In 2009, Clay Smith retired from his job running a Methodist non-profit in Southern Appalachia and returned to the family farm where he grew up outside Burlington, North Carolina. He divided the 130 acres with his brother and got his half certified organic. Now, along with traditional crops like tomatoes and zinnias, he grows edible organic gourds – bitter gourd, bottle gourd, ridged gourd, snake gourd – to serve North Carolina’s Indian immigrant community.
At the circuit of farmers’ markets where he does business, Smith comes close to selling almost his entire harvest by closing time. He is definitely catching a wave: Demand for organic food has climbed steadily as consumers worry about how synthetic pesticides might harm both the environment and human health. Organic food in the United States – everything from fresh produce to highly processed energy bars and boxed macaroni and cheese – is now a $45 billion industry. According to the Organic Trade Association, that represents a fifteen-fold increase over twenty years. Demand has outstripped supply, which means many large organic commodities like corn and soybeans used for organic animal feed are imported from overseas.
How will that momentum be impacted by the 2018 Farm Bill? We explored this question for “On the Table,” a podcast series about the Farm Bill produced by NET, Nebraska’s NPR and PBS stations. You can listen on Sound Cloud, iTunes or Stitcher.
Right now, the House and Senate are trying to reconcile competing versions of the legislation in conference committee. Some parts of the House and Senate bills are radically different. The outcome of their negotiations will determine whether small organic farmers like Smith will continue to receive what for some is make-or-break assistance; whether organic research – which is needed to help meet demand but has been lagging – will receive adequate funding; whether organic standards will stay intact; and whether the federal government will be able to stop fake organic products that arrive at U.S. ports from countries like the Ukraine from entering the American supply chain.
Lead image: Organic farmer Clay Smith on his farm near Burlington, North Carolina. Photograph by Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.