The four Canadian farm boys were slightly in their cups when they struck up a conversation in the bar of the Concourse Hotel a couple of weekends ago. They were surprised to learn that we were natives, in the bar that night for the jazz, and not attendees of the World Dairy Expo like themselves. They allowed that they were having a pretty good time at the gigantic global farm convocation, a self-evident fact, and proceeded to give us an update on the state of agriculture. At one point, Duncan (his real name) leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, "That organic stuff? Baloney."
Well, Oscar Mayer does a pretty good business in baloney. And, as evidenced in this week's cover story, "Natural Allies," organic is doing a pretty good business these days, and it's only getting better. Regardless of the opinions of some of our friendly neighbors from the north country, the American consumer is convinced of the superiority of organic, is buying more and more organic products, and paying a premium to boot.
Isthmus editor Marc Eisen has a reputation in his Rutledge Street neighborhood as a pretty intense backyard farmer, a devotee of seed catalogs and composting techniques. So it's no surprise that the success of the Organic Valley Family of Farms line of products and the farmers' cooperative that runs it caught his attention. That led to road trips to the co-op's western Wisconsin headquarters and to farms in the area that supply it.
The resulting report bypasses the debateof organic versus non-organic and gets right to the dynamics of the biggest trend in the food industry. In particular, Eisen describes Organic Valley as a company that adheres to its own ethic. He explores how it functions within the larger food industry, and how it is regarded with skepticism by some who salute the same healthy-food, healthy-living flag.
He also examines what motivates the farmer members of the cooperative and how the organic movement has brought new hope to the dwindling ranks of family-owned farms. To them, organic is about more than healthy food - it's also about healthy farms and farm families. Folks from around here understand that, like religion, farming is a practice that promotes a lifestyle, a lifestyle that many see as being obliterated by the rise of the factory farm. Organic is a way to counter the trend toward corporate farming and put meaning back into the vocation of raising food.