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The Prying Mantis

No Justice, No Peace – reflections on organic farming, CSA and domestic fair trade.

Organic Farms Are Under Attack From Agribusiness, Weakened Standards

By Elizabeth Henderson

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute, and originally published by Truthout.

The certified organic label has helped save many generational farms and enabled people like me, who do not come from agricultural backgrounds, to become successful farmers. Organic farming has brought environmental benefits — healthier soils, freedom from toxic pesticides and herbicides — to 6.5 million acres in the U.S.

Organic shoppers are willing to pay a little extra for food that is free from chemical residues. But the organic label is in trouble after reports of fraudulently labeled food made national news. On top of that, agribusiness pressures and National Organic Program (NOP) actions have weakened standards. Yet at a time when farms are in distress, family-scale farmers need a label with integrity. They need a label that provides public support from people who understand that small-scale farmers are an endangered species.

In the 1980s, I was one of the organic farmers who helped launch organic certification. Farming and non-farming members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association worked together to write standards for a label that identified the real organic food that non-farmers wanted to buy — for which they were willing to pay enough to keep the small farms in business.

To pass the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 — which established the NOP for organic food production on farms and in processing plants with a National Organic Standards Board of stakeholders to advise USDA, as well as a process for certification and accreditation — organic farming organizations and consumer and environmental groups allied with the Organic Trade Association, which was dominated by organic processors. At that time, there were few processed organic foods on the market, but since the NOP was implemented in 2002, sales of those foods have grown impressively. Cracks in our united front began to appear, as large conventional food corporations bought up independent organic brands and savvy players figured out how to scam the system.

The NOP standards require outdoor access for livestock, grass for ruminants and dirt for scratching for poultry. Shortly after the creation of the NOP, a chicken farm, where the chickens never walk outside but only access the outdoors by spending time on a porch, applied for certification. Today, most eggs with the organic label come from similar farms.

A bigshot with Organic Trade Association launched the first of the mega-dairies. The milk from these multi-thousand cow dairies is crowding family-scale dairies out of the market, causing heartbreaking farm closures by taking advantage of an obscure loophole that allows them to increase herd size quickly by using conventional (non-organic) heifers. These farms also cut corners on feed. Organic regulations require that 30 percent of feed by dry weight comes from pasture. Aerial photos of mega-dairies suggest that they do not have adequate pasture.

Despite clear language in OFPA requiring that organic farming be based on the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility, the NOP allows the certification of hydroponic produce. Hydroponic operations grow fruits and vegetables indoors, in greenhouses or hoop houses, or even large warehouses where all the light is artificial and the roots of the plant sit in a neutral medium with nutrients provided through the irrigation system. The acreage of hydroponic tomatoes and berries increases steadily, underselling produce from smaller farms and hoodwinking shoppers who have no way of knowing what they are buying.

Kate and Enid Leading Marchers at Rally snapseed mini Oct 30, 2016
Kate Duesterberg of Cedar Circle Farm, and the late Enid Wonnacott, longtime and much beloved executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, protest against allowing hydroponically grown produce to be certified organic, October 30, 2016, in Thetford, Vermont.
Claudia Henrion

Organic farmers and independent organic processors are deeply upset by these developments and are taking actions that the public can support.

Because family farms are so economically vulnerable, farmers who feel betrayed by the NOP do not want to undermine consumer confidence in the organic label on which so many farms depend.

This chart shows the large decline in numbers of farms while the amount of land has only declined slightly in recent years and has been consolidated into ever fewer and larger farms.
This chart shows the large decline in numbers of farms while the amount of land has only declined slightly in recent years and has been consolidated into ever fewer and larger farms.
United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

Instead, there are three efforts underway to create add-ons to that label. The Real Organic Project will signal that products were grown in soil or raised on pasture. Regenerative Organic Certification will assure that products come from farms that build soil carbon to fight climate change, treat livestock humanely and use fair labor practices. The Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certified label is already on a few products signaling that the farms pay living wages with decent working conditions.

For the health of our planet and agrarian justice — meaning fairness to family-scale farms to ensure their survival — consumers need to become co-producers, learning about why it is such a struggle for smaller farms to thrive, and acting in solidarity by paying fair prices, buying direct or seeking out meaningful labels.

Agrarian Justice: Creating a Food System Worth Sustaining

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(Keynote delivered in Dayton, Ohio, February 15, 2019)

Elizabeth Henderson

I feel truly honored to have been entrusted to speak to the theme of your conference, “Just Farming: the Path Before Us” in celebration of OEFFA’s 40th anniversary!  I was here once before – in 1996 when the theme was Cooperating for Change! NOFA is up to 48! Together with the other organic farming associations, we are part of an important social movement.

In the 2016 presidential elections, I suspect that had “neither of the above” been on the ballot, it would have won the farmer vote.  The sad reality is that both mainstream parties advocate the neoliberal, free trade, cheap food policies that the ever more aggregated seed/food/chemical corporations have imposed upon our country since WWII to the detriment of family-scale farms all over the world.

But before I launch into this depressing story, let me ask a few questions:

If you farm or work on a farm or on the land in any way, please stand up. (Over half of the people in the audience of about 600 stood up.)

Please remain standing if you do this work full time. (About half of those standing remained standing)

Please remain standing if you make your full living from doing this work with no off farm income. (Only about a dozen people remained standing)

Now, please stand if you buy any of the food that you and your family eats. (Of course, everyone stood up.)

Thank you – we all have a stake in creating agrarian justice – making work on the land a dignified, respected way of life in which people can support themselves and their families growing healthy food for our communities. Continue reading “Agrarian Justice: Creating a Food System Worth Sustaining”

Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal

“De-carbonize the Atmosphere, Re-carbonize the Soil!”(Jim Goodman, inspired by La Via Campesina)

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No till Swiss Chard at Woven Roots Farm, MA, 2016. Surrounded by woods, Woven Roots farmers, Jen and Pete Salinetti and their crew, use no-till regenerative organic practices to grow a diversity of certified organic vegetables for the members of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Farms like this one build carbon in the soil while also producing high quality, nutrient dense food.

By Elizabeth Henderson

“For Sale” signs have replaced “Dairy of Distinction” on the last two dairy farms on the road I drive to town. The farm crisis of the 1980’s that never really went away has resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2013, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2012. Farm income has continued to decline ever since. The moment is ripe for the movement for a sustainable agriculture to address the root causes.

Just as in the 80’s, a brief period of high commodity prices and cheap credit in the 2010’s resulted in a debt and asset bubble. Then prices collapsed. Meanwhile, ever larger corporations have consolidated their dominance in the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay going to farmers. At first this mainly hit conventional farms, but in 2017, processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business. Reports of farmer suicides are increasing dramatically.  Despite the shortage of farm workers, their wages remain below the poverty line.  People of color and women are often trapped in the lowest paying food system jobs and many are forced to survive on SNAP payments. The tariff game of #45 is only making things worse. The farm consolidation that has taken place has grave consequences for the environment and for climate change as well. The newly passed Farm Bill barely touches the structural and fairness issues that led to this on-going disaster for family-scale farms and the food security of this country.

An alliance of social movements and members of Congress led by newly elected Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) are proposing a Green New Deal that would initiate an emergency mobilization to address economic inequities and reverse our blind march toward catastrophic climate change, attracting much more attention than the Green Party version. In a draft resolution, Ocasio Cortez proposes the formation of a Select Committee to develop a plan to transition the US to a carbon neutral economy within ten years, together with a comprehensive package including guaranteed living wage jobs, public banks, and a “Just Transition” for all workers. As of this writing, 43 members of the House have signed on to the concept.

The sustainable agriculture movement with our many organizations and individuals – farmers, foodies, ngos, faith groups and enviros together with farmworkers, food chain workers and their advocates – should become active shapers of the food and agriculture aspects of the Green New Deal. Frontline communities that bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate chaos and food and economic system breakdown often have the most penetrating insights into pathways forward and real solutions.  For this reason, in addition to the ethical imperatives, fair representation of frontline communities at decision-making tables (of the Select Committee and beyond) is essential.  As a white woman wanting to be the best ally I can, I hope to warmly encourage white people in the food movement to un-learn racism and use privilege to acknowledge and overcome our history of oppression.

What was the New Deal and What Did it Do for Agriculture?

Under tremendous pressure from the social movements in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, “U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal—a set of government programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, and stimulate the economy. It included the building of homes, hospitals, school, roads, dams and electrical grids. The New Deal put millions of people to work and created a new policy framework for American democracy. New Deal programs included public employment (Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps); farm price supports (Agricultural Adjustment Act); environmental restoration (reforestation and land conservation); labor rights (Wagner Act); minimum wages and standards (National Recovery Act and Fair Labor Standards Act); cooperative enterprises (Works Progress Administration support for self-help); public infrastructure development (TVA and rural electrification); subsidized basic necessities (food commodity programs and Federal Housing Act); construction of schools, parks, and housing (Civil Works Administration); and income maintenance (Social Security Act).”[i]

Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace fashioned the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), introducing supply management together with parity pricing, a national policy of price supports that functioned from 1933 – 53. In effect, parity provided a minimum wage for farms.  In “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy,” Kevin Engelbert, NY’s first certified organic dairy farmer, explains how it established “commodity prices that would give farmers the purchasing power, with respect to items they buy, equivalent to the purchasing power of agricultural commodities in a ‘base’ period.” [ii]

In “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau describe the parity system in more detail:

The parity program had thee central features:

(1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.

(2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. Since government storage of surpluses was expensive, this feature was crucial to reducing government costs.

(3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. 

From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952. [iii] 

What Could a Green New Deal (GND) Do for Agriculture?

First of all, instead of current subsidies that purportedly compensate for constantly falling farm prices, but really only subsidize the big processors, vertically integrated livestock factories, and international traders, family-scale farms need a system of fair pricing, that is, prices that cover the real costs of living and farming, including conservation practices that regenerate natural resources. We need to dust off and refresh the concept of parity to create a just transition out of our calamitous current conditions. Twenty-first century parity should provide price supports and supply management for the basic commodities – “wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products”[iv] – as described by Ritchie and Ristau, and reestablish farmer held reserves for grains as buffer stocks in case of poor harvests or climate disasters that also protect farmers against price volatility.

Parity pricing and supply management should also be extended to other crops, what Farm Bill language calls “specialty crops.”  Since fruit and vegetables are perishable, the GND should invest in value-added enterprises that could be farmer or worker-owned coops in every county where these crops are grown.  If excess supply of fresh produce threatened to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year round.  Investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide many jobs. The GND would return livestock onto family farms, in place of large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have eliminated the need for diverse crop rotations. Family farm livestock production integrates crops and livestock for a much more flexible and resilient system that reduces the pressure for routine antibiotic use. This system also increases the biodiversity on these farms thus strengthening their economic viability adding opportunities for new farmers while improving the quality of the meat, milk, and eggs.

Next, farmers need contract reform.  Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation to protect their rights to freedom of association so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position in negotiating fair contracts without threat of retaliation.  In addition, a limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down.  With control by mega-corporations an ever greater threat to family-scale farming, the GND must be linked with anti-trust measures like the Booker bill that calls for a moratorium on mergers (S.3404, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018).

All farmers should be eligible for GND programs whether they own land, rent it with cash payments or through share cropping.

The GND should include measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession. Ocasio-Cortez wants to guarantee living wages and green jobs – that must include the jobs on farms. Since farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 60% of farm workers on US crop farms are undocumented, immigration reform based on human rights needs to accompany the GND. Human rights based immigration reform would prevent the separation of families and include a path to legal status.  Farm workers should have the option of a path to citizenship if they want to remain in the US or freedom to come and go across the border to visit their families back home.

Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If farms are guaranteed prices that cover their costs of production, farm earnings will be high enough to pay farm workers time and a half for overtime over 40 hours a week like workers in almost every other sector of the economy.

In writing about parity, Ritchie and Ristau make a very important additional point: “Paying farmers a fair price would result in a one-time increase in food prices of only 3 to 5 percent, less than a nickel on a loaf of bread. Since the supply management proposal also contains provisions for doubling the funds available for food assistance, the poor would not be hurt by this small increase in food prices.” [v]

Investment in Regenerative Farming Practices

To invest effectively in “drawdown” of greenhouse gases (GHG), the GND must include incentives and training for farmers to become the true managers of solar power that photosynthesis makes possible. The largest, and only remaining, “sink” for carbon on earth is the soil and regenerative farming practices increase soil carbon. The more fertile the soil, the more carbon it holds. The same practices that improve soil health, such as planting cover crops, recycling crop residues, and reducing tillage, the basic practices of organic agriculture grounded in agroecology, build soil carbon. In a win-win-win combination, building the health of soil improves farm viability, increasing farm resiliency to extreme weather events, and improving food quality and surrounding water quality.

Since 1/3 of the energy used by conventional agriculture comes from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which are natural gas derivatives, farms under the GND will reestablish the importance of natural nitrogen creation by legumes and compost.

Confining cattle, hogs and poultry in huge structures turns manure from a valuable soil nutrient into a big storage problem, with lagoons that overflow during extreme rainfall events with large, negative environmental impacts. Ending the confinement of livestock will also lead to better manure management.  Raising livestock on pasture turns manure back into a benefit. Especially when combined with skillful rotations, integrating livestock with crops builds soil carbon. Planting trees in pastures (silvoculture) builds carbon even faster. The GND should invest in training and incentives for farmers to make these changes in their practices. Farmers will be able to afford to farm more ecologically, if we push for the structural changes that will be part of the GND and will revitalize farms and rural areas.

The GND should preserve farmland and discourage sprawl. Research in California and New York led by UC Davis and American Farmland Trust show that the conversion of agricultural land to development, particularly low-density real estate development, increases GHG emissions. Farms emit fewer greenhouse gases than the homes that often replace them. Tax and other incentives can make preserved farmland available to new farmers.

The GND should also ban speculation on agricultural commodities and farmland since this drives up the price of land and food. Strict regulations should control investors who are not producers or final users.  Food derivatives markets should not be used as investment vehicles by banks and investment funds.

A Just Transition for Farming

Ocasio Cortez calls for a “Just Transition” for all workers.  In agriculture, a just transition would mean providing access to farmland to those from whom it has been unjustly taken, the reparations called for by farmers of color and Native Americans (http://www.soulfirefarm.org/support/reparations/).

Farmworkers should have the opportunity to become farmers. The GND should include training for farmworkers who have been trapped in repetitive, body-taxing jobs so that they can become farm managers themselves.

It should also include retraining for the farmers who now farm thousands of acres using heavy equipment, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to use regenerative practices with a buy-out scheme for CAFOs. Once these farmers give up the heavy use of chemicals, parity pricing and supply management will free them from needing so many acres for the economic viability of their farms.  GND incentives could encourage them to sell excess land to new farmers and to retrained farm workers.  Thousands of acres could become available for smaller scale farms and also for wildlife. Increasing the social diversity of farmers will at the same time promote biodiversity, since they will grow a greater variety of crops and livestock breeds, which also increases sustainability. As La Via Campesina and others note, small farmers cool the planet.[vi]

A Just Transition would provide incentives to farmers to reduce their production of bio-fuels that take land out of food production. Instead, farms could receive payment for other kinds of renewable energy production that makes use of marginal land, sun, wind and the heat of the earth.

With the goals of food, fiber and energy self-sufficiency and the elimination of hunger at the local, regional, or national level, farmers should be weaned from the current focus on an export economy.  Thus, changes in trade policies will also have to accompany the GND.

Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Participate in Creating a Green New Deal

Everyone eats. To “eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation,” as called for in the  draft resolution for the GND, means that everyone will have access to good food, fair food, food they can afford without impoverishing themselves or the world’s farmers. That has to be part of the GND. For the food system to be sustainable, we must balance the interests of farmers and farmworkers while constantly expanding access to local high quality organic foods for more and more people of all income levels, comprehensive domestic fair trade by definition.

When the 17% of all workers who are food workers earn living wages of $15 an hour or more, they will get off food stamps (a savings for tax payers) and be able to afford to buy high quality, locally grown food from their own earnings. The billions of dollars that currently go into subsidizing crop insurance could be reallocated to increase funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs so that low-income people can afford the higher prices that would be needed to fully cover farm production costs for fair, regenerative, ecological practices.

A recent article by Whitney Webb, “Corporations see a Different Kind of “Green” in Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal,” [vii] accuses the newly elected Representative of moving to the right and opening the door for corporate takeover: “Despite its pretty, progressive-sounding banner, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal — in its current form — will continue to perpetuate gross distributive injustice by ensuring that the side with the most “green” keeps winning as the world continues to seek solutions to climate change.” This will only happen if social movements like the sustainable agriculture movement hang back and allow neo-liberalism which is dominant in both mainstream parties, to continue the cheap food policies that have put farms in crisis.

In “The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement?” Eric Holt-Gimenez writes: “Social movements have an opportunity to join together as never before—not just to get behind the Green New Deal—but to form a broad-based, multi-racial, working class movement to build political power. Visionary leaders from these movements are already knitting together strategies for solidarity, education and action…The Green New Deal just might be the fulcrum upon which the farm, food and climate movements can pivot our society towards the just transition we all urgently need and desire.”[viii]

By not merely endorsing the Green New Deal, but insisting on a place at the table when the program is written, the sustainable and organic agriculture movement will open the path to the ecological, equitable and fair food system we dream about. And while we are in visionary mode, funding for the GND could come from taxing polluters.


[i] 12 Reasons Labor Should Demand a Green New Deal by Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein, In These Times. Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, 6:20 pm.

[ii] Kevin Engelbert, “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy” https://www.cornucopia.org/2013/01/a-brief-history-of-parity-pricing-and-the-present-day-ramifications-of-the-abandonment-of-a-par-economy/

[iii] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau, League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN

[iv] P. 8,The Agricultural Adjustment Act, PUBLIC—No. 10—73D CONGRESS, H.R. 3835

[v] Ritchie and Ristau, op. cit., p. 14.

[vi] https://viacampesina.org/en/la-via-campesina-position-paper-small-scale-sustenable-farmers-are-cooling-down-the-earth/

https://fairworldproject.org/get-informed/small-scale-farmers-cool-the-planet/

[vii] The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement? Eric Holt-Gimenez, Food First, 12.17.2018: https://foodfirst.org/the-green-new-deal-fulcrum-for-the-food-justice-movement/

The 4th Assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, October 12 – 15, 2018

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Opening Mistica, October 13: The Food Workers succeed in smashing the WALL (MURO) constructed by Monsanto, Walmart, ConAgra and the other representatives of the corporate food system.

By Elizabeth Henderson

The 4th National Assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) took place against a backdrop of intense labor struggle as Community 2 Community, the hosts for the gathering, supported a strike by berry farm workers led by the independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.  Attendees also took part in the 88th week of the “Dignity Vigils” that C2C conducts outside the Bellingham City Council meeting.  Led by C2C director Rosalinda Guillen, the vigils demand that the councilors make Bellingham a sanctuary city to protect undocumented local residents from deportation. I attended the Assembly as a representative of NOFA which joined the US Food Sovereignty Alliance in 2017 as part of a deliberate effort to broaden our connections to efforts involving people from diverse sectors of the food system. The declaration from the Assembly lists the range of participants – farmworkers, food chain workers, fishers, family farmers, urban agriculturalists, food providers, and social justice advocates.

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For the 88th week in a row, Rosalinda Guillen, of Community 2 Community Development, calls upon the Bellingham, WA. City Council to take measures to protect local undocumented people from arrest and deportation by ICE.

Continue reading “The 4th Assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, October 12 – 15, 2018”

CSA Beyond Borders: The 7th International CSA Symposium in Thessaloniki, Greece

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Lively discussion at the plenary session, November 9, 2018.

By Elizabeth Henderson

At regular intervals during the 7th International CSA Symposium, Jocelyn Parot, director of Urgenci, asked the people assembled together – “Is there hope after Thessaloniki?” And the crowd roared back – “yes!” Farmers, food activists and researchers from 40 countries gathered for four intense days in the City Hall to share experiences about food sovereignty in a country that has lost its financial sovereignty. For the first time there were representatives from Community Supported Fisheries as well as farms. The Symposium was organized by the International Community Supported Agriculture Network urgenci and its Greek partner, the Hellenic Network for Agroecology, Food Sovereignty and Access to Land, Agroecopolis.

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Jocelyn Parot, Director of Urgenci, Shi Yan Sina from Shared Harvest Farm and Vice-President of Urgenci, and Jan Valeska, CSA organizer and trainer from Prague, welcome the over 300 people from 40 countries to the opening plenary of the Symposium.

Necessity being the mother of invention, people in Greece have much to teach about how to scrape by when times are hard and about the power of solidarity to save people and communities from the distress brought on by unemployment, slashed pensions, and a steady wave of refugees from war and economic crisis. In contrast to this grim backdrop, the symposium was a joyous learning community, combining three conferences in one: the 4th all-European gathering, the 2nd Mediterranean network and the 7th International conference. There was a full day of tours, workshop tracks on CSA, food justice and solidarity economics, practitioner sharing, and advocacy, special tracks for the Mediterranean folks, and for CSA beginners, an evening of CSA videos, Greek folk dancing, and as a finale, the Urgenci General Assembly. There was even a group action – digging and planting a small garden at the public school where some of the workshops took place. A team of interpreters who volunteered their services did simultaneous translation to and from English, French, Greek, Turkish, Spanish and Korean. For reports from conference workshops, many photos and the CSA videos, visit the Urgenci website – www.urgenci.net .

As a participant in most of the seven international gatherings, it was an intense experience of encounters with people whose stories I have been following for decades and new acquaintances. Here are some highlights.

Continue reading “CSA Beyond Borders: The 7th International CSA Symposium in Thessaloniki, Greece”

CSA – Solidarity Economics or Capitalist Innovation?

Plenary address to Community Supported Agriculture Beyond Borders! the 7th International CSA Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, November 8 – 11, 2018

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The 324 participants at CSA Beyond Borders pose for the obligatory group photo.

Greetings!

Urgenci’s Mission is to “promote all forms of partnership between producers and local consumers, and Community Supported Agriculture initiatives as a solution to the challenges associated with the global industrial agricultural production and consumption paradigm.”

You may ask – what is an honorary president and why would Urgenci need one?  Allow me to explain.  Being honorary means that there is an actual president – Judith Hitchman, who does all the real work of a president, traveling relentlessly around the globe, persuading, badgering and pressuring the international bodies that have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals to actually live up to their promises to end hunger and support smallholder farms and food sovereignty.  My role is to add a little extra – I serve as the historian of this movement, collecting stories from many countries, observing, encouraging.  As a CSA farmer who made my living on a small-scale farm for over 30 years, I look at what goes on with the eyes not of a theorist or an academic but of a practitioner, a passionate participant.

Looking over the world from my lofty honorary heights, I see that smallholders have not yet turned back the tide of the industrialized monocrop monopolies of agribusiness.  If anything, the Empire has extended its grasp – dark anti-democratic forces are in the ascendant in the US, Latin America, parts of Europe, India. Inequality is at its most extreme in countries like mine – back to the days of the robber barons.  Growth in the economy goes to the top one tenth of a percent. Concentration of power in the food system intensifies. The world’s hope for democracy is becoming an oligarchy.

Aggregate farm income in the US in 2017 was half what it was in 2014. Dairy farms especially are struggling with milk prices under the cost of production even for organic dairies.  The farm share of the food dollar is shrinking and farms continue to go out of business. As in India, there are farmer suicides in Iowa. Recent research shows that “over the past decade, an increase in deportations and stricter immigration policies have begun to shrink the United States’ agricultural labor force. The produce industry is currently experiencing $5 billion to $9 billion in annual losses due to labor shortages.” Prices will rise, and the present immigration policies will cost shoppers more than if farms paid farmworkers living wages.

In countries like France and the US where CSA has been flourishing for over a decade, entrepreneurs out of a profit have taken notice.  If there is money to be made, venture capital moves in, replicating the CSA language without the reality: in the US we have One Egg, Blue Apron, Gobble, whose ad reads:

“We’re flexible. Skip weeks, change dishes, and cancel anytime — only order when and what you want. No commitment. For busy people, Gobble is a life saver. Satisfaction guaranteed.”

Farmigo ran a food box service for a while and then in August last year suddenly closed shop leaving farmers and customers high and dry. A brand new study by the Berkeley Labor Center finds that the jobs at these meal kit fulfillment centers have low wages, unstable shifts and cold unsafe working conditions. In CA an outfit named Imperfect Produce has even claimed they were saving the world by reducing food waste–and helping farmers by buying surplus ugly produce that would have been thrown out, (while in reality, this produce would not have gone to the landfill but to food banks and food pantries) taking customers away from Phat Beets, a grassroots ngo that runs the BeetBox CSA supporting small farmers of color mostly farming under 50 acres, including a one acre youth farm at an Oakland High School.  Luckily, Food First exposed this travesty, and most customers returned to BeetBox.

And then there is the weather – swinging wildly out of control.  In September after Hurricane Florence, I received this email from the Underground Farm in NC:

“We have reluctantly decided not to hold our Fall/ Winter 2018 CSA and will refund all monies previously received. As you can imagine, we are very unhappy to take this action as well.

“Hurricane Florence hit our farm hard and also every other farm in Carteret County, indeed in nearly all counties in Eastern NC.  We lost all the crops in the field that we had seeded or transplanted as did the greenhouse that was starting our second and third successions. We lost all our fall-bearing fruit trees (pears, persimmons, apples) and most figs and pecans.” A month later, the farmers announced that they were retiring completely.

Sadly, Shinji Hashimoto, who has played an important role in Urgenci, could not attend this conference because of the repeated weather disasters he has been experiencing on his farm in Japan.

These are hard times.  But remember the people’s wisdom – it is darkest before the dawn.

And that is where CSA and our worldwide movement for food sovereignty comes in.

By contrast with all this grim news, or perhaps as a consequence, CSAs and the movement for food sovereignty continue to spread around the world. There is so much exciting activity in Europe, there is no way to keep up with all the creative projects to spread CSA and help established CSAs to thrive – Be Part of CSA, SolidBase, EATingCraft.

In China, next month they will be holding the CSA Summit Forum and the 10th China Community Supported Agriculture Conference organized by the Rural Construction Centre of RENMIN University of China Department of Sociology of Tsinghua University Rural Regeneration Centre of Peking University CSA Conference Organizing Committee, it will be held on 14-16th, December in Zhanqi village, Pidu district, Chengdu, Sichuan province.

In the US where farmers of color have lost their land 5 times as fast as white farmers, African American and Latinx farmers are regenerating long unfarmed family land and initiating new farms. They are the fastest growing farming sector.  Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitle-Wolff at Soul Fire Farm, in Grafton, NY have transformed sloping fields of heavy clay into terraced permanent beds where their collective grows enough vegetables for a CSA of low income people back in their old neighborhood in inner city Albany.  They conduct popular trainings of black and latinx farmers, workshops for at-risk youths as an alternative to incarceration, and workshops to help white people learn how to dismantle racism and white supremacy.

The Homeless Garden Project, one of the oldest CSAs in the US, will finally move from a temporary site on developer owned land to a permanent farm on 600 acres of public land, part of  the Santa Cruz, CA greenbelt in 2020. Their mission – “In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world.” This project provides transitional jobs, pay and support services for homeless people, teaching them basic life skills required for employment while growing organic vegetables so that they can move successfully into other jobs. Over its 30 years of operation, The Homeless Garden Project has helped hundreds of people to get back on their feet, find work and homes.

In Genoa the Orto Collective is providing work for African migrants, building terraced gardens on formerly abandoned land near the city, doing urban horticulture and selling veggies boxes (www.facebook.com/ortocollettivogenova/

At Angelic Organics, a biodynamic CSA farm with 1000 member household in the Chicago area, farmer John Peterson devotes his writing talents to colorful embellishments of the meaning of CSA:

When you sign up, you dedicate yourself to being our customer for the year, thus providing us a secure market — a welcome measure of certainty in the fickle world of farming! We, in turn, dedicate ourselves to being your farmers, providing you with a varied, nutritious vegetable diet. We do our very best to bring you a beautiful and bountiful box each week, but since our boss, Nature, provides no guarantees — we can’t offer any either. One of the premises of a Community Supported Agriculture program is that the shareholder shares, through the veggies, the farmers’ experience of nature’s mischief (and blessings).

 

As happens so often in human history, the best ideas bubble up from the bottom; the greatest wisdom comes from most afflicted. Here in Greece, you have lost your financial sovereignty. Necessity being the mother of invention, to cope with austerity, you are leading the way to local food sovereignty.  So exciting to be here and so much to learn from you. Thank you for hosting us, despite all the obstacles!

 

 

 

Growing Our Roots

By Elizabeth Henderson

Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, February 2004

“We aim to rescue the government from the control of the privileged few and made it function for the use and benefit of all by abolishing monopoly in every form.” Declaration of Principles of the Farmer Labor Association, 1924.

It is truly an honor to be here again!

The past 3 decades have been years of solid achievement for organic agriculture.  Like a chestnut tree seedling, we have been growing our roots, sending them down deep into the soil before putting our energies into growing upwards towards the sun and outwards into the air.  Without much help from the government, university researchers, or the extension services, we have created an ecologically sound way of farming, an effective system of verification, organic certification, the most highly respected of all the eco-labels, and the only sector of US agriculture that is attracting young people and arousing hope for the future of rural communities.  Our growth is bringing us to a critical crossroads. Will our trunk grow straight or crooked? How high will we spread our branches?  Whom will they shelter?  Whom will we feed?

Continue reading “Growing Our Roots”

Organic: Where do we go from here?

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Elizabeth Henderson, Eliot Coleman, Lisa Stokke and Francis Thicke after the debate – still friends!

Summer Conference debate, August 11, 2018

Elizabeth Henderson

100 word summaries from the four participants

Lisa Stokke: As a person who has consistently purchased and relied upon organic food to feed my family for 25+ years, it’s been frustrating to witness the watering down of the USDA organic standards. Yet as a leader of a national organization advocating for strong standards and family scale farming have been reluctant to criticize organic for the sake of farmers and in the interest of working to strengthen them.

However, my experience has led me to conclude that the USDA organic standards no longer represents how many organic family farms operate and has left consumers without a means to find them, believing all organic labeled products are at least as good as what they were 20 years ago, which is unfair.

Elizabeth Henderson Family-scale farms like those of NOFA members have benefitted from the legitimacy resulting from the National Organic Program, but ultimately it has not saved them from the farm crisis. Our movement has invested exorbitant resources fighting for organic label integrity. The missing piece from organic standards since the feds took over – is fairness: for farmers – fair prices; for farmworkers – living wages, respect, safe working conditions, decent benefits. Should the NOP fail us, we need Plan B – a system of locally controlled participatory guarantees. To end the farm crisis, organic farmers need to ally with other food workers to create a food system worth sustaining.

Francis Thicke: A year and a half ago I would not have supported the creation of an add-on organic label. However, near the end of my NOSB term it became increasingly clear that the NOP has come under the sway of big businesses that want to weaken the organic standards for the sake of profits—and that is not likely to change.

In addition to nixing OLPP, certification of hydroponics, fraudulent imports, and lack of enforcement of grazing standards, the NOP has weakened the sunset review process for synthetics, usurped the NOSB’s authority to set its own work agenda, and appointed pro-industry representatives to the NOSB.

Eliot Coleman: Four Season Farm is NOT “USDA Certified Organic” – I repeat – NOT. And for good reason. The USDA National Organic Program has been totally corrupted by the money, power, and influence of industrial food corporations. Hydroponic vegetables, grown without soil using artificial lighting and nutrient solutions from the chemistry lab, are sold everywhere as “USDA Certified Organic”. Enormous ‘Confined Animal Feeding Operations’ (CAFOs) with no access for the animals to outdoor pastures are producing the majority of the “organic” milk and eggs in this country. The USDA recently scrapped new animal welfare standards for organic certification at the behest of these CAFOs.

The deep integrity of the passionate, old-time, organic farmers who started this movement is now nothing but greenwash for the USDA “fauxganic” program. We proudly advertise our produce as GUARANTEED “REAL ORGANIC”. We invite other farmers to join us.

Five minute presentation by Elizabeth Henderson

In 1989, along with other members of NOFA, I was opposed to the idea of putting an organic program in the hands of USDA, the department of agri-business, but we lost that fight and then switched to working to make the NOP livable for family scale organic farms and small certification programs like the NOFAs’. All three of you are critical of the NOP – you either advocate an add-on label or want to throw the NOP label out altogether and substitute your personal reputation.  While it is satisfying to sling epithets like “fauxganic” and declaim your own farm as exemplifying the “guaranteed real label,” I suggest that we need to think more strategically about the certified organic farms as a small, but important part of family-scale farming in this country – farming that has been in crisis for most of my life.  When I was born there were over 5 million farms.  Today there are 2 million, and farms continue to go out of business, their land gobbled up either by housing sprawl or by more aggressive farms. Young people, whether of color or slightly more privileged whites, who do not inherit wealth have way too many obstacles to establishing viable farms. Our movement for buy local has been tremendously successful – less than 5 percent of the food my farm produced was sold through third parties – Peacework mainly sold direct through our CSA.  Being part of the organic movement and being on top of the cleverest ideas for leveraging social capital, I was able to make a very modest living based only on farming income for over 30 years. My farm could have gone without being certified organic, but we certified to stand up and be counted. But where buy local has been most successful – parts of VT for example – it only accounts for 10% of the food that people buy.  90% of the food people are eating still comes through third parties.  The farms that sell that food – the commodity crops, grains, beans, milk, ingredients for processed foods –– and the consumers who buy it – depend on a label with integrity.

Highly committed organic activists who work and raise children tell me that they cannot take the time to buy direct from farms or have no access.  So it is our responsibility to come up with solutions not just for the star farmers, but for the many other farmers who are struggling to keep afloat in the brutally ruthless capitalist markets as climate change and unreasonably complex food safety regulations make it even more challenging.

For the immediate future– I think creating add-on labels as our short term survival plan makes sense.  While we continue to struggle (and lose ground) defending the NOP label, we must continue to use it, our add-on label signaling to the relatively small part of the public that is paying attention that these products are Really Organic or even Regenerative Organic. A friend who works for CCOF even thinks we can get the NOP to offer some of these add-ons as “optional endorsements” to NOP certification.

Large parts of the public are only just catching up to the value of organic – and wanting to buy in. And I must add – where certification is done by our farming organization certification agencies – NOFA-NY, VOF, MOFGA – the increase in the number of farms has been greater than in states where departments of agriculture do the certification.  The integrity of our programs is strong and they do not certify hydroponic operations or chickens on porches as organic.

However, I cannot agree that farms are really organic if they do not place a high priority on being fair workplaces and likewise for stores/brands that do not pay farmers fair prices. I have been working on an add-on label for over 20 years – Food Justice Certified. The little group that developed the Agricultural Justice Project knew that we would not live long enough to insert standards for fairness to farmers and food workers into the NOP so we drafted social stewardship standards, translating the abstract notion of social justice into the concrete terms of pricing for farm products and working conditions for workers on farms and in other food businesses. Then we added fair trading standards among businesses. The basic premise of this project is that supportive relations of mutual respect and cooperation among the people who grow and sell food will result in a triple win for farmers, food workers and ultimately the people who eat the food.

IFOAM’s Principle of Fairness summarizes what fairness means very comprehensively:

“Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities. Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

“This principle emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties – farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers. Organic agriculture should provide everyone involved with a good quality of life, and contribute to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty. It aims to produce a sufficient supply of good quality food and other products. This principle insists that animals should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their physiology, natural behavior and well-being.

“Natural and environmental resources that are used for production and consumption should be managed in a way that is socially and ecologically just and should be held in trust for future generations. Fairness requires systems of production, distribution and trade that are open and equitable and account for real environmental and social costs.” (IFOAM Principles 2005)

If we are honest, we have to admit that social relations in organic agriculture mimic those of the dominant industrial food system, and organic farmers, even farmers who sell direct in local markets, have a hard time making ends meet. While farmers may be building equity in their farm businesses, many farmers are in debt and the farm family that lives entirely on farm earnings is rare. Farmers who want to provide a middle-class income for their families, depend on the off-farm earnings and health insurance from a family member’s job. Few farmers pay living wages to the people who work on their farms; a few at least make this a priority.

We must begin to address fairness in any add-ons we create or we are not building a food system that is worth sustaining.  We are just replicating the unequal social relations in the industrial food system that we claim to oppose, a system that grew out of the slave plantation and continues to thrive through the use of undocumented, exploited desperate workers. We will not reach the promised land of sustainability based on the environment without also addressing human relations.  Farms must have justice.

By stretching towards fairness, organic can take our rightful place in the struggles for freedom and justice, for civil liberties for all.  We step out of our bubble into the world of serious political conflict and come up on the right side, gaining as allies the working people who are the most energized in opposing the current mess. Together we can create real alternatives that solve the long list of inadequacies and injustices of the capitalist food system –

prices that cover the costs of production,

living wages with respectful treatment and decent benefits for farm workers so that farmwork is a desired occupation,

reparations to African American and Native Americans,

regenerative land use practices,

access to healthy food at reasonable prices for low income people, both urban and rural,

access to the resources of land and equipment to all who want to farm.

We can write this program together with our allies, and this country can fund it by ceasing the endless wars in which we are engaged.

At the same time, for the sake of organic farming and food, we need to think about the longer term and begin serious work on our Plan B. I suggest we look to the examples of Participatory Guarantee Systems fostered by IFOAM. (https://www.ifoam.bio/en/search?find=PGS) PGS initiatives exist in 66 countries. In 2017, IFOAM estimated that there are at least 241 PGS initiatives worldwide of which 115 are under development and 127 are fully operational, with at least 311’449 farmers involved and at least 76’750 producers certified.  An outstanding example is Natur et Progres, a federation of 30 local chapters. Natur et Progres is the oldest French organic organization founded in 1964 and they have maintained a participatory system through which peasants, consumers, doctors, retailers, processors created a common charter including ecological, economic and social objectives to which all subscribe. The charter is a guide to moving towards a society that respects humans and all living things. Natur et Progres is a network of local groups of volunteers, much like NOFAs and the name Natur et Progres functions as an independent collective brand.  Inspections are done by local committees that include both farmers and trained non-farmers. (http://www.natureetprogres.org/nature_et_progres/histoire_nature_progres.html)

 

For us to create an effective PGS would be a huge challenge and would inspire us to intensify our local networks, to educate both farmers and the eaters of the food, involving technical people – scientists, physicians, etc. in the process, learning, organizing the kind of ecological society in which we want to live.

Agriculture in Arcadia

 

 

By Elizabeth Henderson

 

The working landscapes of its many farms complement the natural beauty of the Town of Arcadia. Farming and associated businesses also form a major sector of the town’s economy.  The town has zoned 25, 463 acres as agricultural, amounting to close to 1/10th of the agricultural land in Wayne County. While the town has experienced a small increase in population, development pressure on farmland does not threaten its rural character. As in the county as a whole, agriculture in Arcadia is very diverse, including fruit, vegetables, dairies, livestock, nurseries, horses and field crops. An important resource for farms of all kinds, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Wayne County is conveniently located in Arcadia. The growing popularity among New York citizens of buying locally grown food has had a positive economic effect on town farms that are finding good markets for direct sales through farm stands, farmers markets, the freezer trade for beef and other meats, and Community Supported Agriculture.

 

The sector of Arcadia agriculture that has seen the greatest change over the past 20-years has been dairy farming.  Fifty years ago, dairies dotted the back roads.  Today, only about fourteen remain.  The downward trend in the price of milk, combined with the drastic fluctuation in the price paid to farmers, has made it difficult for smaller dairies to remain in business.  In 2008, although milk prices are higher than last year, the price of fertilizers has risen even faster than the price of fossil fuels. The rising price of field crops is also a matter of concern to dairies that purchase soybeans or other protein sources to supplement the feed grown on the farm.      El-Vi Farms, the town’s largest dairy, has expanded to 900 cows and 18 full time employees.  Like many other farms in the town, El-Vi rents 60% of the land on which they grow crops.  Some of the manure from their cows goes into an anaerobic digester, which generates methane.  The rest of the manure goes into an NRCS designed lagoon, and then is piped underground to the field edges and spread by a tanker truck before immediate incorporation into the soil.  The anaerobic digester and lagoon system are a good example of the methods that Arcadia farmers are using to reduce the odors and other   negative environmental impacts of their farms.  More farmers are planting winter cover crops and leaving heavy crop residues to prevent erosion from rough winter weather and to add organic matter to the soil.

 

Farms that grow field crops – soybeans, corn, wheat, oats – are enjoying higher prices this year, though the price of inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and fuel) is also much higher. Only if weather conditions are favorable will yields of corn, soybeans and wheat be high enough to cover the increasing costs of inputs. Worldwide, the supply of grains in storage is at an all time low and the use of crops to produce ethanol has thrown food into price competition with fuel placing an upward pressure on prices for the first time in decades.  Arcadia farmers sell soybeans to Sheppard Grain Inc. for processing into oil and other products, and corn to J.D. Rugenstein and Sons Inc. both in Phelps.  They also sell to other farmers for livestock feed.  Several town field crop farmers also raise livestock.  Beef is most common, but John and Evelyn Ramph have a herd of Bison bison (buffalo).  Visiting their herd is a must for all tourists passing through Arcadia. The Ramphs are also developing a state-inspected butchering facility on their farm where they intend to process their own animals as well as doing jobs for other farmers.

 

In addition to large acreage of prime mineral soils, Arcadia also includes a few areas of muck, former swampland that is very high in organic matter and with proper ditching can support high yields of vegetable crops.  On their separate operations, Russell and Robert Bodine produce a total of 50 acres of onions and 70 acres of potatoes. In the dry season of 2007, they had their highest yields ever. They sell most of their crops to packers, such as Delyser Produce in Williamson, that perform the final packaging and market to stores.  Like the field crop farmers, the produce farmers face the rising cost of fertilizers and fuel with concern.

 

The past decade has seen a small but definite increase in the number of organic farms in the town.  There is one tree farm, two vegetable farms, a grass fed livestock operation and a dairy farm that is in transition to organic.  Most of these farms market directly to customers, rather than selling wholesale or through brokers.  Peacework Farm provides weekly shares of its vegetables and herbs for the oldest Community Supported Agriculture project in Western New York, the Genesee Valley Organic CSA, in its 20th year in 2008.

 

While nurseries and greenhouses were once a thriving part of the local agricultural scene, only two remain in the town. Parker’s is the only locally owned operation and Lloyd Parker reports that he no longer grows the ten acres of nursery stock he once did. His greenhouse business runs from spring through fall, providing geraniums and hanging baskets. Kurt Weiss Greenhouse Company, the largest greenhouse operator in the country with 17 locations in the East, recently purchased the former Newark Florist greenhouse complex, first constructed in 1967. These days, they employ 40 people and produce bulbs, mums and other flowering plants for the wholesale market.  Dittmar’s, the only other nursery remaining in Arcadia, has closed.

 

By contrast, the Apple Shed farm stand continues to attract many customers from the surrounding area and even bus excursions from farther away. The Apple Shed combines sales of fruit from the home farm with vegetables and value added items (jams, salsa, etc.) from other farms with attractions for families, such as a petting zoo, a playground, hayrides and a haunted barn. Jessica Wells, who helps run the stand, believes that educating the non-farm public and providing this contact with a farm is an important community service.  Four members of the Wells family work year round on the stand and the hundred-acre fruit farm with two other family members and 3 full time year round employees helping out.  At the height of the apple harvest, their crew swells to 70.

 

The number of farms in Arcadia has remained fairly stable over the past decade, however the percentage of farmers who make their full living from farming continues to shrink.  As they get older, farmers do not give up, but stop trying to make farming their sole source of income.  Under pressure from shrinking margins, the largest farms are becoming even larger, though much of the acreage they use is rented. A small, but steady flow of new people are buying land or expanding gardens or livestock hobbies to part time commercial operations.  In recent years, intense U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raids on farms and other places where illegal migrants might be found have made it difficult for fruit farms and other farms that require hired labor to find enough skilled workers.  There is no doubt that for the future food security of New York State Arcadia farms will play a vital role, but the immediate future is fraught with challenges.

 

 

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