Masters Thesis

Organic agriculture in Humboldt County, from social movement to economic development : interviews with organic dairy and row crop farmers

Organic agriculture is a concept that has evolved with its history, representing a farming method, social movement, and growing industry. Some analysts have critiqued organic agriculture as losing its grassroots soul and representing the conventional model of agriculture rather than an alternative to it. In order to ascertain current perceptions of organic agriculture from growers themselves, I interviewed 17 organic farmers in Humboldt County, California. These in-depth interviews focused on farmers’ rationale for certifying organic, values behind their farming style, associations with social movements, views of the federal regulations, and personal and regional economics. I interviewed both organic dairy and row crop farmers in order to compare groups and gain a spectrum of viewpoints. This study represents a place-based snapshot, particular to Humboldt County, California, a relatively rural and isolated area in need of viable economic development options. For the interviewed dairy farmers, organic agriculture represented a combination of an economic opportunity to maintain their multi-generational family farms combined with a farming method that reflected their existing techniques. The row crop growers articulated a range of reasons for certifying organic including a commitment to values, access to markets, and product credibility. Both populations of farmers expressed strong values of land and animal stewardship underlying their farming styles. Many of the row crop growers strongly associated with the organic social movement and spoke of ways to further refine articulations of sustainable agriculture that reach beyond organic. The dairy farmers generally did not associate with the social movement while still exemplifying values and methods that capture some of the core ideals of the movement. Both types of farming fit into the region’s economic development strategy. The organic dairy industry captures a strong export-based opportunity, while many row crop growers placed emphasis on the importance of their local markets and reciprocal relationships with the community. Organic agriculture in Humboldt County helps maintain open spaces, a rural quality of life, and a cultural identity of long-existing dairy farms combined with newer row crop farms on the cusp of the sustainable agriculture movement.