Off to a Good Start on the Next 50 Years: NOFA’s Integrated Program for Transforming Food and Agriculture

“I would say this challenge to the supply chain adds to a number of concerns that have arisen about our current ag system, a system where nearly 90% of farms fail to generate a majority of income for those who own and operate the farm, a system that is currently leading to significant productivity gains but at the expense of an alarming rate of topsoil loss and soil health and water quality. A nutrition system that often provides food but can fail to provide adequate nourishment, and a system that has seen rapid consolidation and a lack of competition, and, finally, a system that has lacked equity for socially disadvantaged producers and a fair shot for small, mediumsized producers. This leads me to believe that what we really need is a transformational change in order to build back better our food system and our ag system.” Press Release from Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, Jun 9, 2021

The climate emergency is upon us. Wildfires are incinerating farms in Oregon while in Germany floods are sweeping others away. Newspaper headlines tell us that corporate capture of the global food system has cut payments to farmers and raised prices to consumers. With white landowners controlling 98% of the land and over half the workers on US farms undocumented, exploited and underpaid, systemic racism is firmly installed in the food system. As the quote above from Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack clearly shows, our sustainable agriculture movement’s message that a “transformational change” is urgently needed has made it to the top! Sliding back into the same old mess is not an option. But what kind of transformation will take place? Will smallholder farmers in this country and around the world survive? A lot depends on us and the alliances we are able to build. What role can a tiny grassroots organization like NOFA play as we enter our second fifty years?

“It takes edema out more quickly than anything else.” — Emily Pankratz

One thing is certain – the next decade is sure to be rocky. Change will not be smooth or easy. As an organization where the members are mainly white organic farmers, homesteaders and gardeners, we are confronted with the harsh truths of this country’s history: we are using violently stolen land and we are members of a society that accumulated wealth through slavery and exploitation. Not surprisingly, many NOFA members are tossing and turning over how to go forward. We thought we were the good guys. We believe in the Four Principles of Organic Agriculture that include fairness, justice and equity. How did this happen? And what can we do?

We must join the struggle to dismantle systemic racism by learning to be good allies to efforts led by people of color.

Racial Justice and Climate Justice Converge Our first step is to acknowledge the ugly reality of US history and the unavoidable complicity of anyone with white privilege. Each of us needs to look in and also look around. It helps to distinguish between being personally racist and having benefitted, even ever so slightly, from white supremacy. But we must join the struggle to dismantle systemic racism by learning to be good allies to efforts led by people of color, digging deep into our pockets for money and resources for outstanding organizations like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, who declare that to be regenerative, we must be reparative and describe themselves as “a hybrid model land trust, bringing together a community land trust model and a conservation land trust model to reimagine land access as well as conservation and stewardship of communities and ecosystems with the goal of manifesting a community vision that uplifts global Indigenous, Black, and POC (People of Color) relationships with land, skills, and lifeways.”

“Transformational change is urgently needed… One thing is certain…change will not be easy or smooth.”

For the sake of both justice and the climate, allying with and standing in solidarity with groups led by farmers of color must be central to our work. While small in number, almost all of the existing farms owned or managed by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farmers use agroecological systems, growing a diversity of crops and often integrating livestock as well. There are no BIPOC owned monocrop farms or CAFOs in NYS, nor is it likely that the enhanced access to technical assistance that may result from the planning underway to increase climate resilience in the state will entice BIPOC farmers to use systems that undermine the abundance that agroecology can bring. The climate resilience of agriculture would increase dramatically by returning land to tribal nations and enabling more people of color to have access to land and farming resources. One of the best explanations of the power of regenerative organic practices can be found in farmer and author Leah Penniman’s video “No-Till Beds.”

To fully live the values we espouse we need to start redesigning our mainly white organizations and enterprises. All of the NOFA chapters are committed to this work:  you can view Black Lives Matter or Equity Statements on most of the seven States chapters’ websites. There will be painful moments, we will mess up, but I predict that we will enjoy the cultural, social and spiritual riches that will result.

Two of the organizations NOFA belongs to are finding creative ways to put our money where our mouth is. The National Organic Coalition (NOC) has given small scholarships to five students at an 1890’s university who have expressed an interest in organic food and farming. And, under the leadership of Jennifer Wilkins, new co-president, IFOAM North America (NA) is launching “Organic for All,” an outreach program to offer targeted online training in organic agroecology systems, “adapting organic agricultural practices to the unique set of cultural standards of socially disadvantaged farmer groups in the American South.”

Nurture Community

For all 50 years, one of the most important functions of NOFA has been to provide a community of friends and co-thinkers for people who see the interconnections between nature and society and are dedicated to learning together to grow food and live more lightly on our planet. When I encountered NOFA, I was in full flight from life in the suburbs.

I hated the way I saw people around me living – all the stuff, the cars, houses, clothing the role of money and prestige. I was stunned at the idiocy of the outward appearance of order and cleanliness that was enabled by hundreds, no, thousands of toxic fertilizers, pesticides and fumigants, and dependent on the labor of disdained people, many of them people of color. In NOFA, I was no longer a lone and slightly crazed voice. At conferences and farm visits, I learned how to run a farm. Through my friendship with Robyn Van En, who started one of the first two CSAs in the US and spread the concept at many farmer conferences, I discovered Community Supported Agriculture. I have persisted in organic policy advocacy to a large degree due to the integrity and friendship of the people I have come to know through this work.

We must have the courage of our convictions.

We must have the courage of our convictions. Over our first 50 years, through sharing know-how and discoveries, our NOFA networks have built vibrant communities and made possible thousands of economically and socially viable farms and homesteads. Whatever its shortcomings, the National Organic Program (NOP) has provided a label that has been useful for many organic farms. NOFA is committed to maintaining the integrity of the NOP label, though many of our members are adopting the add-ons (Food Justice Certification, the Real Organic Program) in hopes of bringing NOP closer to authentic organic movement values. According to the most recent 2019 NASS Census of Agriculture, in the seven NOFA states, there were 2,340 certified organic farms on 551,746 acres, selling over $559 million in farm produce. The NOFA networks include most of these certified farms as well as about as many non-certified farms and gardens and many non-growers too. We have learned a lot about how to share a way of life grounded in real values. Public debates on agricultural policy are in a deep rut where only the largest farms count. In NOFAwe know that it would only take 600,000 farms like Woven Roots in Tyringham, MA, or Four Winds in Gardiner, NY,  to supply all the vegetables required by the entire US population. In the crises of climate, health and social hierarchy, we have so many of the answers people in this country need. around soil health, we can make the case for paying farmers for a broad array of ecosystem services.

Thanks to the persistence of IFOAM, Urgenci and La Via Campesina, the voice of civil society organizations like NOFA have shaped the guidelines that come from the International Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, the non-governmental members of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The thirteen principles for transforming food systems that they issued recently could have come from a NOFA conference program. They include recycling, input reduction, soil health, biodiversity, co-creation of knowledge, social values and diets, fairness, participation. The fight over control of FAO continues with the current struggle over the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. (For an introduction, see NOFA Summer Conference workshop, “Sustainable Development Goals and Organic Agriculture.”

In NOFA we know that it would only take 600,000 [small organic] farms to supply all the vegetables required by the entire US population.

The Principles of Organic Agriculture Advocating for organic policies, programs and legislation makes up an important slice of the NOFAs’ energies. NOFA is a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements – Organic International, and we welcome their current emphasis on Organic 3.0, moving beyond the squabbles over standards minutiae to building the broadest possible movement for regenerative and sustainable agriculture. IFOAM members are leaders in developing a framework for True Cost Accounting, to uncover the hidden externalities involved in food production. Some years ago, the seven state chapters agreed to base our advocacy on the Principles of Organic Agriculture. As the IFOAM website explains, “They express the contribution that organic agriculture can make to the world, and a vision to improve all agriculture in a global context. Composed as inter-connected ethical principles to inspire the organic movement — in its full diversity, they guide our development of positions, programs, and standards.

Through our participation as a founding member of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), NOFA has helped define what fairness should mean in organic food chains. Farmers and farmworkers alike need freedom of association to have the bargaining power necessary to get fair prices, fair and safe working conditions and living wages. While only a few farms have added Food Justice Certification to their organic certification, many farms are using AJP resources for improving labor policies and practices on their farms. These resources are available from the Farmer Toolkit on the AJP website. The standards for Food Justice have set a high bar for domestic fair trade in the US to which other programs must compare themselves.

Mainstream agribusiness is finally admitting that climate change is real and that agriculture can contribute to mitigating it. They would prefer a “market-based” approach, carbon markets with offset payments to farmers, but there are strong voices in Congress calling for significant increases in spending for the conservation programs that already have impressive records of success. Will government spending continue to prop up GMO/chemical monocropping? Or can we build a strong enough alalliance to redirect public investments to regenerative organic systems and agroecological transformation? That will be the central battle for the 2023 Farm Bill and beyond.

Fair Markets, Access to Land, Parity Pricing and Supply Management
The NOFAs and our many allies in BuyFreshBuyLocal have done a great job over these 50 years at making connections between organic farmers and the conscious eaters who want to buy from us. And while we have more to do to reach people who either cannot afford or access our food (too often in low-income, marginalized communities in urban and rural food apartheid neighborhoods), we have been able to build local markets and direct sales that in a few places amount to as much as 10% of the food that people buy. The number of farmers markets has grown from a few dozen in the 1970s to over 9000 today and there are more than 7500 Community Supported Agriculture farms (no one has the actual number). But that still leaves 90% of the food people eat coming through third parties of all kinds – grocery stores, food services, restaurants, etc.

Farmers, including organic, face a hyper-consolidated marketplace. Increasingly, farmers who produce “organic commodities” – milk, grains, corn, processing vegetables, beef, chickens – have few choices for selling as well as for purchasing equipment or inputs. Farmers are price takers and the contracts available to them have been written by corporate lawyers for the benefit of the buyers.

The NOFA Interstate Council Policy Committee recently decided to join the HEAL Food Alliance and to become more actively engaged with supporting farmers who sell to the big buyers. HEAL developed the Center for Good Food Purchasing (GFP) which guides institutions in ethical purchasing and has resulted in school systems in Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland and Chicago buying more of the food they serve from mid-sized and smaller farms, especially those headed by farmers of color. GFP recently formed Anchors in Action (AiA), a national cross-sector partnership with Health Care Without Harm, and the Real Food Challenge to leverage the collective influence of institutions like school systems and hospitals through the development of an aligned set of food purchasing standards. The three programs have already led to improvements in the food purchases of more than 850 hospitals, 7,800 elementary and secondary schools, 28 public institutions in 14 cities, and 100 plus colleges and universities representing food service budgets collectively in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Written by a working group with representatives from all over the world, including Brian Baker, founding president of IFOAM NA, the Principles stand up well and should continue to serve us as guiding touchstones in this changing world. The Principle of Health links human health with the health of the surrounding ecosystem in general and food and soil in particular. The Principle of Ecology states that organic agriculture should be grounded in ecological balance, resource conservation and biodiversity. The Principle of Fairness embraces all human relationships as well as relations between humans and all the other living creatures. The Principle of Care calls for the precautionary principle to protect this and all future generations and for equal respect for academic science, practical experience and Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. While Europeans have embraced the precautionary principle, the power of the chemical/seed transnationals forces us to fight over every toxic substance and GMO cultivar. There remains a lot of work ahead to realize these principles fully.

We have made important progress. The trauma of the Covid pandemic has convinced many new people of the connection between human and ecosystem health. In over half the states, NOFA and our allies have passed legislation to implement soil health programs. From being neglected in many universities, funding for soil science research is starting to flow to help us discover so much more about the frontier under our feet. You can track the progress of healthy soil policy on the crowd-sourced tracker map on the Nerds for Earth website. Building on the consensus organic systems and agroecological transformation? That will be the central battle for the 2023 Farm Bill and beyond. (See “Pitfalls of Parity Prices and What a Fair System Should Look Like ” by Klaas Martens on page A-8 in this issue.)

Scholar Garrett Graddy-Lovelace describes parity as a “suite of programs to curb overproduction and provide a price floor for farmers that allowed small and medium-size diversified farms to cover the costs of production and stay in business—without subsidies or direct aid payments.” Scholar Kathryn Anderson further explains: “Supply management and parity pricing directly mitigate environmental impacts by reducing the total volume of production. Importantly, supply management also indirectly improves agriculture’s ecological footprint by 1) allowing the small and mid-scale farms that are best suited for diverse and ecological farming to thrive and 2) providing sufficient income for farmers to invest in conservation and regenerative practices.” The 2023 Farm Bill could become the vehicle for overturning cheap food policies with parity and supply management as the replacement. The year-long protest by the farmers of India against ending a system similar to parity serves as an incredible model for inspiration and organizing for US farmers.

The future of human life on earth hangs in the balance. Despair dogs us and there is no guarantee that we will be successful. Things could go either way– towards the destructive triumph of short-sighted greed or towards a limitless blossoming of creativity, cooperation and democracy, a world of interdependent self-reliant communities where people grow their own food, live lightly and share generously. Let’s take the best from our first 50 years of NOFA and begin the next 50 with hope and commitment.

Resources and Links:

  • Northeast Farmer of Color Land Trust, nefoclandtrust.org
  • The Principles of Organic Agriculture,
  • IFOAM-OI www.ifoam.bio/why-organic/shaping-agriculture/four-principles-organic.
  • Making no-till beds video from the Soul Fire Farm: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4ne- EaxOgg&t=4s.
  • Soil health policies and state legislation, nerdsforearth.com/.
  • The Agriculture Justice Project, www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org/en/.
  • A comparison of the domestic fair trade programs, see the latest issue of For a Fairer World, e.issuu.com/embed.html?d=fbw-issue20-fallwinter-final&u=fairworldproject

As co-chair of the NOFA-NY chapter and Interstate Council Policy Committees, Elizabeth spends a lot of time imagining how to transform the food system. Please feel free to contact her: elizabethhenderson13@gmail.com.