MOSES To Marbleseed: New Resilience
Published: Sep 2022
By: Lori Stern, Marbleseed Executive Director
Marbleseed is a prairie plant native to the Midwest. It has a deep taproot and thrives in areas grazed by cattle and is one of the first to return, resilient after fire. This drought-tolerant, perennial plant is often used in prairie restoration efforts, providing nectar and pollen as rewards for bumblebees, butterflies, and other insects. Although it is native, today it can be difficult to find.
After deep conversations with staff and the Board of Directors, reviewing options presented and brainstormed, “Marbleseed” emerged as the new name for MOSES. The tagline “farmer-led, rooted in organic” was the last critical piece. Buoyed by success in reaching unanimous consensus, we set about the task of creating a logo.
For us, the nature of Marbleseed calls to mind regeneration and ecosystem support. Its self-seeding nature speaks to networks, preservation, and adaptation. Its relative anonymity provides us the opportunity to create meaning. And within its name, “marble” and “seed,” we are reminded of this community’s commitment to the stewardship of our planet, which we so lovingly refer to as “the big blue marble.”
Changing MOSES to Marbleseed represents adaptability and reflects the needs of an established organic movement—community connection, ecosystem services, regeneration, and resiliency. As an organization working in community with 20,000 small and mid-scale farmers, researchers, ag professionals, and food system enthusiasts, we have become known for our role as a connector and networker, a deep taproot for the Midwest organic farming community. Thirty-three years of the MOSES Organic Farming Conference have taught us to be successful conveners.
Today, we are excited to leverage our social capital to grow the community of the Midwest’s small organic farms and add value by promoting resources (educational and otherwise) to address the myriad challenges we face collectively. And like the plant, Marbleseed will provide these things in the context of organic agriculture’s ecosystem services.
With a new name, we will refresh our branding and communication, including the Organic Broadcaster and a new website (launching at the end of June). This newspaper format has been with us for a long time. However, it carries significant challenges and costs, from page limitations to the carbon footprint required to print at one facility and fold at another, before it even departs for your mailbox.
The Organic Broadcaster’s new magazine format allows us to add additional content without cumbersome page limitations, and to decrease our carbon footprint as each issue ships directly to you from a single print and mail house.
Our MOSES roots
The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (or MOSES) was incorporated in 1995 after six years of growing a successful annual organic farming conference. With the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) authorized by the 1990 Farm Bill, there was a great need for farmer education and technical assistance. Increasing use of production methods that improved soil health, along with an emerging certification process created a dynamic and exciting environment for farmers who were on the frontline advocating for organic standards that could support the burgeoning organic movement. It was just three decades earlier that Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” challenged the agricultural industrial complex and encouraged a new wave of organic farming. Set upon the backdrop of the Green Revolution, MOSES’ work at that time was supporting a radical departure from the status quo.
Flash forward more than thirty years and we are now in the awkward position of being victims of our own success. Demand for organics has increased by double digits. Consumers are more willing to pay organic price premiums as concerns about the environment, animal welfare, and farmer livelihood have become more mainstream. Unfortunately during this time, large corporations motivated more by greed and market capture than the wellness of people and planet, also recognized the opportunities in organics and set forth to co-opt a movement and transform it into an industry.
Meanwhile, growing consumer demand has failed to reach many farmers. When MOSES began this work 33 years ago, small and medium-sized farms accounted for nearly half of all agricultural production in the U.S. Today, it is less than a quarter. 1 In the last twenty years alone, we have borne witness to the loss of over 150,000 farms in the U.S. 2 ; farmer livelihoods and whole communities have been swallowed up by Big Ag. Today we are seeing the effects of a meticulously created, perfect storm of tanking commodity prices, severe weather associated with climate change, political polarization, and the rapid increase of mega-farms, all at the expense of small and mid-scale farming operations, both in the U.S. and around the world. Corporate money begets power, power begets more money, and so the cycle continues.
According to The Guardian 3 , “the economic power of the corporations has contributed to their growing political power, which in turn has led to laws that put profits before food and worker safety, consumer rights and sustainability.” Big food businesses have increased their lobbying efforts and expenses six-fold, exerting more influence than ever before. Control of our food system means control of which products are on supermarket shelves and how much farmers get paid. As it relates to organics, Big Food and Big Ag have exerted influence on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in hopes of diluting the organic standards, making it easier to meet consumer demands on larger scales and line their own pockets with profits. It is concerning, to say the least, that over the last three decades, it has become easier for industrialized food and farming to enter the organic space, while the barriers to entry remain prohibitively high for underserved farmers, such as farmers of color, veterans, and LGBTQ farmers.
Addressing a continuing need
More than thirty years after the passage of OFPA and the birth of this organization, farmers are still seeking guidance in business management, market access, and production methods. Within this context in November of 2020, with a new Executive Director and in the midst of a global pandemic, the MOSES Board of Directors recommitted to the organization’s original mission, outlined in 1995: to support farmers in making the transition to a sustainable, organic system of farming that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just through information, education, and research, integrating the broader community into this effort.
With this recommitment came a conversation about the organization’s name. Throughout the years, the MOSES Board of Directors and staff have expressed interest in changing the name. Confusion with the Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), unintentional religious connotations (Google-search “MOSES staff” to see how this is confusing for someone trying to contact us), and the market’s co-opting of the term “sustainable” were all factors motivating a change.
In 2021, MOSES received a grant from McGuffin Creative Design, a Chicago-based creative services firm, in support of our organization’s quest to rebrand. With this grant, the board and staff engaged in a process to identify a new name that could better reflect not only the founding of the organization, but its future and place in the broader organic movement.
After getting to know our work, McGuffin suggested ideas, from acronyms to invented words, but nothing seemed to fit. And unfortunately, decades of corporate green-washing left a bitter taste in our mouths for many of the terms suggested. The big question became “how do we select a name that speaks to our commitment to organic and regenerative practices without using those words?” The answer: Choose a metaphor.
While our name is changing, our work remains the same. We have always been farmer-led, and the extent to which we rely on a community of farmers to provide the needed solutions and knowledge remains central to how we will continue to do Marbleseed’s work.
From the effects of climate change to the impact of the pandemic, recent years have shed a spotlight on our interconnectedness. This community knows better than most that organic is not simply a sideline, but one piece in a holistic puzzle that holds the power to feed communities and address food insecurity, provide economic justice through parity pricing for farmers and fair wages for farmer-workers, uplift rural economic development, and pull CO2 back into the soil. In the words of Minnesota’s former senator, Paul Wellstone, “we all do better when we all do better.”
As the organic food and farming landscape continues to evolve and grow, we remain committed to the roots of this movement: care for the planet, nourishment for communities, and support for organic and sustainable farmers who are working in relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us. Farmer-led, rooted in organic. That’s Marbleseed.
Lori Stern is the Executive Director of Marbleseed, formerly known as MOSES. She lives with her wife, LeAnn, on a small farm near Monticello, Wisconsin, where they grow vegetables and raise chickens and goats.
1 How America’s food giants swallowed the family farms; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/09/american-food-giants-swallow-the-family-farms-iowa
2 Total number of farms in the United States from 2000 to 2021; https://www.statista.com/statistics/196103/number-of-farms-in-the-us-since-2000/
3 Revealed: the true extent of America’s food monopolies, and who pays the price; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2021/jul/14/food-monopoly-meals-profits-data-investigation