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Heal the People, the Land Will Follow

an Interview with Organic Valley
CEO George Siemon

by Rosy Ward of Bioneers

How about for the ecosystems that have been radically depleted?

We always talk about helping the earth heal itself, but it's the people that need healing. The earth's quite extraordinary at healing itself. Just look at any old trashed-out piece of land, how it will slowly come back into its own system. We need farm practices and policies that encourage rotation, encourage investment in the soil. Basically soil everywhere needs bedrock fertilizers. Once you restore the mineral balance and start farming the land properly, I believe it can bounce back fairly darn quick. But the people who are working it have to start thinking that way. So we've got some tough positions, and we've got a society based on cheap food. And because the land's so costly, and the market so competitive, farmers plant vegetables on top of vegetables, on top of vegetables, on top of vegetables. They push the heck out of their land and never think about green manure or rotations. So the cheap price of food is very linked to the care of the land.

How can we best disseminate education on these kinds of restorative practices?

I think it starts in Congress, because there's so much influence there and so much money being spent—or rather, wasted. Take the amount of money that was invested in the farm bill, and then look at the amount of money spent on organic research in the bill. While it was the most we ever got, it was way under the percentage of the organic market in this country. We need incentive programs that encourage farmers to take care of the land, not just grow more corn.

Then, if you look at the environmental movement, you'll rarely see agriculture mentioned. That's amazing, because agriculture, or even ranching, is a major land use in the United States and a major place to influence the way we care for the land. So the environmental movement has to wake up and support organic agriculture in their agenda. This October 21 [2002], when the National Organic Program is implemented through the USDA, hopefully that legitimacy will help some of these NGOs to step forward and start supporting organic.

Do you see using organic as a point of entry to building other criteria and standards that go beyond just the minimum?

Oh, absolutely, but it's just a matter of how you build those criteria. Organics in the federal law is a production act—the way you produce a crop. And that production act could be done by a 20-cow farm or, sad as it is, a 4,000-cow farm. So it's a production act, not a cultural act. My definition of organics is very simple: the integrated parts make a whole. Obviously, it's not just how it's produced, it's also about the cultural implications of the food, the ownership structure, treatment of the employees, packaging, and so on.

To me, the whole "beyond organic" concept is a totally valid issue and one our co-op's really dedicated to, but I'm not really thrilled to have had the USDA be the one judging all that. So that's where the consumer has to step up and say, Oh, I really want to support small, local farmers. I really want to support a co-op business. I want to buy in bulk.

Unfortunately though, the consumer doesn't always understand what the choice is. I don't always agree with the people who are criticizing organics. I think it's awesome that we now have large-scale organic production. It's a lot better than chemical production, and the food tastes better. Of course, it's only the first step. Yeah, I can buy my bag lettuce and salad mix in Wisconsin year 'round now. But first off, I have a garden, and second, I belong to the CSA and I'm able to get salad mix from my neighbor six months a year.

But I'm glad the other six months I can go to the store and buy that salad mix. It's easy to criticize large-scale organic production, but often we've got our mouths full when we're criticizing it. You can't produce lettuce year ‘round in Wisconsin. I'm a little sensitive about the slandering of organics, because I've seen what it's done for the farmers. They're awakening to their true stewardship roots. They start off being worried about cancer and food safety, but then they realize they're making an environmental statement. They get excited as they develop that relationship with food.

And that's what this whole slow food movement's about and all the CSAs are about: developing a relationship with food. So now the consumers need to start saying, Wow, I want to support the smallest, most local person I can. Or ideally, I want to grow my own food. Let all of us farmers take a break. That would be the ultimate connection with food.

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