“Cheap Food Isn't.”
– Michael Olson's Third Law of the Food Chain
“Alice Waters by herself did not defeat McDonald’s. But Alice Waters taught someone who taught someone who taught someone who taught someone who taught someone. At the same time that McDonald’s continues to grow, there is now a significant alternative, in public schools and in high-end restaurants, and everywhere in between because one woman said, ‘Let me teach you what I know. Let me tell you a story.’”
– Seth Godin from the Real Organic Podcast
Dear Real Organic friends,
About 7 years ago the world shifted for my farm. We lost one of the oldest customers of our organic tomatoes. Stop & Shop is a major New England grocery chain that had been our biggest customer for over twenty years. We were their primary organic tomato supplier. In 2013 we had sold them many, many organic tomatoes. That was a lot of really good tomatoes eaten by a lot of grateful people. Three years later we didn’t sell the store a thing.
We hadn’t raised our price in twenty years, but in 2013 they started saying we needed to DROP our prices.
“Dave, we’ve got to do something about the price.” Their shoppers were still happy to pay what our tomatoes cost to produce, but that didn’t matter to the buyers. The chain itself had been sold to a Dutch multinational named Ahold Delhaize (with annual sales of over $44 billion). Ahold now also owns Hannaford, Giant, and Food Lion. Ahold has bought three of our customer chains in the last 8 years.
And the marketplace is being flooded with cheap hydroponic tomatoes, mostly from Mexico, being labeled as “certified organic.”
The world has changed.
After they stopped buying from us, we got letters and calls from unhappy eaters who used to buy our tomatoes at their stores. I vividly remember one in particular. I answered the phone, and found myself talking with an older Asian-American woman named Grace.
And she was upset.
“I have bought your tomatoes at Stop & Shop for many years! I can’t get them anymore!”
“I’m sorry. We still offer them to your store, but they won’t buy them. They are buying hydroponic tomatoes from Mexico instead.”
There was a lot of yelling. “I know! They taste terrible! Why don’t they sell your tomatoes instead?!!?”
“I’m sorry. It's the price. They want the cheaper tomatoes. There is nothing we can do about it.”
“This isn’t right!! Those hydroponic tomatoes aren't what I want to eat! You must DO something! YOU MUST BE SMARTER!”
I almost laughed. Be smarter? Or cried. Grace felt so helpless. This woman loved our tomatoes and had been eating them for many years. We had actually dropped our price to the stores, but now she couldn’t get them. And neither of us could do anything about it. I was left with Grace's words ringing in my head.
“YOU MUST BE SMARTER!!!”
“If something is cheap, someone is losing out somewhere.”
– Alice Waters in the Real Organic Podcast
At first, I agreed with Grace. I thought, “I must be smarter.” Like most farmers, I figured and I figured, how to get into markets and how to cut costs and how to increase production. And I have been fairly successful at dodging and weaving, staying in business, but it didn't help Grace have access to our tomatoes that she had been eating for many years.
No other farm was coming in our place. All but a tiny handful of our former soil-grown competitors have been put out of the tomato business.
I am not asking for your pity or sympathy. Because this is not MY problem. It is OUR problem. When small farms doing an amazing job of growing really good food are pushed out of the marketplace by fraud, we ALL lose. We lose the choice of buying better food, of feeding those we love truly nutritious food that will help us to stay healthy. Food that tastes good, so they want to eat it! Of protecting our children.
It is pretty basic. And it is the fight we are all in. There are many corporations in Big Food, Big Ag, and Big Organic that do not have our best interests at heart. We cannot expect someone else to save us. There isn't anyone else. WE are going to have to do this ourselves.
There are some remarkably talented or lucky people who, as Arran Stephens said, can dance with the elephants without getting stepped on. But if we want the changes to go beyond those talented or lucky few, we need to change the systems.
We need to think globally AND locally. We need to act locally AND globally.
“It was a mentor of mine, who is actually now the President of our board, Karen Washington, a black farmer in upstate New York, who met up with me at one of these conferences, where she was one of the few people of color there.
“And she said, ‘Hang on. Our relationship to farming as black people is not circumscribed just by slavery and oppression. And the beautiful innovations that we call Organic, those have roots in our community, and it was just a matter of time till we have our own conference, till we have our own book.’
“And little did I know that she would create the conference and I would create the book.”
– Leah Penniman from the Real Organic Podcast
It is so easy to make these failures personal. To think, “If only I was smarter, I would figure this out.” And when we fail, it always feels personal. How many farmers have committed suicide because the shame of losing their farm was more than they could bear? But the truth is that all of us, eaters and farmers alike, are part of a food system that is not designed to serve us. It is designed to serve some very large companies. It is a system “Of the corporations, By the corporations, and For the corporations.”
“What you think your distributor’s going to pay you? Cut it in half, and pray…”
“That’s compounded by the problem with hydroponics, and in berry production in particular. Anybody who has watched the fireworks at the NOSB knows that they ARE allowing raw ground that has been abused in ‘any which way but loose' to be treated with glyphosate, covered with plastic, and then container growing hydroponic systems plopped down right on top of it, and be certified that day as organic.
“And that’s just a travesty. I’m dedicating a good part of my time right now to putting that to an end and uncovering those practices. It is just such a different economic system, a different way of growing. And hiding them as ‘soil in the ground organic?
“To me, it’s just blatant consumer fraud.”
– Alan Lewis in the Real Organic Podcast
So, let's get together. We can do this. Together. Not alone.
There are millions of us. And there are a million ways to get together. We have chosen to make our stand with the Real Organic Project. It is a meeting place for dedicated farmers, concerned eaters, curious scientists, riveting writers. If oyu are reading this letter, it is a meeting place for you. Please join us. Join 1000 Real Fans. Help us get to 1000 certified farms this year. Help us change the USDA. Help us change the system to better serve all of us. Let's make it all real organic.
Dave and Linley
“If you’re down about how to fight CAFOs and how to fight agribusiness that is co-opting all the farms, and how do you get away from corn and soy rotations, LOOK at what happened to barley in the last couple of years. Just the last ten years. The fact that “craft” beer is now 47% of the beer market, where ten years ago it was 5%!
“That came out of nowhere, and to me, that’s the uplifting story here, and maybe is analogous to what could happen to CAFOs and everything else.
“Out of nowhere, Americans decided they were going to change their beer drinking habits because they refuse a flavorless Budweiser. And that happened in a TSUNAMI! And they’re willing to pay more for a “craft” brew. And the craft breweries are sticking to why they started craft breweries to begin with. They want good malt. And that’s launched the barley revolution and launched the barley rotation into a miserable system to make it a little less miserable. I’ll take it, and I think you will too. And It's a great parable for what’s possible in the food culture.”
– Dan Barber in the Real Organic Podcast