Guest post: Talking to Growing for Market’s Lynn Byczynski about organic’s evolution

Bonnie here: I am really pleased to introduce Janet Majure, who's offered to guest post from Lawrence, Kansas. Janet is an editor and journalist who occasionally writes for the Kansas City Star; she had a weekly cooking column for almost 10 years and has written a couple of cookbooks. I've been enjoying Janet's blog FoodPerson for a while, and I'm hoping she'll show all of you doubters that you don't have live in California to eat locally and sustainably year round — or at least some of the time. 

My friend Lynn Byczynski (right) has unusual perspective on organic growing in the United States. Besides starting what’s thought to be the first certified organic farm in Kansas, she’s been publishing Growing for Market, a monthly print newsletter, since 1992. Lynn has traveled coast to coast and everywhere in between talking with growers.

Although GFM’s circulation is modest, at about 4,000, her readers are enthusiastic. Eliot Coleman, author of "The New Organic Grower," calls it a “must-have.” Bob Scowcroft, director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., says that Growing for Market “has become one of our favorite publications here at the office, and was identified as such by many of the respondents of our National Organic Farmers' Survey.”

Lynn has been in the fields as organic production has evolved from its counterculture roots. Now, she says, “I think the future of organic food is totally mainstream. Industrial food producers are going to see that it makes sense. There is no reason for organic not to become the predominant growing method. It’s the march of human progress, in my opinion.”

Lynn is no starry-eyed optimist, so her forecast is good cause for hope.

Planting seeds

Lynn, a former daily newspaper journalist, and her husband, Dan Nagengast, a non-practicing attorney, are committed environmentalists who started growing organically in 1989 partly to put their beliefs into action. At that time, information about organic growing was scant and resources were so few that Lynn had to sew her own market banner proclaiming “organically grown.”

Trouble was, few people seemed to know what “organic” meant, even with their farm’s OCIA certification.

“There was a guy at one of markets who was telling people that he was organic because all he used was Sevin, a wide-spectrum chemical pesticide,” she says.

She and Dan were selling at farmers markets in Topeka and south Kansas City, but lack of understanding wasn’t just a Midwestern thing. “I think people had this idea that organic meant something good, but they didn’t really understand what it meant,” she says.

Part of the problem was a lack of any national organic standards at that time, and some certifying organizations had stricter rules than others. The institution of USDA organic rules in 2002 (after about 12 years of debate) changed that. The USDA’s original proposal to allow use of sludge on fields as “organic” soil amendments helped galvanize proponents of organic methods truer to the practice’s roots.

Changes afield

Lynn and Dan initially applied their commitment and Dan’s background knowledge to growing herbs and vegetables. Dan grew up on a farm in Nebraska and had spent eight years teaching agriculture in Africa, while Lynn—a vegetarian—is from the Rust Belt in Pennsylvania. They soon discovered that flowers, also organically grown, were more profitable. They later developed a CSA operation, started a family (they now have two teenagers), and moved from their farm south of Topeka to a location outside of Lawrence.

Nowadays, their Wild Onion Farm produces herbs and vegetables only for themselves, while the flowers are sold commercially to florists and the Community Mercantile, Lawrence’s natural foods grocery. Meanwhile, Lynn continues to publish Growing for Market and Dan runs the Kansas Rural Center, which promotes family farming and sustainable agriculture.

Lynn’s expertise in flower growing and selling, meanwhile, led her to write the book “The Flower Farmer” 10 years ago; a second edition is due out in February.

The world of organic growing has changed, too. Back in the late '80s, most organic growers were small producers who sold their products in the local community. Nowadays, most organic production is by big agribusinesses, which saw that people were willing to pay premium prices for organic goods and recognized the opportunity for profit.

Interestingly, Lynn notes, the conversion of organics from a grassroots system to large-scale industrial agriculture isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“If agribusiness is observing the spirit of organics, rather than coming up with some different, organic-based compound to control pests and the like, there is a lot less pollution,” she said. “Overall, I think it’s been a benefit to the environment and to the farm workers and to consumers. I think you can feel pretty confident that certified organic food is grown without the chemicals.”

Certification grows

Lynn notes that the USDA regulations have meant that getting certified is now more expensive and paperwork-intensive, a drawback to small growers. Still, she says, many of them continue to get certified even though the explosion of the buy-local movement might keep them in customers regardless.

Why do they do so? Certification allows growers to sell to supermarkets and specialty grocers like Whole Foods. Many growers believe strongly in the principles of organics, and certification eliminates any doubt consumers might have about their products, she says.

And, despite a bit of an exodus from certification, particularly among CSA growers (including Wild Onion Farm) whose customers know and trust them, the number of certified farms keeps increasing.

Meanwhile, Lynn thinks a recently developed and lower-cost label called Certified Naturally Grown is a good alternative for small growers. Participants follow pretty much the same rules as the USDA certification, but the third-party inspections are less costly than for USDA Organic certification. Instead of paying for USDA-authorized inspectors, participants in Certified Naturally Grown are inspected by volunteer farmers, consumers, and other interested people.

Local growth industry

Lynn thinks local-food awareness is a good thing. She says people are on the right track when they begin to wonder about the wisdom of buying food from thousands of miles away. An added benefit of the local-food movement is that small-scale market gardening (also known as truck farming), whether organic or not, offers an entrée into the industry for people who harbor dreams of farming.

“That’s something that appeals to a lot of people, and they are able to do it with market gardening and the proliferation of farmers markets,” she said. “It’s not easy money, that’s for sure.”

The farmers get to fulfill their dreams, and the lucky rest of us get to eat better food that’s more likely to be grown sustainably.

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