe food, decrying what they call the bogus claims of activists. Beyond that, however, increased public scrutiny of farming practices has led to improvements in animal husbandry and a more judicious use of chemical inputs – and not only as a cost- saving measure. The shrinking profit margins of large conventional producers is a growing concern. Many are finding that they must farm much more acreage or raise more animals to make the same take-home pay. While the large-commodity growers boast that they can feed the world, in practice, their reliance on only a few cash crops leaves them vulnerable.

A heavy dependence on expensive technology is the model in Western culture, but more fragile environments, both here and in the Global South, have been devastated by the reckless application of these technologies. Additionally, food security in these vulnerable areas is threatened by increased concentration of land ownership that then diverts production to high-value export crops. Quinoa may be the darling food of the hip community, but the citizens of its native land can no longer afford to purchase their staple crop. The biotech industry points to genetically modified Golden Rice (with vitamin A to prevent blindness) to illustrate its pure motives, nimbly skirting the issue of small and subsistence farmers in the Global South being discouraged from following their formerly diverse cropping systems. In those areas, the majority of the population relies on small farmers, not commodity producers, for their food, and in fragile environments, small, careful farming is more resilient and less environmentally destructive.

Quinoa grower, Bolivia (By Michael Hermann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Quinoa grower, Bolivia (Photo by Michael Hermann, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Even in the West, to diversify is often a risk, with the capital cost of new and different equipment as well as the inevitable learning curve when shifting production models. Farmers have also learned the hard way to be cautious when taking advice from government experts on innovation as well as initiatives to protect the environment. Ultimately, the costs as well as the risk of failure will fall on their own heads while the experts continue to draw their paychecks. And like the organic movement, conventional producers, as represented by bodies like the Federation of Agriculture, wax and wane in their openness to addressing public concerns about agricultural issues. The degree of discussion seems to be personality driven in this sector as well. Presently, especially with trade discussions likely to change the face of commodity production and supply management, the federation has been more inclusive in its relationship with small and organic producers. Conventional and organic farmers alike are beginning to acknowledge our inner Red Green. “We ‘re all in this together.”

I have been in this game for over 30 years. I love what I do. If I won a million dollars, I’d wouldn’t change a thing – just worry about money a bit less. Maybe get a real carpenter to build that stair to the kitchen door rather than do it myself. I have seen both organic and conventional farms that were beautiful, well-managed and graceful, as well as both kinds of farms noted more for their squalor and ignorance.

To my way of thinking, “good farming” is best expressed as a continuum from those eschewing any form of artificial inputs to those who use them judiciously but with the common goal of optimal health for the ecological systems on their farms. With rapidly changing markets and climates, a little humility on both sides will help us work together instead of against each other.

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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



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