Home » 2019 Symposium | Harriet Behar

Harriet Behar – National Organic Standards Board Chair

Hello everyone, thank you for being here. So, I’m coming to you from the Upper Midwest. I live in Wisconsin on a small farm.

I’ve been certified organic since 1989.

I was one of the original people that helped start Organic Valley; I actually came up with the name ‘Organic Valley.’

I have a unique background in that:

  • I was the first marketing person for Organic Valley – I did the marketing for about nine years.
  • I get dirt under my fingernails as an organic farmer.
  • I’ve been an active organic inspector since 1992.
  • I’ve trained organic inspectors.
  • I now educate farmers.

I’ve moved a lot into educating farmers. I’ve been doing that for about 15 years, but meanwhile, I still keep doing everything else. I don’t know how but I do.

So, I see a kind of a unique perspective and I really want to talk about trying to be as inclusive as we can in our message. I’ve been on a lot of organic farms, I’ve talked to a lot of organic consumers, and I understand the marketplace and the need for people to feel that they need to make a living.

I care about the earth and that’s why many of us are in this. We know we share this beautiful blue marble and we know that organic farming really respects life and understands that interdependency we have with all living things, both below the soil line and above.

And we have a really positive message.

The Most Common Answer to “Why Did You Go Organic?”

In my time working with organic farmers, I’ve been on many organic farms where it’s their first organic inspection. And I would always say to them “So, why did you go organic?”

And I would say as a significant portion, maybe thirty percent, would say that there had been sickness in their family or there had been sickness in their neighborhood.

And you know, I’m talking about out in Iowa and in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Missouri – you know big tracts of land and many generations of farmers.

Many farmers also spoke to their understanding of the ‘dead zone’ at the base of the Mississippi River. And even though I am at that Upper Mississippi River region, we realized that what we’re doing there is affecting the shrimp farmers down in the Gulf of Mexico, and these farmers didn’t want to contribute to that degradation.

They also recognized that there was a chemical treadmill that once you start kind of killing off soil bacteria – when you go in and you kill insects, you’re not only killing the problem insects, you’re killing the beneficials, too – and that just leads to needing to use more and more and stronger and stronger chemicals. And we know that to be true.

We’ve seen that already with Roundup and the super weeds and now we’re moving on to who would have ever thought 2,4-D and Dicamba – known carcinogens that we really don’t want to be using, and the farmers really know that.

I wish that the consumers knew more about what was going on in agriculture, because they would be shaking their fists and saying “How could we be spraying Agent Orange all over our land?!”

Big Ag Wants Farmers to Just ‘Phone It In’

I was also very impressed that many farmers would say that they were sick of Monsanto running their farm.

That they (Monsanto) just didn’t like this independent streak that many farmers have.

These farmers didn’t want the multinational corporations basically owning them and they didn’t want to really be “farming by phone” where they basically just call up the co-op, a guy comes out, takes a soil test, someone else comes out and they spread the chemical fertilizer and then the farmer plants the crop, and then they come back out and spray what they (Monsanto) say and then, at the end of the year, the farmer brings in their crop and gets what little is left after they’ve paid for all the chemicals that were put on the land.

And a lot of farmers also wanted to be able to earn a better price on a small acreage – and there really is nothing wrong about wanting to make a living from your farm.

So you know, the hydroponic people are saying “Well this is the best way I know how to make a living” – and I just think they’re quite misguided.

Many Organic Farmers Are Dedicated Students of Nature

And lastly, there’s a whole group of organic farmers that just love organic farming for the opportunity of learning. Just because it’s so exciting to feel a partnership with nature, and because of all the different things that you get to learn over time about your place on the planet and what you can do to continually improve it.

I spent a lot of time out in fields with farmers and I’m always wondering you know, when I’m looking at their crops, what are they thinking?

Maybe they’re just thinking about the money. But you know what, if that brings them to organic farming I think that’s good. If they need that to start out – but I’ll tell you, if they don’t fully embrace the organic foundational principles, they won’t be in it for long because they won’t be successful.

When Jean-Paul (Courtens) was just talking about the shovel, there’s times when I’ve been out doing a first-year organic inspection and the farmers are like “Well you know, I’m just going to kind of get into it, you know, it’s such a better price” and then, if I show up at that farm again maybe four years later (I never know when I’m going to be assigned to a farm) and the farmer is so excited to see me, they’re always like “Wow, you wouldn’t believe it! You wouldn’t believe all the earthworms I have now! You should see all the birds that are living in my fields and I’m just so excited!”

And then he throws a shovel in the back of the truck – and I’m there, the inspector, and I’m thinking “I’ve got another inspection in four hours and I’m never gonna get off this farm.”

Those are some of the people who came to Organic because of the money, but stay because they see the benefits and that’s where we have to go and recognize the power of our positive message.

So, as Linley (Dixon) said, this is the actual definition in the USDA Organic regulation for organic – and it doesn’t say anything about not using synthetic chemicals. This is about integrating cultural biological and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

And so, when I teach organic farmers, I say “What does this mean to you?” You know, how can this be?

We will not achieve this on all of our farms but what a wonderful goal to reach for.

Owner-Operator Model vs. Industrial-Corporate Model

I’m talking to a lot of owner-operators – and I think really what we’re finding here now is that the higher price has brought the kind of industrial corporate model into Organic, which really offers a great danger to the owner-operator.

Because it’s the owner-operator who has that long term vision for their land. Passing it on to their family, and even if they don’t have family to pass it on to, they want to feel that every year they’re making improvements on their land, just as Jean- Paul showed on his little graph there.

And Organic really can offer differentiation in the marketplace.

This morning when I was taking a shower I opened up my bar of soap and it said “Vermont Organic Solutions Soap” right, so the word organic means something to people.

I looked at the ingredients on it, not a single organic ingredient in their soap. What, was I gonna be their organic policeman? No.

But the point is that we already have a word that means something.

But it’s true that the USDA, and especially under this administration, has very much narrowed our focus to what they think we should be looking at, and has narrowed the focus from the bigger picture of what organic is to just a substitution of acceptable inputs.

Exploring Inclusion in Organics

One thing that I do believe that we in the organic world can tend to do, is that when we see the problems that the other side has, we sometimes exaggerate the worst to make a point, but we don’t really need to do that. We should have integrity in what we are saying as well.

Instead, we really need to be exploring ways to be inclusive to others and to listen to their concerns.

I’m part of the National Organic Coalition which has environmental groups, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, farmer groups – and believe me when we sit around and talk about organic issues we do not all agree. But we find a way to understand where each other is coming from and we find a way to find a compromise that meets all of our needs. And of course, when we come together on a tough position, it usually has a very strong foundation because we’ve taken everyone’s needs into account.

Consumers need to be able to afford food, right? We should be trying to not just sell only to the elite – we need to make the art of practices available to all and to listen and understand the cultural and social values that people bring and how to reach them.

I learned on my high school debating team that if you use other people’s concerns and then frame your position to meet their concerns, they usually have to agree with you because you’re meeting their concerns.

Like I said, it’s important to share personal stories that are positive and to not just only focus on the negative.

Organic Delivers Biodiversity; Hydroponics Never Will

Organic can result in just an abundance of wildlife and beauty.

The methods that we have of encouraging biodiversity, the incredible tools that nature provides of parasitic wasps eating the pest worms, releasing beneficial insects, etc.; when you talk to consumers about all of that, they’re in wonder.

But then, when you look at the hydroponic side, where is the biodiversity?

Where are they encouraging more beneficial insects and healthier soils and in sequestering carbon?

There are so many things that when, like with hydroponics, you just only rely on the input side of things that you’re missing out on, including this great opportunity when we grow in nature that we have for improving our environment for the future.

I believe most of, many of you, are consumers, we’re all consumers, but we have such a positive message in organic.

So if an organic inspector shows up at a farm and the before picture is what they see, they will be written up in their inspection report and they will be encouraged to use the resources of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to really cover their land.

But think about it – is the farmer gaining more for their animals by having them on a grass-covered pasture rather than keeping them on a feedlot? Of course they are and that is it’s beneficial not only to the farmer but also to the greater environment.

So, I wanted to speak a positive message but we also have to not be too mamby-pamby about it. I mean because we do have problems.

Touring CAFOs Firsthand

I used to work for a group called MOSES – the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service – and we used to go to the large farm progress days which moves around the state of Wisconsin and is basically focused on conventional agriculture. I mean like the biggest tractors you’ve ever seen, and it’s like six stories tall.

For the past few years they move these huge tractors around to these CAFO conventional farms and have a tour of the farm and it’s like “This is modern farming and look at all the wonderful things we do for the calves” and they basically have the calves like in a maximum-security prison. The calves are in these pens with solid walls so high that they they do not even see any living thing since they’ve been born from their mother until they’re 6 months old, and all they hear is other calves mooing and crying all around them.

I mean, the stalls are so high they don’t even see the people who are feeding them milk and water and so this is not the one I was in but they let us you know they took us in a school bus through this calf barn that had like 1,500 calves in it and by the time I got to the you know at the end I’m just like bawling and crying I can’t stand it to see these animals treated like this and I you know I happen to be towards the front and the Extension Agents is like “everything is for calf comfort, look there’s slatted floors so they don’t have to lay in their manure” and I just lost it. I couldn’t stand it.

We don’t do this in Organic and we have to make sure this is not what Organic looks like.

Because what we’re doing here is, we’re basically starting out by having mentally and physically inferior animals. And this is not the kind of food that we want to be consuming nor the way we want to approach agriculture.

If any of you believe in karma, this is not the way we want to be tied to it – and if you’re eating that kind of food you’re encouraging it.

The same thing is with hydroponic operations.

I believe hydroponics is kind of like CAFO’s for plants.

There have been studies that the food on organic farms is higher in antioxidants, not only because there’s a better balance of nutrients and more soil biology for transferring those nutrients, but because the plants have to deal with wind and sun and maybe a little weed pressure – so they have to develop stronger immune systems themselves.

They have some insects feeding on them and this builds the antioxidants that we then consume and make us healthier. But if we’re basically growing food in a laboratory, in an industrial situation, we are losing those benefits that we could have possibly gotten in addition to all the other things (biodiversity, carbon sequestration).

We have to look and encourage farmers and consumers that the short-term monetary gain is not worth it versus long-term resiliency and the health of all living things.

The Real Price of Our Food

I really think that with climate change and all the things that people are seeing, people are starting to learn that, you know, this year’s profits are not worth ten years from now not even having a farm, or not even having an environment.

Although, my senator (I have one good senator and one I don’t get along with) but he’s actually said “If it’s cheaper, I don’t care where we buy it. You know, we could buy all our food from Brazil as far as I’m concerned” and this is the senator from Wisconsin when I was trying to tell him that we should be investing in the dairy infrastructure in Wisconsin he goes “well, if you could buy it for ten cents cheaper from New Zealand that’s where we should go.”

I almost fell off of my chair.

So, soil-based agriculture and livestock production respects that natural behavior of the animal and the plants. And what is the natural behavior of a plant? It is not roots in water. It is that complex soil-based system.

I was talking with someone earlier about how you sometimes see plants growing out of rocks, like along a river or a lake. You don’t see those roots going for the water, right, they are reaching for soil.

Studying Nature is as Important as Studying Tech

The other thing too is even at land-grant colleges and universities, the study of nature’s systems can be incredibly exciting. I mean we don’t have to turn our backs on “technology” but we are learning more about the complex systems that nature has evolved over time can be really, really exciting and I agree if we had been spending all the money that we had put into genetic engineering and chemicals, if we have been studying natural systems, just think how far along we would be, but hoping the next generation will bring us there.

So it’s very clear, it’s clear to me, that the reductionist organic regulations that only look at the inputs as what matters does not live up to the immense promise that organic agriculture provides and I am the current chair of the National Organic Standards Board and I have been working very hard to figure out how to get through to the USDA bureaucrats and I’ve had a few small wins.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to get hydroponic back on the work agenda, but I certainly have planted a few seeds to see if I can at least try to bring forward some discussion of some of the worst aspects of especially the container growing where they come in and they
spray herbicide and then lay down landscape cloth and then put containers on top and then call that “organic agriculture”.

The positive message id that Organic offers the best hope for environmental balance and health for all, the humans, the animals, the worms, the birds. And nature can be very resilient if we provide the space and conditions to let her heal from the damage that we have. I’ve seen this on my own farm.

I bought a farm that was kind of old and tired and had been abused and over time. I just can’t believe how I’ve seen the organic matter go up, I’ve seen the diversity and I’m constantly planting more diverse items out there. I have honeybees, so I’m very aware of the need for pollinators.

We cannot give up on soil-based agriculture for organic because that is truly our only hope.

We need to keep spreading the good word across the whole landscape and get those not just five acres here and ten acres there but break through to the people who are growing a thousand acres and ten thousand acres and some of them are coming to organic for the money, but if we can help them actually do that ecological balance that organic actually
means to just think of the change that we can make.

And lastly I am very aware as most of us in this room are is that the USDA organic label has been steered off of its foundational principles but I’m going to be optimistic and I’m going to say we can bring it back and that I really do see the Real Organic Project as something that to show the organic label the people at the USDA that it can be done and it is being done and it’s a viable marketing system and that we don’t have to be reductionist in order to bring everyone to the table.