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Organic leader sees funding, label issues affecting industry

Organic leader sees funding, label issues affecting industry

Q & A Lori Stern

Lori Stern is the executive director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, better known by its acronym MOSES.

Stern grew up in Wisconsin but spent 20 years in the Pacific Northwest before coming back to Wisconsin, where she ran a small farm and restaurant which specialized in localized food. She became executive director of MOSES last fall and helped guide it through the COVID-19 pandemic.

IFT: First of all, what is MOSES?

STERN: MOSES specializes in farmer- to-farmer education. It really started out as the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in 1990, and MOSES was formed in 1999. The conference is still our big event, but we also host field days and have a mentoring program. The focus is on organic production, and it consists of mostly small- to medium-sized farms.

IFT: How did COVID-19 impact the organization and its members?

STERN: For the organization, the meeting and our field days last year became online events. The good news is that we had really high attendance doing it that way, but now that things are opening up we will need to decide what to change back and what to keep.

As far as our members are concerned, it was a strange year. A lot of the CSAs sold out because of increased demand. But some farmers markets were closed and many restaurants closed at least for a time. I still ran a restaurant when COVID started, and I felt terrible about not being able to buy and use the foods my providers had. In some cases, corporate kitchens and food banks took up the slack, but the pandemic exposed a lot of inequities in agriculture, as well as problems with our supply chain. Meat processing was one example. The meat lockers were swamped. We at MOSES tried to help. Farmers really just want to grow the food.

IFT: There has been a tension in recent years between organic vs. small and local. What approach does MOSES take?

STERN: We, organizationally, accept the definition of organic as a soil-based system. We think it starts with stewardship of the land.

IFT: What are some of the big issues in the organic world right now?

STERN: Organic production methods are always important. Our members are always looking at the best practices. Climate change is going to be critical going forward. Organic farmers could stand to benefit from things such as a carbon credit trading program, but only if it rewards early- adapters of carbon-friendly practices.

The organic cost-share program ran out of money during the last administration, and that caused problems. There are also discussions about what the organic label actually means. It’s a very tender subject in our industry. What exactly do consumers expect when they read that label? The origin of livestock rules are important, primarily for dairy. Animal welfare rules are worth watching. And hydroponic farming is controversial because there is no soil involved and part of our focus is on healthy soil.

IFT: MOSES is a fairly well known Midwestern organization. Is organic production strong all over the country or are there regions that are more involved?

STERN: There are organic producers everywhere, but there are more in some parts of the country and there are more organizations related to organics in some of those areas. The New England states have a strong organic community. There are some interesting organizations in the south, sometimes aligned with Black farmers. There are also a number of organic producers and organizations on the west coast.

IFT: There are now numerous food shows and food channels for people to watch. Has that had an impact on the organic community?

STERN: I think it put more focus on what we are eating and of the importance of good, fresh, healthy local ingredients.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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