The organic way: Finland organization branches out to Mexico
When Rose Welch and her husband Ronnie Cummins started the Organic Consumers Association in 1998, it was a tiny grassroots effort headquartered just north of Silver Bay, and formed mainly to pressure the federal government to keep strict organic standards.
Now, the organization has seven employees in Finland, Minn., and a handful more spread across the country. Five years ago, they became international after they helped start an organic-focused nonprofit in Mexico.
Welch still remembers those early months, though, holding meetings at the library in Silver Bay and recruiting a high school student to help them build a GeoCities website.
"You look back at all that and go, 'Wow,'" Welch said this week from Via Organica, OCA's sister nonprofit in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. "It's really become a movement."
Today, they have 900,000 Facebook followers and send a weekly e-newsletter to more than 600,000 subscribers.
Early in her career, Welch and her husband worked in Washington, D.C., lobbying against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly vegetables, fruits and other crops which have had their genes altered artificially. Such efforts at the policy level are important, Welch said, but she and Cummins saw the need for an organization that tackled similar food issues using a grassroots approach.
"When we first started out, there wasn't an organization that dealt primarily with consumers and organics," she said. "We're giving people the positive options and letting them know that there is an alternative out there."
Fighting against the current U.S. food production system as important to the couple, but so is enabling an alternative way of life. This drive led Cummins and Welch to Mexico, where they teamed up Welch's longtime friend Rosana Álvarez to start Via Organica, an organic farm, shop, restaurant and educational facility.
"This whole system we have set up in the U.S. is hurting people so badly," Welch said, citing farm subsidies and other policies that she says have enabled U.S. crops, especially corn, to be sold cheaply in Mexico. She said this has undermined the local market, forcing Mexican farmers to leave their land and find work elsewhere — often across the border in the U.S. She also said imported corn has negatively affected the diets of Mexicans.
"We're really harming the people of Mexico with our agricultural policies," she said.
Via Organica is Welch's way of creating an alternative, including creating a market for traditionally farmed fruits and veggies. Another goal, she said, is to educate those who visit. Topics include why locally grown, organic products can be more expensive, what GMOs are and the connections between food and climate change.
Lauri Hohman of Silver Bay visited Mexico and Via Organica in the first week of March.
"I've always heard about (Organic Consumers Association)," Hohman said. "Now I'm in way more awe and I need to learn more."
At Via Organica, she saw farmers growing organic food, watched locals prepare it and learned about its benefits. While in Mexico, she also took a trip to see a grove where monarch butterflies winter. Hohman said guides taught her about the plight of monarchs, which are declining in population; some cite pesticides and climate change as among the causes.
Hohman said the educational vacation caused her to come back to Silver Bay eager to look more into the food-related issues highlighted during her trip, and continue the journey into healthy eating she started a year ago.
"I've done plenty of vacations where you just go lay out in the sun ... it's more about you," Hohman said. "This one was so much more about taking in what's going on around you."
Welch said they welcome any visitors to Via Organica.
"It makes for a great learning experience to come down here," she said.
Meanwhile, the work in Finland continues on. Five full-time employees staff the office and two part-timers help out, too. They send out nationwide alerts and calls to action, as well as helping smaller organizations mobilize for local change. Welch said they've managed to maintain the organization with funding from many passionate individuals rather than accepting any huge grants from corporations that could influence their work
"Most of our donations come from small donors," she said. It gives a nice energy. These are 1,000 people that have given $50 and people really care about this issues."