“The Organic Life” takes a behind-the-scenes look at one year in the life of an organic farmer in California
Young American organic farmers are an endangered species, with numbers dropping every year due to the uphill challenges of economic viability for small organic farms
Ninety percent of small farmers rely on outside jobs, or a spouse’s outside job, to pay their basic living expenses, and many live at or below poverty level
Do you know what goes into the growing of those beautiful organic tomatoes that appear at the farmer’s market every summer? The documentary “The Organic Life” shows what it takes to sustain an organic farm and puts a face to your local farmer.
Unless you grew up on a farm or do a fair amount of backyard gardening, chances are you really don’t know what transpires in the 200-some days it takes to produce that heirloom tomato.
The film, produced by filmmaker Casey Beck, is a yearlong chronicle of the life of one young farmer, Austin Blair, whom Casey has since married.
Farmers like Austin are an increasingly rare breed, as fewer and fewer young men and women are choosing to make farming their livelihood. And given today’s challenges, it’s really no surprise that so few are returning to work the land.
In 1945, the average age of the American farmer was 39; today, it’s 55. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers under the age of 45 dropped 14 percent between 2002 and 2007.1
“The Organic Life” is a look at sustainable farming—not merely in terms of how they make the farm viable, but also how the farm sustains its keepers.
Organic Farming Can Only Be Described as a Labor of Love
Small organic farmers certainly don’t do it for the money—many live at or below the poverty line. Instead, they are driven by their passion for the organic lifestyle, real food, and their love of the earth.
When you work extraordinarily long hours for a pittance, being sustained by a deep passion for your work is an essential prerequisite.
California has been a major hub for young sustainable farming pioneers who seek to reclaim American soil. These farmers face increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and drought, pests, and eternally shifting markets.
They work year-round in rain, hail, or sweltering heat, six or seven days a week, seemingly impervious to sweat and blisters. Even with customers paying a premium for locally grown organic produce, most of these farms are barely able to keep going.
According to an article in Salon,2 the USDA’s 2012 data indicated that intermediate sized farms—defined as those grossing between $10,000 and $250,000 per year—obtain only 10 percent of their income from the farm, and 90 percent from off-farm sources.
Something is wrong with a system in which nine out of 10 farmers must rely on an outside job, or a spouse’s outside job, to pay their basic living expenses—a system that places so little value on something as important as your food!
Yet, farmers like Austin love what they do and would not choose anything else. Farmers like him are carrying out a tradition that has nourished us for generations… and they go largely unappreciated.
Organic Farmers Fight for Sustainability Amidst Great Adversity
The next time you cringe at the price tag on that beautiful heirloom tomato, there are some factors to consider. Small organic farmers have greater expenses than conventional farmers, as well as minimal economic incentives to assist them.
Marketing, manufacturing, distribution, and customer care are all typically done by a very small group of people wearing multiple hats. Many smaller farmers live month to month, “one tractor breakdown away” from not taking a paycheck.
There are numerous reasons why organic farmers must sometimes charge more for their produce. The next time you see your local farmer spending his Saturday or Sunday at the farmers’ market, remember the following:3
1. Fewer chemicals means more labor: Growing food without chemicals requires more labor; for example, hand weeding is time consuming and tedious (although MUCH more beneficial for your health of the health of the planet than spraying Roundup on everything). Smaller farms are less mechanized—besides weeding by hand, they typically hand pick, wash, and sort, versus using machines and conveyer belts. 2. Organic fertilizer: Organic fertilizers such as manure and compost cost more than chemical fertilizers or sewage sludge. 3. Longer maturation time: Crops and livestock take longer to reach maturity when hormones and other growth enhancers aren’t used; animal welfare standards are higher and the animals are given more care and allowed more natural reproductive cycles and lifespans. 4. Losses due to pests and disease: Organic crops are often more susceptible to pests and disease, so a greater proportion of crops are lost, compared to chemically sprayed crops. 5. Fields lie fallow: Cover cropping and crop rotation replenishes the soil but reduces the number of fields available in any one season for growing profitable crops. Up to 25 percent of an organic farm’s land may lie fallow at any one time. Conventional farms typically plant their fields with the most profitable crops year-round, regardless of soil depletion or costs to the environment. 6. Higher product-to-market costs: Local organic farms have higher shipping expenses, due to lower volume and the nature of the produce itself. For example, conventional tomatoes are now bred for durability, as opposed to flavor or nutritional content—to withstand long-distance transport and longer shelf lives. If shipped, tender heirloom tomatoes require great care, which costs a great deal more. 7. Organic certification: The costs of organic certification are substantial. Not only is there an annual fee, but farms sometimes need to hire additional employees to assist in daily record keeping or make modifications to their land and equipment in order to comply with regulations. 8. Transitioning the land: Many farmers have to convert their land to organic production gradually, which can be expensive and reduces their economic potential for several years, while depleted soils undergo repair.
The Absurdity of Farm Subsidies
A major struggle for small farmers comes from ridiculous farm subsidies. The most heavily subsidized crops are corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice—the foods least likely to keep you healthy. Farm subsidies were initially created to protect staple crops during times of war, reduce crop surpluses, and provide monetary support to farmers when crop prices fell, but today mega-farms receive subsidies whether they need them or not.
This unfair practice puts small farmers at an enormous disadvantage, especially those supporting their local communities with sustainably raised food. Wealthy absentee landowners and millionaire mega-farms receive the most agricultural subsidies, with top recipients earning over $1 million per year in subsidy payments. The following figures speak volumes:
- 74 percent of all subsidies were collected by 10 percent of the farmers, amounting to nearly $166 billion over the course of 16 years
- The bottom 80 percent of recipients averaged just $587 a year
- 62 percent of US farmers received no subsidy payments at all
Based on 2008 data from the House Appropriations Committee, organic and local foods received only $15 million in government funds/programs, compared to $7.5 billion in conventional farm subsidies.4 According to a report from Louisiana State University AgCenter:5
“Though certified organic crop producers earn higher revenue, they incur higher production expenses as well. In particular, certified organic producers spend significantly more on labor, insurance, and marketing charges than conventional farmers. The results suggest that the lack of economic incentives can be an important barrier to conversion to organic farming.”
Organic Crops Outperform Conventional Crops During Adverse Growing Conditions
When comparing the cost of organic versus conventional foods, the costs of industrial agriculture to the environment and human health are frequently overlooked. When environmental conditions are unfavorable, the cost of doing things the “conventional” way may be astronomical. Consider the disastrous drought that’s been decimating California agriculture for several years. Eighty-two percent of California is now under “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.6,7 California’s drought-related agricultural losses are estimated at $2.2 billion, for 2014 alone.8
Organic farming may be particularly competitive during droughts such as this one. Organic crops typically require less water overall because they store it more effectively, as well as being better at replenishing the groundwater supply.9 A recent report10 by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that organic farming creates a unique mix of biodiversity in the soil and surrounding environment that allows organic crops to outperform conventional crops, especially during adverse conditions like drought, frost, and flooding. One researcher said:11
“With global food needs predicted to greatly increase in the next 50 years, it’s critical to look more closely at organic farming because, aside from the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, the ability of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields has been declining.”
Organic Fruits and Vegetables Build Your Health, Instead of Tearing It Down
The superior quality of organic produce is yet another reason to support local organic farmers. A recent study12 published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic fruits and vegetables deliver 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants than conventional produce. Organic fruits and vegetables also rate higher in protein, lower in cadmium, and as you would expect, have lower pesticide residues.
Another sizeable study showed that people who consume primarily organic food have 65 percent lower pesticide residues in their tissues compared to those who consume the least amount of organic food.
More than 75 percent of the US population has detectable levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine, for which diet is one of the most likely routes of exposure. Agricultural chemicals are known to be toxic. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, was recently declared a Class 2 A “probable human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the research arm of the World Health Organization.
This chemical has been described as possibly “the most important factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases and conditions that have become prevalent in Westernized societies,” by researchers Samsel and Seneff.
Glyphosate can stimulate hormone-dependent cancers even at extremely low “environmentally relevant” amounts, and research also suggests that glyphosate may amplify the damaging effects of other environmental toxins, acting in concert to disrupt your body’s natural processes and cause a variety of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Where to Find Healthy Food
It’s truly a shame that farmers such as Austin Blair are not better financially compensated for their efforts and for making such valuable contributions to the health and vitality of their communities. This is where YOU can make a difference! Support your local organic farmers by choosing fresh, local produce over “cheap” conventional varieties commonly sold in larger grocery chains.
You can slash your food bill by focusing on locally grown foods that are in season, typically a bargain at that time of year, or by growing some of your own. Remember to choose organic, grass-fed/pasture-raised beef, poultry, and dairy, in addition to organic produce.
While many grocery stores now carry organic foods, it’s preferable to source yours from local growers whenever possible, as much of the organic food sold in grocery stores is imported. If you’re a US resident, the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods in the vicinity of your home:
Weston Price Foundation:13 Weston Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can purchase organic foods, including grass-fed raw dairy products such as milk and butter. Local Harvest: This site will help you find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area. Farmers’ Markets: A national listing of farmers’ markets. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals: The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA): CISA is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and small farms. FoodRoutes: The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find listings for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.
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