Texans buys hundreds of millions of dollars of organic produce annually from grocery stores alone, but almost none of it is grown in Texas.
How did Texas get so far behind? It has one of the longest growing seasons, some of the cheapest labor, and more customers than nearly any other state in the union. The state can grow just about every vegetable and most fruits. Why is so much money going to California and Mexico when Texas farmers could produce organic fare as well as anyone?
In the late 1980s, Democrat Jim Hightower was the Commissioner of Agriculture and was working to limit excess pesticide use and establish standards for farm workers. Hightower had just pushed through the Agricultural Hazards Communications Act, nicknamed the “Right to Know,” which established some of the first pesticide safety standards for farm workers. It required farms to record all pesticides, and to train employees how to handle dangerous chemicals.
Pesticide companies and the influential state farm bureau pushed back, declaring Hightower’s regulations too costly. They convinced a relatively unknown Democrat state legislator from Paint Rock who was considering leaving office to run for re-election, and they asked a young Karl Rove (George W. Bush’s campaign manager) to manage his campaign. Rove helped convince the candidate, Rick Perry, to switch parties. His new GOP status came with huge financial backing. In the final month before the election, his campaign contributions tripled Hightower’s contributions.
Rove also helped capitalize on a corruption scandal in the Hightower office during the election; there are even allegations that he initiated it. Rove has acknowledged meeting with the FBI agent probing Hightower while running the campaign to unseat him. Hightower was never charged with any wrongdoing, but two of his aides went to prison on counts of illegal fundraising. By then, public opinion had turned. Hightower was defeated by 50,000 votes.
Perry, freshly christened as a Republican, became Texas’s new Commissioner of Agriculture.
At the same time, a company called Albert’s Organics located to Texas with the intention of building its headquarters here. One year later, founder Albert Lusk declared that Texas Department of Agriculture officials were making it impossible to start an organic distribution company in Texas, and the company soon relocated to California. Today, Albert’s is the largest organic food distributor on the continent.
Who could blame them? When Perry came into office, he fired most of the pesticide enforcement personnel, and within 10 months the Environmental Protection Agency had to order the state Agriculture Department to reduce its backlog of pesticide enforcement cases.
Perry pushed so much pesticide for programs like the boll weevil eradication program, that all the beneficial insects preying on the beet armyworm were killed, costing Texas cotton farmers more than $200 million. He invested next to nothing in non-conventional farms. Organics didn’t stand a chance.
More than two decades later, things are finally changing. The market for organics is simply too large to ignore. Nationally, annual sales hover around $40 billion. The state, whose support could have expanded the industry early on, is finally dipping its toes in organics.
This weekend, the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association held its annual conference in San Antonio for the first time. Held at the Hilton San Antonio Airport, it drew about half of the organic farmers in the state. The impressive speaker lineup included Jeff Moyer, a leading organic researcher from the Rodale Institute, and Tom Philpott, a nationally recognized writer from Mother Jones.
More importantly, the brand new Texas Commissioner of Agriculture stopped by. Sid Miller is an even more staunch Republican than Rick Perry was in the same position, yet he still attended this weekend’s conference devoted to organic growing.
The conference opened on drought, with dialogue occurring directly between the farmers and the government agencies devoted to strengthening farm resilience at the Drought Summit.
“There is a history of some tension between these various constituents, and we attempted to address those directly,” said Joel Morton, a coordinator of the summit. “The tension has to do with who the federal agencies have served, between the large and small sizes.”
Farm Aid is a national nonprofit designed to help family farms, which got its start in 1985 when Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and others organized the first Farm Aid concert. Today, Farm Aid still celebrates with an annual concert, and from humble roots it has become a national force, empowering it to catalyze real progress between powerful partners in agriculture. Farm Aid sponsored this weekend’s Drought Summit.
At the summit, government agencies, including the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service clarified their drought emergency response programs, which provide loans and financial support to farmers when production becomes impossible.
Some, but not all small organic farmers would go broke without government assistance during extreme drought. Recent studies indicate that organic producers consume less water than their non-organic cousins. Since the soils on organic farms generally have more organic matter such as fungi and microorganisms, they act more like a sponge and retain more water than the largely lifeless soils of conventional farms that constantly spray pesticides. That could give organic crops a better shot at survival.
Robert Maggiani, director of TOFGA, was in the Texas Department of Agriculture for 26 years, working during the Hightower and Perry administrations.
“Here we are, 25 years after that election, and for the last five years organic farming in Texas has finally been growing well,” he said.
Maggiani is now a sustainable agriculture specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). Last year, he told me, the USDA granted NCAT a rural development grant for a feasibility study for a food hub in Texas.
“A food hub would be a facility that brings together products from multiple farmers and sells them to distributors like Whole Food and H-E-B. This could solve the complexity of marketing and price-shopping for small producers,” he said.
As a farmer myself, I can say that seeking the best market is at least as challenging as the farming work itself. A dedicated food hub designed to ease the process would prompt the expansion of successful organic farms and seed the state with many more small producers. It also would make it easier for big companies to buy organic.
Even more significant is that the federal and state governments are beginning to invest in Texas organic farms.
“I’ve been coming to TOFGA conferences for nearly 10 years, and the consensus from the agencies was that they didn’t want to bother with organic farms,” said Leslie Provence, vice president of the San Antonio Food Policy Council. “Today, I heard agency leaders tell the producers, ‘We want you in these programs, and we need your help to know how we can work with you.’ “
*Featured/top image: Organic methods often require more hands-on work rather than relying on chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Photo Courtesy of TOFGA.