The Prying Mantis

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



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

group photo 11.9.2018
The 324 participants at CSA Beyond Borders pose for the obligatory group photo.


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 (

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?

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. ( 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. (


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.



A Consensus is Forming – Report on NY Soil Health Summit, July 18, 2018

David W. Wolfe introduces the panel of not-for-profit organizations – Dave Grusenmeyer from the NY Farm Viability Institute, David Haight of American Farmland Trust, Elizabeth Henderson of NOFA-NY, Rebecca Benner from The Nature Conservancy. Jeff Williams from the Farm Bureau is not in the photo.

By Elizabeth Henderson

The era of soil health is dawning – that is the conclusion we heard from David Montgomery, keynote speaker at the New York Soil Health Summit, and the theme of his hot-off-the-presses book Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. Organized by David W. Wolfe, Cornell Professor of Plant and Soil Ecology, the summit brought together 140 people to hear the latest developments underway in research, farming practices and policy related to building soil organic matter and increasing carbon in the soil. A major summit goal is to complete a “Road Map” that will set forth this information.  The 39 organizations represented at the summit covered the full range from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) to the Farm Bureau. The exciting news is that this broad spectrum of organizations, farmers, researchers and government agency staffers are coming to consensus about the critical importance of soil health and the need for a soil health program for our state.

Maryellen Sheehan and I attended on behalf of NOFA-NY and left feeling very encouraged. The highest policy priority for NOFA’s New York Organic Action Plan is to: “Create a Healthy Soils Program in NYS: Support research to increase understanding of soil health and the connection between soil health, the nutritional value of food and human health, and provide technical assistance and tax and other incentives to farms that build healthy soil and increase soil carbon, and disincentives for pollution and erosion.” ( The broad coalition that can push this through is in formation. Continue reading “A Consensus is Forming – Report on NY Soil Health Summit, July 18, 2018”

Getting a Fair Deal for Farmers, Farm workers and other Food chain workers: Standards to bring the Principle of Fairness to Life throughout the Organic Supply Chain  


By Elizabeth Henderson

Key words: Fairness, social justice, freedom of association


Fairness is one of the four foundational principles of organic agriculture, yet few certification programs have implanted the concepts of fairness in their standards. The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) has created social standards, translating the abstract notions of social justice and fair trade into the concrete terms of pricing for farm products and working conditions on farms and food businesses. For organic agriculture to lead in creating a truly sustainable world food system, organic practice must embody the Principle of Fairness through fair trade, fair pricing and contracts, and socially just conditions on organic farms and food businesses.


The early versions of the principles of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), whose standards formed the basis for most of the organic standards around the world, included these comprehensive statements on social justice:

  1. To allow everyone involved in organic and sustainable production and processing a quality of life that meets their basic needs and allows an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment.
  2. To progress toward an entire production, processing, and distribution chain that is both socially just and ecologically responsible. (From IFOAM Basic Standards list of Principle Aims.)

The most recent version of IFOAM’s Principle of Fairness is even more explicit:

“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)

In the United States, organic agriculture developed in the 1970’s as movement with a wholistic approach to land and livelihood.  The farmers who were attracted to organic practices and their loyal customers agreed that decent prices, fair treatment of workers and animals, and care for mother earth all went together.  In the 1980’s, the Northeast Organic Farming Association endorsed these principles that can be found in our Program Manual to this day:

􀂃 To encourage non-exploitive treatment of farm workers.

􀂃 To create conditions for livestock that ensures them a life free of undue stress, pain

and/or suffering.

􀂃 To maximize farmers’ monetary returns and satisfaction for their work.

􀂃 To maintain the land in healthy condition for future generations.

Organic food enthusiasts were willing to pay a small premium for organic products to sustain the farms economically. They understood that the prices had to cover the true costs of production and they trusted their farmers to charge fairly and treat their workers with respect.

That all started to change as larger entities became involved and organic began to enter the mainstream. The initial family-scale farms and small independent processors faced overwhelming competition from an “organic industry” and large-scale farms that converted to organic purely as a marketing decision. The “American Organic Standards” developed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) did not touch pricing and labor issues and then the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established the National Organic Program (NOP) under USDA, followed suit.  When commenters criticized the national organic regulations for leaving out the social component, the NOP responded, that is “not in our purview.”

As a consequence, in the US today, 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.

In 2013, the NOFA Domestic Fair Trade committee surveyed organic farmers in the NE states. Six hundred farmers – mostly certified organic – filled out some part of the survey and 350 completed it. PhD candidate Becca Berkey has analyzed the surveys. ( Her report is available using this link:

In their comments, farmers said they aspire to pay fair wages – but cannot earn enough from sales to cover the living wages and package of benefits they would like to provide and that would help retain good workers, reduce training costs and make their farms more resilient. A typical comment from the survey: “Unable to provide well-paid year-round work.”  The survey shows that hired labor only makes up 20% of the workforce on organic farms. Most of the work is done by the farmers themselves and their families.  Despite lots of good intentions to live up to the Principle of Fairness, most of the farmers who hire workers pay just over minimum wage, and the only benefit they provide is workers compensation which is required by law.

Just like farmers in developing countries, the family-scale farmers in developed countries and the people who work on their farms need to return to the principle of fairness in organic agriculture.

Food Justice Certification

This failure of organic standards to embrace the principle of fairness inspired the creation of what evolved into the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP).   In 1999, Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), Richard Mandelbaum and Nelson Carrasquillo of the Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), Marty Mesh of Florida Organic Growers (FOG) and I, Elizabeth Henderson representing the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), decided  to go “beyond”  the OTA and NOP definitions of  organic as a marketing label to develop standards for the fair and just treatment of the people who work in organic and sustainable agriculture. The success of international fair trade with the steady climb in numbers of people willing to spend a little more money to support family farms in developing countries has provided an encouraging model.  As a small-scale organic farmer, I feel strongly that it is not enough to treat earthworms with respect. For our farms to thrive, we need prices that cover our costs of production, including living wages for ourselves and everyone who works on our farms, plus a surplus to invest in the farm’s future. We need to make agricultural work a respected career with appropriate benefits.

AJP has drafted social stewardship standards, translating the abstract notion of social justice into the concrete terms of pricing for farm products and working conditions on farms. 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. You can read about AJP standards, their history, and policies at The Domestic Fair Trade Association and Consumer Report, Greener Choices have evaluated AJP, along with other fair trade programs. You will find the very positive evaluations at and

The AJP standards were developed over four years of meetings with workers, small-scale farmers, fair trade companies and organizations, indigenous peoples, consumers, and organic certifiers. Hundreds of people from over sixty countries participated. The standards address
the following issues:

• farmer and all food system workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining
• fair wages and benefits for workers
• fair and equitable contracts for farmers and buyers
• fair pricing for farmers
• clear conflict resolution policies for farmers, workers and buyers
• the rights of indigenous peoples
• workplace health and safety
• farmworker housing
• high quality training with learning contracts for farm interns and apprentices
• the rights and protection of children on farms: no full-time child labor, but carefully supervised participation of children on farms.

In August, 2010 AJP posted  a first set of revised and expanded standards on the website – and the final results of the 2015 -16 revisions will be posted in January, 2017.  Four years of pilot projects where we tested the draft standards against the reality of actual farms and food businesses and then seven years of experience with social justice certifying shaped the revisions.  During this time, AJP also developed the policies that  govern the program, training modules for certifiers and auditors, and materials to help farms and businesses comply with the standards.

AJP took the time to build the movement from the ground up by ensuring input from stakeholders in the food system over the last decade.  This work has resulted in a comprehensive set of standards that set the gold standard for social justice in the food system by ensuring fair food system practices in the U.S. that really address the priorities and needs of those who work to bring food to the table.  An important goal of the program is to distribute the tools across the country and build capacity of regional certifiers and worker organizations and community groups to carry the certification and education models forward in their local communities.  AJP has been offering training to regional U.S. organic certifiers so they can better serve their clients by offering social justice certification as an add-on to organic.

AJP was the first food label to have a farmworker advocacy organization working alongside farmer advocacy organizations to found and run the program.  The verification system is also the only one to include active participation by worker representatives during the audit.  In addition to the full staff of CATA, AJP has also trained five farmworker organizations: Central Campesino, MN, the Farmworkers Association of Florida, FL, Community to Community Development, WA, Lideres Campesinas, CA, and Agricultural Workers Alliance, Canada.

In 2013, lentils and grains with AJP’s Food Justice Certified label from the Farmer Direct Coop in Saskachewan began appearing in food coops in the Pacific NW and in Whole Foods stores across the country and in 2014, The Family Garden in Gainesville, Florida, and the first farms and food businesses in California and New York have completed AJP certification.

Core messages and conclusions

The urgency of reuniting the principles of fairness and organic is underlined in the concluding report of the National Organic Action Plan, From the Margins to the Mainstream – Advancing Organic Agriculture in the US (January 2010). As Lynn Coody summarized in The Organic Standard of June, 2010, “At their beginning organic regulations set a high bar for advancing cultural and social values in agricultural production. It is proposed that this foundation be restored by rededicating organic practice to an ethical food and agriculture system that honors the values of fairness and basic rights. Fairness includes fair trade; fair pricing (and contracts); fair access to land (and credit); and fair access to quality, organic food and seeds. These basic rights also encompass the rights of all people to follow their own cultural and traditional knowledge systems and the rights of farmers and farmworkers to have an empowered voice in the continued improvement of an ethical food system. This should apply directly to both domestic and foreign agricultural policies with the recognition of organic agriculture’s contributions to local food security and the alleviation of hunger both nationally and internationally.” (p. 7)


National Organic Action Plan, From the Margins to the Mainstream – Advancing Organic Agriculture in the US (January 2010).

Berkey, Rebecca Elaine. Just Farming: An Environmental Justice Perspective on the Capacity of Grassroots Organizations to Support the Rights of Organic Farmers and Laborers. Antioch University New England PhD, 2014.

Author’s Background

Elizabeth Henderson farmed at Peacework Farm in New York State, producing organically grown vegetables for the fresh market for over 30 years. A member of Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) Board, she represents NOFA Interstate Council on Board of Agricultural Justice Project. Awards:  2009: NOFA-NY Lifetime Achievement Award.  2014: Eco-Farm “Advocate of Social Justice Award, the Justie.” Writings appear in NOFA’s The Natural Farmer. Lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007) also available in Spanish as an e-book – Compartiendo la Cosecha, and A Food Book for a Sustainable Harvest, written for the members of Peacework Organic CSA  (aka GVOCSA) in its twenty nineth year in 2017.


Land Justice – a Review

By Elizabeth Henderson

Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food and the Commons in the United States, Edited by Justine M. Williams and Eric Holt-Gimenez (Food First, 2017)

If you are looking for a deeper understanding of the ills in our food system and how to address them than “vote with your fork,” this is a book you should read as soon as possible.  Land Justice stands in contrast with so many food movement books that never question the basic premise that with a few adjustments, we can correct the excesses of the capitalist marketplace. Eric Holt-Gimenez lays out the book’s basic premise: “Racial injustice and the stark inequities in property and wealth in the US countryside aren’t just a quirk of history, but a structural feature of capitalist agriculture.  This means that in order to succeed in building an alternative agrarian future, today’s social movements will have to dismantle those structures.  It is the relationships in the food system, and how we govern them, that really matter.”(P. 2)

A collection of essays, Food Justice brings together stories of old injustices and on-going ones, stories that we all need to hear and take to heart. We learn about the Gulluh Geechee farmers, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Whatley, the Republic of New Africa, the Land Loss Prevention Fund, women farmers, white and black, the Acequia Communities, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Rosalinda Guillen and farm worker organizing in Washington State, the People’s Community Market in Oakland, the Black Community Food Security Network in Detroit, and students taking action in Occupy the Farm in Berkeley.

Prefaces from three voices open Land Justice – a Native American, an African American and a family-scale farmer –voices that must be heard if we are to sort out the strands in the history of the “land problem” in this country and imagine a way forward towards a more just food system.

Winona LaDuke contrasts mainstream industrial, monocrop agriculture with the indigenous approach “based on biodiversity and the use of multiple locally adapted crops.” (P. xii) Plants, LaDuke tells us, are magical and “provide complex nutrients, medicinal values, cultural and spiritual connections, and they feed the soil.” She recounts the struggle of Native Americans for control of their land culminating in the successful class action suit, Keepseagle vs. Vilsack (1999) which won $680 million in reparations. While this award is far from adequate, it marks the resurgence and recovery of indigenous farming that is underway.  LaDuke declares that it is time for “decolonization.”

Taking as her chant “This Land is Contested,” LaDonna Redmond, laments the Indian removal that preceded the importation of slave labor: “The holocaust of the indigenous set the stage in the US for the rise of capitalism.” (P. xv) The free labor of 12 million enslaved Africans on stolen land “is what built the wealth of the so-called New World.” The Homestead Act, which allowed many landless European immigrants to access land, was not for former slaves. Redmond urges the solidarity of her people with Native Americans, the water and land protectors, and calls for unity against “corporate oligarchy and federal imperialism.” (P. xvii)

Belittling the vote with your fork vote analogy, Iowa farmer George Naylor declares:  “We need to recognize how market forces affect farmers, the land, and consumer behavior, and demand policy solutions to achieve a sustainable future.” (P. xix)  Naylor insists that “We need to de-commercialize food and land.” To accomplish this, Naylor proposes that we replace the cheap food policy that has enabled corporate dominance, with a system based on “Parity,” the New Deal farm programs involving “conservation-supply management to avoid wasteful, polluting over production; a price support that actually set a floor under the market prices rather than sending out government payments; grain reserves to avoid food shortages and food price spikes; and a quota system that was fair to all farmers and changed the incentives of production.” (P. xxi)

The authors of these essays have every reason to be bitter and pessimistic given what they have experienced and the long history of atrocities that mars our country’s past.  Yet, despite the recitals of inhuman cruelty and brutal greed, Land Justice leaves the reader energized and inspired by the writers’ courage and determination.  Together they show us a path forward through alliances and collaboration with the marginalized communities represented to “change the politics of property.” This book makes a major contribution to helping us develop a radical and coherent program for transformative change. As Holt-Gimenez concludes his incisive introduction, the authors are “in a struggle to remake society.” It is up to us to harken to their passionate words and to take “land justice” as “both a vision and a clarion call.” (P. 13)


Organic Agriculture International in Delhi: Flavors of Biodiversity with a Touch of Smog

By Elizabeth Henderson

Four farmers from the PGS organized by the Institute for Integrated Rural Development in Maharashtra, India.


Demonstration of traditional spinning of cotton into thread.
One of many beautiful displays of seeds
One of the many displays of locally grown seeds. Biodiversity in all its forms was a major theme of the congress.
Young farmers display the seeds they produce and sell.
More biodiversity – Indian farmers brought hundreds of varieties of rice and millet.

Each Organic World Congress (OWC) feels like a series of intense, vivid conversations. I renew acquaintance with people I have come to know over the years since 1996 when I attended my first OWC. And then there are the startling discoveries, encounters with people and projects I had no clue existed. Way too much happens to report it all, blow by blow. Since I know I will not be able to encompass it all, I will focus on a few themes and a few intense encounters.

At the OWC this year, I attended the plenary sessions, helped conduct a pre-conference on CSA in Asia, spent a few moments at INOFO meetings, gave a short talk on succession planting for CSAs in the Farmers’ Track and attended as many farmer talks as I could manage, participated in a panel on CSA networks, and contributed to a discussion on Fairness for All. I will share some highlights; if you would like more detail on elections and motions, here are links to the account of the General Assembly by Brian Baker, President of the IFOAM NA board (, and the official IFOAM report, The Insider  The Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI), the OWC hosts, promise to post all of the farmer track presentations on their website in 12 languages ( ). Continue reading “Organic Agriculture International in Delhi: Flavors of Biodiversity with a Touch of Smog”

Preliminary Report on the Organic World Congress and the IFOAM-Organics International General Assembly 2017 in India

Dancers open the OWC
Dancers welcomed us to the opening of the Organic World Congress.
Dear NOFA, NOC, CNG, OSGATA and Kamut Friends,

Since I held the proxies for all of you, I would like to give you a quick first report on the Organic World Congress (OWC) and the IFOAM General Assembly.  I will write more later in the month as time permits.

As the home of organic agriculture as practiced in the US where we follow the teachings of Sir Albert Howard, India was both a fabulous and a disastrous choice for the OWC.  Hundreds of organic farmers from around India were able to attend.

Joy Daniel with me and group of Indian women farmers from the Institute for Rural Development PGS
Joy Daniel, Director of the Institute for Integrated Rural Development, attended the OWC with four of the women farmers who belong to the institute organized PGS.


The organizers were able to fully fund farmer participants from Latin America, Africa, and other parts of Asia.  Us North Americans were on our own – and few in number.  The enormous Expo Mart in Greater Noida had ample room for the 5000 or so people who attended.  The air quality, however, was an utter disaster.  My lungs feel sandpapered from a week of acrid smoky air and my heart is saddened for the 25 million regular inhabitants of Delhi.

With Leslie Zuck in face mask Nov Delhi
Leslie Zuck of PCO and I get ready to venture out into the smoggy streets.

The food at the conference was extraordinary – supplied by Indian organic farmers. They introduced us to grains and combinations of vegetables and herbs I had never tasted before.  Transportation on the other hand was hair-raising.  Delhi drivers dart from lane to ill-marked lane while people on motor scooters weave in between.  The occasional bicycle skirts the edge of the road, driven into the faster lanes to avoid stopped cars and groups of pedestrians who seem oblivious to the chaos.  Along roadsides, people live in makeshift shelters, hanging their laundry to dry on public fencing.  At a red light, a child the age of my grandson (7), wove between the stopped cars selling balloons and begging while his mother sat under a tree on a small grassed division in the middle of the 10 lanes of traffic.

I attended the plenary sessions, helped conduct a pre-conference on CSA in Asia, gave a short talk on succession planting for CSAs in the Farmers’ Track, participated in a panel of CSA networks, and contributed to a discussion on Fairness for All.  I will write more about the OWC content later.

I also attended a meeting of Urgenci, the International CSA network of which I am honorary president.  The acting President, Judith Hitchman of Ireland, a relentlessly energetic advocate of solidarity economics, announced the good news that Urgenci has signed an MOU with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN that will fund the extension of CSAs to “receiving” countries, Eastern Europe and the Global South, as well as mapping existing CSAs. The next international CSA conference will take place in Thessaloniki, Greece in November 2018, together with the third all-European CSA conference.

Pre-conference on CSA in Asia, group photo
Group photo of the participants in the Urgenci sponsored pre-conference on CSA in Asia. Countries represented are China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Japan. Jocelyn Parot, Director of Urgenci stands on my left next to Thomas Harttung from Denmark, founder of Aastiderne.

The IFOAM General Assembly (GA) started with a “Motion Bazaar.”  Whoever proposed a motion sat in front of a poster with the motion language while members circulated from motion to motion, offering suggestions, arguing, discussing. The 16 World Board candidates for the 10 positions lobbied energetically as did the 12 countries contending to be the site for the next OWC.


Passionate discussion at the Motion Bazaar where members have the opportunity to hash over motions, propose amendments or just talk over content.

The GA opened with reports from the staff and the outgoing board.  I am happy to report that IFOAM is in solid fiscal health with a larger budget for the next three years and has several new projects underway, especially focused on increasing organic farming in the Global South.  The “internal auditor” found that the World Board worked well with one another and with staff, and staff has increased efficiency.

A large portion of the GA is taken up with discussing the motions that will guide the organization for the next 3 years.  While complicated, Roberts Rules of Order govern the process.  There were excellent exchanges that strengthened some motions and eliminated a few.  The many motions included confirmation of Organic 3.0 as guiding policy, renewed determination to distinguish among new technologies to identify genetic engineering so that organic systems will exclude it, a project to delineate non-certified organic farms and acreage around the world, a study of the extent of glyphosate contamination of lands, crops, humans and the environment, standard setting for the production of invertebrates (insects), greater transparency in IFOAM financial reporting to members, and clarification of the role of regional bodies such as the new IFOAM NA. There is strong support for decentralizing the organization as much as possible. The membership voted decisively against any form of aquaculture except the most natural (fish in outdoor farm ponds and lakes with systems that use renewable energy).There was extended discussion of how many resources should go into attacking mega-corporations like Monsanto as compared to putting the highest priority on building the organic alternative.

New World Board with Peggy Miars third from left

The election of the new World Board is the other central event. The members elect the WB and then the WB selects officers. The new World Board members are David Amudavi of Kenya, Choitresh Kumar Ganguly of India, Hans Herren of Switzerland, Julia Lernoud of Argentina, Edith Van Walsum of Netherlands, Karen Mapusua of Fuji, and Jennifer Chang of South Korea.  Returning for a second term are Peggy Miars, US, Director of OMRI, Gerold Rahmann of Germany, and Frank Eyhorn of Switzerland. They elected Peggy Miars President, with Jennifer Chang and Frank Eyhorn on the Executive Board as Vice Presidents. With the exception of Shimpei Murakami of Japan, the slate I recommended to you was selected! The next Organic World Congress will be hosted by France in Rennes in 2020. Morocco was a close second, and Czechoslovakia gave the most creative presentation during the bidding.

Outgoing World Board with Andre Leu on left
Andre Leu, Australia, Gabi Soto, Costa Rica, Eva Torremocha, Spain, Roberto Ugas, Peru, Zheijang Zhou, China, Matthew John, India.

The final part of the agenda is devoted to thank yous and awards.  The entire assemblage gave a long and loving standing ovation to retiring president Andre Leu, and special flower wreaths to all the outgoing board members.  Much to my surprise, the WB awarded me special recognition for my contribution to CSA and my “loving manner” and I too got a standing ovation from the members!

Please feel free to share this report.  I will also post it on my blog in case you want to link to it.

For Peace in Our Lifetimes,


One of many beautiful displays of seeds
One of the many displays of locally grown seeds. Biodiversity in all its forms was a major theme of the congress.




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