The new organic 

“When organic started out,” says Luci Brieger of Lifeline Farms in Victor, “those of us that got certified were considered rebels. Now we’re considered rebels for getting out of it.”

Brieger has joined a group of Western Montana farmers who’ve decided that the organic certification process no longer reflects why they began organic farming in the first place. Instead, they feel, current standards reflect big business’s pushy entry into the $20-billion-per-year organic market.

“Today, organic certification focuses on the purity of the food, with little regard for how the land and workers are treated, or the effect of farming on local and distant communities,” says Helen Atthowe of Stevensville’s Biodesign Farms. “Organic food is becoming an industry that serves self-centered, health-conscious consumers, rather than the big picture.”

“We used to learn a lot through the process of certification,” says Brieger. “The certification inspector doubled as an extension agent, giving us advice, or telling us how other people were handling this or that situation. Now, the inspectors aren’t allowed to give advice. They enforce their rules, but they aren’t helping us become better farmers anymore.”

The new group, called the Montana Sustainable Growers Union, has drafted a 10-point pledge, which sets out standards for its own peer-reviewed “Home Grown” label. While maintaining the food-purity aspects of the USDA’s one-size-fits-all organic label, the pledge is also tailored to on-the-ground realities in Western Montana.

“What’s good stewardship in southern Florida might not be good stewardship in Montana,” says Brieger.

The Home Grown pledge also props up farming ethics where the organic standards fall short, including areas such as crop diversity (versus monoculture), local economy, education and farmer-to-farmer relations. Members are expected to assist one another at becoming better farmers, and help each other meet the pledge’s requirements.

While some MSGU members are letting their organic certifications expire, others will continue to certify as organic under USDA rules, while marketing their agricultural products under the Home Grown label as well. Membership is open to growers within a 75-mile radius of Missoula.

The Home Grown label is expected to debut at Missoula’s May 6 Farmer’s Market.

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