Kate Mendenhall is the Director of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), an organization sponsored by the Rodale Institute to build and support an organic farmer movement and national policy platform in the United States. Mendenhall has an extensive background in advocacy and is well-acquainted with the needs of organic farmers and runs her own farm.
“We as organic farmers need a strong voice in DC advocating our positions on organic issues—asking organic farmers what they really need and want and working with existing organic organizations to make it a reality at the federal level,” says Mendenhall. “Together we’ll build a stronger organic farmer movement!”
The OFA strives to provide a strong and unified national voice for domestic certified organic producers. They are developing and advocating policies, strengthening and supporting farms and farm organizations, and supporting collaboration and leadership among organic organizations. This is done with the help of The Rodale Institute, an independent research institute for organic farming that focuses on compost, soil health, weed and pest management, livestock operations, organic certification, wastewater treatment, and climate change.
Mendenhall has worked with the Pesticide Action Network and CUESA in San Francisco, and was the Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New York (NOFA-NY). She now lives in Okoboji, Iowa where she started her own organic mixed livestock farm. In 2016, Mendenhall helped launch OFA to advocate for what organic farmers need and want.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Kate Mendenhall about the concerns of organic farmers.
Food Tank (FT): You yourself are a farmer. How difficult is it to start an organic farm?
Kate Mendenhall (KM): Starting a farm is different for every farmer—so much of it depends on location, experience, access to capital, soil quality, and markets. I have been dreaming and planning my farm for the past decade, so I had a good idea of what type of farm I was interested in, the type of marketing that would work for me in my community, and the kind of labor I could manage while also running the Organic Farmers Association. Finding the right piece of land took years and now we are in our third year of transition. Every day on the farm I learn something new and most days I make mistakes, but when framed as learning opportunities they keep you moving forward.
I live in Okoboji, Iowa, a rural agricultural community surrounded by primarily conventional corn and soybeans. A small pasture-based organic chicken and pig farm is a bit of an anomaly and has gotten the local community talking. For the most part, people in my rural community are hungry for locally-raised healthy food and are supportive of the farm, so that is encouraging. It’s a visible farm near a couple of towns and there are lots of opportunities for education about farm to table connections. Because there are animals, there has also been a lot of community concern about water quality impacts, which has provided many opportunities to talk to community groups about the positive environmental impact that pasture-based farming and organic management have on water quality.
Overall, starting the farm has been difficult, but it is a lifelong dream that I know will benefit my own family and our community. Working outside alongside my small children and my parents on the farm is one of the most rewarding aspects of family farming. Some of my longtime organic farming heroes often talk about organic farming as a public service and we’ve built that into our farm. We look forward to sharing our farm with our community to create positive experiences around nature, food, and community.
FT: What are the greatest issues organic farmers face?
KM: Some of the greatest issues that organic farmers face deal with contamination from pesticide drift and genetically engineered pollen drift. This past year, farmers across the Central United States especially faced contamination from the herbicide dicamba, an extremely harmful herbicide that could in one drift case wipe out an entire vegetable farm. Farmers face continual regulation and marketing challenges, but contamination is one that farmers can do very little to prevent and there are few regulations or protections for organic farmers in this area.
Organic farmers, like most family farmers, struggle with competitive market prices as well as supporting a living wage. As the organic market continues to grow, we as a community need to preserve the values of sustainability in the market chain that include financial sustainability for farmers by ensuring fair prices in our contract negotiations. The National Organic Program needs to grow at the same rate as the market they are regulating to ensure that all organic farmers are held to the same standard of organic management so that farmers compete in an equitable market and are not undercut by large factory farms that are not held to the same standards as small organic farmers.
FT: What kinds of local and federal policies do organic farmers want?
KM: Organic farmers want adequate federal support for the National Organic Program (NOP) so that they can do their job enforcing the organic standards according to the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) and the National Organic Standards. Without sufficient funding, the NOP has been unable to enforce equitable organic standards domestically and especially of imported products. Organic foods are the fastest growing sector in agriculture, and we need a federal program that has the capacity to support and protect the integrity of that market.
Other high priorities are more funding for organic research, as organic production research benefits both conventional and organic farmers and is important to improve grower productivity, product quality, pest management, and all the other environmental and production factors farmers manage on a daily basis. The Organic Research Act in Congress now is supported widely by the organic farmer community.
Organic farmers also want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Act (OLPP), which clarifies animal welfare standards for organic management. 100 percent of OFA farmer members support the implementation of this rule immediately. The OLPP protects the farm economies of family farmers who create management strategies and environments that care for each animal and preserve their natural instincts—this is what consumers want and expect under the organic label and large farms need to be held to the intended organic standards for animal welfare.
FT: How do you think the 2018 Farm Bill will affect organic farmers?
KM: As organic agriculture is the fastest growing agricultural sector—the majority of new farmers are choosing to farm using organic practices and organic farm management offers a long list of environmental benefits—I am hopeful Congress will incorporate Farm Bill policies that allow for continued and supported growth of the industry. Nationwide legislators are hearing more interest in organic farming from their constituents. When planning for the next five years of agricultural support and programs, organic agriculture should be a priority for this Farm Bill.
Organic agriculture is a bright spot in American agriculture and supporting its growth is truly putting America first. Congress could decide to maintain the status quo, or they can choose to increase support for the future of agriculture, organic farming, by supporting the various Farm Bill programs that encourage more organic transition and provide adequate support programs for existing organic farmers. Organic farming in itself provides self-regulated, market-driven environmental protection practices and since conservation is a conservative issue, we are hopeful this Congress will acknowledge the benefits of organic agriculture and prioritize it in the 2018 Farm Bill.
FT: Can organic farming techniques feed the world and what do you see as the future of farms?
KM: Yes. Feeding the world is a complex tagline that requires looking at our full food and agricultural system closely and being open to exploring the myriad factors needed for ‘feeding the world.’ The Farm Bill is an excellent opportunity to examine how our domestic and foreign agricultural policies affect food production and distribution in this country, as well as the management practices under which we produce all agricultural products and the environmental impacts of those practices. Many have suggested the Farm Bill be re-titled the Food Bill, and as we continually ask ourselves how our policies will help American farmers to ‘feed the world,’ sustainable food production and distribution should be a top policy priority.
Organic farms often grow food, which is important when charged with feeding the world. The majority of American agriculture currently does not grow food, so if 40 percent of American farmland growing conventional corn sold to make ethanol fuel was instead growing organic fruits, vegetables, and meat—food—we would be in a much better position to provide the fruits and vegetables that Americans consume domestically. Currently, the U.S. has a trade deficit in fresh and processed fruits and vegetables of US$11.4 billion (the gap between what the U.S. exports and what we import). Organic farms growing food are innovative and often grow multiple crops on the same ground in one season—so productively they are efficient and can grow a lot of food in a small space. Organic farms are often connected to their communities, which supports productive food distribution—an important aspect of feeding our local communities and the world.
This question is very complex, but the better question to ask would be, is Congress interested in feeding the world with healthy food, and will they create a Farm Bill that supports sustainable food production so that we can first feed our own country as well as contribute to feeding others. Organic farming is the future of agriculture, it has to be. The future will demand clean food, clean water, and clean air and organic farming voluntarily provides all of those environmental services—plus consumers across all economic levels are pushing the market growth of organic healthy food. Hopefully our representatives in D.C. support a sustainable future for American agriculture and our future farmers.