March Musings: Policy and participation...they matter
I’m all well now, like a budding flower, coming out of a bout of bronchitis this last little while.
My friend Karminder, a fellow member of our Women in Ranching group out in California recommended a diversionary television series to watch while I was recovering. It’s a Western with a feminist twist that she warned was violent, but would be a great alternative to the endless urban tales available on Netflix. The scenery is so magnificent and so beautifully shot, that one night Karminder imagined she could smell the range, then, realized it was the sage in her garden wafting in through an open window.
“Godless” is a bloody tale of murder, mayhem, revenge, and adult literacy. It is full of the dangerous, chaotic nature of life in the West in the 1800’s, set largely in a semi-fictitious New Mexico mining town in which a silver mine explosion killed all but a few of the town’s able bodied men, leaving the town to be run by its women. It was shot not far from here, in country that is familiar and grand. The women are bad-ass and the men who aren’t vile are suitably noble.
I was absolutely captivated by this TV western for a whole day and into the evening. The series ended with a scene that would rouse the dead and stir the bronchially afflicted, in which the women put aside their fears and differences and staged a shootout with the Enemy Man and his demonic crew.
It’s hard to sleep after gunning down Evil. But, what made it worse was that I read an article Patrick O’Neill emailed just before turning out the light about a creamery in Georgia that’s been selling to Whole Foods for a number of years, did a major gear up (including going into big time debt) to service the account, then was shut down by the behemoth’s change in corporate policy to shift away from regional buying to a more conventional centralized approach – like any other large grocery chain.
John and I have been selling beef to Whole Foods for a few years through our Sweet Grass Coop. Being part of a larger group enabled us to work with them, even just to get our foot in the door. They’re a very demanding customer, but they’ve paid a good price and it has given us diversity in our market. Still, damage is unavoidable, if unintentional, when a mouse plays with an elephant. And the story of the creamery is an example of what Whole Foods has become known for since reaching its elephantine status. Where it once offered a welcomed leg up to small producers on equal footing as a small scale purveyor of bona fide good food, it is now known for an infamy of bait and switch for customers and producers alike.
The creamery made classic missteps going into the deal, by putting all their eggs in one basket, and having a contract that allowed Whole Foods a big fat no-excuses-needed exit strategy. It was the perfect recipe for business-wrecking, and I understand how it happened. In our current climate of encouragement for everything to get bigger, there are so few opportunities for smaller entities to establish themselves and to achieve significant growth for survival. The creamery is now out of business. They laid off thirty two employees. The dairy supplying all this ramped up production was also horribly impacted. I doubt Whole Foods/Amazon barely noticed, like swatting a fly with its tail.
The grocery chain’s shift away from purchasing from smaller regional producers happened before its acquisition by Amazon, though I can’t imagine the corporate philosophy going back the other way. And it all feels so backward-moving – resorting to commodity products that Whole Foods was such a glorious pioneer in providing an alternative to back in their early days in Austin, back when bulk bins were such a novel approach.
Though there was plenty of heartbreak, there was no blood spilled in the demise of the creamery that I am aware of. For me, however, this was more violent than anything in the bloody Godless TV western. I awoke in the night from a fever dream of women armed with all manner of roping and fancy horse tricks, and every kind of gun you can imagine, heavily packed bandoliers strapped across chests and hips to AVENGE ASSAULT ON SOIL AND PEOPLE AND WATER AND FOOD. Had I not been sick I might have gotten myself into serious trouble.
Then, days after my fever dream, the USDA announced the decision to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule, which addressed aspects of animal welfare for USDA certified organic livestock and poultry. The standards, which were made by consensus that took over a decade, were finally published in the last days of the Obama administration. The new rules provided clarification to achieve greater consistency in organic animal treatment. They addressed growing conditions, outdoor access, transportation and handling prior to slaughter, and prohibition of such practices as de-beaking chickens, forced molting, and cutting off cows’ tails.
When the rule was finalized in January, 2017, just as Obama was leaving office, the USDA admitted that the existing organic standards regarding livestock and poultry lacked clarity, which led to inconsistent practices among organic producers. In the period of public comment a year later, over 70,000 people commented, with more than 60,000 in support of the revisions. According to the USDA, the commenters were consumers, organic farmers, organic handlers, organizations representing animal welfare, environmental, or farming interests, trade associations, certifying agents and inspectors, and retailers.
Despite their earlier statement of lack of clarity in the old standards, and the overwhelming public support of the revisions, the USDA under a new administration decided that the implementation of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices exceeded its statutory authority and that the organic market was doing just fine without the bolstered regulation.
Over the two decades that John and I have been certified organic and grass-finishing cattle, we have been part of cadre of people working hard to build both the organic and pasture-based food production industries. We have always had to figure a way under the radar of large-moneyed interests who were hell-bent on pilfering the fruits of our efforts on the cheap. The recent losses – the grassfed definition, country of origin labeling, acceptance of soil-less production in organic standards, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices – are examples of this dynamic. Each one has felt like having the rug pulled out from under us. Over and over. Yet, we still stand. Come hell or high water, we’re going to do what’s right for the animals, the people, the climate and environment (including soil and water). It is who we are. And it is what we believe our customers expect of us.
We take great happiness in connecting with our customers, who are so stalwart, smart, resourceful and appreciative. You go to a lot of trouble to get good food and are fueled by a whole lot more humor than those dames in La Belle, the disenfranchised mining town in the TV western. More than the disturbances caused in our own industry by diminishing regulation/definition/oversight, we grieve the eroding possibility of consumers’ access to information and assurances about their food – where it comes from, how it is raised, the ethics behind it. In our slanted sideways optimism, it only makes us more resolute to continue building a way for people to get good food.
Because of your knowledge and experience, we encourage our customers to participate wherever possible in the decision making, not just in the polling place, but in your caucuses, primaries, and assemblies, to help shape the platform of your political party and to choose worthy candidates. There are some great ones putting their hat in the ring.
And you all are good. In fact, I’m happily bowled over by the goodness of your good.