Florida Organic Growers, a Gainesville non-profit, advocates for organic farming and food justice.
In central Florida in 1941, as Florida’s agricultural industry was expanding, the marshes surrounding Lake Apopka were drained to make room for a 20,000 acre conventional farm belt.
40 years later, Lake Apopka became known as Florida’s most polluted lake, according to the Friends of Lake Apopka’s website. Nutrient-rich fertilizers, petroleum-based pesticides and phosphorous-laden water ran into the lake. Chronic algae blooms resulting and, in 1980, a contamination so severe the lake was designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Most of the environmental destruction the lake suffered was due to the explosion of agricultural corporations surrounding the lake.
“There were so few organic farmers, and people were starting to become radically aware that something was wrong,” said Marty Mesh, an organic watermelon farmer and the first director of Florida Organic Growers, or FOG, a non-profit in Gainesville whose mission is to support and promote organic agriculture through educating consumers, farmers, businesses, policymakers and the general public.
Florida is one of the highest crop producers in the United States but only a small percentage of the state’s cultivated land was organic. Organic farming, unlike mass agro-farming, is a type of agricultural that does not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Produce is considered organic if no GMOs; synthetic pesticides or fertilizers; or artificial colors, flavors or preservatives were used. Animals aren’t fed antibiotics or hormones; instead, they eat organic feed and pasture.
In 1985, four years after Lake Apopka was declared a Superfund site, a group of organic farmers gathered in a barn to brainstorm how organic farming could regenerate the polluted land around the lake. These “barn talks” have been mythologized as the beginning of Florida Organic Growers, or FOG.
“For us, we were doing direct action by farming in an alternative way, and our protest was against the people who were poisoning our world,” said Mesh.
FOG, and those active in Florida’s organic movement decided that there must be a centralized certification agency to determine what is organic and what is not. Organic certification and labeling provides transparency among crowded aisles of deceptive advertisements. Despite the industrialization of the food system, there had been no consistent standardization of organic labels in Florida until 1990.
“We had the realization that we could probably do this better and cheaper,” he said. “We were bringing in inspectors all the way from North Dakota who had never seen a watermelon field or a citrus grove.”
Those active in Florida‘s organic movement decided there must be a centralized certification agency in order for organic foods to emerge as a viable option in a mainstream market.
After the passage of the Organic Food Production Act in 1990, FOG became involved in developing a legislative blueprint for implementing organic national certification standards.
“We read every single state’s organic standard and debated about what should be represented,” Mesh said. “It was a patchwork of different requirements, and we really tried to create a high standard.”
Today, through its Quality Certification Standards, FOG is the largest certifying agency on the U.S.’s eastern seaboard.
One of the certifications FOG offers is the Food Justice Certification, which promotes sustainable farm operations among farmworkers as a necessary component of social economic justice.
FOG’s fingerprints could be found on numerous political documents throughout the state, and they began to branch out to the rest of the country. In 2001, FOG was accredited by the USDA, which meant that the organization could certify farms and commercial operations as organic according to national standards.
According to the USDA, the organic movement’s growth as a multi-million dollar industry and integration into the mainstream is an indicator that consumers are shifting their habits in accordance to social and environmental justice.
“For us, we were doing direct action by farming in an alternative way, and our protest was against the people who were poisoning our world.”
This year is the FOG’s thirtieth anniversary. To celebrate, they are holding an inaugural event this September in Gainesville called the Organic Food and Farming Summit.
The summit is a three-day event, committed to increasing communication and collaboration between active organic farmers, farmers transitioning to organic farming and key governmental agencies. The event provides valuable tools, resources and opportunities for the organic community through workshops, trade shows, round table discussions and training sessions.
Andi Emrich, the summit coordinator, emphasized the importance of “a transfer of knowledge between all of those involved in Florida’s organic community.”
“By bringing together organic farmers with organic researchers there’s an opportunity to not only inform farmers on up-and-coming research, but for farmers to inform future research,” Emrich said.
In the FOG office, Mesh has been nicknamed “‘the eternal optimist” by many of his co-workers.
“What are we going to leave the next generation? We should be leaving everything better than how we found it, ” Mesh said. “We still have a long way to go, but I’m proud of the little part we’ve played in growing the organic movement.” •