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REVIEW: Why Organic Farming Works E-mail
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Saturday, 19 August 2006

Book Review: Why Organic Farming Works


American Journal of Agricultural Economics

By Cesar L. Escalante

Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works
Author Leslie A.

Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005, 250 pp.

The book provides a comprehensive discussion of the organic farming paradigm through reviews of previous empirical research and first-hand information obtained from interviews with owners of six geographically diverse organic farms. The book equally devotes its six chapters to these two information sources. The first three chapters discuss the results and implications of past research, mostly subscribing to the quantitative approach of empirical investigation. The second half of the book adopts a qualitative, case study method that provides a more holistic view of organic farming and reinforces the claims made in the empirical studies presented earlier in the book.

The first chapter aptly provides an overview of the whole organic farming movement that immediately establishes the merits of organic farming systems vis-a-vis conventional agribusinesses and justifies the trends of increasing consumer demand and, albeit modest, conversions or transitions from conventional agriculture. In this chapter, the reader easily gets a clear, complete snapshot of the major issues usually raised in comparative analyses of organic and conventional farming systems.

Leslie Duram carefully organizes facts and opinions to formulate arguments that establish the impending threat of rural decline given the current state of U.S. agriculture that is dominated by conventional farming systems. Industrial agriculture subscribes to the "mega farm" consolidation mentality as means of business survival. This trend is attributed to the proliferation of more sophisticated, highly-priced production technologies that guarantee farmers high yields and low costs. Government subsidy programs, which mostly assist conventional farms, only alleviate the problem since "the more (farmers) grow, the higher the subsidy (they receive)" (p. 13). In this conventional farming setup, smaller family farms could barely break-even and are eventually forced out of business. Duram cites Krebs' explanation of "rural bloodletting" and "efficiency and ruthlessness" to support her point: " ... the demise of rural America is not the up-shot of free market capitalism but the result of agribusiness price fixing and deliberate anticompetitive strategies" (p. 14).

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss in greater detail the scientific, economic and social dimensions of organic farming. Instead of using chemical enhancers to the soil, organic farmers employ crop rotation techniques to build up their soil and continually improve soil quality for future generations. As a result, organically farmed soils have greater soil organic matter content, the earthworm activity, and mineralization. Their soils can also withstand natural calamities such as flooding and drought owing to their high infiltration rates and water-holding capacity.

In Chapter 2, Duram provides a balanced discussion of empirical works that both strongly advocate and expose the limitations of the organic farming system. For instance, economic viability assessment studies produce mixed results. Most studies cited emphatically establish that organic farms are economically viable operations with lower input costs and high price premiums that outweigh its relatively lower yields (compared to conventional farms). A few others claim that even when price premiums are factored in and family labor costs are included in cost calculations, net returns on organic farms could be lower than those realized by conventional farms. Duram's accounts of the grueling initial years for transitioning farms and the gradual improvements in management efficiency provide the proper context in understanding these negative results. The chances for small farm survival, however, are greater in the organic farming mode as these farms have been proven to succeed "even with relatively fewer acres than is necessary in the high yield mentality of conventional farms" (p. 45).

In Chapter 3, Duram emphasizes the minimization of "food miles" as a survival strategy for smaller organic family farms and the preservation of rural communities. The chapter outlines two marketing alternatives that support this cause: farmers' markets that provide direct marketing and community relationship building opportunities, and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) option that is both a revenue generating and risk reducing strategy for the farmers.

Five case studies of organic farmers, with diverse farming operations and representing different farming regions in the county, are introduced in Chapter 4. The rationale for the case study approach has been established in earlier chapters. Organic farming research requires a holistic approach for two reasons: decisions in different functional areas of farm operations are interrelated; and more longitudinal histories of farming operational decisions and practices are necessary in order to generate insights and information that are far richer and more reliable than generalizations obtained from one- to two-year-old small university research plots. As in any business and entrepreneurial situation, no two organic farms can be truly identical as uniqueness of each farming situation is enhanced by variations in operating barriers, farm operators' personalities and coping strategies. The case study approach, while criticized for its lack of rigor and statistical base, aptly fits the holistic research mold. It sheds light on farmers' exploratory problem-solving techniques, discover insights/relationships that are not usually suggested by theory, and make important clarifications that even common challenging business barriers are rarely solved by one right decision, or by implementing just one optimal, predetermined plan of action.

The case studies in Chapter 4 depict the farmers' motivations, goals, convictions, opinions, and experiences of trials and successes in their organic farming businesses, mostly using direct quotes from the farmers. This is followed in Chapter 5 by a thematic summary of the recurring factors, concepts and issues in the farmers' individual accounts with economic, ecological, social (and policy), and personal implications that are considered as attributes of successful organic farmers. These two chapters clarify an important point: successful farmers seem to possess a common set of traits and operating strategies but these are acquired or learned in many varied ways, and hence, are not necessarily implemented in exactly the same fashion across all these farms.

Chapter 6 recalls the important issues discussed in the literature review chapters and in the case studies to formulate policy suggestions and plans of action that will sustain the organic farming alternative. Duram outlines policy reforms that rest on the willingness of the government to abandon its lukewarm attitude toward organic farms. Among others, she hopes for even "just a moderate increase in funding for organic research ... (that is) truly relevant to organic farmers" (p. 190). This would surely reap a lot of benefits for organic farmers that still have to resort to conducting their own on-farm experiments given the "horrendously low levels of funding" (p. 189) that organic farm research receives from the government. It's also about time for the government to provide subsidies and other forms of incentives to the organic farming sector, which should especially be directed toward farms hurdling through the difficult years of converting to organic methods. Reforms in the organic certification process should consider a higher annual sales cutoff margin in the "small farm clause" and an expansion of purely production-based standard of certification to include more comprehensive ecological standards.

There is a slight twist in Duram's advocacy of small family organic farming, which was quite evident in the earlier chapters. Her views and convictions are acceptable: organic farming allows small family farms to operate financially and environmentally sustainable businesses that save rural communities and the environment from decimation. The dangers of the industry being transformed into what she calls the "Big O Ag," however, are real. High price premiums, increasing net returns and an expanding consumer base will inevitably entice small organic producers to continually expand production acreage and shift to the conventional agricultural distribution system. But Duram acknowledges toward the end of the book that bigger organic farms actually have a place in organic agriculture as long as they enhance opportunities for more transitions to organic farming. She clarifies a possible coexistence and complementation of small and mid-sized family organic farms where the former cater to local and regional markets while the latter sell beyond such markets to cover national and even global markets. This is fine as long as the "Big O Ag" firms continue to strictly adhere to the organic farming ideals of ecological balance and environmental preservation which ensures that "we are not spewing as much as many agrichemicals into our environment and perhaps our waterways will be just that much cleaner" (p. 83), and never yielding to the lure of sacrificing product quality in exchange for larger market shares and higher profits. In the face of these risks, Duram issues a challenge to consumers to take responsibility by patronizing certified organic products at local markets and supporting family organic farms. This consumer vigilance seems to be quite attainable realistically at this point when, as empirical evidence suggests, consumers and producers of organic products tend to share the same beliefs and ideals. But, as markets eventually become larger, price premiums start to diminish, and organic products become more accessible to all other segments of consumers, one wonders if such compatibility of preferences and ideas between producers and consumers will be maintained. I hope so.

Cesar L. Escalante

University of Georgia


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