Growing Organic Farming with a Grassroots Movement w/ Roz Lehman
Interview with Roz Lehman, Executive Director at the Iowa Organic Association
What does it take to grow and support organic communities? According to Roz Lehman, Executive Director at the Iowa Organic Association (IOA), it takes the spirit of a grassroots movement. Before joining the IOA, Roz had worked for years in the nonprofit industry, and she has brought that same mission-oriented mindset to the organic community. She joins Organics Unpacked to discuss the IOA’s work at both the local and national levels, including policy/legislation, community engagement and education/outreach.
Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com
Learn more about the Iowa Organic Association: www.iowaorganic.org
Connect with our guest on LinkedIn
INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry, with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
TOM: Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning into a new episode of Organics Unpacked, a weekly podcast by Avé Organics. I appreciate everybody joining us today. This week, we have a special guest, Roz Lehman. Roz is the Executive Director of the Iowa Organic Association, so somebody more local, to me at least. So welcome to the show, Roz.
ROZ: Thanks, Tom. Thanks for inviting me to participate today, and we also want to thank Avé Organics for their sponsorship to the organization and supporting the work that we’re doing here in Iowa.
A Background in Grassroots Organizing
TOM: Well, that’s an easy call. You guys are doing some wonderful work, and we really appreciate all the support you give to the organics movement. So, Roz, with that, tell me about your background. How did you get to the position of being Executive Director of the Iowa Organic Association?
ROZ: Sure. I will try to keep it brief, but I’ve been working in the nonprofit industry for 25 years. So I have a solid background in understanding what it’s like to work for a mission-oriented organization. My background is in sociology. I actually had an emphasis in women’s studies. I graduated from Drake University. I did work for Planned Parenthood for nine years within the administration and did policy work/grassroots organizing. I was an executive assistant, just lots of different facets within that nonprofit realm, which kind of gave me my footing to branch out and work in other areas of nonprofit, mission-oriented work. I was the founding Executive Director of Iowa Rivers Revival. I worked there for eight years, and that’s an organization focused on river education and advocacy here in the state of Iowa. And during that tenure, I was also the Field Director for Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, which was a constitutional amendment that Iowans passed in 2010 to provide dedicated funding for our natural resources in the state of Iowa. I took a brief stint — took a brief break, I would say — from IOA in 2016. I had two sons 14 months apart, and I really wanted to be able to stay home and just provide for them in that motherly fashion role.
So, upon having children, what I fed them was a huge priority. I made all of their food. There was no store-bought baby food in our home. Everything was organic. We were fortunate to have Whole Foods come into the west side of Des Moines, right at the time my first son was born in 2012. So I heavily depended on that as a food source for me to feel safe and secure about what I was actually feeding my family, and so a couple years went by. Health and what we put in our bodies is a huge focus, and I saw this position open up. And I had the background and skills to take a newer organization and lift it up and support that mission. So not a farmer. I don’t have a farming background. I’m a city girl. Grew up going to the family farm in Cass County, Iowa my whole life — Messina, Iowa. However, what I bring to this organization is my background in community organizing, grassroots development, policy work and just having that administrative background on fundraising and grant work and what is really needed to coalesce a nonprofit type of organization. So what brings me here is I am a ferocious consumer and advocate for organic farming, for organic products, and I wholeheartedly think we have a lot of momentum and opportunity here in the state of Iowa to grow this movement.
History of the Iowa Organic Association
TOM: Thanks, Roz. I mean, obviously, you are well positioned for this job, but tell us a little bit about the Iowa Organic Association. How long have you been with it? How long has it existed? What’s the staffing level?
ROZ: Sure. Well, we are a very small, robust nonprofit organization. We were established in 2006. For the most part, I would say those beginning years, really, were a founding board of directors that were just trying to figure out what needed to happen in terms of representing organic interests in the state of Iowa with a real, sole focus on policy and making sure organic interests are being represented in that legislative realm. Staff has been added to the organization. So I’ve been with the organization for three-and-a-half years. Prior to me coming on board, an executive director was hired for about three years. She’s now moved on to the Organic Farmers Association, and I’ll talk a little bit about that a little bit later. So I’ve been here for three-and-a-half years. The organization’s been around since 2006, and we have definitely evolved through this since 2006. I would say, since I’ve been on board, we’ve really been focusing on increasing our education and our outreach efforts, really trying to figure out where we fit in that policy realm and how we could be effective in terms of a membership and mobilizing our voice and creating change in the state of Iowa. Or just recognizing what organic can bring in terms of the goals and the needs that we have here in agriculture.
TOM: Absolutely. So the Iowa Organic Association has been around since 2006. What are some of the major accomplishments that the organization has had?
ROZ: I think just creating a membership base and being able to grow that base year after year, we are able to stay connected with that base through providing field day events, our annual meeting, where we welcome members together to talk about our priorities, and also they get to inform those priorities. That really helps build that membership and build that connection to a greater community. We’ve developed an Iowa Organic Resource Directory. So this is an actual publication that folks can flip through and look for grain dealers, folks like Avé Organics when it comes to fertilizer needs or educational resources. Maybe they’re just transitioning, new to the industry, and it’s like: ‘Where do I even start?’ This is a well-rounded resource that can get people started, in addition to reaching out to organizations like ours. We created the first Midwest Organic Pork Conference in 2018. That was an opportunity to kind of stimulate research, to stimulate interest in growing the organic pork movement in the Midwest region, and we can talk about that a little bit more later. There are some struggles there, some barriers in growing the organic livestock industry in the Midwest. Additionally, we have been working with state/national agencies in the state of Iowa to help increase technical expertise in organics in the state of Iowa. There are not a lot of folks. There are not a lot of folks for farmers to turn to in regards to: ‘What does an organic production system look like? What do I do to get certified organic?’ Just all the ins and outs. Providing that training and workshop for those technical professionals has been really effective, and it’s just trickling out, getting folks familiar with what organic is at the county level.
TOM: That’s a lot of work for a part-time person, Roz.
ROZ: It is. You bring that up, and I’m not doing this alone. We also have Olga Reding, who is our Education and Outreach Coordinator. She’s been an amazing asset, to have somebody be able to take on the education focus and further develop that work that has already been laid out. So, yes, it’s not me alone, but the two of us are doing the primary boots on the ground when it comes to the programming for the organization. Then, I do have a bookkeeper who just keeps us all straight, keeps us on budget and makes sure our taxes are filed and our finances are in order. With the different grants and stuff, it’s really critical to have somebody knowledgeable and to be able to keep all that funding separate and coordinated. So we’re a really small shop, but I’m working hard to hopefully grow what we can provide the organic community in Iowa, especially in terms of that technical expertise and support.
Funding the Iowa Organic Association
TOM: I think you might’ve answered the question, but I was going to say: How is the funding for an association like the Iowa Organic Association? Is it membership? Is it grant funded? Is it donations? Where does the bulk of the funding come from?
ROZ: So, right now, the bulk of our funding has come from grants. However, right up there competing with that grant funding are our memberships and our corporate sponsors. So we’re always looking for diverse funding opportunities, and those can come through the memberships, our sponsorships, granting opportunities, but we’re also branching out and looking into foundations and other corporate relationships to help support the work that we’re doing here.
TOM: Like all startups, wherever you can get funding to do good work, that’s the best place to get it from, right?
Working with Other Organic Associations
TOM: So, Roz, I wanted to ask you. There’s more than one organic association, right? There are multiple, and I know that you cover Iowa — Iowa Organic Association — but how do you fit into and weave into other organic associations? What does that look like?
ROZ: So there aren’t a lot of organic associations, actually, across the U.S. I think there are strongholds on the coast. So, in California and then the northeast territory, you’re going to see that’s kind of where there’s a strong foundation in terms of the organic movement. You’re looking at 40 and 50 years of people organizing and trying to advance organic principles. So, here in the state of Iowa, it’s been really critical to work with other stakeholder organizations to reach our target audiences and others who might be interested in what organics might have to offer in terms of their own production systems. Practical Farmers of Iowa have been connecting with farmers in Iowa for over 35 years on a range of different issues. So it’s beyond organic, but they’re looking to help farmers when it comes to farm profitability, their efficiency and their stewardship on the land, which really fits well with the work that the Iowa Organic Association is doing. I do want to touch on a few of the others that we do work heavily with, but it turns out we utilize each other’s resources, and we’re just trying to help build and coalesce this community.
It feels factioned in so many ways, and we’re all trying to figure out who we are and who exists out there and who’s doing what. I know, in my role, when I first came into the organization, that’s one of the first things I did: kind of look around. Who are my cohorts in the Midwest and around the country that are doing similar-type work, and what really works well for them? And what could maybe I be doing here, from taking those examples and incorporating it into our work, but as well as sharing what works well and getting that out to the folks that are also doing this work in other states? So I do think it’s really critical to make those connections, and I feel like these organizations are really trying to do the same thing because we do feel like we’re out here on our own, the way we should be doing things or that direction to see the way forward. I often tell people that the standards were just finalized in 2002. That’s 20 years ago, and that really wasn’t that long ago. So it’s like we’re all kind of getting behind this structure, this foundation, and figuring out what the right direction is or what the right messaging is or how best to reach those folks that we’re trying to target.
Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service
TOM: Right. So those other associations that surround you, how do you interact with them, and who are they?
ROZ: So, for an example, we work closely with MOSES, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. So MOSES provides similar services like the Iowa Organic Association, with education, resources that farmers can get their hands on. They might be able to pick up the phone and talk to a staff person to help direct them in terms of guidance and finding what it is they need on their farm or in their business. One of the things that is amazing about MOSES and is kind of highly reputable is their annual conference that takes place in February every year. The conference has over 3000 attendees. It has a huge exhibit hall, from seed dealers and machinery to all kinds of different folks that are providing services to the organic industry, just like Avé Organics. But, then, there’s a whole level of folks like Iowa Organic Association, who are serving these communities in that kind of nonprofit, mission-oriented role.
I would recommend anybody checking out MOSES. When I was hired to IOA, it was in February of 2018. And within two weeks of being hired, they shuffled me off to MOSES. A little bit overwhelming, not to say the least, but so glad that I had that kind of launching opportunity to see, really, what we’re working with here in the Midwest and beyond. Another organization that I’ve learned a lot from — and I have really appreciated their willingness to connect and just be sharing their resources — is OGRAIN, and OGRAIN is a collaborative out of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And right now, Dr. Erin Silva is leading that program within the university. But what I really would love to highlight about the work at OGRAIN is that they are cutting-edge research in terms of organic grain and meeting the needs of those farmers in the Midwest. But, also, they provide great resources — like at field days, coming out, talking about production systems, rotations, that type of thing. But they have a really great farmer LISTSERV. It’s very dynamic. You are seeing posts periodically throughout the week. It’s just regularly used by the farmers and members of that group. So I find it to be a really great resource for anyone in the Midwest looking for organic grain information and research because we know that that’s a critical piece to the organic rotations in the Midwest and across the country.
TOM: Yeah, absolutely.
ROZ: I wouldn’t want to be remiss, just to retouch on the work that Kathleen Delate is doing, Dr. Kathleen Delate with Iowa State Extension and Iowa State University. She’s been conducting on-farm organic trials for over 30 years in the state of Iowa. She also organizes an Iowa Organic Conference every year in Iowa City. It’s been going on for over 20 years now. I think this year will be the 21st or 22nd year. Then, she also teaches an intro to organic course every other year at Iowa State University. So that’s another way to kind of connect to the Iowa resources that are happening here.
Policy Issues in Organic Agriculture
TOM: Yeah. Obviously, one of the important things of all associations is to connect with as many people as you can — universities, other associations, businesses, whatever — to really get to where you want to be. So let’s go back to and talk more about the Iowa Organic Association. So, when you said IOA, you’re not saying Iowa. You’re saying Iowa Organic Association.
ROZ: Yes, yes, yes.
TOM: It took me a while to figure that out. I’m like: ‘Everybody from Iowa knows how to say Iowa.’
ROZ: Yeah, thanks for pointing that out. I’ve never had that come back to me in that way.
TOM: Well, let’s talk about IOA and some of the things that you’re focused on, not only to help Iowa organic farmers, but to help organic farmers in the upper Midwest. Obviously, there must be some policy issues that you’re focused on these days?
ROZ: So twofold: we are definitely looking at policy from a national perspective and then at the state level. Nationally/Midwest-regionally, we are a part of the Organic Farmers Association. So that is a national nonprofit organization focused on national policy issues. You brought up earlier that I’m a part-time executive director. I have a very small capacity in terms of staff. We just don’t have the tools available to us to move federal policy when it comes to NOP standards, when it comes to the farm bill. And, really, we just don’t have a staff person that can be up there in Washington, D.C., having those conversations regularly. So it’s great to be a part of OFA because they are kind of leading the charge when it comes to those broader, bigger issues that affect farmers all across the country, and then that’s a farmer-led organization. So not only are organizations a part of that, but, really, the priorities of OFA are farmer driven. So the farmer members of that organization determine what issues it is that the OFA will be focused on at the national level. So, just as an FYI, talks are happening right now in terms of what the next farm bill will look like. And we know that climate is a big discussion piece right now in terms of where organic fits in that conversation. So it’s a really great time to be a part of coordinating those conversations and making sure our legislators here in Iowa and across the U.S. understand the value and importance that organic can play in that climate conversation.
Animal Agriculture & Organics
TOM: Right. I would assume you’ve also, being in Iowa, have some interest in animal agriculture as it relates to organics too?
ROZ: Absolutely. So we, as an organization, are more focused on the policy issues that we can move here in the state of Iowa. So that’s kind of our role as an organization. It’s to start connecting with the legislature, connecting with stakeholders and just the greater community about the same thing: how organics can help our environment, can help our rural communities, how it can help just folks, in general, in terms of accessing the types of food they want to eat. So the types of policy issues that we’re focusing on in the state right now, for the last 10 years, our state has been looking at a nutrient reduction strategy to improve our water quality in the state of Iowa, in addition to looking at soil health and what we can be doing differently across the landscape to improve soil health. We know that organic agriculture can have a huge impact when it comes to water quality and conservation efforts on the landscape beyond the farmer’s pocket book and their economic needs. These are long-lasting results that really help enhance and revitalize the farm land, but it goes beyond that into the local communities in terms of the quality of the resources that they’re experiencing.
To go back to livestock, there hasn’t been a lot of livestock on the land in Iowa, and we’re kind of seeing a re-emergence of folks diversifying what they are doing in their farm operations. I would put a lot of credit to that to the Practical Farmers of Iowa in terms of reaching folks and talking about the importance of having diversified farm systems, both from an economic perspective, but how that looks in terms of the overall farm health, the whole farm system, when we’re looking at the production systems that we’re putting out on the farms. In Iowa, there’s not a lot of organic livestock. We are the number-one producer of organic pigs, but that is not a very big number. It’s really hard too. There are a lot of barriers when it comes to, at least, the pork industry — and we can talk a little bit about the dairy too — with the pork industry because you’re looking at the conventional pork being like $2 a pound for a pound of bacon. Then, when you go to get an order, side by side, you’re looking at organic meat, and it could be like $8 to $10 for a pound of bacon. And for a consumer, it’s really hard to make that choice. So, then, there are these marketing barriers. There are these processing barriers, and it’s really hard for organic pig farmers to really make any money in the state right now when we’re up against the larger shops that can buy far more efficiently-produced hogs and market them at a much cheaper rate.
Origin of Livestock & Pasture Rules
ROZ: It doesn’t mean there’s no interest. There is growing interest among the consumer base for this locally-produced, organic niche meat. We’re at this point. We haven’t quite figured out how we connect these products to consumers, I guess, is what I’m trying to say there. So there are a couple of rules that the organic community has been pushing the National Organic Program to follow through and finalize, and those are the organic livestock/origin of livestock, as well as pasture rules. There are bigger dairy farms/conventional dairy farms utilizing loopholes within these rules to be able to transition non-organic calves into organic operations, and it’s really affecting the dairy market in terms of those smaller dairy farms not being able to compete. And, really, from the organic standpoint and coming from an organic community, it’s that integrity piece, right? We know and we want to believe that those animals, those crops, are being produced 100% organically, and this loophole is a way that folks are kind of skating or skirting those requirements. So we’ve been asking the NOP for the last, I think, 10 years now to close that loophole, to make the dairy industry more fair for those organic producers. And along those lines is the pasture rule. We know that livestock needs to be out on the land and not in barns and in buildings for at least half of the year, and so we need to have rules that continue to make sure that that’s happening, again, to level the playing field for those smaller, organic dairies. It’s kind of that the bigger guys are coming in and encroaching upon those rules and finding ways to work around them. So we’ve asked the NOP to strengthen those rules to level the playing field for those organic producers that have been doing the work for a really long time.
TOM: Yeah, growing organics is a double-edged sword, right? I mean we want to grow it. We need some new producers coming in, and we understand, then, the difficulty that causes for maybe some of the more traditional growers. But as an organization, then, that is one of the things that you take upon and advocate for them?
ROZ: Absolutely. It’s getting the information out to our membership and our community, letting them know what’s happening, how their voice can be effective — whether it’s contacting their local policy leader, whether it’s reaching out to their U.S. delegate. But it’s really making sure we’re that conduit of information. We’re bringing it and making sure we get it out to folks, so they’re aware of what’s happening and going on. Prior to us doing that work, there was nobody having those conversations in the state of Iowa, letting folks know what kind of events are happening, what kind of policy issues are happening, where we all can get together and have these conversations.
Community Engagement in Organics
TOM: So, Roz, let’s talk about community engagement. So I know that you said, when you initially had your children, you were very careful about feeding them the right food. And I assume you still are. Where did your love or passion for organics — how did that evolve for you?
ROZ: Well, I’m an athlete. So, first of all, I’ve always been very concerned about what I’m putting into my body. I’m very aware of how that would play out and how I’m training my overall health, just in terms of energy levels and my own mental health. So food has always played a role in that. Initially, I became a vegetarian 12 years ago. One of the reasons why was I was very concerned about what I would call ‘factory meat.’ I was concerned about how meat was being produced in our state and across the country. That’s my first, I guess, shift in terms of where I made the decision of how I was going to be eating. Then, from there, I became more informed about food production in general, and I decided I didn’t want pesticides in my foods. I didn’t want any chemicals in my food. And, again, I think that all came together when it came to my kids. I was willing too. I think, sometimes, parents, in general, will put our own needs aside for our children to make sure that they’re getting the best of what we can provide for them. So it really was upon becoming a mother where I was just like: ‘I’m not cutting any corners when it comes to my kid, both of my kids.’ I want them to have the best foundation when it comes to development.
TOM: How does that spirit/desire that you personally have carry over to community involvement, and how do you motivate and create a desire in others to seek out organics? Not just you personally, but how does the Iowa Organic Association? What part do you play in that?
ROZ: I think by just existing, by being here and being able to provide information and opportunities for people to learn more about organics. Oftentimes, and this could be debatable too, you’ll hear: ‘Well, organic food is just as healthy as non-organic food, right? Side by side.’ But then, coming from my standpoint, I would prefer to buy the apple that wasn’t grown with pesticide or herbicide on it. So maybe, apples to apples, you’re getting the same health effects from that piece of food. But at the end of the day, one was grown without chemicals, and one was grown with chemicals. And do we really understand how that impacts us down the road or those lasting impacts, not just in a human, but also on our landscape? Providing the information and providing the connections and having those conversations, so people can better understand what organic means. You can walk into a grocery store, and there are labels all over food now, right? There’s the non-GMO. There’s the organic label. There are claims of ‘natural.’ There are claims of sustainable or clean or all these different things. And I think, with organic, it’s the only label out there that has standards and guidelines before it, where we can point to it and say: ‘I know that my food was produced in this way.’ So it’s making sure people understand what this means: to be organic, how it impacts all the way back to the farmer, all the way to the checkout aisle. So I feel like, in building that community, it’s making sure that people have the information. They have mentors. They are able to put their hands on the resources they need to better understand the purchases they’re making, the production systems they’re choosing on their farm. It’s just really providing that space to answer those questions that we have.
Growing the Organic Community
TOM: So we’ve talked about community engagement, the education and outreach and other organizations that you collaborate with. In the last few minutes, are there other things that you would like to see the organic community do, whether that be the Iowa Organic Association or whether that be the community at large? What are some of the things that your members would like to see happen?
ROZ: Well, our members are really policy-driven. Having Olga on board, now for the last year, has allowed me to shift and start focusing on what that means, to be policy driven. And as we talked about a little bit earlier, some of that might be having conversations with Iowa State University about the needs of farmers in the state. We need more research. We need more research in Iowa. We need more research across the country about what organics can do. It’s just not happening. So that’s one way, in terms of what we need, what our membership needs. We need more technical expertise. We need to be able to go into our county offices and ask questions, and folks aren’t just scratching their heads or turning you over to the co-ops in those communities. We need folks to be able to say: ‘This is how you can enter or look into the organic industry.’ I think those connections — going back to those connections — in a lot of counties, there are only two or three farmers doing the work, and they’re kind of the oddball out. And I hate to say that term ‘oddball.’ They’re the odd guy out, the odd farmer out. But it’s nice to be able to sit down and have a conversation with folks in your community and know that there are like-minded folks that you can connect with. And there’s not a lot of that.
So we’re trying to bring that together, so folks know they’re not alone. And for people that are new in those communities, who are looking to transition or are looking to expand their organic operations, to help make those connections, and just for that little bit of extra encouragement, to say: ‘Yes, you can do this. It might be difficult, and it’s hard in the beginning, but here are some really good success stories to carry you through. And we’re here to help.’ I would say that’s one thing about the organic community that is very unique. They’re all open arms, willing to help. They’re willing to open their doors and show you their operations and show you their books and show you how they do this. What I’ve learned is that’s not a typical kind of engagement among farmers. It’s a business, and it’s ‘competition.’ I get that. But here, within the organic community, seeing others succeed, I think, is also right up there with that need to be financially successful or to have their business be financially successful. It’s beyond the financial, right? It’s really seeing this movement, the mission behind organics, expand more people doing it.
A Community of Support
TOM: I think that’s one of the things that, as a host of this podcast, I hear over and over. It’s the willingness of organic farmers to share their knowledge and to help other people get started or to learn or understand what organic farming is about. It is a community that seems to be very supportive.
ROZ: Absolutely. I feel like there are no secrets. Anytime I call a farmer up, they’re like: ‘Yeah, give them my number. Tell them to come out.’ We want to have these conversations. We want to share. There are so many great benefits and opportunities around organic, and that’s the thing that we want to get out there. What are these benefits? What are the opportunities? How can we help advance organic agriculture in Iowa?
TOM: Well, Roz, I really appreciate you taking time and talking to us today. Obviously, you are excited about organics, and you’re excited about IOA and Iowa. So I appreciate you being on. But if you had a farmer in a room for two minutes, and you were going to convince them why they should support — they’re an organic farmer — but why should they support the Iowa Organic Association or any organic association? What would you want them to know, at the end of two minutes, why you are critical to their operation?
ROZ: The Iowa Organic Association is really important for our organic community here in the state because there’s nobody else providing that support for organic farmers. We are evolving, as I mentioned earlier on in the podcast. So this is an opportunity for farmers, for anybody interested in organic, to get involved and shape what we are doing, as an organization, to help really grow and advance organic agriculture and food and products in the state of Iowa. I think that says it best. I mean we’re member driven, and our members are telling us what they need. That’s the role of our organization. It’s to meet those needs of our membership and the greater community.
TOM: I agree. I mean, sometimes, it’s easy to kind of sit back and say: ‘I’ll let somebody else take care of this. I don’t need to be a member.’ But I think it’s really critical that organic farmers and organic companies that benefit from organic farming, like Avé Organics, that we are involved in the membership and the process. So, from Avé Organics, I want to thank the Iowa Organic Association for all the work that you do. It’s really a cool organization, and we certainly look forward to continued collaboration with you. So, Roz, to you and to your organization, thanks for everything that you do. And with that, we’ll conclude another episode of Organics Unpacked. Stay tuned next week when we interview another person and their importance to organic agriculture. Thank you.
ROZ: Thank you, Tom.
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