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Real Organic Project Pilot Farm growing blueberries in soil

USDA Organic Now Allows Herbicides

USDA Organic Now Allows Herbicides

A few weeks ago I got to ask an important question of Jennifer Tucker, the head of the National Organic Program (NOP).

“I have received reports from both Florida and California of hydroponic berry operations that are spraying herbicide, immediately covering the ground with plastic, putting pots down and then getting certified the next week.”

“And my question is, if that were true, is that permitted by the National Organic Program?”

We were at the end of a turbulent meeting with Jenny and about twenty farmers from the Organic Farmers Association. Some of the farmers had spoken passionately about the need for the NOP to end the lack of enforcement of the Pasture Rule and to finalize the Origin of Livestock Rule for dairy animals.

Many of us did not feel that our concerns were being addressed in a meaningful way.

Hydroponic operations use containers and soil-less media such as peat moss, wood chips, or coco coir to hold plant roots fed liquid fertilizers.

I have been hearing for months that glyphosate is being sprayed on fields about to be certified organic for hydroponic berry production. The way this use of herbicide is incorporated into “organic” certification is to laser level a field, compact it until it is like a parking lot, wait a little while until the weeds (that always follow disturbed soil) have germinated. And then spray it with an herbicide. They are doing this in California and Florida. The weeds in Florida are fierce, and can grow straight through the black plastic. Weed control in organic blueberry production is the biggest challenge. Being able to spray glyphosate and still sell it as organic is an enormous economic advantage.

Shouldn’t we all want to get to the bottom of this story?

Unfortunately, the NOP does not have a great track record dealing with formal complaints. The results of their investigation of Aurora Dairy were not inspiring. That complaint appears to have been summarily dismissed with little attempt to learn the truth.

As a result, real organic farmers are going out of business, and their farm products are ever less available to customers who THINK that is what they are buying when they pay extra for “certified organic.” There are real consequences for all of us from these failures.

So, is the use of herbicides in hydro such a big deal if it IS happening?

Yes, it is a big deal. It is happening on a large scale. It is an unfair advantage to soil growers who manage weeds organically. The Florida berry industry is changing overnight. As predicted, organic blueberry production is now being dominated by hydroponic facilities. One producer made an advertising video to show how they produce berries. We have to at least appreciate they are being transparent about what they are doing.

Click here to see this 20-acre hydro operation.

Hydroponic operations use containers and soil-less media such as peat moss, wood chips, or coco coir to hold plant roots fed liquid fertilizers.

A much larger operation sells under a brand called Hippie Organics. One of its facilities is described in this article. They made this clever advertising video that is not so forthcoming about their hydroponic practices. To this old hippie, they appear to be neither hippies nor what I would call organic. But they are certainly certified as organic by the NOP. I know of high quality organic blueberry soil growers now struggling to find shelf space. They are being put out of business.

The world is changing, and it is changing fast. Once again, the soil farmers are being pushed out of the market by a tidal wave of cheap product. Once again people will go out of business who are growing exactly what customers WANT to buy. Once again, we lose our choices in the stores. Once again we are misled. Once again the USDA fails us.

ydroponic berries growing on acres of black plastic.
The compacted, sprayed soil serves as a porous table underneath.

So back to my question for Jenny Tucker.

Would she say that spraying with herbicides the week before being certified is allowed?

Jenny said that the challenge from a regulatory perspective is, “The plant itself is not being exposed to prohibited substances.” She talked about the requirement to maintain or improve the environmental quality of an operation, and about what is that doing on a site-specific basis? “Is it actually maintaining or improving the natural resources of an operation?”


Jenny said those would be the kind site-specific questions that one would ask. She said she has to look at it through the eyes of a lawyer. She doesn’t like thinking like a lawyer, but she has been learning to do it more often.

I asked, “So there’s no obvious answer that spraying with herbicides just before certification is NOT allowed?”

Jenny replied, “Correct. Yeah, I hate to say that, but there really isn’t.”

Leaves that fall from the plants don’t become part of the organic matter that cycles back to feed the perennial plant. There’s a plastic barrier to the earthworms that would have done this work. Hydroponic plants are tossed after a few years of production, whereas soil-grown blueberries give high yields for 20 years or more. Consider the waste in this hydroponic system. How much bleach is used to clean the pots? Are the pots even reused? There are no standards for this system.

So, if I understood Jenny, there is no reason to gather evidence and file a complaint.


This is in keeping with what growers are being told in Florida by some certifiers. This is in keeping with what the National Organic Coalition has been told by the NOP. “There is no transition time for hydroponics.” The pots of coco husks are the “organic farm.” Or the tubes of water. Or whatever….

I would add that the use of herbicides is the smoking gun for “organic hydroponics.” However, nothing about allowing hydroponic to be labeled as organic makes sense. If you accept the idea that a system of growing food totally based on inputs and totally divorced from a soil ecosystem could be called organic, then the use of herbicides is just another small step. But we don’t accept that idea in the first place.


Jenny Tucker said at the 2019 Global Organic Produce Expo said, “Last year we issued an Organic Insider (e-mail newsletter) that indicated that hydroponics had been allowed since the beginning of the program and that (they) are still allowed,” Tucker said in response to a question from the audience. “We consider that a settled issue.”

Jenny was generous enough to meet privately with me after the OFA meeting. We had a long conversation. I told her I would never attack her personally. But I said I would continue to hold her publicly accountable for her words and actions.

Jenny has been quoted at a number of events as saying that hydroponics is a settled issue.

It is not settled.

It is possible that it is settled for the USDA. But certifying hydro as organic is NOT settled for the millions of people who spend their money to buy organic. It is not settled for the EU, Canada, or Mexico, all of whom prohibit hydro from certification. It was not settled for the farmers from the Organic Farmers Association that had just met with her.

The cognitive dissonance between the USDA and the rest of the world is enough to make the room shake. The USDA is desperately clinging to the conceit that THEY have the power and the right to define organic as whatever they say it is, regardless of history, biology, ecology, the law, or the American people.

USDA Organic is a voluntary program. It was idealistically created to PROTECT farmers and eaters from fraud. Now it is supporting the very fraud it was meant to be preventing. And the USDA makes clear they have no intention of changing, regardless of what we, the people, think.

True champion of organic agriculture Senator Patrick Leahy with Real Organic Project Executive Director and farmer, Dave Chapman.

Last night I got to meet with Senator Pat Leahy. The Senator was the co-sponsor of the Organic Food Production Act that is the legal basis of the National Organic Program. That is the law that is now being ignored by the USDA. It is the law that is being cited in three pending lawsuits against the USDA. The Senator and I talked about the terrible problems of the current NOP. His anger over the failures of the organic program that he helped create was apparent. I mention this meeting with Leahy so that we can remember that we have MANY friends. We are not alone. We might not win. But perhaps more important than winning a single regulatory victory is that we build a community that will work together to support the things that we believe in. There are millions of us. Together we can make changes.

The Real Organic Project will continue to work to create more honest ways for people to find and buy the food they want from the farmers they want to support. Please join us in creating an add-on label that will more clearly identify the organic food that so many people want. None of this is going to be easy. Protect organic. Support real organic.

Please share this letter to friends who might care.


organic fruits and vegetables in back of pick up truck

The Truth About Real Organic Food In The Supply Chain

The Truth About Real Organic Food In The Supply Chain

If you haven’t watched the previous Real Organic Project symposium speeches, get busy because we have released three more for you! Highly respected, long-time organic farmers came together to tell eaters that the organic marketplace is changing fast.

They explained that eaters are losing the choice to support better products because those products simply can’t find their way to the shelves.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping speech came from Alan Lewis of Natural Grocers. Alan explained why it has become virtually impossible to find local, seasonal organic produce on the shelves of natural food grocery stores. He explained how the system is biased toward large scale corporations, aggregated buying, and aggregated production.

The system is designed to source ONLY from year-round suppliers that produce in quantities that can fill hundreds of grocery shelves across the country. Consolidation of distributors allows them to maximize profits by cutting deals with the largest growers to bring in product by the truck load. The product that ultimately wins the coveted shelf space is the one that is cheapest for the natural food distributor.

The cheapest, highest volume product is often the ONLY product that can be found in the store. Gone are the days when the local organic farmer could knock on the back door of the store and sell their carrots.

What appears as choice in the marketplace is really the option to buy from one industrial monoculture or another.

The trouble is that natural systems have trouble conforming to the efficiencies of capitalism. Nature abhors a monoculture.

Alan’s sobering talk contrasts with the hope that author Anne Bikle brings, reminding us that healthy soils create healthy people. She takes us into the awe-inspiring rhizosphere where the plant microbiome resides. Here the linkage between food and farming and health is obvious.

No chemical slurry exists that can think like a root microbiome!

Finally, my speech explains what all Real Organic Project farms have in common: farmer integrity. Real Organic farmers have a deep desire to do right by the planet and their communities. While the NOP has many problems and may be beyond redemption, the Organic Foods Production Act is a good law and there are thousands of great organic farmers across the country. They need our support. We need to be able to find their products on the shelves!

The Real Organic Project is a tool to bring us together in spite of the corporate forces pulling us apart.

Give yourself a treat, brew a cup of tea, and watch these powerful talks. The craziness of the growing season hasn’t hit just yet!

Please forward this email if these talks move you to action. Thank you for joining the discussion.

Yours in the dirt,

Enid Wonnacott marches at an early rally for Keeping the Soil in USDA organic.

To Enid With Gratitude

This week we are releasing three more recordings from the Dartmouth Symposium. Click here to view our interview with Enid Wonnacott. Enid died this winter after serving for many years as the Executive Director of NOFA VT. This was recorded at the NOFA Summer Conference in 2018. Enid was being interviewed by Lisa Stokke for the Real Organic Project. I was sitting right next to Enid as she talked. She knew that her cancer had returned and her time with us was probably short. It is a very touching conversation with Enid in the last year of her life.

Enid Wonnacott NOFA VT Executive Director

Enid shaped NOFA VT and NOFA VT shaped Enid. I remember her as the young woman who came to lead our young organization so many years ago. Enid was bright and creative, but it was her generous heart that made her important to so many lives.

young Enid Wonnacott during her beginnings at NOFA VT

When Davey Miskell and I first discovered the hydroponic invasion of organic, we turned to Enid. She set up a meeting at the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture’s office with Chuck Ross, NOSB member Jean Richardson, Davey, Enid, and me. That meeting was the beginning of the movement to Keep The Soil In Organic, and marked our first halting steps into political organizing to reform the National Organic Program.

Enid Wonnacott addresses the crowd at a speaking event

As Keep The Soil organized rallies and petitions, Enid spoke at three of those rallies. She was our constant champion, showing our last-minute rally videos for two years at the plenary session of the Winter Conference. Despite every minute already being spoken for, Enid said she would fit it in somehow, and she did.

Enid Wonnacott and Senator Patrick Leahy at a Keep the Soil In Organic rally

When we came back from the Jacksonville NOSB meeting, we were stunned and defeated. So many had traveled to Florida, only to be told we were wrong about what organic really stood for. A few weeks later, Enid offered the NOFA headquarters for the impromptu meeting of farmers that was the starting point for the Real Organic Project.

So on top of all the other reasons we have to be grateful for having Enid in our lives, her real contribution to the Real Organic Project is yet another. Enid was always concerned that taking a public stand of opposition on every issue might damage the reputation of organic. I once asked her if she thought that that the hydro invasion was such a case, and she said no, on this we must stand.

I am adding two other videos from the Symposium. Click here to see the talk of Texas farmer Cameron Molberg. His Greener Pastures is one of our pilot farms. His talk shows the stark contrast between a real organic, pasture-based, chicken farm and the CAFO detention camps that are now the standard in certified organic egg production. Cameron also serves on the ROP Standards Board. Cameron knows what he is talking about.

Finally, click here to see the talk given by Paul Muller. Paul is a great organic farmer and also a great leader of our movement. His talk celebrates the constantly evolving soil and human community at Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California. Paul serves on our Standards Board and our Development Task Force.

Paul Muller of California's Full Belly Farm at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March of 2019

Please watch these talks! They are powerful and important. They are interesting. If you can afford to, support them by making a contribution. If they touch you, share this letter with as many friends as possible.



the crowd listens to speakers at the Real Organic Project Symposium 2019

The Organic Community Gathered at Dartmouth

Last week some 200 people gathered at Dartmouth College to participate in the Real Organic Project Symposium. A third of them were organic farmers from all over the country. This group included many of the same farmers who traveled to Florida in 2017 to testify to the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board). They demanded that the NOSB once again vote to prohibit hydronic as organic. The NOSB failed us in Florida, but we had a resounding success in New Hampshire.

Five of the NOSB Soil Seven were at the symposium. The Soil Seven were the NOSB members who courageously voted to reject hydroponics as organic. Three of them spoke at the symposium. The audience had a number of current and former NOSB members. And it also had many organic farmers. We must never forget that most of the certified organic farms in the US are real organic.

The subject of the day was the reclamation of organic.

It was a celebration.

Farmer and NOSB chairperson Harriet Behar presenting at the ROP Symposium
Farmer and NOSB chairperson Harriet Behar presenting.

No one who attended the symposium left unchanged. From morning until late afternoon, speaker after speaker told their stories of success and failure, always connected by hope, if not always by optimism. The speakers laid out the principles of real organic farming and gave wonderful demonstrations of what that looks like on actual farms.

Jean-Paul Courtens speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium
Farmers Paul Muller (Full Belly Farm), Emily Oakley (Three Springs Farm and NOSB), UNH Professor Dave Mortensen (NOSB), and ROP executive director Dave Chapman listen to biodynamic pioneer Jean-Paul Courtens, founder of Roxbury Farm. All four presented talks.

They also revealed how far the National Organic Program (NOP) has fallen. The NOP now embraces both enormous CAFO livestock facilities and soilless hydroponic production covering hundreds of acres with black plastic mulch and soilless pots. Perhaps most disturbing was seeing how the real organic crops are being relentlessly pushed out of the marketplace, so that eaters are losing the choice of real organic food grown in healthy soil.

Alan Lewis of Natural Grocer's speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium
Alan Lewis gave a chilling explanation of how the wholesale market works, keeping out so many family farms.

Over and over we heard about the loss of choice. This was not a story about the triumph of competition, but rather about the triumph of fraud and influence. Real competition is being lost. Eaters are mostly unaware that they are losing anything. But inexorably, the market is being taken over by enormous producers who represent themselves as the very farms they are driving out of business.

And what happens when the eaters find out what is happening? What happens to the “organic brand” then?

Onika Abraham speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium
Onika Abraham spoke of the need to build the diversity of the community as well as of the soil. We are all part of one food system.

The world is changing. We can’t be passive observers. It is our world. It is our government. It is our choice, if we will only make it.

Many of you have asked to see the talks. We will release videos of the talks as quickly as we can. We are starting in this letter by offering Eliot Coleman’s keynote address. Eliot was unable to attend the symposium, as he had a setback in recovering from knee surgery. But his daughter, Clara, filmed him giving his talk at home that morning and drove to the public library to upload it to the internet. Rural Maine is like that! The whole thing worked brilliantly, and at the end of the day, Eliot spoke to us from a giant screen, hovering over us like the Wizard of Oz.

Eliot said in his talk that our survival is based on 6 inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. The continuation of both topsoil and rain is based on sane agriculture.

The other talk we are posting in this letter is given by me (Dave Chapman). This was my wrap-up at the end of the day, trying to tie together the fourteen talks given before me. It is a brief summation of the painful failures and a road map of the coming victories. The Real Organic Project is unstoppable because it provides what so many eaters want. We ARE the organic movement.

Organic sales are continuing to grow for the best of reasons. It is NOT because of advertising. It is because people want to eat good food. They want to avoid eating poisons. They want food that tastes good and is nutritious. They want to support small farms that provide meaningful jobs and that help to build rural communities. They want to support healthy working conditions on those farms. They want to support farmers who are genuinely motivated by a desire to do good things for our planet. They want to support agriculture that takes carbon from the air and returns it to the soil. They want to support agriculture that helps to heal the water cycle and cool the planet. They want to be part of a food system that provides meaningful markets to small family farms all over the world.

We recreate the world every day. As David Bronner has said, we are all farmers. Our farms are our plates. What we choose to put on our plates will decide how food is grown, how carbon is sequestered, how mother earth is cooled.

All of these things are what the best of organic farming represents. People are completely right in thinking that this is what organic has always meant. We want to embrace those aspirations and provide integrity and transparency so that eaters’ dollars are actually supporting that kind of farming. We are not building a brand. We are building a community.

In the two days before the symposium, some 27 people attended the annual meeting of the ROP standards board. The first day 17 of us hashed out the changes to the standards, based on the lessons we learned in our pilot year. The second day was a large and rich conversation on questions of scale and soil fertility. It will take us a while to unpack all this, but we hope to post excerpts from those conversations on an upcoming blog. Please stay tuned.

Please share this letter. Many of our supporters miss the updates due to getting lost in the “promotions” mailbox. Forward this letter to your friends and customers so that we can all learn how to move forward together. It is so easy, and it makes such a big difference.



Dear Sonny Perdue – Do Better!

“We’ve got this tradition all throughout agricultural history in North America of having to step up at different times to counter these corporate interests that want to take land, take water, take our resources, take our markets… And when needed, farmers come together. And this seems to be one of those times,” begins Real Organic Project farmer, Dan Hobbs.

Dan and Nanna of Hobbs & Meyer Farms in Avondale, Colorado grow heritage grains, garlic, pepper and seeds adapted to the arid Southwest. For them, the organic label has been invaluable. They sell their heirloom seed to National seed companies and their produce to big chains such as Whole Foods and Natural Grocers.

hobbs and meyer farm know your farmer video link
Dan Hobbs works with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union to build a local food revolution by strengthening communities around “food hubs”.

Hobbs and Meyer irrigate their high mineral Arkansas River Valley soils deeply every 10 days. This increases the drought tolerance of the seed and “teaches these plants to work for a living.” Dan works to regionally adapt open-pollinated seed and conserve the genetic biodiversity of food crops. His work increases our resilience in a changing climate.

Sharing his skills and knowledge is a big part of why Dan farms. He works for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union in the winter to help develop local co-operative distribution systems around the state so that the many young farmers that want to farm can succeed.

“I have seen more farmers come and go than I have fingers and toes,” said a farmer from Southwest Farm Fresh, one of the distribution hubs that Dan has helped get up and running. “And it’s not because they can’t grow,” referring to the challenge of securing markets.

raining young farmers at Hobbs & Meyer Farms in Colorado
Training young farmers at Hobbs & Meyer Farms in Colorado.

The organic label is crucial to the success of farms across rural America that are isolated from the people who want to support them. But, these organic farmers are losing their markets to fraudulent organic grain imports, or hydroponic or confined livestock operations that have used their financial influence to get certified. These operations figured out that it was easier to lobby for changes in the meaning of USDA organic, instead of actually farming organically!

To be clear, the USDA organic law is mostly good. It is USDA enforcement that is lacking. But, to walk away from organic would be leaving rural farms (that depend on USDA Organic for marketing) to struggle.

So we must work to protect it.

Organic farmers across the country emailed USDA Secretary Perdue this week to tell him to implement and enforce the Origin of Livestock Rule. Confinement diaries have been using loopholes to continuously convert conventional cattle to organic production rather than keep their own organic calves as replacements. The Real Organic Project’s standards eliminate these Origin of Livestock loopholes. Dairies that are continuously bringing in conventional cows, and the certifiers allowing them to do this, are creating a significant financial disadvantage to the organic dairies following the current organic rules.

Now we are asking the USDA to follow the Real Organic Project’s example.

The National Organic Coalition took this issue to the organic farmers of America. We support them in this effort. Below is the letter Dave wrote asking Secretary Perdue to “Do Better”!

Dear Secretary Perdue,

The USDA in the organic dairy and poultry sectors are not only leading to great economic hardship for the real organic farmers of America. They are also misleading the eaters of America, thus destroying consumer confidence in the USDA organic seal. The very reason for the creation of the NOP was to ensure integrity and transparency in the organic market. You are failing! Please work to quickly resolve these issues. Government doesn’t NEED to fail. Do Better.

Dave Chapman,
Executive Director
Real Organic Project
East Thetford, VT 05043

You can send your own letter to Secretary Perdue and copy these email addresses:


We are powerful when we all come together around the issues that we hold in common.
Thank you for joining us.

Yours in the dirt,


2019 EcoFarm conference graphic Resilience is Fertile

EcoFarm 2019: As The Community Gathers, Resilience Is Fertile

I attended my first EcoFarm Conference last week. I was invited to talk about the Real Organic Project. It was a long trip, and I wondered how I would be received. California has been the epicenter of support for certifying hydro as organic. The last time I was in California I was attending the USDA Hydroponic Task Force meeting in San Diego, where the hydro proponents outnumbered the soil advocates two to one. How strange to have soil advocates as a minority in a discussion about the meaning of organic.

The three organizations that pushed hydroponics through the USDA are strong in California. They are CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), OTA (Organic Trade Association), and the Coalition For Sustainable Organics (created for the sole purpose of promoting hydro in organic). The common thread between these three organizations is Driscoll’s. Most dismaying of these three was CCOF, which had always been highly respected in the Northeast. Seven years ago they were even heroes to us. When they came out in support of certifying hydro, it broke our hearts. How could this be?

Telling a friend that I might get a hostile reception at EcoFarm, I said I might get stoned. He replied, “Only if you inhale.”

Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm in California
Paul Muller from Full Belly Farm presented with me on the Real Organic Project.

So it was with some trepidation that I traveled to the EcoFarm conference. My workshop was shared with Paul Muller from Full Belly Farm. Paul is a personal hero for his wonderful pioneering farm and his years of advocacy for organic farming. But beyond that, he is a kind and articulate visionary about a saner agriculture in a troubled world. He is also a member of the ROP Standards Board. When I was invited to speak, I said I would if Paul would join me.

Our workshop was very well attended and very well received. I did the sometimes bitter work of sharing how the NOP has been lost to us, and Paul had the uplifting task of reminding the audience why soil is the foundation of organic, why it matters, and why we need it. I always draw the short straw!

I spoke about the failures of the National Organic Program, both in hydros and CAFOs. This is a painful subject for most of us, but one that must be understood. After working so long to build the organic movement, we are seeing it change before our eyes as USDA is successfully redefining what “organic” means in certification. This is the reason that Real Organic Project was formed. I will soon try to film a summary of the talk I gave to share with all of you.

Organic Farmer Steve Sprinkel at Market
Real Organic Project supporter Steve Sprinkel

But while hearing my talk was upsetting, attending EcoFarm was definitely not. EcoFarm was inspiring. It is an amazing gathering of youngers and elders on the Monterey Peninsula. I got to meet so many who have written to me over the last six years. Ranging from long conversations to brief hellos, I got to talk with JM Fortier, Bob Scowcroft, Amigo Bob, Tom Willy, Steve Sprinkel, Lisa Bunin, Katrina Frey, Vernon Peterson, Grant Brians, Andrew Brait, Dru Rivers, Judith Redmond, Steve Beck, Stephanie & Blake Alexandre, Albert Straus, Bob McGee, Phil LaRocca, Laura Batcha, Kelly Damewood, and so many more. I heard a great keynote from Kris Nichols and John Reganold, two of the soil scientists I interviewed for the USDA Task Force. Kris now serves on the ROP Advisory Board.

Many of these people expressed strong support for ROP. A few expressed strong opposition. These were lively discussions. I did as much listening as I did talking. I thank everyone who took the time (often for hours!) to share with me.

Beautiful winding field of organic kale
he conference included a myriad of workshops on cover cropping, soil health, politics, policy, agricultural justice, and so much more.

Paul also sat on a panel the next day to present ROP to an even larger crowd. He spoke along with Elizabeth Whitlow, ED of ROC, speaking about the Regenerative Organic Certification and Laura Batcha, ED of OTA, talking about the option of sticking with basic USDA certification. Kelly Damewood, the new ED of CCOF, moderated the discussion. It was an important and respectful conversation.

After each of these workshops, farmers came to me and signed up for the ROP add-on label. It was very exciting. Many of those I talked with were members, board members (both current or former), or staff of CCOF. I saw that the “hydro position” of CCOF was quite far from representing a solid majority of the members. This is a swirling debate that many members are only learning about just now. People at the workshop came in informed about organic. They knew what the NOP, the NOSB, and OTA were. But they certainly didn’t know the facts of what has happened in the USDA, and they didn’t know the extent of the invasion by hydro into the organic market. It’s like a pernicious weed that suddenly explodes, except that with hydro, you can’t see the weed. There is no way to tell by looking whether berries or vegetables are grown in soil, although we can often tell by tasting. But invisible as they might be, hydro and CAFOs are changing the National Organic Program in a profound way.

And of course, the CAFO invasion was just as big a topic of conversation. USDA failure in rejecting CAFOs is on an even bigger scale than the hydroponic invasion.

Organic farmer Judith Redmond in her fields
Judith Redmond serves on the Governing Council of the Organic Farmers Association.

A third workshop that I attended was about the Organic Farmers Association. I am on the OFA Policy Committee. OFA is intended to represent organic farmers in Washington. Governing Council member Judith Redmond led a lively discussion at the meeting about the challenges facing organic. I stood up to speak about the opportunities that organic farmers also have. I pointed out that the box manufacturing industry in America has greater gross sales than the professional sports industry, but pro sports has a much greater impact on our culture. When Colin Kaepernick kneels, it is a much bigger deal than when the CEO of the biggest box manufacturer gives a protest. I suggested that the same is true for organic farmers. We have a large impact. We are offered an enormous microphone if we will only pick it up and speak into it. People really do want to hear what we have to say.

2019 EcoFarm conference graphic Resilience is Fertile

So I learned that resistance is not futile. Or, as EcoFarm proclaimed, “Resilience Is Fertile.” When the farmers and eaters start talking, the world changes.

The primary mission of the Real Organic Project is education and connection. It is our goal to bring together a vibrant community of 3 million people who understand what organic means, and who care enough to support it. We believe that these 3 million people already exist, but they are scattered, confused, and disorganized, and so they lack power. Because they are isolated, they are easily ignored, overwhelmed, or misled. It is our goal to bring them together.

Francis Thicke and Linley Dixon of the Real Organic Project pose at Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa
ROP Standards Board chair Francis Thicke and ROP Associate Director Linley Dixon both spoke this week on the Real Organic Project.

To that end, this has been a very busy winter for the Real Organic Project. Board members have presented in workshops at NOFA MA, NOFA NY, Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers, The Great Plains Conference, Southern SAWG, Northern Plains Sustainable Ag, the Oxford Real Farming Conference, and EcoFarm. Coming up are MOSES, NOFA VT, PASA, and the NOFA NJ annual meeting. And these are only the workshops that are specifically addressing ROP. Our board members are giving many more workshops on organic farming around the country.

aerial view of egg CAFO
This egg CAFO is certified. But is it real organic? Photo courtesy of Cornucopia Institute.

One conversation from EcoFarm I want to explore. A highly respected organic dairy farmer asked me, “Does a Real Organic label mean that I’m not real organic?”

My answer is no, of course not. But nor does a USDA Organic label mean that you ARE real organic. Nor does the absence of the USDA Organic label mean that you are NOT real organic. This is the dilemma that we all face.

There are some farms being certified by USDA that only the farm owners, their mothers, and the USDA would consider organic. And there are some inspirational organic farms who have chosen not to get USDA certification.

Just to be clear, Long Wind Farm, that I own and run, is USDA certified. We were certified by Vermont Organic Farmers since the beginning, and now VOF certifies us for the USDA. I have always thought that certification was important, both as a way of connecting to customers who don’t know Long Wind, and as a way of connecting to other farmers. I support certification, and I always buy “certified organic” in the store, unless I personally know that some farm is really organic despite not having a label.

But, in these troubled days, I also know that a great deal of food (over $6 billion worth!) sold as certified organic does not meet the definition, as spelled out by the Organic Food Production Act or by the EU standards. So we have to accept that we are in a confusing position. As I asked a number of times in my talk, “Are you confused yet?” Because if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention.

Staying quiet and hoping that eaters don’t notice is not a very good strategy for the National Organic Program, although its a great strategy for CAFO’s and Hydro.

For me, the very good news is that this conversation is growing rapidly. We are talking to one another about what organic means, and whether the USDA can be trusted to define and protect that.

Organic farmers Eliot Coleman and Dave Chapman checking out a hydroponic growing operation.
I’m still learning from Eliot 39 years later.

Finally, I am sharing a video featuring Eliot Coleman and Patrick Holden discussing these issues. Patrick describes Eliot as “The Elder of the North American organic horticultural movement, if not the patriarch.” Eliot has probably done more to promote real organic farming than anyone alive. Eliot was an early president of IFOAM. He learned a great deal from the European organic pioneers and brought that back to America. He has always generously shared his knowledge. He was a champion and a teacher to many of us when the USDA still hated organic. Indeed, he was the first teacher about organic to the USDA as well. He continues to innovate in his farming and to share these innovations with the world. He also continues to engage in these critical conversations about what organic means.

This is a very interesting conversation that reminds us that organic farming is a world movement. It is not just a brand that was recently invented in a California office by some people wearing suits. And it certainly is not a program invented by some Washington bureaucrat. Eliot and Patrick discuss the real challenges of certification and the problems and possibilities of farming at a large scale. This is a critical conversation for our time, and I hope that you find the opportunity to listen.


When Cheating Industry Giants Hurt Small Farms And Local Economies

This week’s Know Your Farmer video of Howie Prussak at High Meadows Farm explains that when communities support local farms, the small farms often become the foundation of the local economy. However, if small farms struggle, as many are now, a ripple effect is felt throughout the community.

Howie farms 12 acres of veggies and 30,000 sq. ft. of greenhouse tomatoes on 65 hilly acres in southern Vermont, just East of the Green Mountains. He obtained organic certification back in 1976, and just might be Vermont’s first certified organic farm! He grows cover crops for two years before rotating land back into vegetable production. Keeping roots in the ground builds soil life and grows fertility.

The impact of small farms is widely understood in Europe. A few weeks ago I was fortunate to visit with organic certification bodies in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany where I witnessed just how much local farms are valued. There I met farmers who were giving back to their communities by instructing young farmers, volunteering as fire fighters, entering local politics, and shoveling snow!

Rural America has thrived on small farms too. Just a few industrial operations cheating the organic rules, can have a devastating impact on thousands of organic farms across the country. We are all witnessing this blow right now. Rather than feeling helpless, organic farmers have come together to do something about it in the Real Organic Project.

Yours in the Dirt,

USA: “A Dumping Ground for Hydroponics”

Watch Mike Brownback of Spiral Path Farm testify passionately to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that organic farming is, and always will be, farming in healthy soils, no matter what the USDA decides!

At that fateful NOSB meeting, however, the board voted against the demands from over 40 farmers to keep organic farming rooted in soil. The disappointing outcome of that vote initiated the formation of the Real Organic Project.

Since then we’ve visited over 60 organic farms from around the country. Organic farmers that foster soil fertility can begin to differentiate their products in the marketplace.

Mike and Terra Brownback have been farming with their family for over 40 years on 300 rolling Pensylvania acres. Hear Mike tell the story of how he transitioned to organic and why organic integrity is deeply rooted in his family.

Mike’s advice to young growers is to put resources into building healthy soils, which will not only create tasty, nutritious crops, but will sequester carbon into the future.

Yours in the dirt,


Current NOSB Member Joins Real Organic Project

Steve Ela has one goal:

Produce great tasting organic fruit without society subsidizing the costs of his farming operation.

Steve Ela, of Ela Family Farms, is a respected member of the National Organic Standards Board. He is also a board member of the Real Organic Project. His Colorado orchard is a Real Organic Project Pilot Farm and has qualified for our add-on label.

In this week’s Know Your Farmer video of Ela Family Farms, Steve explains how managing his organic perennial orchard ecosystem begins with soil health.

By composting and cover cropping, he can prevent the agricultural mismanagement that results in nitrate and phosphate leaching, soil erosion, and carbon emissions.

In this Know Your Farmer video, Steve argues that organic yields often equal or surpass conventional in spite of the lack of organic research funding. For example, his yields often surpass those of conventional due to recent research into biological control and pheromone disruption. Unfortunately, funding for organic research pales in comparison to conventional.

While yield is important to a farmer’s bottom line, Steve points out that fruit quality, flavor, and nutrition should be equally important. For example, fertilizers are often over applied by conventional farmers to increase yield, but soils remain deficient in minerals, micronutrients, and diverse microbial life.

Studies show that over-fertilization also results in greater insect and disease pressure. The insects can’t resist the high-nitrogen tissue! This creates a greater dependence on pesticides and puts farmers into a chemical treadmill.

Organic farmers are unique in placing value on the flavor and nutritional benefits of their crops. They acknowledge the differences between a crop grown in living soils high in organic matter and those grown in soils treated with fertilizers, fungicides, antibiotics, and insecticides.

The health of the land and those purchasing their products receives a greater value than yield alone. This is because organic has always been a values-based industry. The Real Organic Project aims to keep it that way! Please help us spread the word if you share these values too.

Yours in the dirt,


Organic Wisdom: Taste The Soil At Full Belly Farm

The profound wisdom of organic farmers is to embrace the complexity of natural systems. Organic farmers choose to support these intricate webs of life. They know they can’t possibly replicate the interactions of the soil food web in a feedlot or in a container.

Our featured pilot farm this week is Full Belly Farm outside Sacramento, CA. They are one of the great pioneering organic farms in America. Full Belly embraces the organic approach to farming in partnership with the diverse systems of a living soil community. I’m sure there is something their farm doesn’t produce, but it will take me a while to think of what it is!

Paul Muller of Full Belly is a member of the Real Organic Project Standards Board. In addition to producing veggies, almonds, and eggs, Full Belly has a reputation for producing organic farmers as well. Other members of the ROP have even started their organic careers there! Full Belly is famous for growing real food, great farmers, and for putting on an awesome annual celebration known as the Hoes Down.

Full Belly is a beautiful example of organic farming as described by the USDA in 2007.

Organic Agriculture Overview, USDA, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), 2007.
“Organic production is not simply the avoidance of conventional chemical inputs, nor is it the substitution of natural inputs for synthetic ones. Organic farmers apply techniques first used thousands of years ago, such as crop rotations and the use of composted animal manures and green manure crops, in ways that are economically sustainable in today’s world. In organic production, overall system health is emphasized, and the interaction of management practices is the primary concern. Organic producers implement a wide range of strategies to develop and maintain biological diversity and replenish soil fertility.”

Will the USDA return to its own statement? The wisdom of this statement has been long embraced by the organic community. Will the USDA enforce the current standards that require farming within complex natural systems? If not, what will the organic farmers and eaters do?

Please enjoy the Full Belly Farm video and share widely. Our “Know Your Farmer” videos give organic farmers a greater voice behind the important work they do. Support The Real Organic Project to increase their messages and create greater transparency under the organic seal!

Thank you! I am grateful for your support of this essential project at this crucial moment in time.

Yours in the dirt,