Getting to the Heart of Organic


Each year in late February in LaCrosse, Wisconsin the largest U.S. organic farming conference brings over two thousand people to learn, network, and share their passion for ecological health and values. The surrounding land, unglaciated and riven by the Mississippi and many smaller valleys, is home to an impressive array of organic farms and producers.

The Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference is organized by MOSES: Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services ( Events are held in the LaCrosse convention center and adjacent Radisson Hotel. The program of training and educational sessions, held over four days, is well-planned, the atmosphere is friendly, childcare and kids’ activities are provided, and the food is organic.

Strong growth in demand for organic food continues, but the atmosphere nationally for organics is not all friendly. Many threats to the integrity of organics were discussed:

  • The definition of “access to pasture” for organic dairy cows needs to be clarified and enforced, because a handful of concentrated animal feedlot operations, no longer pasture-based, already have been launched.
  • Approval of synthetic “contact substances” was engineered through Congress without support from the National Organic Standards Board, and the USDA’s National Organic Program continues to ignore other important recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board.
  • Release of genetically engineered crops, as well as general drift and pollution from pesticides and herbicides, threaten the integrity and future existence of organic crops.
  • Livestock cloning, recently approved by the FDA, also contradicts the intent of organics and needs to be explicitly prohibited.
  • Global sourcing, with increasing amounts of organic food sold domestically coming from overseas, has problems from the energy required as well as from spotty verification or accreditation.

The crowd at the organic conference is impressively lively, imbued with an attitude of taking responsibility for improving the state of agriculture and combatting threats to organic production. This year is especially important, with Congress considering a gigantic farm bill that will greatly influence the direction of agriculture programs. Two powerful plenary presentations brought home the context in which these efforts are made:

Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, summarized the migration of toxic farm chemicals from soil to water to the human fetus, while telling a parallel story of the decline of her family’s Illinois farm and its recent organic revival with the help of small investors in Chicago. Her points were both disturbing in a familiar way and inspiring in highlighting one new approach to reclaiming farmland for an organic future.

Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center ( presented graphic research showing that public policy frames similar trends of decreasing income and rising costs for farmers locally, regionally, and nationally. Even highly productive farm regions are exporting most of the value of their agriculture

As another presenter stated, we have to act as citizens, together, if we want to alter this mess. Consumers can’t shop their way out, farmers can’t farm their way out, and consultants and bureaucrats can’t write their way out of the existing food disasters. We need to act together.

At the conference, cooperative retailers in LaCrosse, Viroqua, and Winona joined others from Madison and Minneapolis and greater distances. The retailer-oriented workshops—for producers working with retailers and retailers working with producers—will be expanded in 2008. Co-op retailers can learn a great deal at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, and they can help shape its program content. I’d be interested in hearing any suggestions for next year, and so would the folks at MOSES.


Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

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