Connor J. Fitzmaurice and Brian J. Gareau: Organic futures: struggling for sustainability on the small farm
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Organic farming is as old as agriculture. However, the history of the modern revival of organic agriculture dates back to the first half of the twentieth century at a time when there was a growing reliance on new synthetic, inorganic methods. Fitzmaurice and Gareau, in their book; Organic Futures: Struggling for Sustainability on the Small Farm, illuminates what “organic agriculture” means and describes what it is like to be a small-scale organic farmer in United States within a system that supports large-scale operations. Using an ethnographic approach and drawing experiences from small farmers in New England, the book presents an interesting analysis of how small farmers are avoiding conventional organic through new and alternative markets challenging the watering down of “organic”. With a compelling set of recommendations, the authors remain optimistic about the future of organic farming. Divided into two parts, the book has a great flow with very clear and well-structured writing.
Part I sets the scene with a review of the history of the organic food movement and presents a detailed progression over the course of its more than 75-year march from the agricultural margins to supermarket shelves in Whole Foods, Walmart, and others. The author then introduces the concepts of ‘organic bifurcation’ and ‘good matches’ as a lens to define the importance of farmers’ social, emotional and ethical connections in shaping the agricultural practices undertaken in their fields. ‘Bifurcation’ is a process where organic agriculture adopts a dual-structure of smaller, lifestyle-oriented producers and larger, industrial-scale producers. ‘Good matches’ refers to the ways small farmers are making a living out of organic farming as well as maintaining personal values. The authors argue that the new organic regulations have allowed entry of big corporate actors, thus making it increasingly difficult for small organic farms to remain economically viable- “…nowadays much of what gets purchased under the organic label is produced under conditions nearly indistinguishable from its conventional counterpart”.
Based on a case study of Scenic View Farm in New England, and supplemented with other farmers’ experiences, part II does a phenomenal job of addressing the problems that the small farmers face; the cost of certification and the burdens of certification requirements, difficulty to make ends meet with farm income, the land price, frequent insect and disease outbreaks etc. On the other hand, it provides several examples of how remaining small, targeting niche marketing, growing and selling wide varieties of crops, adopting integrated approaches, building local community relationships and, tapping the growing consumers’ interest in eating local food has helped farmers to remain in the forefront of the ‘local’ movement. Highlighting the experiences of farmers, the chapter aptly describes the choices farmers make in an effort to achieve a relationship between economics and their personal values.
In the concluding chapter, the authors outline their vision for the future and discuss various ideas to build an increasingly alternative, and reflexive local food systems. Refashioning the community supported agriculture (CSA) model to serve as a locus of civic activism, school to farm initiatives, labelling schemes that address social and economic concerns beyond the ‘organic’ label and proper federal and local government support were a few of the ideas presented. In a time when the alternative food system is mostly seen as a movement to resist neoliberal economic practices, the book takes a more pragmatic approach to explain how the emergent food movements are actually operating within the same context. Further, it suggests a more critical approach to local food systems urging organic farmers and producers to work together. The authors remain optimistic about the future—“the neoliberal economic paradigm has done much damage to the movement; however, the opportunities for constantly recreating alternative food systems are not foreclosed”.
A rather lengthy book at 301 pages, “Organic Futures” covers a great deal about the concerns and problems that a small-scale organic farmer faces and presents viable options to strengthen the movement. However, the book does not provide full confidence in organic farming becoming mainstream soon or having a viable future. In addition, a world dependent on organic farming means that we would have to farm more land than we do today, therefore the book could have also touched upon whether small-scale organic farming can feed us all. As described in chapter II, farmers are finding it tough to make ends meet with a farm income alone and the majority of small-farmers operating at a loss, so how an aspiring farmer treads the line between the ideals and economic realities is a big question. Scenic View Farm was an interesting case study, although whether it is a useful blueprint for drawing a wider conclusion is an issue.
As someone who grew up on a farm that faced many economic hardships, reading stories about real people doing real things on a small scale was very appealing. However, this book is not a book on how to “do it”. This is a book on showing you the real world of what you will go through in an effort to develop a small-organic farm in United States. Though the debates over ‘organic farming’ are not new, the authors demonstrated a good understanding of the topic taking a pragmatic approach rather than a ‘for or against’ debate. It is difficult not to like the book with a very clear and engaging writing style. For small farmers planning to transition towards organic, academicians, graduate students, policy makers and those involved in the development sector, this is a very useful piece of literature.