An attractive alternative to national organic certification
by Ari LeVaux
At the end of a long Friday at Clark Fork Organics farm in Missoula, co-owner Josh Slotnick placed a dinner order for his family—onions, zucchini, carrots, basil, new garlic, and French filet beans. His children jumped at the assignment. Quinn, thirteen, found a spading fork. Eleven-year-old Sophie grabbed a knife. And five-year-old Natasha picked the basil, gathering only the tops. With no chemical pesticides or insecticides to wash from the crops, Natasha nibbled as she picked, and ladybugs munched on aphid larvae in the nearby apricot tree.
Yet Clark Fork Organics is not an organic farm—not according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While Slotnick and his wife, Kim Murchison, haven’t changed their farming practices, they also haven’t paid the thousand dollars in fees, filed the forms, or shown the federally accredited inspector their compost pile.
Instead, after fourteen years of farming certified organic, Clark Fork Organics has dropped the federal seal of approval and joined eleven other western Montana farms to establish the Montana Sustainable Growers Union, marketing produce under their new “Homegrown” label. The label’s ten-point pledge covers everything from crop rotation to a ban on absentee ownership.
In some ways, the Homegrown members like Slotnick are no different from a spate of farmers nationwide who farm conscientiously without organic certification. Since 2002, for example, more than four hundred U.S. growers have joined Certified Naturally Grown, which encourages farmers to market food locally. It requires members to adopt stricter standards than the USDA’s and to inspect each other’s farms to enforce compliance.
But unlike CNG, which is national in scope, Homegrown stays close to home. Its members farm within seventy-five miles of Missoula and pledge to sell as much as possible “locally,” which in practice has meant within western Montana. They also promise to buy from locally owned stores and to cooperate with each other as “an all-around farmer-to-farmer support network,” says member Luci Brieger of Victor-based Lifeline Produce.
“Homegrown is the first group in the nation to collectively drop organic certification and replace it with their own local organic guarantee,” says Elizabeth Henderson of the Germany-based International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. “Given what happens with oil prices, wars, and sabotage, sustainable food ultimately depends on local networks of people working together based on trust. It’s a good idea to get used to.”
According to Homegrown members, the USDA standards have not encouraged the local model. Adopted in 2002, the federal label assures consumers of certain production standards, including crops free of synthetic pesticides, and has proven popular with many farmers and organic-food advocates. But the rules also tolerate a range of large-scale food industry practices, from absentee ownership to livestock confinement, that have alienated Homegrown members.
“What we took for granted—that organic means small and local—is gone,” says Slotnick. “The label that describes tomatoes flown two thousand miles from a three-thousand-acre monoculture worked by migrant workers who don’t make a living wage—that doesn’t describe the food my family grows.”
Since 2002, Philip Morris, Nestlé, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, Dole, Campbell Soup, and Unilever have gained access to the $14 billion organic food market, often by purchasing smaller organic food companies. Meanwhile, Slotnick points out, the USDA standards contain no reference to living wages, family farms, rural communities, local buying or selling—or farmer-to-farmer education.
If anything, Homegrown members say, the national organic program has hindered that education. In an effort to avoid favoritism, USDA-accredited certifiers do not answer questions about agricultural practices. Clark Forks’ government-appointed inspector “couldn’t tell us how other farmers handled the same problems we were having,” says Slotnick. “She visited, like, a million farms that year and she couldn’t tell us anything.”
The founders of Homegrown wanted something smaller and friendlier. And they wanted to do it on their own. In July 2005 at the Missoula Farmers’ Market, Slotnick, Murchison, and the Brieger family of Lifeline Produce were bantering at their farmstands when they found highly charged common ground.
“We realized people knew we grow good food,” says Slotnick. “We realized we didn’t need to play the USDA game anymore. Being farmers, our knee-jerk response was, let’s fix it.” A core group of fifteen to twenty people began to meet regularly, he says, and it was “hard to rein in the jabbering.”
The group obtained a copy of the 2003 Farmer’s Pledge adopted by eighty-three farmers of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. With soil-building and growing standards equal to or stricter than the USDA’s, the pledge requires commitments to practice fair labor, support the local economy, and help one another become better farmers.
It became the template for Homegrown.
By late February 2006, the Montana farmers had drafted their pledge. In March, they registered their label with the secretary of state. The twelve members charged themselves dues based on their farming income, set up a bank account with a local nonprofit, designed a logo, and printed colorful placards and brochures. By May, the literature was on full display at farmers’ markets and stores.
For the most part, members simply pledged to do what they had already been practicing: build soil naturally, remain owner-operated, boost local revenue (wages have been at least eight dollars an hour), use local purveyors for tools, peat moss, and fence posts alike; concentrate sales in places like Missoula and Hamilton; and share knowledge about pest control, cover crops, and irrigation systems. They plan to hammer out outstanding details, including language on a living wage, over the winter.
“We’re still new at this,” says Luci Brieger, “still seeing where this is going. We’re sharing plant starts, ordering Reemay and pots together, doing no-till research, outreach to new growers—a welcome-wagon type thing.”
Homegrown farmers take a hands-on approach to enforcing their vows: one member conducts an annual site visit to another member’s farm. Known as the participatory guarantee method and practiced in twenty countries worldwide, the self-inspections “mix a checkup with education,” says Slotnick. “We sit down together, go over the pledge, and compare notes about how to enhance wildlife habitat or deal with this or that disease. If my fellow member sees chemicals, she’ll bust us.”
This was the original model for the U.S. organic farming movement in the early 1980s, before complaints of cheating prompted calls for third-party certifiers. There’s still a threat. “It’s easy to cheat,” says Henderson, “but it’s embarrassing when you work with and sell to people you know. You want to give them your best. For national distribution, third-party certification is essential. But if you sell directly to people, a local guarantee could work.” Homegrown does forbid any two farmers from inspecting each other in any given year.
So far the system has earned the confidence of consumers. As of September, an informal survey of Homegrown’s farmers indicated strong sales, evidently boosted by a recent widely publicized E. coli scare linked to Natural Selection, a national produce distributor.
“Demand for our spinach and salad greens has shot through the roof,” says Slotnick, “and our restaurant clients are boasting about us to their customers. They know us. They trust us. This is what food security is all about.”