Atlanta, Georgia - The Peter Pans of the movement behind the explosive growth of organics still show no signs of settling down, or even knowing what they want to be when they grow up.
It's a thought that occurs to me sitting here at the ninth annual meeting of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), a North American umbrella of 325 enviro, social justice and farming groups.
Judging from what I'm hearing, organic stalwarts know all about the tug of war that plagues a movement on its way to becoming an institutionalized industry and market niche.
They've watched the same product lifecycle changes as other trends and services that came out of 1960s and 70s counterculture, like yoga and the alternative press - most of which have become money-makers. But they're still keen for the old-time organics.
This deep-seated emotion around organics is the wild card that will likely determine its future because it sets up high, idealistic and open-ended expectations among producers and customers.
"Organic" is a multifaceted diamond of a word, and few people take it literally as an expression of organic chemistry, as the French and Quebec do with the designation "biologique." On the contrary, organic taps into preferences for the authentic and the honest over the synthetic and phony, the natural over the forced, the holistic and connected over the detached or piecemeal, the wholesome over the junky.
The word is archetypal, beyond branding, and belongs to no corporation or product line, so it creates a continuing pressure among producers and customers for actions that measure up to an ideal.
As a philosophy of agriculture, which it is at its core, organic will always represent an underground pressure challenging the fundamentals of mass-production farming. Though most shoppers equate organic with pesticide-free, the starting point for growers is synthetic-fertilizer-free.
Organic farmers find their soul in soil. The main organic organization in many countries, most notably England, is called the Soil Association. Corporate fertilizers made from dead matter in chemical factories are the linchpin of low-cost, high-volume food grown on the same fields year after year.
Such fertilizers, now mainly made from natural gas, treat soil like dirt, as if it isn't a life force teeming with organisms that work with sunlight and water to create healthy plants and foods.
This belief in living soil seems almost mystical. But University of Georgia engineering professor Jason Governo talks about his own tests and new research from Ohio universities that confirm the wonders of worm castings - excrement from worms, the soil brothers of organic farmers.
Worms break down rot and convert it to nutrients easily absorbed by plants. These nutrients inoculate plants against many diseases and pests so they can survive without toxic pesticides and also help create soil qualities that hold water, helping plants survive drought without irrigation.
"It's an insurance policy for plants," says Governo. New evidence shows the castings also nurture foods that store more nutrients longer than food grown on chemically treated land, giving organics a new claim for added value.
Greg Welsh, one of the first to join the Wisconsin-based Organic Valley co-op, which now boasts 700 farmer members, remembers the hard-slogging days of "our first few years in the late 1970s, when the big debate was over who had the most earthworms per acre, not who got the best price."
One of Organic Valley's newest members, Harry Lewis, talks about the "the three P's of organics - passion, patience and passion." According to Lewis, an African-American dairyman from Texas, "there's no grey area in organics. What's grey is what some people do to make a buck from it."
And grey there is. As organic producers got serious about sales and about protecting the integrity and reputation of the organic brand, they set up certification systems. But in doing so, the defining features of organic shifted from a passion for sustainable farming and a yearning for holistic authenticity to a measurement of inputs.
No synthetic fertilizers, no petrochemical or toxic pesticides, no GE, no growth hormones and no radiation - all good things worth certifying for - but also no specific reference to locally grown, fair wages paid or lands set aside for ponds and woods.
As with all regulations, there's room for people who follow the letter rather than the spirit of the laws. So ironically, the regulations that protected organic standards also created conditions for growth of the organic market niche that bears little resemblance to most people's expectations.
Much of the organics sold in mainstream supermarkets are trucked in from California, not from the farmer down the lane, and are grown and marketed behind the scenes by the likes of Pepsi, Coke, Kraft, Heinz, General Mills and Dole (see story, page 33).
The food marketing system is dominated more thoroughly by monopolies than almost any sector, leading to what CFSC staffer Thomas Forster calls "a dictatorship of volume and price" that excludes small and local producers.
But the future of organics does not necessarily lie in the direction of premium prices affordable for an elite, enriching the old-style dominant players in the industry. The organic name and organic producers shouldn't take the rap for what happens as a result of forces beyond their control.
This weekend, the Ontario Natural Food Coop launches Ontario natural tomatoes, the first-ever homegrown organic tomatoes canned exclusively for a home market. That's a big sign of the times, and a reminder that the future of this label still lies with producers, consumers and citizens who raise the bar to protect and extend the success of first-generation organic producers.