The Standards Board in Fairlee, Vermont
The Standards Board in Fairlee, Vermont

The Real Organic Project was formed in January of 2018 to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming, which has come to be called “Organic Farming.” The Real Organic Project is intended to fill the void left by failures of integrity, transparency, and public process in the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). As the NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, it is clear that a catalyst is needed to reinvigorate the organic farming movement.

Because the need is so clear, the Real Organic Project has quickly gathered forty-five prominent organic advocates to serve on the three boards (Executive, Standards, and Advisory). Twenty-eight of the board members are farmers. Five are current members of the NOSB. Eight are former NOSB members. Eight have PhDs in soil science. The many board members’ commitment is a clear demonstration of the depth and breadth of community support for this effort.

Our planned projects are intended to raise the public awareness and participation in the movement to sustain an agriculture based on improving soil health. We support the traditional model of small family organic farms, but we also welcome larger farms that seriously follow the principle of “feed the soil, not the plant.” We advocate for farming based on pastured livestock and soil-based cropping.

To support the Real Organic Project, please visit www.realorganicproject.org to become a member.

Our initial efforts are focused on the creation of an add-on label to the USDA organic label. This wrap-around label will prohibit hydroponic and CAFO production, instead requiring practices that maintain and improve the health of the soil. Our simple standards for the wrap-around label were set by the Real Organic Standards Board in late March.

The fifteen-member Standards Board came together in Vermont from all over the country. They met for two intensive days of debate and hard work after many weeks of preparation.

People came from all over the country to prepare the standards.
People came from all over the country to prepare the standards.

The result is a thirty-one page document that lays out the standards. The Real Organic Project has released the Provisional Standards on our website:

Real Organic Provisional Standards 
www.realorganicproject.org/provisional-standards

These seven short standards are the missing heart of the NOP standards. They have all been discussed at great length by the NOSB over the years. These are the standards that most in the organic community support and want enforced by the USDA. They are the basis of our wrap-around ADD-ON label, and they are the foundation of organic.

To sum up briefly, the standards are:

  1. Origin of Livestock. In current NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
  2. Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
  3. Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the recently passed EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.
  4. Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of OFPA and the NOP language.
  5. Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
  6. Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the animal welfare standard (known as OLPP), CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. Our standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as tail docking and beak trimming, that are needed in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock.
  7. Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.

To see the full standards, please visit
realorganicproject.org/provisional-standards/

We listened carefully to each other. Electronic devices were banned for two days!
We listened carefully to each other. Electronic devices were banned for two days!

It is important to note that none of these standards are radical or extreme. They are conservative in embracing some of the foundational ideals of organic farming. They are meant as a return to the root. As the USDA organic seal is being stretched by the economic forces seeking to take advantage of the strong desire among consumers for healthier food, it is easy to forget that consumers are not just looking for another label but rather for food that is actually being grown in a different way. This label will be an attempt to bring transparency back to the NOP. The vast majority of certified organic farms will easily meet these “new” standards, which have been well vetted by countless hours of discussion over the years. It is the small number of CAFOs and HYDROs that will not qualify. And it is those same farms that are hiding behind the organic label to sell their products to an unsuspecting public.

All we are seeking is transparency. Our message is clear and simple. Organic farming must be based on healthy soil, with plants and animals as an integral part of that soil ecosystem. The only radical thing about our new standards is that they have been rejected by the USDA. They are a return to the fundamental beliefs of organic farming.

Our thanks to the people who worked for weeks and then traveled from all over the country to create these standards. This is a group of highly respected organic champions. They are farmers and advocates. Five are former NOSB members. Four are current NOC members. Six are Committee members of the Organic Farmers Association. Three are Board or staff of the Cornucopia Institute. All have worked for many years to protect organic. They came from California, Texas, Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maine, Colorado, Washington DC, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

We lived on organic carrots and Green Mountain coffee for two days.
We lived on organic carrots and Green Mountain coffee for two days.

The standards will be tested in 2018 in a Pilot Program involving approximately fifty farms around the country. We have hired an Associate Director to coordinate the Program applications and to be responsible for the inspections. Some of the inspections will be done working with a few trusted certifiers at the same time as the NOP inspections, but most will be done by our own inspectors, traveling around the country to the participating farms.

Farmers are already volunteering to join in the Pilot Project. We will select strong candidates from different regions across the country representing diverse farm types. At present, certification will be limited to U.S. farms and will not include processing.

Tentative fees for the certification will average $200 per farm.

We are planning to conduct third-party on-site inspections every five years. For the four years between on-site inspections, farms will fill out an affidavit reporting on their practices. Any concerns or reports of problems will result in more frequent and immediate on-site inspections.

The inspector will film three-minute videos of each farm that will be posted on our website so that customers and other farmers can see for themselves how the food is grown. Know your farmer.

We believe that the label will gain national attention due to farmer and community support in spreading the word. We are working with a lawyer to ensure we have as little exposure to lawsuits as possible, but if we are sued, we intend to turn that into another opportunity to let people know what is happening. We have an enormous microphone, and we will use it.

These are the seven NOSB members who voted to block hydroponics last November in Jacksonville. Six of them are current board members of the Real Organic Project.
These are the seven NOSB members who voted to block hydroponics last November in Jacksonville. Six of them are current board members of the Real Organic Project.

These are the seven NOSB members who voted to block hydroponics last November in Jacksonville. Six of them are current board members of the Real Organic Project.

At the Real Organic Project, we haven’t given up on reform. Indeed, five of our board members are current members of the NOSB. Nine are former members. This is not a group that has given up on the NOP. But it is certainly a group that sees how very difficult real reform will be. Until reform succeeds, we must be trying other strategies.

As CAFOs and hydroponics become an ever bigger part of the certified organic products, the public is being ever more misled. And the real organic farms who still make up the vast majority of certified operations are being lost in the shuffle. A recent story written by Cornucopia noted that the remaining 6 “organic” dairy farms in Texas (all large CAFOs) produce one and a half times more milk than the 450 certified family dairy farms in Wisconsin. We now see the organic family dairy farms being driven out of business in Vermont and California by CAFOs every day.

Aurora Dairy in Dublin, Texas. Photo by Cornucopia Institute
Aurora Dairy in Dublin, Texas. Photo by Cornucopia Institute

Many of our Board members are also members of the Organic Farmers Association and were involved in Congressional lobbying efforts this Spring. The news in Washington on the upcoming Farm Bill was grim, as the House and the Senate are taking turns tearing apart the integrity and accessibility of the NOP to American farmers. The House is proposing to cut off cost-share funding that helps farms get certified. This will have the biggest effect on the smallest farms and beginning farmers. At the same time, the Senate is proposing to open OFPA (Organic Food Production Act) to restructure the NOSB to be even more favorable to industrial farms.

Dave Chapman meeting with Bernie Sanders and NOFA VT's Maddie Kempner during an OFA fly-in to Washington before the Farm Bill in April.
Dave Chapman meeting with Bernie Sanders and NOFA VT’s Maddie Kempner during an OFA fly-in to Washington before the Farm Bill in April.

It is chilling to see that all of the requests to the Senate by Theo Crisantes of Wholesum Harvest are coming to pass. When Crisantes testified to the Senate Ag Committee less than a year ago, he made three radical requests:

  1. That hydroponics be fully permitted by the NOP.
  2. That the NOP stop working on “outlier” issues like animal welfare, and in particular on outside access for poultry.
  3. That the NOSB be reformed to include more representation for industrial farming and the bigger corporate chains.

It is hard to believe that so much has been lost in such a short time. Since Crisantes testified in July of 2017, hydroponics have been fully approved by the NOP, despite language in OFPA and the 2010 NOSB recommendation to the contrary. The USDA has rejected ANY standards on animal welfare as being irrelevant to organic certification. And now the Senate Ag Committee is working to change the NOSB for the worse in the newest Farm Bill.

Theo Crisantes of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics testifying to the Senate in 2017
Theo Crisantes of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics testifying to the Senate in 2017

When Crisantes testified to the Senate, he was speaking as the owner of Wholesum Harvest, but he was also speaking as the spokesperson for the Coalition For Sustainable Organics. The Coalition is a secretive group of hydroponic producers. We don’t know who their members are, nor how big their budget is. We do know that they managed to gain an invitation to speak for the organic community to the Senate Ag Committee, when well-respected groups like the National Organic Coalition have never been permitted to speak.

This can only happen through well-paid lobbyists exerting tremendous influence. We discuss this dark chapter because we have to understand what we are up against. These groups are promoting an “alternative organic” quite different from the traditional meaning. So please contact your legislators asking them to protect organic integrity in the Farm Bill.

A bright note is the recent vote by the European Commission to extend the current EU ban on hydroponics in organic to all of the EU countries. This ban will be slowly moved to full enforcement in the three Nordic countries where some form of hydro is currently permitted in certification. The same bill (much like the U.S. Farm Bill) calls for a prohibition on allowing USDA imports of hydroponics as organic.

We are not alone.

Many thanks,
Dave Chapman

p.s. Please forward this letter to any friends who might be interested.

p.p.s. Please post the Rally video on Facebook to spread the word:

p.p.p.s. if you’re new to these letters: I’m Dave Chapman, organic farmer at Long Wind Farm in Vermont. I write occasional updates on important things I think you’d like to know about the organic farming movement.