Michael A. Haedicke

 

On his book Organizing Organic: Conflict and Compromise in an Emerging Market

Cover Interview of November 09, 2016

A close-up

A unique and compelling feature of my book is its use of interviews and archival documents to explore how people understand organic foods and farming in very different ways. The book opens by comparing speeches from the early 2000s by two organic sector leaders.

The first speaker, a farmer named Elizabeth Henderson offers a “radical” vision of organic agriculture to a collection of farmers and food activists in gritty La Crosse, Wisconsin. She calls for an organic sector that is “democratic and participatory,” where production is organized around regional food systems, and where small farmers can stand up to agribusiness corporations.

The second speaker, a business consultant named Joe Smillie, characterizes organic farming as “an agricultural methodology.” Speaking to an audience at an organic foods trade show in a high-tech California convention center, he calls for measures that would make it possible for all farmers to switch to organic production. Only a broad, market-oriented organic sector can stop what he describes as “the poisoning of the planet” by synthetic agricultural pesticides and fertilizers.

The point is not that one of these speakers is right and the other one is wrong. The point is that they both offer heartfelt, compelling, but ultimately incompatible visions of what organic farming can and should be. The core chapters of the book analyze how advocates of organic agriculture have wrestled with these incompatible visions at pivotal points in the sector’s history. They also consider how relationships between these visions are playing out in different segments of the sector in the present day.

A reader who opens the book to the first chapter, “Breaking Ground for a New Agriculture,” will learn about how the fragmented character of the early organic foods industry enabled these visions to coexist with a minimum of friction, at least until the emergence of a national market for organic products in the 1980s. The second chapter, “Stabilizing the Market, Dividing the Field,” shows how efforts to smooth the development of this market through federal organic regulations led to a series of disruptive conflicts, despite the intentions of nearly all the participants involved.

A reader who opens the book at a later point may find herself taken into the world of organic foods co-op stores in the chapter “Caught in the Middle.” Co-ops trace their histories to the counterculture of the 1970s, when they sought to put ideas about social and cultural transformation into everyday practice. But today, co-ops find themselves competing closely with savvy organic foods superstores like Whole Foods Market, and even with discount retailers who sell organic foods, like Wal-Mart.

Co-op managers experience agonizing tensions between adherence to a transformative ethical vision and simple economic survival. Yet, they also describe ways in which their stores have managed to combine the warring gods of efficiency and social change. As they explain these strategies, co-op leaders and others in the book emerge as thoughtful and passionate individuals who struggle to act with integrity in a complex cultural and organizational environment.