In a turn away from chemical-intensive farming, countries around the world are adopting policies to support conversions to organic agriculture. Whether wealthy, like Italy, or poor, like Thailand, governments are digging up ways to help growers be more environmentally sensitive. The small former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, for example, offers farmers three years of cash assistance as they transition from conventional to organic agriculture.
Not so in the U.S. The world’s biggest agricultural producer offers little official support to organic farmers. There is only one full-time organic researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and no federal, state or local government offers monetary assistance to organic growers.
Except, that is, for Woodbury County in western Iowa. Last year the county became the first government in the U.S. to financially support organics when the board of supervisors voted to give a property tax rebate to farmers transitioning to organic. Since then, Woodbury officials have also passed a law that requires the county’s food service contractor to purchase organic food grown and processed within 100 miles of the county courthouse whenever available.
Woodbury County’s cutting-edge approach is part of an effort to revitalize the area’s rural communities. In the last generation, the number of Woodbury farms has dropped sharply, down from a height of 1,700 to about 1,200 today. Rob Marqusee, director of Woodbury’s office of rural development, blames the decline on "economies-of-scale thinking"—smaller farms can’t compete in the high-tech farming that dominates American agriculture. Marqusee’s hope is that organic farming—which is more labor intensive since it doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides—will bring in new jobs, deepen the tax base and repopulate Woodbury’s countryside.
"Our sense of self-determination is shot," Marqusee says. "Either we make our future ourselves with the earth we have, or we look outside the county to troll for business and industry to come in."
For Marqusee, fostering organics is a way to build economic vigor by relying on Iowa’s best native resource—its world-class soil. Although Iowa grows $12 billion worth of agricultural products every year, much of that value is exported in the form of corn and soy used in processed foods and animal feed. This symbol of heartland fertility actually imports food for people to eat. It’s the perfect metaphor for a food system that emphasizes uniformity and national production over diversity and local needs.
More laws like Woodbury’s could help change that system, advocates say. "This is extremely important," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. "It will help U.S. farmers to produce the organics that people want. It’s definitely the way forward."
CONTACT: Organic Consumers Association, (218)226-4164, www.organicconsumers.org.