The controversy over organic farming, between small farmers and industrial farmers, is being played out in Lewisburg, West Virginia, where, nearby, our farmland is located. We noticed in September of last year that Lewisburg has a local farmers' market on Saturdays, apparently of some vintage. For some reason, we missed the market then and again in May, when we returned to Greenbrier County to talk with contractors. As a result, our knowledge of the controversy is limited to what we read online in Lewisburg's local weekly, the Mountain Messenger. The controversy has apparently to do with the character of the market, presumably what produce is sold, and the vendors. The market has a formal organization with members and by-laws. The controversy has been bubbling at least since late last summer. The USDA County Extension Agent has tried to facilitate discussion and negotiation between the groups involved.
The Mountain Messenger's July 1, 2006, issue, described the controversy as between small, local growers and "corporate" farmers. Here is the salient discussion:
Tensions have arisen recently over several issues: price regulation; organic versus non-organic produce; adherence to established bylaws, etc.
Longtime vendor Kara Squires, who boycotted the meeting, said, in a call to this office, that an "unfriendly takeover" was underway by a disgruntled faction who have enlisted the support of the county extension agent. "We’re a small, back-to-the-land group getting run over by corporate farming," the caller charged.
Unable to arrive at an agreement about changes for the market, a smaller committee has been formed.
From the outside, I see a couple of larger issues here. (As a matter of nomenclature, I would call the larger interests, not corporate, but industrial. This is not necessarily a matter of quibbling. Corporate refers to a form of legal ownership of businesses and property, not necessarily to scale or method of production. Many family-owned farms are owned through legal corporate forms for tax and liability reasons.)
The first issue has to do with the nature of Greenbrier County's agriculture future. The immediate background is that Greenbrier County lost population and stagnated in the 1990s. After 2002, the county began to experience modest population growth and economic prosperity. The traditional agricultural base is cattle farming. The county is famous for its Angus beef. Apparently, through the 1970s-1980s, cattle farming managed to hold on as a stable economic base. In the past few years, however, cattle farming has been under economic pressure, because of declining beef prices (mad cow disease and shifting US diet) and competition from imported beef. The effect of the pressure is obvious, when driving around the county, in the abandoned cattle farms. Forest and scrub is invading abandoned pastures all over the county.
At the same time, the base of economic prosperity is slowing shifting to tourism, retirement, and the second home industry. The Greenbrier Resort has begun to revitalize itself. A Sports Club is attracting second homes. And the area around Lewisburg is sprouting new homes for retirees. The trend is evident in the decision of the County Planning Commission to adopt the county's first-ever subdivision regulations. The town of Lewisburg, the county seat, is the other reason for this prosperity. Over a decade ago, local preservationists managed to get the beautiful historic village and business center declared a national historic district. The town now attracts a year-round heritage tourist trade.
The farmers' market fits nicely with the heritage tourism profile of the county and Lewisburg. America's rural heritage and pastoral scenery are revitalizing many places around the nation.
I am only guessing here, but I think that the conflict over the nature of the farmers' market has to do with an effort of the industrial farmers to participate in this new profile of the county. Traditionally, their focus is the Friday livestock auction, held at the state fair grounds, in Lewisburg. That they are interested in the farmers' market indicates that they see a future for themselves in heritage and rural tourism. They see, perhaps, being able to sell some of their produce in this and similar markets.
As a matter of prediction, I think that the next flash point between the old agriculture of the county and the new rural tourism (which includes small farming and pastoral uses of the landscape) will be the pollution of the Greenbrier River. Recently, the Greenbrier River was declared to be one of the most polluted rivers in the state, due--apparently--to agricultural runoff, i.e., bovine urine and manure, and fertilizers associated with cattle farming. Cleaning up the river might well be legally required, but the tourist economy will, regardless, press for cleanup as a way to enhance the pastoral image of the county. Tourists won't want to swim in a polluted river that will leave them retching in the local emergency room.
Who is going to pay for the cleanup? A weakened cattle industry certainly will not be in a position to do so, certainly not by itself. Cleanup probably would involve interdiction, running drainage pipes in the fields along the length of the river to catch the agricultural runoff and taking it for treatment in central sewage plants before release into the river. Such a solution would be very expensive.
The cleanup should be a county-wide and state burden. If the cattle industry is asked to pay for the cleanup by itself, almost certainly it would spell the end of the industry in the county. The maintenance of the pastoral landscape by the farmers would cease and the rural basis for heritage tourism would be lost.
If cleanup is not going to cripple the cattle industry, then the cattle industry must be made economically healthier. The only way for that to happen is for cattle to bring a higher price at market. The main higher beef market now is the organic, natural, and/or kosher beef market. Hence, the bigger farmers of the area perhaps see the farmers' market as a way to test this new kind of market. (I should say that I don't know the extent of participation of local Greenbrier cattle farmers in the organic/natural/kosher markets. I have been unable to locate on the Web any statistics about this issue. The Greenbrier auction reports do not distinguish organic/natural cattle sales from regular cattle sales. I assume participation is small.)
It seems to me that there should be a path for the traditional agriculture of the county into new specialized organic markets. The local farmers' market might seem a pretty small operation to experiment with solutions, but it is a venue in which the experiment could be participated in and observed by everyone in the county. It is the county as a whole which has a big stake in the outcome, not just the cattle farmers.