Heading into his elder years, organic farmer Jim Gerritsen finds himself at once optimistic about the future and more critical than ever of the flaws he sees in American agriculture.
“You may not win but you’ve got to fight,” Gerritsen, co-owner of the Wood Prairie Farm, said at a seminar with students and faculty at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, which has a new sustainable agriculture program. “All of us who have kids, we’ve got to hand them something more than what we’ve got here.”
Jim and Meg Gerritsen, long-time organic farming advocates who helped lead a lawsuit challenging genetically engineered seed practices, are in the process of the transitioning their 80-acre farm to the next generation, their two sons and two daughters.
Jim Gerritsen, now considered an “agrarian elder” in organic farming circles, said he wants to help more people understand that organic farming can work well at small, local, large and national scales — without the use of harmful herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer.
“It’s the alternative to an industrial form of agriculture that has become the standard model in this country, and it’s a real open question as to whether this industrialization is an improvement,” Gerritsen said.
The Wood Prairie Farm specializes in organic seeds for vegetables, beans, grains, herbs, potatoes and more, sold mostly to gardeners and small farmers online. Organic farmers who sell diverse vegetables, meat, fruit and dairy can bring in hundreds of thousands dollars on just a few acres, while others can cultivate 4,000 acres of rotating grains, Gerritsen said.
“There’s no failure in the ability of organic farmers to grow food,” he argued. “The challenges are political challenges. We have a concentrated corporate control of our government. Everybody knows about the revolving door of people from private industry that come into the government as supposed regulators. Private industry people are making decisions on behalf of the citizens, but in fact they’re making it for the corporations they come from.”
Gerritsen said that he and other organic advocates are trying to counter what they see as corporate influence creeping into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic farming regulations. For instance, a recent investigation by Cornucopia Institute found 14 certified organic poultry and dairy factories in states like Texas “provided no legitimate grazing, or even access to the outdoors,” despite the pasture requirements laid out in the original national organic law.
“Clearly, there is a bias and they’re not willing to enforce the law,” Gerritsen said. For smaller farmers trying to meet consumer demand for pasture-raised meat, the current system puts them “at a competitive disadvantage, trying to compete with mega operations.”
Organic groups are also looking to challenge a decision by the USDA’s National Organic Program to permit cisgenic cell fusion hybrid seeds, which they contend are a form of genetic engineering that would otherwise be banned.
Cisgenic seed cell fusion is a process of modifying a plant by adding mutations from other plants in its family, creating “a hybrid plant containing the mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA from one cell and the nuclear DNA from a different one,” according to The Natural Farmer, a part of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Some scientists argue that cisgenic seeds are closer to traditional breeding methods than the GMO process, but Gerritsen and organic advocates argue that the fundamental problem is patenting seeds created with any artificial methods in a laboratory.
“The seed has to support genetic diversity. Anything that is organic seed cannot be patented,” Gerritsen said.
Despite the battles Gerritsen sees ahead for people who want to live sustainably, one of the prevailing ideas in organic farming — soil health — is being adopted broadly in agriculture, from Maine potato growers to Midwest corn farmers.
“Soil is all-important,” Gerritsen said. “The whole concept in organic is that if you treat your soil well, you’re going to have a healthy plant and the healthy plant is going to have natural resistance to insect and disease pressure.”