The Gourmet Q + A: Mark Kastel

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One of the things that I always find so heartening in the CSA and direct-market movement is all the times I hear families refer to that as “our farm.” “Oh, try some of these tomatoes,” if they’re having me over for dinner. “They came from our farm.”

People create this intimate connection with their food. With who grows their food. With where it comes from. And they actually see the animals. It’s not just sterilized, irradiated, sanitized, processed packaged food. Dean Foods, which is one of our nemeses, the largest dairy in the United States—they don’t call themselves a dairy! They call themselves a “consumer package products company.” What are we selling?

DT: That said, I know you have been very careful to say that not all corporate organics is bad.

MK: Yes. We have to do that carefully, for a number of reasons. One is out of fairness to the organizations that are making the effort to do it right. There are purists in this organic community that will sort of shun the larger corporate players. And we think that’s unfair. But we also think it’s important to be scrupulously accurate in our research and our communications. It’s important for the consumers to know who they can trust. And these blanket determinations are also a disservice to that consumer, because a consumer who’s in Independence, Missouri—some town that might not have as sophisticated an infrastructure of organic, local direct farming—they need to find that organic food, they need that healthy, nutritious food. They need to know the brands they can trust. So, yes, we have to be careful for many reasons.

Among others, we’re right in the bullseye for many of these corporations. They would love to discredit our work. That would injure us as a resource for farmers and consumers if we ever acted recklessly, to the point that they were able to succeed in discrediting us. Hell, when we first came out with our organic dairy survey, the Organic Trade Association—which is the industry lobby group pretty much controlled by corporate agribusiness—attacked us before it was even published!

DT: Before they had even seen it?

MK: Right, before anybody outside of Cornucopia had seen it. We were very, very careful, just because we didn’t want it to fall into the hands of any of the dairies we were critiquing. It didn’t matter if it was people who we had confidence in, who we considered our friends in the organic dairy industry, or our adversaries. To maintain credibility we had to practice a high level of security. So they attacked Cornucopia for our methodology, and obviously they knew what our methodology was, because we had been completely open with what we were doing. Every dairy in the United States that did organics received our questionnaire and cover letter explaining it.

DT: Where is Organic Valley on the new scorecard?

MK: We’ve had some problems with Organic Valley. They’ve actually gone down a few notches. They’ve been more challenging for us to work with, which has been very disappointing because it’s a cooperative owned by the farmers, and their farmers are some of the best organic farmers in the country.

That controversy about them and this big dairy farm in Texas—that’s been resolved positively. But they’ve generally become more difficult to work with. So they have not been fully transparent with us in this round, and because of that they lost points.

DT: Do you see that happen a lot as companies get bigger?

MK: No. To be honest with you, it’s been rare that we’ve downgraded anybody. There are a couple others that we’ve downgraded, but that’s pretty rare. Most of the time people’s business practices remain, in organics, very consistent, and there have been a number of instances where I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to upgrade brands. And we tend to be a catalyst. They want to have the highest rating.

DT: So would you say you do this scorecard as much for consumer knowledge as you do to inspire companies to change?

MK: Oh, it’s got multiple uses. The number-one use undoubtedly is for consumers, to empower them to make good, discerning decisions. And in turn, that puts marketplace pressure on the bad actors and just as importantly it rewards the heroes. The other use is that farmers use it. There have been a number of farmers who have stopped shipping to Dean Foods’ Horizon label because they’ve been uncomfortable with learning what their practices were.

DT: Are farmers always aware of what kind of environment their milk is going into? Or are they sometimes innocent? They might be completely upstanding farmers and might not know that their clients are mixing their milk with conventional milk…

MK: In conventional agriculture, milk gets traded and co-op farmers may not be present in the marketplace under their own names—certain dairy co-ops might in turn sell to others. And so in conventional there’s a high percentage of farmers who really don’t know where their milk is going. And if it goes to a cheese plant, they might not know what brand that cheese is marketed under. In organics, almost all dairy producers know where their product is going. And that’s true of other organic commodities. Except for things like cereal grains or feed grains, most farmers know where their products are going.

DT: Is the onus on the farmer to know that information?

MK: Well, there’s certainly no legal liability as long as they’re doing the right job in producing that product. But the onus is on them in terms of being astute businesspeople, having a stake, having their livelihoods depend in part on maintaining the relationship for the reputation of that label, in the eyes of the consumer. I think in terms of being astute businesspeople there are great incentives to be much more connected with the marketing of your commodities than in conventional.

[Still,] generally speaking, in organic farming today, with the exception of the direct marketers, the farmers themselves are economically stressed. Even though consumers are paying a higher price, the cost of organic feed that farmers buy—many farmers grow the majority of their own feed, but not all of it—has grown at a faster clip than the prices that the farmers have received [for their milk]. The profitability has eroded to the point where—and I’m not exaggerating—some farmers are either only breaking even or losing money.

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