Eisen column: Organic industry mixes idealism and entrepreneurism

By Marc Eisen

For WisBusiness.com

LA CROSSE — Oh, I’ll admit it. I’m fascinated by the organic farming movement’s odd but compelling mixture of risk-taking entrepreneurialism with radical politics.

These are folks who display almost a libertarian notion of self-reliance and suspicion of authority. Yet they still share an unabashed sense of group solidarity and common mission. Feet planted firmly in the ground, body braced for a struggle, many organic farmers see themselves as insurgents attempting nothing less than to stop the big wheel of industrial agriculture from rolling over the earth.

Talk about big dreams … and practical applications. All were on display at the 20th annual Organic Farming Conference that concluded here Saturday at the La Crosse Center with a record attendance of 2,612, mostly from Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. These were happy people in a mood to celebrate their successes.

Read Eisen’s previous story from the organic farming conference: Organic farming community thriving in midst of recession

Recession? Yeah, it’s taking a toll, especially on dairy farmers who’ve watched their monthly pay-price erode or in some cases even had their processors stop taking their milk because of the oversupply.

But my own casual survey of three small producers — of free-range chickens; winter spinach; and pastured beef and lamb — found them all professing to be unbothered by the economic hard times. All three sell directly to their customers, and they haven’t come close to satisfying the demand for their premium-niche products.

“The recession hasn’t really impacted anything for us,” John Goeke, whose Sylvan Meadows Farm in Viroqua specializes in grass-fed beef and lamb, told me.

The nuts-and-bolts entrepreneurial side of the organic movement was served by the convention’s robust trade show — the 140 or so exhibitor stalls sold out four months ago — and unsurprisingly featured organic seed-and-fertilizer purveyors, educators, and implement sellers.

The conference’s three-day program was also packed with practical programs on food safety, farm bookkeeping, strawberry production, hoop-house farming, crop insurance and lots more.

But this was not a meeting of the Farm Bureau. Or a workshop sponsored by the UW-Extension. The conference had plenty of those organic radicals, trouble-makers, paradigm-shifters and just plain old farmers for whom their work was no longer something called “agri-business” but almost a sacred cause to protect the earth.

Exhibit A for this last point was the conference’s Farmer of the Year, Tom and Irene Frantzen of Hampton, Iowa, who practice holistic farming (doing such things as complex field rotations, diversified cropping, and serious recycling), while raising organic hogs and beef cattle without the usual reliance on pharmaceutical drugs and conventional farm chemicals.

Their inspiration? Hearing Pope John Paul II, in a 1979 Des Moines speech, urge farmers to see themselves as the stewards of the land for the generations to come. The Pope’s words changed their lives.

“You’ve got to decide what you really want to get out of life,” Frantzen said of the soul searching he undertook before rejecting conventional agriculture to start over as an organic farmer.

Keynote speaker Vandana Shiva, a celebrated Indian environmentalist, made the sort of anti-capitalist argument that would give Rush Limbaugh apoplexy. Not a snarky, sound-bite provocateur either, Shiva presented a long compelling argument on how the so-called “Green Revolution” has had a calamitous affect on Indian farmers.

Once self-sufficient, those farmers are now deeply in debt, she said, because they have to borrow money to pay for hybrid seeds, artificial fertilizers, chemical pesticides and stepped-up irrigation for growing those hybrid seeds. The heavy debt has produced a wave of suicides among despairing Indian farmers, Shiva told a hushed audience.

In the Third World, industrial-style farming was “the agriculture of death,” she said.

Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician associated with Stanford University and a leading figure in the “green baby” movement, was the paradigm shifter. His keynote speech sounded the now familiar alarm that the junk-food American diet — and its corporate enablers — is crippling the health of young America.

Kids today suffer from the sorts of chronic health problems — obesity, hypertension, Type II diabetes — that once were only seen in their overweight parents, he said.

“We live in a malnourished country,” Greene said flat out. Now, this was startling. Given America’s propensity to super-size its meals and consume a boatload of calories every day, how can this be? But Greene’s point was that the heavily processed food we eat lacks vital micronutrients and damages our health.

His advice: Eat fruits and vegetables daily and avoid the pesticide-laden foods of conventional agriculture. Greene’s contention that hundreds of pesticides have been identified as “endocrine disrupters” and are associated with serious systemic diseases, including breast cancer, was, to say the least, worrisome.

The convention center’s big dining hall overflowed for both Shiva’s and Greene’s speeches on, respectively Friday and Saturday mornings. Both were wildly applauded.

The turnout was yet another indication that while the farmers were there to talk business, trade ideas and socialize with old friends, they also wanted to be inspired by a higher purpose.