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November 15, 2004

First major study of organic farming in California yields surprises

By Jennifer McNulty

The first comprehensive study of organic agriculture in California challenges the popular notion that organic farming is dominated by small family-owned farms and shows how the industry's regulatory structure has thwarted the very benefits that have generated strong public support for organic agriculture.

Julie Guthman Photo: Jennifer McNulty

"Organic farming is seen as an answer to the crisis in our food system, but organic agriculture in California has evolved in some peculiar ways that effectively limit the number of acres that are in organic cultivation," said Julie Guthman, author of the new book, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

In her analysis, Guthman, an assistant professor of community studies at UCSC, also reconsiders “roads not taken” to a more socially just and ecologically sustainable agriculture.

A strong proponent of many of the ideals associated with organic agriculture, Guthman nevertheless believes the fastest-growing segment of farming today warrants scrutiny. Many experts expect as much as 20 percent of California cropland will be in organic production by 2024.

Major misconceptions concern the "who and why" of organic farming and the impact of industry regulation. Among Guthman's findings:

• Contrary to the popular image of farmers who embraced a "live gently on the land" philosophy, many growers switched to higher-value organic commodities to increase earnings.

• Rather than corporate takeovers, much of the growth of organic agriculture has come from growers who made the switch from conventional farming to organic, met with success, and recruited other experienced conventional farmers to join them.

• Many growers went organic out of fear that the pesticides they relied on would be banned, while others were concerned about their personal exposure to pesticides or the risks associated with exposing others to pesticides.

"There were very compelling economic and regulatory reasons for conventional growers to enter into organics," said Guthman. "As they went organic, they brought along their technical competence, their marketing relationships, and their labor practices. As a result, organic farming in California today looks a lot more like the agribusiness model than the pastoral family-farm model most people think of.” Today’s tight price competition affects all organic growers, even those who would like to farm less intensively, she noted.

The second major force that shaped the organic industry--and ultimately limited its reach, argues Guthman--was the movement’s decision to self-regulate through the establishment of independent organic standards and third-party certification programs to verify those standards.

Like the leaders of many social movements of the 1960s, the pioneers of organic agriculture had to decide whether to operate within the system or not. "They chose to use the market but not the state in developing organic’s regulatory structure,” said Guthman. “In establishing regulations for their industry, organic growers exhibited a certain self-interest and arbitrariness that created some perverse incentives and outcomes, albeit usually unintentionally."

For example:

• The focus on materials rather than processes--soil inputs rather than cover cropping, for example--fostered an idea that input substitution was good enough, allowing many growers to be organic without fundamentally altering their growing practices.

• Grower-designed and -enforced standards paved the way for the organic industry's failure to address social-justice aspects of sustainability, including farmworker wages and working conditions, and hunger and food distribution issues.

• Organic certification generates a price-premium that creates an incentive to restrict entry because reducing competition keeps the price-premium high.

"The paradox of incentive-based regulation is that it generates a motive to limit participation, when the whole purpose is supposed to encourage more sustainable production," said Guthman, noting that despite the growth of organic farming, it still accounts for only 1 percent of U.S. agricultural output.

Finally, Guthman paints an unromantic picture of agriculture in California. “Historically, small-scale family farms have never been the norm in California,” she said. California’s agrarian tradition has been shaped by land values that reflect and support a form of high-intensity, specialty-crop, year-round farming unlike anything else in the United States, said Guthman, who describes it as a "treadmill running on overdrive."

"Land values in California correlate to the value of crops that are grown and the intensification of farming practices, so farmers are under incredible pressure to get more crop value per acre," said Guthman. "Because organic adds value, it has the potential to further inflate land costs, which ironically undermines the goal of growing in less-intensive ways.”

Guthman's prescription for addressing the shortcomings of the current system starts with "revisiting the roads less traveled," including banning pesticides, creating government subsidies for sustainable farming, eliminating subsidies for conventional agriculture, and revising immigration policies to support farmworkers.

"One percent of U.S. agricultural acreage is organic, compared to nearly 30 percent in Australia," said Guthman. "We have 2,000 organic farms in California, but Italy has 45,000. There's been much more widespread transformation in different political environments. We really have to ask ourselves how successful our approach has been."


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