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Author: Abby Lundrigan

Organic Grain Fraud

Organic Grain Fraud

The Real Organic Project was formed by organic farmers to address five major lapses in USDA Organic integrity:
1) The certification of hydroponic production,
2) The certification of confinement livestock operations,
3) The lack of enforcement of the “pasture rule” in organic dairy,
4) The failure to implement the Origin of Livestock Rule and,
5) The import of large quantities of fraudulent organic grain.

This week's featured farmer, along with every other U.S. organic grain farmer, has been personally impacted by the fifth failure. When he isn't farming, Carmen Fernholz helps organic grain farmers receive fair pricing in the marketplace as the Vice-Chair of OFARM (Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing). OFARM is a marketing cooperative, but it also works to defend the integrity of the organic standards so that real organic farmers will not have to compete with fraudulently certified grain.

This week's guest writer is Anne Ross from the Cornucopia Institute. Anne has worked closely with OFARM to help address the ongoing problem of fraudulent imported organic grain. Her important white paper explains how failed regulations and enforcement by the National Organic Program made the U.S. ripe for fraud and organized crime. Despite recent farm bill funding to address import grain fraud, the problem persists.

U.S. organic grain farmers lost over $400 million from 2015 to 2017 to fraudulent organic imports. Image courtesy of VesselFinder/Cengiz Tokgöz

Letter from Anne Ross:

Almost three years ago, I stood on the floor of the La Crosse Center Arena at the MOSES conference in Wisconsin. I had recently been hired by Cornucopia to investigate organic grain import fraud.

The organic grain farmers I met that day were tackling a mounting crisis facing the organic sector – the flow of fraudulent organic grain into the U.S. from overseas. Many were disenchanted, feeling like they no longer lived in a free market relative to organic grain trading, and were becoming increasingly despondent about what they perceived as the passive attitude of government regulators.

Without question, these organic grain farmers feel the impact of fraudulent imports and so do other producers. The tentacles of import fraud reach far and wide.

Approximately 70% of the U.S.’s “organic” soybean supply and 40% of “organic” corn supply is imported.

When fraudulent organic grain is used by industrial-style dairies that violate the Pasture Rule, real organic dairies that comply with the law’s grazing requirements suffer a competitive disadvantage.

When mega-sized poultry operations that house hundreds of thousands of chickens use imported grain of dubious authenticity, egg producers that provide their birds meaningful access to the outdoors suffer a competitive disadvantage.

And, of course, consumers don’t get what they pay for. When bad actors put fraudulent grain into the supply chain, it travels all the way from the foreign farm to the American family's fork.

So “cheap,” “fraudulently certified,” “organic” grain actively puts real organic farmers out of business, damaging the farmers, the eaters, and the trust in the brand. In the end, this failure will compromise trust in the National Organic Program. Some farmers are constantly checking in with their grain suppliers to make sure it is grown in America. How long can this continue?

Everybody in a bad actor’s supply chain is financially profiting from fraudulent organic grain. Everybody outside of that chain is financially hurt by it. Factory-style industrial farms that buy cheaper, imported grain aren’t necessarily incentivized to seek the truth about the origin of the grain, nor have they necessarily been required to by law. They become casual accessories to the fraud as beneficiaries of cheaper imported grain.

“I was involved in writing some of the rules and Organic was always founded on principles as well as production practices. Organic is 95% integrity and we need proper oversight.” – Carmen Fernholz

To address these problems, Cornucopia has publicized the identity of certain foreign companies and their certifiers, calling upon the USDA to investigate the integrity of these supply chains.

Cornucopia has tracked vessels, notified authorities of questionable incoming shipments, and testified at NOSB meetings to impress upon the USDA the urgent need to act.

The organic community has called attention to the ongoing struggle of organic grain farmers to compete with confirmed cases of import fraud and with incoming shipments of unverified authenticity.

After all of this, I’m often asked what has been done to curtail import fraud. The 2018 Farm Bill expanded resources and authority for enforcement mainly through $5 million in funding for data collection. Although there are provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill that should improve supply chain traceability and data collection, suspicions remain.

The USDA promised to publish a proposed rule that would enhance supply chain traceability, but that has long been delayed.

To this day I get calls about traders located in high risk regions where international crime syndicates are big players in fraud. I’ve traveled to some of these locations. I have been warned that these networks will do anything to protect their money.

After all, it’s a LOT of money. Our money.

Throughout my work on import fraud, it’s been suggested to me not to talk too loudly about fraud for fear that talking about it will completely undermine consumer confidence – that consumers will abandon organics altogether.

But it is only as a result of our speaking out that this issue has come to light, and ultimately has become an issue addressed by Congress. Fraud against American farmers and consumers is a bipartisan issue. And yet it continues. And continues. And continues…

I’ve come to believe that many in the organic sector operate under the false assumption that exposing fraud of this scale would do irreparable damage to the organic label. To the contrary – it is calling out bad actors and exposing the truth that protects real organic farmers and consumers. And ultimately, that is protecting the organic brand.

And, yes, sometimes the truth hurts, but not nearly as much as quietly looking the other way.

  • Anne Ross, J.D., LL.M.
    Farm Policy Analyst, The Cornucopia Institute
Carmen is also growing Kernza, a deep rooted perennial wheat that sequesters carbon because the ground does not need to be tilled each year.

Carmen has all the qualities of a Real Organic Project farmer. He understands the connections between soil, climate, and health, and works with his farming community to turn that knowledge into action. His latest project involves learning to grow and market Kernza, a perennial wheat that requires no tillage between harvests.

The major failures of the NOP that brought us together continue to impact Real Organic farmers today. ROP's “add-on” certification program is a farmer response to these failures, but for some, it is too little, too late. Many organic farmers following the rules are still being put out of business.

Thousands of farms remain and applications for Real Organic Project certification continue to come in. Thank you to all who generously donate to allow us to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace.

Yours in the dirt,

In the past 10 years, the National Organic Standards Board has passed 20 final recommendations to advance the organic practice standards, yet USDA has not completed rulemaking on a single one of them… The failure of government to keep pace with consumers and the industry is harming and fragmenting the market. Inconsistent standards are becoming the status quo. Advancing organic standards is essential to a healthy market and credibility of the USDA Organic seal. The future of organic depends on fixing this partnership and getting USDA to work better for the organic community.”

  • Organic Trade Association statement before the 2019 NOSB meeting in Pittsburgh.

Linley Dixon
Associate Director / linley@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

Know Your Farmer | A-Frame Farm

A-Frame Farm, Minnesota

Carmen Fernholtz of A-Frame Farm talks about what is important when it comes to Organic Farming. Organics were founded on principles and proper practices.

“Do organic not because the price is better, but because it's the right thing to do for the soil for society and for yourself.”

Be sure to check out A-Frame Farm, Minnesota's facebook page.

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Know Your Farmer | A-Frame Farm, Minnesota

Carmen Fernholtz:

My name is Carmen Fernholtz. My wife, Sally and I farmed about 450 acres certified organic near Madison Minnesota. Madison is located very Western edge of the state. We grow generally the

crops in the area corn soybeans small grains that'll vary from year to year wheat oats barley and some alfalfa.

When you were here earlier today you caught me out in the field. My nephew and brother had both brought to come by not. We were going to take our first go at a harvesting Kernza, Kernza is what we call a perennial wheat. Kernza is a miniature wheat seed.

And I say miniature Yeah, it's maybe an eighth the size of a regular wheat kernel. To me the biggest piece here is that we can keep the soil covered something growing in there '12 months of the year minimizing the soil disturbance captivating a lot of carbon and just moving closer and closer to emulating nature.

Carmen & Company

You know there's a lot of talk out there now about how organic is sort of becoming industrialized and I am nervous about that. I really am because back in the early 70s. I was actually helping write some of the rules in organics and eventually, the government adapted some of these things and put them into the standards. But organics was always founded on principles, as well as production practices. And to me, the principle is based on West Jackson's famous quote and it's probably not his original but anyway, I always credit him with it, eyes to acres ratio.

We need to increase instead of decrease the eyes to acres ratio and that's the principle that I've always wanted to live on. And so it's not free. It costs something. But look at what you're doing then and protecting the environment enhancing the communities and everybody just does better really today. When I look back over the years, I've been doing it. I'm starting to see some pressures that I'm a little nervous about.

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A-Frame Farm has organic integrity

I've always said over and over and over. Organic is 95% integrity. But another good friend of mine says expect what you inspect. And so if we're not doing proper oversight Human nature says we're going to try and cut corners again, when we look at the standards. And we look at and be real direct. We look at the standards of hydroponics and we look at housing for livestock.

Those standards are not what we had originally intended when we started putting together these standards that we wanted access to outdoors. We wanted that crops growing in the soils is what we wanted. And when we start cutting those corners it doesn't stop there. Patrick Lee you said when the organic bill was signed he said organic is a choice.

It's not a directive. It's a choice. And so you as a farmer and you as a consumer have this choice. And you can choose or not choose it. 

We can keep those standards strict we can maintain that strictness because if you don't like them, then you find a different source of your food. But this is what we want. This is the choice that we've made.

You know a  topic today is climate change and what's causing it and who is Responsible. With perennials in the landscape we're taking a lot of that carbon out of the air and storing it back down in the soil. And if we look at some of the Kerns of, for example, they're down 8, 10, 12 feet. Those roots are down there forever and they've take in carbon down there with them.

More scientists tell you that it's the increase of CO2 in the air that's causing climate change. So we can pull that back out, put it in the ground. It's a win-win-win. It's a win for the farmer, environment, consumer, and for the soil.

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Know Your Farmer | Greener Pastures Chicken

Greener Pastures Chicken, Texas

Greener Pastures Chicken believes that truly organic practices can be maintained and are even scalable. While some corporate chicken operations are taking advantage of subpar animal husbandry practices, Cameron Molberg is committed to keeping his birds comfortable and on lush pasture — It's better for the animals, the food quality, and it builds more fertile, carbon sequestering soil. Be sure to visit their website to learn more.

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Know Your Farmer | Greener Pastures Chicken, Texas

Cameron Molberg:

We are really proud to be part of the real organic project for multiple reasons. First is that the Real Organic Project stands for the true intent of what the National Organic Program should have been. 

Over the years, the standards have become watered down, the enforcement has become watered down, and there's really a disparity between the written law and what the consumer gets.

It's important for us to draw the line in the sand somewhere, and we're proud to be part of this organization and join forces with hundreds of other farmers across the United States who feel the same way.

Organic Farming in Texas

We're located in Elgin, Texas. I've been raising pastured poultry for over 10 years now. I was really drawn to organic agriculture as a college student in West Texas. My grandparents, though they weren't farmers, always gardened organically; never used synthetic substances. It was really important to them that they provided their families with good food. That's something that was passed down to me that I really appreciated.

When I was in college, organic agriculture really didn't have much of a following.

Cameron Molberg of Greener Pastures Chicken

In some ways, I took my agriculture education and did quite the opposite. Everything that I was taught in school, I did pretty much a 180 with it. So instead of confining chickens, we give them ample amount of space; instead of putting them in dark houses closed off, we give them sunshine and grass and access to bugs and grubs, and everything that's out in their natural environment.

Keeping Birds Comfortable & Pastures Healthy

One thing that's very important to us is moving the houses. The birds are never in one spot for more than three days, and this helps mitigate nitrogenation of the soil.

We want to make sure that the soil is healthy and can rebound quickly. We also don't want the chickens to be in a dirty environment.

Minimizing Off-Farm Inputs

One of the most efficient ways to improve the soil is to have your livestock in direct contact with the soil. They're depositing their manure, which is a fertilizer. So that's a really low-impact way of monitoring and maintaining the viability of your farm.

The organic system is not about having multiple off-farm inputs. The ideal organic system is a closed circle, where everything serves a purpose. Everything has a benefit. That's what we're really trying to promote, and that's why we are excited to be part of the Real Organic Project.

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These chickens have plenty of space to roam

The Two Sides of Organic

I think that consumers are expecting a product that is Real Organic Project certified. This is what the organic system or National Organics Program should have been. But unfortunately, corporate influence and the lobbyists have now made their way into the organics program, so the Real Organic Project is critically important.

When it comes to organics, there's two different types. There is the Purists, then there's the Corporate Side.

What the consumer thinks is happening is that these birds have outdoor access. For me, outdoor access means being in the sunshine, being on grass, directly connected to the soil. The birds at Greener Pastures have plenty of space to move around. They're able to exhibit their natural behaviors.

In a factory organic operation, the birds only get about the size of a sheet of paper to roam around for their entire life.

A lot of these egg operations may have 40,000 square foot buildings with little doors that are, oh, I don't know, just a couple square feet. Then they'll open up a few of them around the house. And those birds won't go outside, because it's a behavioral thing — they can't see outside. They don't know if there's a predator out there, and they're not going to step outside without knowing what's out there and how to protect themselves. Furthermore, the farmers don't put feed or water outside. There may be grass, but typically there isn't. It's typically just dirt. So the birds aren't getting any benefit in that scenario.

A lot of the other “organic” houses just have porches… The birds can go outside to a certain degree, they're in fresh air, but they are not on the ground. They are not eating bugs. They are not able to scratch, forage, and exhibit those natural behaviors. I hate to say it, but when it comes down to the welfare of some of the livestock in the organic certification program, it's really not what the consumer expects, it's not what the real organic farmers want, and it's not what the livestock want.

Everything wants to exhibit their natural behaviors, and in this factory farmed organic operations, the birds aren't given the enrichments, and they're not given the environment to really flourish.

Scaling Up Without Compromise

The birds have to come first. At the end of the day, if the birds aren't healthy, if they aren't happy, then they're not going to grow correctly, they're not going to be as productive, and they're not going to be producing all the benefits that we see in pasture-raised birds (the meat quality, the vitamins and minerals that are far superior in pasture birds). With a stress-free environment, we're able to ensure that the quality of our bird is top-notch.

Top notch quality

One thing that I've always focused on from a production standpoint is to scale up while not compromising our standards. That's really  important to me.

I often hear is that this isn't scalable. “You can't raise 1,000 chickens or 10,000 chickens a week in this type of production system,” — which is false! The reason why industry says that is simply because it protects the bottom line. They don't have to adjust to better welfare standards.

So the believe that you can't scale-up without compromising standards really is a myth.

We want the consumer to know what we're all about. We want the consumer to know there's a difference in the industry. And you know the Real Organic Project is one effective way of doing that.


Bonus: Visit minute 7 of the video above for “The Life of a Bird at Greener Pastures Chicken”


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Farm Labor at Swanton Berry Farm

Farm Labor at Swanton Berry Farm

When you grocery shop, too much is invisible. You can’t see the buildings that housed the farm animals, you can’t see the slaughterhouse, packing house, nor a day in the life of the people who picked the produce.

I truly believe that if you could know the FULL story behind every product on the shelf, the world would be a MUCH better place.

This invisibility facilitates exploitation. It likely ensures exploitation because the price point often becomes the major deciding factor in your purchase.

You want to support real change, but you don't know the full story behind every purchase. You're stuck wondering about various marketing claims on many labels. No one wants to be fooled into spending more money for a claim that may or may not be REAL.

USDA Organic certification has been called the “gold standard” for production, but it has never addressed worker welfare and has recently failed to enforce soil health and pasture requirements.

As our community explores the meaning of real organic, questions of labor standards are inevitably raised. Real Organic Project is engaged in this discussion, and we are beginning to include very simple rules as part of our standards. This is not simple to implement, but we believe it is important.

Swanton Berry near Santa Cruz, CA is certified with the Real Organic Project.
Swanton Berry near Santa Cruz, CA is certified with the Real Organic Project.

One of our Real Organic Project certified farms is Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California. Swanton is the national pioneer in creating different relationships between farm owners and farmworkers. They have given numerous workshops, appeared in books, and spoken to the UN. They are also certified by the Agricultural Justice Project.

We are proud to have Swanton Berry Farm as part of our Real Organic community.

“What would be the point of farming organically if the workers were underpaid, overworked or treated without respect? Just carrying the California Certified Organic label did not address these important issues.” – Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm photo by Craig Lee

In 1983, Swanton Berry Farm was founded by Jim Cochran and Mark Matze becoming the first farm to grow organic strawberries commercially.

In 1987, Swanton Berry Farm was certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, becoming the first certified organic strawberry farm in California.

In 1998, Swanton Berry Farm was the first organic farm to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO.

In 2002, Swanton Berry Farm was awarded the EPA's Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for being the “pioneer…in developing the technology of farming strawberries…without relying on the soil fumigant methyl bromide,” a major contributor to the depletion of the Ozone Layer.

In 2003, Swanton Berry Farm was the single farm in the US selected to undergo a pilot audit of labor practices, toward the goal of establishing international labor standards for small farms.

In 2004, Jim Cochran and Sandy Brown traveled to Rome to make a presentation about labor standards at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In 2005, Swanton Berry Farm began to offer ownership opportunities in the form of stock bonuses to career-oriented employees. Over time, key employees will come to own a substantial portion of the Company.

In 2011 Jim was awarded the National Resource Defense Council's Growing Green Food Producer Award on behalf of Swanton Berry Farm.

In 2006, Jim Cochran received the Honoring Advocates for Social Justice in Sustainable Agriculture (Justie) Award from the Ecological Farming Association.

The employees of swanton berry farm
Swanton Berry Farm employees work year-round, earn a living wage, and have a medical plan, a pension plan, vacation pay, holiday pay, unlimited time off for family needs, and, for some, free housing and earn stock in the company.

Swanton Berry Farm is prominently featured in Dr. Annelise Orleck's book about the international labor movement. They are celebrated as a real alternative to the labor practices of large corporate farms such as Driscoll's.

“There was the big strike in Mexico in the Spring of 2015, in which 50,000 berry pickers walked out of the fields. Workers blocked roads on which berries were carried to the likes of Walmart and other big grocers. The strike ultimately resulted in a pay increase to between $9 and $11 A DAY.

There was also an agreement that Baja growers would pay into Social Security for their workers, and some attempt to deal with sexual harassment of workers in the fields.

“In the US, wages are higher, though undocumented workers get less than the minimum wage overall. But still, I was told that they usually made at least $6 to $8 an hour. As for how many workers are undocumented, it's still most. Americans overall just don't want the jobs, in part because the pay is too low.”

    – Annelise Orleck, in a personal communication.

“I'm really proud that I have employees that actually make really good money and can do things that perhaps they wouldn't be able to achieve if they were working for someone else.

“I know my employees' names and I get involved a little bit in their lives so that I know what issues they might be facing or how I can help. They're not just a number for me, and they're not just a group of people that are coming in for four months to pick all my strawberries and then go away. No. They're people.

“When I was a farmworker myself, I wasn't treated as I wish I would have been. I don't want my workers to feel the same way. I want to make sure that they feel really good about doing what we do and make sure they can pay their bills so that if they wish they can build a home or send their kids to school, or have an apartment by themselves with their families instead of having to live in a trailer with other people.”

– Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics, a Real Organic Project certified farm.

“Unless you buy your food directly from a farm, the farmer receives a very small part of the dollars you spend – and farmworkers even less.

Although food is a daily necessity and farm work in the Covid-19 pandemic has been declared “essential,” farmworkers are still among the lowest paid workers in this country averaging $11.88 an hour ($31,000/year if the work were year-round, but much of this is seasonal, so average annual earnings are more like $17,500.

“In states like North Carolina, farmworkers only get $7.25/hr, the national minimum wage. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed workers in most sectors time-and-a-half for overtime over 40 hours a week – but left out farmers and farmworkers. Only very recently has this started to change in a few states- CA and NY.

“So if you are enjoying cheap food, it is thanks to the unrelenting underpayment of farmworkers, most of them Latinx or other people of color and up to 50% of them may be undocumented immigrants.”

     – Michael Sligh, ROP Standards Board and Agriculture Justice Project Board of Directors

“Many organic farmers would like to do much better.

“But these same farmers lamented that constraints, in particular low farm gate prices, that did not fully cover their farm's costs of production, prevented them from living up to their social justice ideals. Our current ‘food system' pits farmers against workers and buyers against both. The Agriculture Justice Project was founded to demonstrate how farmers and workers can improve farms' bottom-line by improving on-farm labor practices based on long-term, respectful relationships.

“The key missing ingredient for creating a real fair food system is for buyers, retailers, and consumers to reward farms that voluntarily strive for excellent labor practices. Swanton Berry is one such farm.

– Elizabeth Henderson, ROP Advisory Board and Agriculture Justice Project Board of Directors

We are addicted to cheap food. And the pressures to make food as cheap as possible are just fierce in this country. And that is the reason that we exploit farmworkers and that is the reason that meat animals are treated the way they are treated and down the line. And we have done an amazing job in this country since the ’70s of driving down the cost of food, to the point where our economy depends on it. It is really baked in. And it makes it very hard to advance a reform agenda that would inevitably, as it should, raise the price of food. Food is not cheap. It’s dishonestly priced because it assumes undocumented workers being exploited, and it assumes animal abuse. I mean down the line.

“The big challenge politically, and of course political leaders LOVE cheap food. It’s threatening. We saw in 2008, governments fell around the world because the price of grain doubled briefly. It’s very destabilizing when food prices go up. 

So how do we move toward the true cost of food without disadvantaging the poor and destabilizing the economy? I think all these moves have to be coupled with efforts to make it easier for people to afford food. So you improve the minimum wage on farms. You have a minimum wage on farms! And you, at the same time, increase the minimum wage across the country. We have to give people the money to pay the true cost of food.”

     – Michael Pollan, in a 2013 panel with Kathleen Merrigan

What would the world look like if business decisions were, first and foremost, based on what was best for people and the planet? If business owners weren’t financially rewarded for extracting, polluting, and underpaying their employees?

What if you could actually make an informed choice? Which system would you choose?

That is the goal of the Real Organic Project – to provide FULL transparency from the farm to your table. No more guessing!

Yours in the dirt,

Acres of strawberries growing at Swanton Berry. Rather than only growing strawberries, Cochran grows many crops, some which just break even for the business, simply to keep workers employed year-round.

Linley Dixon
Associate Director / linley@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

Know Your Farmer | Swanton Berry Farm

Swanton Berry Farm, California


Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm discusses the agricultural labor situation in California, and what he is doing about it. Jim values his employees even more than his 10 acres of strawberries. Housing and year round employment are just some of the benefits Jim's employees enjoy. Learn more by visiting their website here.

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Know Your Farmer | Swanton Berry Farm, CA

Jim Cochran:

Part of the reason that I got into farming was to do something about the agricultural labor situation that we've had in California for a very long time. My name's Jim Cochran, I founded Swanson Berry Farm about 36 years ago. We grow Brussel sprouts and celery, behind me strawberries out in the distance.

We're committed to year long year round full time employment including housing for all of our employees. That makes a big difference. That means that they're able to save money.

They have double time holidays, sick pay and vacation pay.

So it adds up.

We don't do any contract labor, or we hire people to work for the company. They're union members so they have the pension plan.

Swanton Berry Farm strawberry sign

There's been a consensus among organic growers that they have enough to worry about just with organic farming practices and don't want to take on the major issues from a certification perspective.

I disagree with that. But my way of dealing with that is to have a contract with the United Farm Workers. And then also certified by domestic fair trade association. And that is expensive. Our cost per hour, including all the benefits and everything is really pretty high for industry standards especially since we pay that all year long.

So we have to have stuff growing all year round and things for people to do. Sometimes we don't make any money on the stuff that we grow during the winter.

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A bunch of strawberries

Swanton Berry Farm Puts Employees First

But that's OK because it keeps everybody happy. We depend on the public understanding why their prices are going up and what they do understand is that it's a good quality product. Then they're willing to pay a little bit more.

We do eight farmer's markets a week. So it also saves our space in the farmer's market if we're selling squash or artichokes or Brussel sprouts and celery. It's nice to be in a space all year long. So that people are accustomed to seeing. And then when our strawberries come in the spring, we have really no vegetables.

We time things. So that we have strawberries in we don't have anything else going on. And then later in the summer, we'll have various vegetables and the strawberries because the strawberries won't be as strong.

Swanton Berry Farm Fields

We try to grow varieties that taste really good like we grow the old fashioned kind of artichokes that are not grown from transplants they're from stock that came over from Italy 100 years ago and gets divided every four or five years. And then replanted.

And so it's the flavor on those things is really excellent. We don't rush things on the farm. It's sort of slow farming. We let our strawberries sit on the vine for a long time because we don't ship them. So they pick up some flavor that way too.

People asked me one time do you talk to your plants?

And I said, no, I listen to my plants. You know I go out and look at the field and say these Brussels sprouts look nice and happy, and we just went over and looked at the Olallieberries and they do not look happy.

And I've been trying to make the Olallieberries happy for 20 years with organic amendments and everything. And it still hasn't worked, but I still love the Olallieberry. So you know what can you do?

The employees of swanton berry farm

The more I've been farming the more I realize that I have just really no clue what's happening. It's funny. I mean, you know I have intuition. I do have intuition about things.


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Brave Little State

Brave Little State

“If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
– Calvin Coolidge

The Brave Little State Versus Godzilla. 

We know how that movie ends. 

Vermont is the Brave Little State. 

In this case, Godzilla is Monsanto and the Organic Trade Association.

That is an odd pairing. How did that happen?

For years there was a huge national effort to require labeling for products containing GMOs. And there was an even more intense effort to defeat those labeling requirements. Hard-fought battles in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado ended with voters saying no to requiring GMO labeling. Corporate opponents to GMO labeling outspent supporters by millions of dollars.

The corporate opponents were companies like General Mills, Smuckers, and Kellogg’s.

Vermonters celebrating on the Statehouse steps after the passage of the GMO Labeling bill. Real Organic farmer Will Allen, Cat Buxton, and NOFA VT leaders Enid Wonnecott and Maddie Kempner are cheering after much hard work.

How could these proposals have failed in other states when most polls show 90% of Americans favored labeling? Every state faced threats that a labeling law would trigger huge lawsuits from corporations such as Monsanto, possibly bankrupting the state.

Vermont was threatened with the same lawsuits. And yet they voted to require labeling. 

We didn’t insist that GMOs couldn’t be used. We insisted that people have a right to be informed and to choose. Very Vermont.

After Vermont’s historic law, Connecticut and Maine passed similar laws that would go into effect if neighboring states joined them. Nobody wanted to face Godzilla alone.

“Right after the labeling bill was passed in Vermont, the proponents of the DARK act and their allies at OTA, helped pass a law prohibiting states from having the right to pass labeling laws, thus nullifying Vermont’s law and only allowing the federal government to pass labeling laws.” – Will Allen, ROP Farmer and Manager of Cedar Circle Farm speaking at the Thetford Farmer Rally.

So what does all this have to do with organic? USDA “certified organic” has always banned all use of GMOs. And yet, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) became very involved after Vermont passed its law. OTA went to Capitol Hill to promote what is known as the DARK Act. “Deny Americans the Right to Know”. At last, an acronym that makes sense.

The reasons for OTA’s actions have always remained mysterious to me. Perhaps it was because General Mills, Smuckers, and Kellogg's are all OTA members. There is no longer “us” and “them.”

I was in a call with NOFA VT and the OTA after the DARK Act passed. OTA was trying to justify their actions. They were not successful, and NOFA VT resigned from OTA after that. Their departure was quiet. Louder departures came from Nature's Path and Dr. Bronners.

“Our departure from the OTA is an act of protest to raise awareness of our concern that the important role organic plays to support the health of consumers and our planet is being compromised. We believe giant food corporations, that also happen to own small organic brands, use the OTA to influence policy decisions to protect the best interest of their large, non-organic food portfolios.” – Arran Stephens, Nature's Path founder and co-CEO
“Dr. Bronner’s has resigned from the Organic Trade Association (OTA), citing the association’s betrayal of the consumer-led GMO labeling movement, and general drift away from the core principles that drive the organic movement.”
– Dr. Bronner's press release

So it would appear that the “organic industry” aligned with the conventional industry. Looking at OTA’s members, they are one and the same. And by providing “organic” cover for the DARK Act in Congress, they helped to end giving consumers freedom of choice. 

I tell this DARK story again because I am trying to wrap my head around why it is so very hard to pass and enforce laws that serve us. The obvious answer is the influence of money.

As I said in the last letter, I am involved in a lawsuit against the USDA. I think we will win it because I think the USDA is breaking the law. But in the past, every time we win such a battle, “they” simply change the law.

“Some in the Senate, and the big corporations that back this deal, want to throw out the careful work Vermont has done – the record we have compiled – and say, ‘We know best.’ Instead of using Vermont’s law as a floor, these powerful interests are intent on stamping it out as quickly as they can. What’s driving their efforts isn’t consumers’ right to know, but on doing as little as they can get by with. They couldn’t care less if their plan sows more confusion for consumers across the country.” – Vermont's Senator Patrick Leahy

One of the many champions of the Vermont debate was Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, who had worked for over a decade in the Vermont legislature to pass such a law. “This is one of the cases where grassroots democracy really did win the day and hopefully we can carry it on into the future,” Zuckerman said.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signs the GMO labeling bill.

So to end this rather difficult letter, let us find a more optimistic note. We want to share one of our Know Your Farmer videos. Appropriately, this week we are sharing the video of a Vermont farm; Full Moon Farm.

Full Moon Farm is certified by the Real Organic Project. The owners are Rachel Nevitt and David Zuckerman. Rachel has taken on more of the management of the farm since David became Vermont's Lieutenant Governor. And now David is running for Governor.

“Organic without soil is like democracy without people.”
– David Zuckerman at the Thetford Farmer Valley in 2016.
Rachel Nevitt at Full Moon Farm.

Dave Chapman
Executive Director / dave@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

“By passing this law with no strings attached, Vermont has sent a message out loud and clear: that no company – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how powerful – can deny you the right to know what’s in your food.”

  • Paul Burns, Chair of Rural Vermont after the passage of the GMO labeling bill.

What Do A Rancher And A Vegan Have In Common?

What Do A Rancher And A Vegan Have In Common?

Must-see “Know Your Farmer” video of Alderspring Ranch

Glenn Elzinga is an endlessly interesting cowboy. I spent a day with him and four of his seven daughters in the backcountry of the Salmon Challis National Forest.

If your time is limited today, please stop reading this letter and watch this “must-see” video about Alderspring Ranch!

One day I received a call at my farm in Durango, CO letting me know that it was time to come visit – the Elzingas would be bringing the cattle back home from the range! I was in for a long day bumping along the back roads to follow the 300-head beef herd.

Living in the arid mountain west, I understood the harm caused by cattle left alone to graze on public lands. Cattle prefer to spend the summer in the shady riparian areas. From the impact of grazing, the species-rich waterways turn to sagebrush and become depleted of the nutritious, native grasses and forbs. Aspen groves disappear. Many ranchers end up needing to supplement the cattle's sagebrush diet with molasses and missing essential vitamins and nutrients. End result: concentration of manure, soil compaction, and erosion. Everything is wrong. The law of return is broken.

But, the Elzingas ranch differently and I was there to learn first hand about a better way.

Caryl and Glenn Elzinga and family. Photo by Melanie Elzinga.

While most beef cattle are left alone on the range, bringing destruction to the waterways, the cattle at Alderspring Ranch are continuously herded for optimum health of the land.

The Elzingas also sleep out in the rangeland with their cattle! When wolf predation was high, they decided to “inherd,” or live with their cattle, as a peaceful way to coexist with wolves.

Inherding allows for the high intensity, short-duration grazing that we now know benefits the land, and provides an economic boost to a rancher as well (due to higher weight gain and zero predation).

“Sure it requires more work,” admitted Glenn, “but I know it’s the right thing to do.”

Grazing on public ground can be damaging to riparian areas, but not if the cattle are herded to benefit the land. Photo by Melanie Elzinga

The cattle at Alderspring never stand still. They graze as they slowly move, strategically guided by the Elzingas on horseback, across the high elevation sagebrush steppe.

The herd’s continuous movements mimic the impact of the 50-90 million buffalo that once helped to shape the carbon sequestering American grasslands. Surprisingly, there are roughly half the number of cattle harvested each year in the US than there were buffalo!

But the large majority of cattle are mismanaged. The “conventional” methods include tilling the soil to grow heavily sprayed and fertilized grain. Then more fossil fuels are used to ship that grain to feedlots. These grim confinement “farms” are a manure management nightmare and the dust generated is a health hazzard. Some of them are wrongly certified as organic.

We now know that “pulse grazing” of grasslands results in greater carbon sequestration than grasslands left alone. When the top half of grasses are grazed, the base of the grass puts out more young green shoots. Cows also help convert tough and woody plant material into manure – speeding up the nutrient cycles in the soil.

We know it's healthier for humans to eat a diversity of foods. The same is true for cattle (that evolved on diversified grasslands, not monoculture pastures). Photo by Melanie Elzinga
There were twice as many buffalo shaping the American grasslands as there are feedlot cattle today. The buffalo were an important part of an ecological system, whereas the CAFO cattle are destructive to both soil and climate.

The management changes made by the Elzingas have resulted in dramatic ecological benefits. They have also made healthier meat for their customers. We are what we eat and cattle are what they eat too!

While most beef cattle graze monoculture pastures, those at Alderspring Ranch graze “a salad bar” of over 2,500 different plant species.

While most beef cattle “finish” their last 4-6 months eating grain in an over-crowded feedlot, the cattle at Alderspring Ranch live out their entire lives on pasture. (Be aware that even “grass-fed” and most USDA “certified organic” beef cattle “finish” in a CAFO).

Eaters must begin to question the “efficiencies” of modern agriculture. Are they considered “efficient” only because of cheap oil? Are we willing to pay for the external costs down the road?

Farmers and ranchers have already found a better way. But eaters are the ones who drive their systems with the purchases we make every day. The Elzingas couldn't do what they do without us.

What food choices did you make today? As Glenn reminded me, choosing wisely isn't always easy, but it's the right thing to do!

Yours in the dirt,

The Elzingas implemented “inherding” to better control the herd's movement and peacefully coexist with wolves. Photo by Melanie Elzinga.

Linley Dixon
Associate Director / linley@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

“The evidence is clear that CAFO gases and particles pollute neighboring communities and degrade the health and quality of life of residents. Children, the elderly, and people with asthma and allergies are especially susceptible. To make matters worse, CAFOs are disproportionately located in rural areas where people lack political clout – you don’t find CAFOs in country club communities. Rural residents are exploited for the benefit of corporate profits, while the prices of retail animal products (meat, eggs, milk) do not reflect the health and environmental damages caused by CAFOs. In many places CAFOs disproportionately affect people of color and low income – this is environmental injustice.”
– Steve Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Dear USDA – What will it take?

Dear USDA – What will it take?

The Soil Seven were all members of the NOSB in 2017. They understood the meaning of organic and they fought to protect it. They lost.

Most organic farmers do not know what the NOSB is. Most of us don't even know what the NOP is. Huh?

The NOP is the National Organic Program. This is the branch of the USDA that administers the organic certification program for America. They guard and protect the biggest organic market in the world (with over $50 billion in annual sales.) Yowza. That is almost as big as the Cruise Ship industry.

The NOSB is the National Organic Standards Board. This group of fifteen people is selected by the Secretary of Agriculture to advise him or her (well, not yet…) about organic standards.

There are a few things you might want to know. 

The appointments can be very political. The four “Farmer” representatives have sometimes been chosen from mid-level management of multinational corporations. Only in former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack's wildest dreams would Driscoll's employee Carmela Beck be called a “farmer.” And yet that is who he chose to represent us farmers. I'm pretty sure that was not what the authors of the Organic Food Production Act had in mind.

Also, the USDA has not implemented a single NOSB recommendation passed in the last ten years. There have been 20 recommendations passed. None acted on.

Prohibit hydroponics? Require animal welfare? Uh Uh. No way.


The USDA hasn't liked the recommendations. When asked about this at a Congressional hearing, Undersecretary Greg Ibach said he was looking forward to choosing new members of the NOSB.

Oh, dear….That doesn't sound good.

A new dress code for testifying to the NOSB inspired by COVID-19.

This week I gave virtual testimony to the NOSB. Normally, testifying to them involves a long flight, two or three nights in a ridiculously expensive hotel room, getting dressed up and nervously standing at a podium to offer three exciting minutes of testimony to help the board in their deliberations. This is followed and preceded by hours of sometimes stultifying (to me) testimony given by paid lobbyists in suits. They speak on the necessity of some unpronounceable synthetic amendment for food processing or CAFO production of poultry. The podium is roped off from the board to prevent any sudden attempts at a sit-in (following just such an event a few years back). It is reminiscent of a Vermont Town Meeting with attitude. Except that most of the attendees don't get to vote, and the decisions are ignored anyway.

Which is to say, it is an intoxicating blend of excitement and total boredom. Kind of like being the goalkeeper on a soccer team.

Democracy in action. Boredom punctuated by moments of terror.

After the grievous defeat at Jacksonville, I stopped going to NOSB meetings. I was done with the whole mess. I felt the process was so broken as to be beyond repair, and it was time to move on and create a different way of identifying and supporting real organic food.

But a funny thing happened. I changed my mind! Not about the NOP being broken. It is. So much of our government is broken right now. But rather I changed about the process being so broken it could never be repaired.

I have come to believe that we NEED the government to follow us. We need collective action to deal with the real problems of climate change and world peace. In the end, we simply can't do it without the government.

And they can't do it without us.

As Michael Pollan has said, until we can light up the switchboards, we don't have a food movement. We need to build movements so powerful that we can transform government. Huge ask. That is an unlikely goal to reach, but we have little choice if our children and grandchildren are to survive and thrive. We cannot expect government to lead, but we can demand that they follow.

And so people of goodwill must keep trying. That doesn't make us naive. It just makes us unreasonable. Let us celebrate being unreasonable.

The rest of this letter is my three-minute testimony given this week. Fewer than a hundred people heard it at the time, but three organizations have asked for copies. And thousands of you might read this letter, especially if you forward it. Let us build a movement of thousands and then millions. Let us take back organic and save the planet.

Why not?
What happens if we all call at once?

I am Dave Chapman, owner of Long Wind Farm in Vermont. We grow delicious organic greenhouse tomatoes in fertile soil. I am also Director of the Real Organic Project. 

I am speaking today to introduce some of the newer members to the challenges that we all face as an organic community. Most of us speak glowingly about the importance of healthy soil and its critical role in human nutrition and in reversing climate change. These are easy words to say, but the reality of the National Organic Program is going further and further from these words, certifying hydro and CAFOs, and allowing annual spraying of hydro greenhouses with prohibited pesticides. This is not because of the personal beliefs of the Deputy Administrator. It is because of the institutional realities of the USDA. Government is paid for by taxpayers dollars, but it is steered by corporate lobbyists. As a result, the NOP has failed to enact a single NOSB recommendation in ten years.

You are certainly not a group of radicals, and yet your decisions have been too radical for the USDA. Undersecretary Ibach’s publicly stated solution is to pick different members for the NOSB who will be more agreeable with the USDA’s perspective. If they have chosen you with that in mind, I hope that you will disappoint them.

At the moment there are three lawsuits against the USDA concerning issues of organic integrity. These lawsuits are focused on two major issues of animal welfare and the certification of hydroponics. The lawsuits are trying to force the adoption of two recommendations the NOSB has passed. Moderate though they are, if enforced, they would lead to the decertification of three-quarters of the “organic” eggs in America, according to former NOP director Miles McEvoy. They would lead to the decertification of a billion dollars of hydroponic produce, according to the Coalition For Sustainable Organics. That is why they are not being acted on.

The impact of these outcomes makes it likely that these powerful corporations will simply have the law changed if they lose the lawsuits. 

They can do that, and have already done so in the past with the Harvey lawsuit. 

As a community, we are faced with a dilemma. If we accept that organic doesn’t really stand for healthy soil, we participate in its destruction. If we insist that organic must be based on healthy soil, we are accused of “attacking organic.” 

We can’t claim that organic is an alternative to CAFOs, AND simultaneously permit CAFOS to be certified. We can’t claim that organic is based on healthy soil and simultaneously permit hydros to be certified. If we do this, we allow organic to become a nice brand in the marketplace that actually means very little. The Organic label will die a sad death in that mushy indifference.


Real organic farming exists. It is not a myth created by marketers. Protect it or lose it!

Dave Chapman
Executive Director / dave@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

20 years ago, when the whole grass-fed thing started it was considered pretty weird. When we started, our neighbors asked “when are you going to put those in a feedlot” – it was just what you did.

At that point, the few people who were doing this crazy thing were true believers, so grass-fed beef was always really grass-fed. It wasn’t always good – it’s hard to raise consistently good grass-fed beef – but the people were passionate about being stewards of the land. Everyone was really into “animal husbandry.” If you take that word apart it’s related to marriage, and that’s how we feel about our animals: their wellness connects completely with our wellness, and it’s not just about food; it’s also about our psyche. If they aren’t doing well, we aren’t doing well.

Most of the documented health benefits of grass-fed beef are from studies done during this era.

But now enter corporate agriculture, which encourages producers to look at things very mechanistically: a cow is just a thing that produces protein. From that perspective, a feedlot is “good husbandry” because it results in steers that gain weight well, and it produces a high quantity of food. It’s a totally different way of looking at things; you’ve really lost the essence of grass-fed.

-Glenn Elzinga in an interview with PaleoLeap.


How Long Could Your Community Feed Itself?

How Long Could Your Community Feed Itself?

Liz Graznak wanted to farm her own land. But, it took her nearly a decade to make it happen.

Like many first generation farmers, Liz didn’t have access to farmland nor did she have the capital to make a purchase. So, she got a job at a local garden center to save money for a farm.

Six years later, she quit her job as garden center General Manager and started Happy Hollow Farm outside Columbia, Missouri. Happy Hollow Farm is now a well-known organic success story and Liz is a national organic “farmher” hero!

It shouldn’t be so difficult for smart, motivated, landless farmers to get started. Most who try don’t end up acquiring the land and infrastructure needed to build a successful business into the future.

Liz Graznak simultaneously mothering all her babies (tomatoes included)!

Covid-19 has reminded us that building strong local food systems are about more than supporting a hardworking young farmer. They’re the cornerstone to resilience. Sometimes the trucks delivering our industrial food simply don’t show up. Sometimes people hoard the food when headlines report uncertainty. Sometimes large supply chains get contaminated, or entire work forces get sick. The Smithfield pork processing facility in Sioux Falls has 3,700 workers and is the source of a covid-19 outbreak. We are experiencing major disruptions in portions of our food supply.

Covid-19 has shown us there will be times when local farms might be our only source of food. It’s not a matter of “If it will happen”, but “When”?

A Happy Hollow Farm eclipse celebration in 2017. We need strong communities now more than ever.

And just as we have made this realization, even a successful local organic farm like Happy Hollow is vulnerable. They have lost restaurant accounts and sales are down at the Columbia Farmers Market. Liz has adapted by increasing her CSA subscriptions, but that involves a shift in production and a committed local community.

While adaptable local farmers are racing to create new sales models, even their best efforts may not make up for lost sales. Eaters must also adapt to the new outlets farmers are creating to distribute local food. Please don’t take the existence of your local farmers for granted. We are a very vulnerable group, operating on extremely tight margins.

Covid-19 begs the question: If global supply chains were disrupted, how long could your community feed itself?

Local abundance at Happy Hollow's farm stand at the Columbia Farmers Market in Missouri.

Linley Dixon
Associate Director / linley@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

“The work of a human is to discover the answer to the question:
“What does the earth ask of us?'”

“She asks us by modeling generosity for sure. She asks us through the consequences of our failures and through the many examples of our non-human teachers, helping us imagine how it is that we might live.”

  • Robin Wall Kimmerer

Which Came First- The Organic Chicken or the Organic CAFO?

Which Came First- The Organic Chicken Or The Organic CAFO?

Which Came First- The Organic Chicken Or The Organic CAFO?

That's an easy one. The Organic Chicken came first. 

The Organic Chicken has been around for thousands of years, long before the word “Organic” was used. These chickens explored outside, hunted and pecked, scratched and rolled, and flapped their wings. They were curious and social. They lived in close association with human beings.

In this third letter taking a hard look at the bitter legal battles with the USDA since the beginning of the National Organic Program, we look at chickens. Oh, dear!

Real Organic chickens on pasture, where a chicken can be a chicken.

We have an idea of when the Organic chicken CAFO came.

In 2002.

That is the date of the battle between The Country Hen and their certifier, Massachusetts Independent Certification Inc. (operating as NOFA Mass Organic Certification). MICI was founded in the 1980s. 2002 was the first year of USDA certification, and MICI was in the process of separating (in the friendliest way) from NOFA MASS to become an independent certifier. MICI renamed themselves Baystate Organic Certifiers in 2003. That is how I will refer to them in this letter.

The Country Hen came to Baystate for certification. They were turned down because their chickens didn’t get outdoor access. It was a simple (though painful) decision. It was painful because The Country Hen would have been the certifying agency’s biggest client. But the Baystate certification committee felt there was no way that the chicken CAFO could qualify. Outdoor access was clearly required by law. Baystate issued a Denial of Certification for The Country Hen.

The Country Hen appealed to the National Organic Program, saying that they were PLANNING to give outdoor access sometime soon when they built the first of their “chicken porches”.

One day later, Bay State got word from the USDA that they MUST grant certification to The Country Hen. The Baystate denial of certification was overturned in the fastest decision in USDA history. For the better part of a year after that, The Country Hen sold their eggs as being certified by Baystate (MICI) when, in fact, they were not. 

Baystate continued to refuse to certify them, despite the USDA decision.

“The porches are nonsense. The USDA allowed this ridiculous decision. We got railroaded by the NOP. Our whole organization decided it wasn’t right, and we weren’t going to allow it. We won’t certify a chicken facility that does not allow all of its birds access to the outdoors.  Every poultry operation we certify has their birds outside.

  • Don Franczyk, Director of Bay State Organics
Idalou Egg Ranch in Texas is certified organic by CCOF, without providing hens real outdoor access.

There are many more sad details that I won’t go into. But the big take-home message is that this action set the precedent for allowing “chicken porches” to substitute for “outdoor access” in the USDA organic certification. A chicken porch is a part of a hen facility where a solid wall has been replaced by a mesh screen. It is a screened room visited by a small percent of the chickens in the facility.

As Jesse Laflamme of Pete and Gerry's eggs has said, “They tacked a little tiny porch on the side of them, where a fraction of a fraction of the hens might be able to go out at one time, if they could actually find their way to it.”

American agriculture has embraced confinement livestock raising. This means that animals are confined in large numbers in a small area. They stand around and are fed grain. These are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. I call them animal detention centers. 

Even human detention centers in America give outdoor access.

“Inmates’ right to engage in outdoor exercise is clearly established under the law, and this right applies even when inmates are housed in solitary confinement. Indeed, courts have held that the right to outdoor exercise is a virtual necessity when inmates are kept in continuous segregation.”
     – American Psychological Association

A third of the diet of a chicken can come from pasture and insects, making a more nutritious egg or meat.

A third of the diet of a chicken can come from pasture and insects, making a more nutritious egg or meat.CAFOs are not a rarity in American agriculture. Jonathan Saffron Foer has said, “99.9% of the animals that we eat in America come from factory farms, whose mission is to remove farmers, and to remove nature, from farming.”

Oh, and did I mention the climate? CAFOs are a major cause of climate disaster.
CAFOs are not nice places. But they are profitable.
The owners can make money, but the animals, workers, and eaters pay the price. The animals lead abused lives. The workers work in a dangerous place for very low wages. The eaters get nutritionally inferior food.


Jonathan Safran Foer, author of We Are The Weather.

“There are twenty-three billion chickens living on Earth at any given time. Their combined mass is greater than that of all other birds on our planet. Humans eat sixty-five billion chickens per year.”

“We do not know for sure if animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change or the leading cause of climate change.”

“We know for sure that we cannot address climate change without addressing animal agriculture.”

-Jonathan Safran Foer in We Are The Weather.

Michael Pollan at a panel discussion called “In Defense Of Food.”

“We are addicted to cheap food. And the pressures to make food as cheap as possible are just fierce in this country. And that is the reason that we exploit farmworkers and that is the reason that meat animals are treated the way they are treated, and down the line….Food is not ‘cheap.’ It’s dishonestly priced because it assumes undocumented workers being exploited, and it assumes animal abuse.”

-Michael Pollan in a public conversation with Kathleen Merrigan

The first “certified organic” operation to substitute “chicken porches” for outdoor access.

“The products all lie. There are images of farms and pastoral images on the packages that really are coming from feed lots. When the system gets this long and this opague, its very hard to know what kind of system you are supporting, and consumers are deeply confused.”

-Michael Pollan in his talk “Deep Agriculture.”

That is, unless the products coming out of a pasture-based system can be recognized by consumers. Informed people don’t want to buy food coming from CAFOs. Yes, many will pay more for better food, less cruelty, less worker abuse, less climate disaster.

Until now, those people have turned to the organic label to find such food. Are they getting what they are being promised?

Certified organic chickens at The Country Hen in Massachusetts.

The National Organic Program (NOP) regulations state that: “Year-round access for ALL animals to the OUTDOORS, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and DIRECT sunlight, suitable to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment.” 

They go on to require: “Continuous total confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited.”

Of all the ways in which the USDA has degraded the organic label, chicken CAFOs might be the worst. At this time, chicken confinement facilities with up to a million birds are being certified as organic. Apparently, the defining characteristic that makes them “organic” is the feeding of “USDA Certified Organic” grain. Much of that “organic” grain is imported from Turkey or South America, and its “organicness” is dubious, at best. These birds get no actual outside access.

How have we wandered so far?

And real organic is much more than substituting one input for another. It is a system that embraces biological complexity in order to gain biological stability and nutritional quality.

If there is one thing that everyone in the organic community agrees on, it is that eggs from large CAFOs are not organic. And yet over 75% of the USDA certified organic eggs sold in America come from these large confinement operations.

The only so-called “members of the organic community” who advocate for such CAFOs are the CAFO owners. Well, and the Coalition For Sustainable Organics, one of two major lobbyists for hydros.

What is the hydroponic lobby doing in a partnership with the chicken CAFOs? This started when Coalition leader Theo Crisantes testified for the hydroponic producers to the Senate Ag Committee. Crisantes' testimony disparaged the NOSB for concerning itself with “outlier issues” like the chicken porches. These are not outlier issues. These outlier issues are how a billion-dollar poultry industry is (poorly) regulated.

There is no disagreement in the organic community about CAFOs. They are not organic.

Calvinball cartoon. They just make the rules up as they go.

And so, the entire organic movement worked very hard for over a decade to reform the National Organic Program on chickens. We spent years to achieve a compromise called the “Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices” (OLPP) rule. I will just call it the Organic Animal Welfare reform. After the NOSB passed their recommendation on to the NOP, the NOP labored and finally passed it on to the USDA, which labored and labored.

The Organic Animal Welfare reform was opposed in Congress by a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Ag committee. How often do Pat Roberts and Mitch McConnell agree with Debbie Stabenow in defining organic? They all signed a letter calling for a stop to the OLPP. And how did they get the right to define organic for the world? And why would we give them that right?

The USDA  finally approved the Organic Animal Welfare reform (OLPP) in the last days of the Obama administration. 

And on the first day of the Trump administration, his new USDA pulled it for further study.

Four months later, the OLPP was completely rejected.

“But this latest USDA decision codifies the big rift between the majority of certified organic producers, who follow the spirit of the law, and the fewer, much larger producers who seek to gain market advantage, primarily by continuously confining animals that are required by law to have outdoor access. The USDA’s ruling preserves the status quo, and fails to establish the USDA Organic label as the “gold standard” for organics that OLPP promised.”

    – Civil Eats

There are now two lawsuits against the USDA. One from the National Organic Coalition and one from the Organic Trade Association. Both are trying to force the USDA to implement the Organic Animal Welfare reform. Perhaps we will win in court, but if the past is any indication, we will face an uphill battle in Congress afterward. Congress tends to simply change the law when such upsets happen. Or the USDA simply stalls and drags their feet on implementation for years and years.

We try to bring about USDA reform, but we seem to be blocked at every turn. That is why the Real Organic Project exists. We are the organic movement.

Dave Chapman
Executive Director / dave@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

Chickens on Nick's Organic Farm in Maryland.

Please join the Real Organic Project today to create a system you can trust.

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“The basic aim of a democratic regime is to curb the use of arbitrary powers–especially of government and economic institutions–against its citizens.” – Cornel West in Race Matters.