Two years after the recession cut demand for higher-cost food products, organic farming is on the rebound, with prices at record highs.
But the industry is still not as strong as it was just a few years ago, and no one knows if organic sales will return to the double-digit growth of the pre-recession years.
A bio-fueled, muti-colored school bus rolled onto the campus of the University of Portland earlier this month, carrying a troupe of young organic farmers touting their trade.
The visit was part of Organic Valley’s Generation Organic 2011 “Who’s Your Farmer?” tour. Gathering at the dining hall, the farmers met students and encouraged them to consider their personal food choices. They also offered samples of organic produce.
Laura Boere, part of Organic Valley since 1998, said there are multiple benefits to the program, including a steady paycheck.
"Bankers love it," Boere said, "because you have a long-term plan. Dairymen love it because we can farm and make plans (for) the long run."
"These early 20-somethings — in many cases fifth-generation farmers — are bringing a new energy and new vision to agriculture," said Leslie Kruempel, social media specialist for Organic Valley.
Arriving in their colorful, bio-fueled bus, Generation Organic's farmers spoke about labeling of genetically modified foods. Polls show more than 90 percent of Americans favor food labeling.
His title is CEO, but George Siemon likes C-E-I-E-I-O better.
It's fitting for the man at the helm of Organic Valley Family of Farms-CROPP Cooperative.
Today the business is the nation's largest co-op of organic farmers and produces more organic milk than any other company. Not bad for a business only 23 years old based in small-town La Farge.
"This is a very dynamic business that represents a lot about social change," Siemon said.
Carrie Welch, a spokeswoman for Organic Valley, explained the tour hopes to show young people that it can be easy to learn about local foods by building relationships with nearby farmers.
“We’re basically showing people that it’s not like your grandfather’s farmer anymore,” Welch said.
The organic-food business is booming. A 2011 survey by the Organic Trade Association concluded that sales of organic products grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, and organic fruits and vegetables saw an 11.8 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2010 alone.
Organic Valley's "Generation Organic Tour" made a stop at UP on Tuesday to promote family farms and regional eating. Pulling up in their multicolored mural painted school bus, the team of age 20 something farmers gave away free samples of organic milk and string cheese to students to show off the taste of regional dairy products.
Senior Frances Dyer worked with a PR firm that promoted local and sustainable restaurants over the summer and worked with Generation O as a part of her job.
"The tour is about keeping up organic farming through the generations," Dyer said. "The sustainability factor they present is so important for your personal health and the environment."
So how are we going to begin rebuilding the broken economy and creating jobs? Where is the investment going to come from?
One answer is taking shape in dozens of towns and neighborhoods across the country, as citizens from Brooklyn, NY to Port Townsend, WA are figuring out ways to invest in the local businesses that create jobs and help build strong local economies. Just as locavores eat a diet sourced close to home, these locavestors are investing that way.
The concerns of milk and cheese lovers worried that their dairy products are ethically curdled would likely be alleviated by a visit to Jon Bansen’s family dairy farm, Double J Jerseys, south of Monmouth. Bansen learned dairy farming from his father in a small non-organic operation, but he turned more and more to organic practices in the ‘90s before joining the Organic Valley cooperative in 2000. Bansen has been turning the cows out to pasture more and more over the years, perfecting methods that resulted in his herd of about 180 Jersey cows spending about 20 hours a day outside in a system called “intensive rotational grazing.”
Patti and husband Cliff are proud members of the Organic Valley Cooperative, selling their milk through the new state-exclusive New York Fresh line that launched this March and now counts 123 active upstate families, some of whose faces you may recognize from the portraits on the cartons. The Brunners bought the 230-acre, 45-cow farm from Cliff’s parents in 1988, but it’s been in the family since 1933, and many of the furnishings harken back to 1815. Joining Organic Valley was “the only answer,” Patti says flatly.
Solving agriculture’s many problems is not impossible, but the issues involved are complex and the necessary transformations radical. To discuss them is to risk frightening or confusing people. On the other hand, everyone likes good food. So campaigns for more ecologically sound farming practices, especially in the wealthier nations, too often seem to suggest to consumers that with enough effort, we can simply eat our way to a sustainable future.
For example, Organic Valley, the United States’ largest organic-farming cooperative, suggests that “personal food choices affect the health of our bodies and our planet, and drive their future”. Likewise, the British Soil Association says that “the buying decisions we make every day are a simple but powerful form of direct action”, and Naturalnews.com stresses that “by changing what you buy, you change what farmers will grow and how they will grow it”.