Washington State University

Small Farms Team

Facing a New Rival in Green Arena

Helen Jung, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal, November, 2000
(permission granted to use this story)

Farming on the environmental high ground is getting crowded with more growers producing organic foods and a rise in consumer interest in produce from ecologically friendly farms, producers in the Northwest, mainly in Oregon, are trying to stake out even greener pastures. By adhering to the so-called sustainable-agriculture movement, these farmers preach a holistic approach to agriculture, pledging to improve soil, reduce pesticides and treat farm workers fairly.

The sustainable movement is still in its infancy, but it's sparking nervousness among organic farmers. For one thing, sustainable farming – which tries to limit the use of synthetic input – can be less expensive than organic farming, which prohibits the use of synthetics. In addition, organic farmers fear that consumers will be confused about yet another label targeting environmentally conscious people.

Oregon has about 660 organic farms, according to Oregon Tilth, the state's largest organic certification agency. Meanwhile, Oregon's biggest sustainable-agriculture certification agency, the Food Alliance, has certified 40 farms in both Oregon and Washington. "People not used to having that kind of competition" are edgy about it, says Ann Woods, president of Organic Alliance, a St.Paul, Minnesota, organization that sponsors organic product promotion and educational efforts in supermarkets.

Adding to Pressure

Oregon's organic farmers also see the sustainable movement hurting them on one side while they get battered on the other side, by big corporate farms moving into organic-food production. "Fall between the two and you're going to get squeezed," says David DeCou, general manager for Eugene distributor Organically Grown Co (david@organicgrown.com). "Everybody is trying to figure out how to make a niche for themselves to get a better price."

Organic farmers have had a nice niche. U.S. Consumers buy about $6 billion worth of organic products annually, with sales growing 15% to 20% yearly, according to Bellevue based research firm Hartman Group Inc.

Sustainable agriculture battles organics for green consumers

So what's the difference between organic and sustainable? The primary focus of organic food production is on prohibiting the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, says John Foster, certification director for Oregon Tilth. Sustainable agriculture does not have a uniformly accepted definition, but rather a broad statement of commitment to environmentally and determined devotees. There are no reliable data on sustainable sales, but the anecdotal evidence that sustainable products are making inroads at the expense of their organic and traditional competitors.

"We believe that in time it well be viewed as a superior farming approach to either organic or conventional systems," declares Karla Chambers, vice president of Stahlbush Island Farms Inc. in Corvalis. Her farm strives for innovative ways of going easy on the soil, for instances by creating lighter machines for tiling and fertilizing.

Certification

A few certification agencies are setting their own, sometimes differing, standards for sustainable farming. For example, the Food Alliance, which is nonprofit and based in Portland, requires farms to submit plans that give details of their management in conserving water, reducing negative impact to the environment and proving a commitment to fair and safe labor practices. Although these farms must show how they would strive to avoid using synthetic insecticides, herbicides and other pesticides, the Food Alliance doesn't prohibit their use.

organic food sales are growing at 15-20% per year

At least one store manager says Food Alliance-branded foods are making headway among his produce. At Lambs Thriftway on Oleson Road in Southwest Portland, Food Alliance-branded products make up about 15% to 20% of total produce sales a month in the summer, says Paul Widerburg, the store's produce manager. To be sure, at that particular store, the Food Alliance brand is getting a little help. The market hangs banners, hands out brochures and puts up displays throughout the section to promote the brand. Managers at two other Portland grocery stores say Food Alliance-brand produce sales are too new to tally but are lower than organic sales.

Mr. Widerburg says organic farmers haven't complained that the store doesn't similarly promote their offerings, which are kept in a separate section. Food Alliance foods are spread throughout the produce bins. Organic sales make up about 8% to 9% of produce sales in the summer, he says. Anyway, he says, considering that organic sales are still going up, it's the traditional farmers who should worry, because the Food Alliance label incorporates ideals — such as the emphasis on fair wages — that many consumers want to uphold. "If I have a choice to buy a Food Alliance product, I'll bring it in." he says, "because I want to be the guy wearing the white hat."

Still, not everybody is able to tell exactly what they're buying, says Danielle Jones, produce manager at Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Northwest Portland, which has been promoting sustainable foods along with organic for several months. "To some people they're just buying it because there's a label, they're not actually going through the process of [differentiating] this is organic and this is sustainable," she says.

Ms. Woods of Organic Alliance says organic farmers should not be overly concerned about a new competitive threat from sustainable agriculture. "It's one of those things where a rising tide rises all boats," she says. "The more choices possible the better."

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