Organic Matters

Ten years in the making, national organic standards are coming to a store near you

"Wholesalers and retailers are finally being held as accountable as the farmers," says Edward Brown, who founded one of the country's first certified organic produce warehouses, Co-op Partners in St. Paul. "We saw this coming almost ten years ago, when a national standards program was first discussed. It is inspired by the successful programs in Sweden." In that country, a shopper can punch in a code and pull up photos of the farmer, animals, and crops, and read about the farm's vision and methods.

Under the new rules, at both the retail and wholesale level, commingling of organic and conventional will never be allowed. The Wedge already has separate areas for handling organic produce and products as well as for food preparation (cutting, butchering, sorting, wrapping, and deli). Bulk items must be kept separate. And the co-op may use only approved cleaning products, packaging materials, and containers.

Although the Wedge is becoming a certified organic retailer, it still carries some conventionally produced items. "We're evaluating what to stock, especially in the bulk area," says Elizabeth Archerd, the co-op's membership services director. "We may drop some of the conventional items because accounting for and keeping them separate is not worth the effort."

Barth Anderson is heading up organic certification for Minneapolis's Wedge Community Co-op
Tony Nelson
Barth Anderson is heading up organic certification for Minneapolis's Wedge Community Co-op

Location Info

Map

The Wedge Community Co-op

2105 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55405

Category: Restaurant > Grocery

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Mainstream grocery stores and chains, even if they are not seeking certification, must be far more vigilant in keeping conventional and organic produce separate. "We are looking at how we receive and store organic produce and products," says Debbie Leland, category manager for natural and specialty foods for Kowalski's Markets. "We'll do a better job of identifying organic items and of helping people understand exactly what the standards mean. People want to know more about their food, and we distribute a lot of educational materials. There's a real demand for organic and a real need for information."

There are plenty of incentives for mainstream grocers to find ways to meet the standards so they can continue to sell organic foods. The organic movement is the only financially healthy segment in the $400 billion grocery industry; it has grown at the rate of 20 percent a year for the past 20 years, maturing into an $8 billion market. General Mills, parent of Planet Foods (which owns Muir Glen tomatoes and Cascadian Farm frozen organic entrées), and J.M. Smucker, parent to After the Fall and RW Knudsen Family organic juices, are among the multinational corporations bolstering bottom lines with organic sales. (After all, how many variations of Fruit Loops can a shelf bear?)

How does the ruling affect what Michael Pollan (author and New York Times correspondent) has aptly dubbed the "organic industrial complex"? When by law, an Oreo can be judged as "organic" as my beloved tomatoes, what's going to happen to the guy who grows them?

"The ruling doesn't really change anything," says Roots & Fruits' Meyers. "The big guys were going to jump into the ring anyway because of the business opportunities. This law prevents them from doing so at unacceptable levels. The smaller organic farmers have been filing papers and paying certification fees for years. For them, this isn't new."

Co-op Partners' Brown isn't so sanguine. "Overproduction is our biggest concern," he says. "Large firms will pressure farmers to grow vast quantities for the lowest price, just as the conventional farms now do. I call it the 'Wal-Martization' of agriculture. Organic prices have been dropping as production increases. Bulk organic mixed greens are now about half their price from several years ago. And we're in stiff international competition: Chinese firms are waiting to flood us with cheap organic juice; Mexican farmers will work for six bucks a day. How can American farmers compete when the costs for labor, land, and water are so much higher than those of less socially responsible countries? There is a push to create an 'organic plus' designation so that ethical farmers who pay fair wages can differentiate themselves."

Take the growers in Marin County, California. Working with that state's Agricultural Trade Commissioner, they are looking to certify farmers who practice rigorous conservation, hire fairly, and pay farm workers living wages. The Marin Organic label will emphasize growers' commitment not only to organic farming but also to community values.

Locally, the same concerns are under discussion. "The process is intensifying the relationship with our farmers, especially those who cultivate heirloom varieties, hand-pick produce, rotate crops, and pay their workers fairly," says the Wedge's Anderson. "We want to help them educate shoppers about the value they add to our food and the benefits to the environment and our community. Consumers who do their own research will become involved in the process and make their own decisions."

"We want shoppers to understand their choices and know what they're paying for when they are faced with apples from Argentina, Washington, or from the North Shore," says Brown. "Minnesota is leading the country in providing bridge financing for farmers transitioning to organic."

"It's critical that as a small wholesaler, I buy from small farmers," adds Meyers. "It's not always easy or cost-effective. I may have several different trucks going different directions, backing down winding dirt roads. I'd save time and money going to one or two big farms for everything. But this is important and will keep us alive in the end."

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