If you have ever used the adjective "local" to describe a product that you were offering for sale, you will have to search the Webster's Dictionary for an alternative. As of April 1, 2006, the word "local" is the sole property of Mammoth Foods, Inc., a subsidiary of the Green Goliath Food Group based in Beijing, China.
Boonville farmer and entrepreneur, John Voelker, has collaborated with attorneys from Mammoth Foods to copyright the trademark, "Local™." Voelker says the idea came to him when discussing the evolving definition of the word "organic," as that word has changed in the hands of the USDA and the WTO. "A lot of local— er, I mean, a lot of Mendocino County farmers are upset about the organic certification rate hikes, all the BS paperwork and regulations that's raining down on them from corporate headquarters. Quite a few farmers are threatening to drop out of the organic boat altogether, to quit using the word. It costs too much."
In a recent press release, in which he admits he sold the idea to Mammoth Foods but refuses to disclose the details of the deal, Voelker goes on to say he "realized that if big business could assume ownership of the word, 'organic,' they could just as easily claim the word 'local,' and, in doing so, they would destroy the last sanctuary for farmers formerly known as 'organic'."
The issue has caused a rift within the organic farming community. As the California Certified Organic Farmers, or CCOF, were co-opted by the bigwigs at the USDA, small farms have been literally pushed out of the organics realm, marginalized to minor farmer's markets and roadside stands, unable to market their produce as "organic" without paying fees that have ballooned in recent years. Thurston Williams, a grower and former CCOF inspector from Lake County, says that the rates have swelled to unbalanced proportions. "Using percent of gross income as the comparison, small growers are paying approximately 10 times more for certification renewal than the largest growers are." Thurston says that there is a ceiling on the inspection fees.
This translates into the price of words. The word "organic" costs at least ten times as much, in proportion, to small farmers as it does to the corporate giants, who are gobbling up shares of the market and sending lobbyists to Washington DC, where rules and regulations are now decided.
Not only does the word "organic" cost more to actual organic farmers, as a percentage of gross sales, but Williams says "the paperwork burden and organic system plan inspection process have spiraled out of control... Large corporations pay employees to fill out forms, a luxury not available to small producers." In addition, Williams says, the organic certifying agencies working under the umbrella of the USDA are more interested in the paperwork than they are in the conditions of the actual farm. Farm visits by inspectors often consist of meetings to discuss the paperwork, not guided tours of the production facilities, as one might imagine.
What does all this mean to the consumer? What happens when words like "organic" and "local" are bought out by big business?
"Say 'NO' to Local Organics," says Holly Von Schleppenheim, a vegetable grower from Redwood Valley. She has worked with other growers and small grocers from Mendocino County to form a grassroots organization, GOOOCH (Get Organics Out of Corporate Hands). "We started out combating the monopolizing of the word, 'organic,' and now we have to fight the takeover of the word 'local'," Von Schleppenheim declared. "What word are they going to take from us next?"
GOOOCH held a rally in Sacramento on April 1, the day that Mammoth's rights to the word "local�" took effect. "We got farmers from all over California to join on this historic day. With the late rains, we got quite a turn-out, as farmers around the state are twiddling their thumbs in agony waiting for a few clear days to start planting."
Voelker remains nonplussed by the prospect of protests. "What? Are they going to change their name to 'GLOOOCH'?" a sarcastic Voelker asked. "They might as well protest the wet weather we're getting, for all it's going to matter. Do you think the USDA gives a damn what a bunch of small farmers in California say? All I did, in selling the rights to the word [Local™] was to capitalize on the inevitable. Organics was already a meaningless conglomeration of vowels and consonants, once the USDA got hold of it. Rather than carrying meaning, the word actually now has a price. So I cashed in on 'local™' before somebody else did. It's an American tradition, to capitalize on innovation, just like John Deere patenting the sodbusting plow, Eli Whitney and his gin, or Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb."
How will the changes brought about by the selling of one word effect the consumer?
"Consumers won't know the difference anymore between products that are actually grown organically in Mendocino County, and those grown under almost no scrutiny in countries, for example, that might be controlled by dictators," said Von Schleppenheim. "In the global economy, there is currently no way to ensure that food in some of these countries is even grown by organic methods. And that is not considering the unfair labor practices that in many cases cross the line into slavery."
Von Schleppenheim expects consumers to join with farmers at her planned demonstration. "The bottom line is, we can't let them get away with buying out our words. First it was 'organic.' Now they want to buy up 'local.' What word is next? Think about it. In these crazy times, when you've got attorneys twisting the law around — I mean, they're on a slippery slope. If we let them get away with taking this word, they'll use it as a precedent. You'll have businesses being sued in kangaroo courts for using words they learned in a high school English course."
But one farmer is ready to sell any word. "Look," says Voelker. "If I can get a whole heap of money for a mere word — think about it. Why would I want to waste my time planting carrots, worrying about the weather? Words are cheap as hell, they don't cost any labor to produce. They're dependable, unlike food crops.
"Take last year for example. We got all these late rains, we weren't able to get our carrots planted until June. They didn't come in until early September. It was hard to find fresh carrots around here, damn near impossible in May and June. This year, though, the rains won't affect the availability of Local™ Organics™ carrots. You can go to the store right now and find them, 24-7, 365 days a year. And you don't have to go to one of these little, funky, health stores to pick them up. Local™ Organics™ will be offering carrots in the major chains, with the big stores that the majority of people actually shop at. We're talking about people who don't have time to do business with these small growers."
Does Voelker have any moral qualms with selling vegetables that are labeled as "Local™" when they might be grown in China, Chile, or maybe even on Mars? "I don't see what the big deal is," Voelker says, gesturing to the fields where last year he and his partners struggled to produce carrots, tomatoes, and onions for the area grocery stores and farmer's markets. The fields are idle, except for the short grass growing around the putting greens. The former Boont Organics has been transformed into a golf course over the winter. "Your average American farmers just can't compete in this global economy, so we're going to golf courses where we used to scratch around in the dirt like a bunch of chickens. We're all better off quitting, and letting the Chinese peasants grow our goddamn carrots. Me, I'm looking at oceanfront™ property down in Chile — it's about time I caught up on some fishing. And I need to spend more time with my family. Anyway, farming was..." Voelker contemplates farming for a moment, before teeing off.
"I think we're going to look back, someday, at what a brutal practice agriculture was in the twentieth century," Voelker says as he takes a few practice swings. "All that backbreaking work! It's great to think that Americans, anyway, have evolved beyond the need for farmers and farmland. And even greater," Voelker chuckles as he says this. He has just sent a golf ball in the direction of a pile of obsolete farm equipment, and it rattles around, ricochets out into some grass, where it almost hits a chicken™. "My golf game needs some work... What was I saying? Oh, yes. Even greater, I think, is the fact that no matter where we go, we will be able to find Local™ Organics™ at an affordable price. That's the sweetest part, to me."
For more information go to www.localorganics.com.
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