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Split photo with aerial view of an indoor chicken CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) above and of certified organic chickens grazing on vegetated pasture below at Coyote Creek Farm in Texas.

Proposed OLPP Rule

Proposed OLPP Standards

The end of organic poultry porches? Don't hold your breath.

The current proposed organic livestock & poultry practices rule demonstrates the power of chemical agriculture over the organic sector. Read on below for Linley's take on the standards' past and challenges for the future of Real Organic:

Alexandre Farms tractor pulling a wooden hen house across pasture with a large amount of chickens on green pasture behind it.
Pictured here: Alexandre Farms children rotating their pastured poultry. Rotating chickens on pasture prevents nitrate contamination of soil and groundwater, provides a varied diet for the birds including grass and insects, and makes for more nutritious meat and eggs.
If the Organic standards required vegetated cover for poultry production, this would open markets for operations that rotate their chickens on pasture AND feed organic grain, a rare combination.

Dear Friend,

As much as I like to write about all the good work we do, today is a day to make sure we stay informed.

The Real Organic Project exists because the USDA has failed us. While we haven’t walked away from the important work of USDA reform, we aren't willing to bet our future on that effort.

This month, we are called once again, to comment on another “proposed rule” that attempts to correct the abysmal state of organic poultry. This is a perfect example of why we need “another lane” for farmers who follow the law.

As we all know, for decades now, the USDA has allowed the certification of confinement poultry production. They do so under the premise that small concrete-floored “porches” (attached to mega-confinement facilities) qualify as “outdoor access”. Unfortunately, things don’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

aerial view of egg CAFO
Is this what organic means to you? Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow (Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee) has lobbied against legislation that would kick Herbruck's Poultry Ranch, certified by QAI, out of the organic label because their two story industrial barns don't provide real “outdoor access.” Herbruck's markets under the brands Eggland's Best, Green Meadow, and many “private label” brands they do not disclose.

Organic Livestock and Poultry Standard Details

To be clear, the current law requires “living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals” AND “year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight.”

The law clearly prohibits confinement, so why do we need a new rule?

Because the USDA has taken the position that “the outdoors” does not mean…well…the outdoors. Only a lawyer could love this twisted debate!

Another important detail:

  • There is NO ONE who supports the certification of these chicken CAFOs
  • Except for the people who own the chicken CAFOs and the politicians they lobby.
  • Even the Organic Trade Association is suing the National Organic Program over this one.

The ups and downs of the OLPP

I'll tell you what I'd like to see. I'd like to see the state and federal governments set aside enough state and federal land in each county to feed that county. They should have ways to encourage and support farmers who could raise some of that food on those lands. We need to think about some new ideas on this.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks at an event while looking at the camera
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

A quick history lesson:

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency in 2016, the USDA, led by Tom Vilsack, finally passed an Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) Final Rule.

This was after decades of pressure by the organic community.

Two weeks later that rule was pulled by the Trump administration.

Four years later, Tom Vilsack is once again the Secretary of Agriculture. Instead of immediately reinstating the 2016 Final Rule after re-entering the office, two years later we have been offered a different “proposed rule” now available for public comment.

The different rule is renamed the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS) Proposed Rule. This long-awaited proposal turns out to be an even weaker attempt to close the “porch loophole.”

Click here to read about the 2002 lawsuit that set the precedent for allowing chicken porches to substitute for “outdoor access.”

 

The new OLPP and Poultry Porches Grandfathering

The new OLPP has no minimum requirements for the outdoor area to be vegetated and allows for half of the outdoor space to be concrete (something that often prevents the birds from going outdoors in the first place). It also removes language from the 2016 Final Rule that required enough natural light to penetrate the buildings so that “inspectors can read and write when the lights are off.”

But most importantly, it has a MAJOR caveat…

The new OLPS proposes “grandfathering” in the current CAFO poultry “porches” for up to 15 years! 

Which is to say, forever.

Eggs from chickens confined in these industrial warehouses already make up over 75% of the current organic market. Besides breaking the current law, these operations have also benefitted from the NOP’s recurring issues of massive fraudulent “organic” grain (both domestic and imported).

Allowing porches has essentially mandated porches under the organic seal.

It is cheaper to convert a conventional CAFO to a “certified organic” CAFO, than it is to actually produce chickens organically. As a result, real organic poultry operations have largely gone out of business or left the organic label for “pastured” or “non-GMO” labeling, both rife with their own greenwashing issues.

Chickens walk on pasture with tall grass and a feed mill behind them at sunset.
Or is THIS what organic means to you? Real Organic Project requires real pasture, defined as a minimum of 50% vegetated cover, as pictured here at Coyote Creek Farm.

Conventional farming's influence in organic production

The current proposed rule demonstrates the power of chemical agriculture over the organic sector. Not only is the proposed rule weak, but we still find conventional companies, that have no stake in organic production, lobbying against the rule. In 2016, even the Iowa Pork Producers Association opposed the OLPP Final Rule.

Why would the conventional industry care what happens in organic?

Because it sets a precedent that animal welfare matters.

What is an organic eater to do?

The USDA has opened a public comment period until Oct. 11 here. You can submit your comments requesting changes to the proposed rule, especially that there should be NO implementation period for operations with “porches” (never mind 15 years!!). The organic community has waited long enough!

The organic industry must begin to recover its lost integrity. In the meantime (perhaps indefinitely), to support real organic egg producers and our work, go here to donate any amount – even $1 helps.

Yours in the dirt,

Linley

P.S. Don't forget to join us for our next Real Friends bookclub with Blue Hill chef Dan Barber on Monday, October 3rd.

A satellite image of a large Texas egg farm holding thousands of chickens indoors.
Idalou Egg Ranch in Texas is certified organic by CCOF, without providing hens real outdoor access.

Based on this video of Idalou Egg Ranch, certified by CCOF in Texas, it would seem they would still qualify for organic certification even if the OLPS is passed. Placing CAFOs in the desert to “feed the world” drains aquifers and contaminates soil. These industrial operations can still have access to conventional markets, but shouldn't qualify for the higher standard of organic.

Join the Real Organic community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, engineers and artists. Sign up as a Real Friend, click here.

 

Organic Questions & Answers

Organic Questions & Answers with Bob Quinn

Our monthly book club continued our intimate setting for participants to ask Bob Quinn all about organic questions and answers. We loved hearing his take on some major issues around organic farming.

Read on below for a few of the questions that came up in Linley's recap letter below:

 

Dear Friend,

We had an outstanding gathering to address organic questions and answers with Montana farmer Bob Quinn and our Real Friends last Thursday during our book club.

A friend in attendance wrote me to say that she much prefers the intimate nature of our gatherings compared to a formal presentation. This allows us to feel like we actually get to know our fantastic guests as friends.

I'm always so impressed by the questions from the audience. This week I'd like to share a few of those excellent questions and Bob‘s responses.

I come from a family of teachers who have all taught me I must repeat something a minimum of 4 times, in different ways, before others start to remember and learn. So even if you attended last Thursday, read a few of the highlights that we've captured, and then go teach a friend a few of the lessons that came out of that excellent discussion.

I hope you enjoy Bob‘s words as much as I did.

Organic Q&A:

“How has organic farming helped fill that desire to re-populate rural communities across the country?”

Bob Quinn's Answer:

“Organic takes more workers, it requires more labor. I look at this as an opportunity to offer more jobs. Our farm has offered more opportunities for people to live here and survive here. You can also enter specialty markets and add value. On my own farm we've created a food business to make snacks to sell under the Kamut brand. We created an oil-crushing facility that crushes high oleic safflower oil, which is really good for your heart and the best kind of oil for cooking.

I see in our neighborhood, half our farms are gone. Big Sandy has declined from 1,000 to 600. We have pollution all over the country and people can't even drink the water in Iowa anymore. And the farm children can't drink the water because it's so contaminated with nitrates from chemical fertilizers. We have glyphosate in the rain that falls on our farm, which to me is just hideous but it's everywhere. We're using so much of these chemicals. They're pervasive.

But the most serious thing that I think is that we have 60% of our people sick with at least one chronic disease. The CDC says that 60% of the blame for that can be placed right on our diets. So I would say that even though we brag about being the most efficient, and our farmers are growing more than in any other place in the world, the whole system, to me is not a success story.

There are two sides to every coin, and the only side they show you is the production side. But the other side is all those health concerns I just mentioned. And that's what I see. I'm hoping it's starting to be an incentive to rethink where we're headed and where we're going. And I just hope that it can be done fast enough.”

 

“What chance do you think we have of getting more significant support to build out regional food systems in the upcoming farm bill.”

 

Bob Quinn's Answer:

“First and foremost, local food is food security.

I'll tell you what I'd like to see. I'd like to see the state and federal governments set aside enough state and federal land in each county to feed that county. They should have ways to encourage and support farmers who could raise some of that food on those lands. We need to think about some new ideas on this.

The industrial model is all about consolidation and centralization.

They use, as an excuse, efficiency as their holy grail because its going to lower your price, so we're going to have cheap food. And they tout cheap food as the solution to everything.

Well the truth is, that cheap food comes at a very high price, but we don't pay it at the checkout counter.

We pay it at the doctor's office and when we don't feel good and by losing work days. No one talks about that! The pollution around the country and the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico, all of this should be factored into this cheap food price and you'll see we don't have cheap food. Our food is very, very expensive. When you talk about cheap food we have to talk about the price of health care. We need to focus on combining food and health and then it becomes a very different picture.”

 

“So why can't we get a little more federal research money?”

 

Real Friend Question Continued:

“I raise blueberries. Organic blueberries need eight pounds of nitrogen for a crop. We put on two. So the soils are generating six pounds. And I asked the soil microbiologist where did this six pounds of nitrogen come from? There's a mycorrhizae called ericoid that's specific to blueberries. And he said, ‘I don't know.' I said, ‘But it had to come from somewhere. It didn't come from me. I put in two.'

I went to agriculture school at Washington University and I was taught that nitrogen comes from legumes. Rhizobia, I think is the microorganism. Blueberries are not legumes so they do not have rhizobia. And I say, ‘So are you telling me this is magic?' He said, ‘No, I'm not saying that.'

Organics get 1/2 to 1% of the federal agricultural research dollars. Why can't we increase it to, I don't know 1%?”

 

Bob Quinn's Answer:

Research should be ahead, it should be where we're going, not where we've been.

“I think you're on the right track. Wonderful. I use that line all the time. The amount of organic food in this country is 6% of the total. And the federal research for organic is only 1/2 to 1%.

We aren't even keeping up with the current trend. Research and science by definition should be leading and not following. The farmers are not able to keep up with the demand in this country, so we're bringing in organic food from who knows where to meet the demand.

Many of my neighbors would be more interested in converting to organic and changing if they felt more comfortable about where to start. And if you have a problem that comes up, like a pesky, perennial weed, what do you do about it?

Research is the key to answering those things. And yet, we have foot draggers. At least organic is on the radar now. I mean, it used to be zero when we first started, but I think it should be 10.

Research should be ahead, it should be where we're going, not where we've been. We're not even keeping up with the marketplace!

Farmers are going broke with the commodity markets. Why don't we give them a chance to come into the organic field?

The extension services are woefully short on people that can advise for organic in most states.

And farmers, their backs are against the wall financially. Most of them can't afford to make a big mistake and they can't afford to experiment. And for me, experimentation is fun. I do that instead of going to the coffee shop or going fishing. So it's great fun. But for most farmers, they don't know where to start.”

 

Organic solutions used by conventional farmers

 

Real Friend Follows Up: “I just want to add that we pointed out three conventional tools that started in organics. Like the pheromone traps for tree fruits… three different technologies that were developed in organic that spread toward conventional. And that still did not sway (the extension agent).”

 

Bob Quinn Answers:

“That's a great point. Most of the research that's done on organic principles can be used easily by non-organic farmers, just even to adopt one little thing. Not to go all organic, but just adopt something to reduce their pesticide or chemical load. And that's an advantage to them. No one can afford the price of chemicals these days.

But the reverse is not true. The research on chemicals is in no way of use to organic farmers, because we can't use those chemicals anyway. So it's very frustrating.

In Montana, the chemical farmers are all having trouble with something called acid soils. Montana soils are naturally alkaline because of low rainfall and the evaporation of dissolved salts on the surface. The ground is naturally alkaline, and we can grow grain just fine on alkaline soils.

But now with chemical fallow and not tilling, the concentration of chemical fertilizers has changed the alkalinity of the soil to acidity. And now we have the same problems that they have in the Midwest… some of the soils are too acid and farmers have to lime them.

Well guess what the solution was here in Montana for the chemical guys? Just buy another chemical! And so farmers are further down the toilet in their expenses. They are buying another chemical to fix a problem that chemicals created in the first place!

You know, Einstein himself said that it's almost impossible to solve a problem using the same tools and techniques that created the problem. And that's exactly what they're doing.”

 

Organic yields, land use and climate change

 

Question from Dave Chapman: “The head of the environmental science department at Dartmouth once told me, ‘Well of course organic is worse for the climate because organic takes more land for the same yield, thus you need to clear more land for agriculture,‘ referring to an article published in the journal Nature about lower yields in organic.

Do you have a response to that study that is more sane?”

 

Bob Quinn Answers: 

“You know, all of that is coming from a growing population and wanting to ‘feed the world.'

People think the only way to feed the world is by extrapolating from what we're doing now…

… and if you change anything in that you're going to decrease it.

Well guess what research in Africa and India has shown?

The conversion of small, peasant farms to organic increases their yields 2-3 times.

That's huge! Most of the world's population eats locally. It's only the developed countries that ship their food thousands of miles. The developed world only feeds a third of the population.

Most of the world feeds itself through local agriculture. And most of the local agriculture is not chemical.

But, what's now happening to local farmers around the world is that big companies have come in and offered money to grow just monocultures of whatever commodity they want to export and they offer big prices and markets to convert to chemical. What's been lost is local food security, the diversity of crops, and the soil building of organic and ancient systems.

The other side of that is, if you're worried about having enough food..

Let's do something about the 40-50% of the food that's going to waste

What you've described is getting back to the humdrum of focusing on yields at the expense of everything else. And of course high yields have produced cheaper food. If you're just talking about the checkout counter, that's what we have, but it's come with so much trouble.

Those reports that isolate just yield are not telling the whole story.

As a county average, our farm is right in the middle for yield. On very wet years the chemical guys surpass us. On average years we are all about the same. But, on very dry years, we are the ones that are surpassing them in yields because all of their chemicals have caused the grain and the plants to dry up way earlier than those that are on regenerative organic soils.

I think those kinds of comparisons need to be broadened. Rodale has done some long term studies that show that organic is not so different from the chemical stuff in yields. You can tell any story you want with scientific research, it's just how you put it together and there's people that are not afraid to do that to make themselves look good.”

 

This is just a sampling of what we all learned last week

What a privilege to tap the workings of these experienced minds! I hope you can join us for future bookclub discussions.

If everyone who reads this letter became a donating Real Friend, we could focus entirely on our educational and certification work, instead of fundraising. Now wouldn't that be a coup! Imagine what we could do!

We have had requests to:

  • Turn our symposia videos into short snippets for teachers to use as part of their curricula.
  • An online store to feature products from Real Organic farms that will ship to your door.
  • Help our farmers who want support with marketing the label.
  • Use the Real Organic network of farmers to learn from each other.
  • Collaborate with the international organic community that wants to work more closely with us.

The list goes on. There is so much we can to do together. As Bob said, I just hope it can be done fast enough.

Our next bookclub will be with the brilliant chef Dan Barber on Monday, October 3rd. Knowing Dan, that will be a wild ride!

I can't wait! See you there.

Yours in the dirt,

Linley

Image Courtesy of Slow Food Nations

Join the Real Organic community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, engineers and artists. Sign up as a Real Friend, click here.

 

Two people sit on folding chairs outside under a blue sky. A farm dog sits behind them.

Our Whirlwind California Tour

Our Whirlwind California Tour

Our whirlwind California tour brought us to the heart of communities that were early adopters of Organic farming. We interviewed Warren Weber, Javier Zamora and more…

Read on below about our conversations with California organic farmers, eaters, chefs, and more in our letter below:

A blue text box that reads: "The journalism and the writing keep (unintentionally, but nevertheless) “othering” the problem, “othering” climate. “Othering,” as if climate was a “thing” instead of a dynamic. But there is another dynamic, which is a cultural dynamic, a sociological dynamic. And that’s the dynamic we have to look at. Because we are reinforcing that. We (I mean corporations, advertisements, media, social media, etc.) are reinforcing privilege, reinforcing “more”, reinforcing how we look, how we appear, what we have, where we can go, what we drive, what our houses are, etc, etc, etc. You look at that and see if there isn't some sensibility that says we actually have to stop, and reflect, and listen, and measure where we are, and who we are, and what we do, and the impact we have. And act. ACT. Paul Hawken in last week’s Real Organic Podcast interview"

 

Dear Friend,

Linley and I had an intense time in California last week. Much like a Revival meeting, we traveled from town to town, meeting with supporters and seekers. At every evening meeting, we were provided with feasts of vegetables and fruits donated by the local farms and lovingly prepared by chefs in California’s Farm To Table movement.

Our California tour brought us to the heart of communities that were early adopters of Organic

We met with pioneers who started early farms and who organized CCOF. This was the organic farming that much of the rest of the country was inspired by. And it wasn’t just the farming that inspired us.

As David Weinstein has said, it is not enough to celebrate your local organic farmer. We must also celebrate our local organic distributors, local organic restaurants, and local organic stores. Organic is not just a product. It is a community, and it can only work as a community. Farmers don’t exist in a vacuum.

 

Two people sit on folding chairs outside under a blue sky. A farm dog sits behind them.
Linley and Tom Broz at the Live Earth Farm gathering.

The Organic California tour visits were our chance to meet new friends and to talk with old friends.

Some of the farms that hosted us were not certified by the Real Organic Project, but…

All were concerned about protecting organic from dissolving into an ocean of greenwashing.

In conversations with a hundred people, I didn’t hear one person who said that hydroponic should be certified as organic. Most snorted at the absurdity of the idea. The only question was what to do about a failing USDA system.

One interview excerpt

With Warren Weber, founder of the oldest California organic farm, Star Route Farms:

Warren Weber smiles at the camera while sitting outside. He wears an insulated coat and blue collared shirt.

Dave: Has your definition, in your head, how you feel about organic, real organic, I’m not talking about whatever the USDA certifies, but what you think of as organic, has it changed in the last 40 years?

Warren: No. It hasn't changed at all. 

Dave: So, could you tell me what that word, real organic, means to you?

Warren: Well, it means building your soil to the place it will sustain good crops for you. And that can mean things like companion planting, it means building your soil in the most natural way you can with cover crops and compost. 

Organic Is About Healthy Soil

It is important to remember that there are many thousands of organic farmers in America who know that organic is based on healthy soil. The Organic Farmers Association has polled the certified farmers in the US, and the answer is crystal clear. Organic is about healthy soil.

Only a handful of hydroponic operators and their lobbyists think otherwise.

It is said that California is the birthplace of Big Ag in America. The model of plantation agriculture built around cotton and slavery in the South was transferred to growing the fruits and vegetables in California.

There has been a struggle in the last 100 years for the heart and soul of California Agriculture.

This struggle was spelled out by Walter Goldschmidt in his famous book, “As You Sow.”

  • He suggested that farm scale will dictate the health or dysfunction of an agricultural community.
  • He based his thesis on his study of two towns in California: Arvin and Dinuba.
  • The study revealed that industrial-scale farming led to a community that was an unhappy place to live, and that small-scale farming led to a vibrant community, rich in social engagement and economic health.
  • Known as the Goldschmidt Thesis, this government research was squashed by the very forces being investigated.

Reality is not so simple as to be spelled out in a book, but the notion that we have choices about the kind of world that we will build is important.

So many of our California conversations reported efforts at deep change.

A text box with a round image of Liz Carlisle. Text reads: ""I’m actually thinking about the Declaration of NYÉLÉNI. I think it was in 2007, a big Via Campesina meeting, I think in Mali. And they actually used the phrase “peoples.” They used people in the plural, that “peoples” should have food sovereignty, should create the food system that they want, that will serve their communities, both human and nonhuman, in the place where they come from. So I think about it as communities being able to choose the food system that serves themselves, both in environmental terms and also in human and health terms."

Water Access for Small California Farms

In the cold consequences of a system sculpted by large economic entities, smaller farms become “uncompetitive.” But the truth is that the large farms in California profited by twisting the laws guiding the allocation of the water coming from publicly funded projects like the Central Valley Project.

  • The CVP was designed to provide irrigation to farms smaller than 160 acres and whose owners lived on the farms.
  • It worked out very differently, with taxpayers’ water going to enormous farms.
  • That made the landowners a fortune overnight with the water paid for by all.

You can’t visit California farms today without talking about water. With dwindling water reserves, California agriculture faces enormous changes.

Every farm we visited was concerned about water, about fire, about economic viability. They face an apocalyptic present in which their future is very uncertain. In the Central Valley, the land is literally sinking as the aquifer is pumped dry.

Tillage and Other Lessons From Farmers

We talked with some of the most skilled farmers in the country. Three of them are working on experiments on reduced tillage in organic vegetable production. This research is being conducted with Chico State and UC Davis.

There are no easy answers as new problems arise. Concerns surrounding weeds, new pests, locked up nutrients, and compaction were discussed. So far, it is clear that tillage can be reduced, but not eliminated. But it is also clear that the minimal-till has reduced yields.

In the coming weeks, we will try to share some of the lessons we learned from those farmers.

We give our gratitude to the farmers who taught us, who fed us, and who set such strong examples of skillful soil management and social justice for their teams. We visited farms that pay a living wage, and give medical insurance for their workers. That is not an easy thing to accomplish while making a living growing food. They are competing with farms that treat soil and workers terribly.

They demonstrate that a different way is possible. Let us build on their example.

Text box with a round image of Javier Zamora wearing a Real Organic Project hat. Text reads: "“It’s unfortunate how the system works, and helps some, and pushes others to go in the hole, when the ones going in the hole should be the ones who are actually lifted and supported to make better communities, and to have better health within our communities. And lift them out of being so disadvantaged. “There’s always so much talk about disadvantaged communities, and the wealthy, and how it just keeps getting…the gap is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. But talking about it doesn’t make f***ing change. Let’s just do something about it.” Javier Zamora in last week’s Real Organic Podcast interview"

Those interviews will form the core of this Winter’s symposium. Keep reading these letters for updates. 

Imagine having hope in these trying times!

Our gratitude to the farmers, authors, and chefs who hosted, taught, challenged, and fed us during our Organic California tour:

Full Belly Farm, Live Earth Farm, Park Farming Organics, Pinnacle Organic Produce, JSM Organics, Little Paradise Farm, Chefs Jesse Cool, Bryan Thuerk, and Jonathan Miller, Larry and Sandy Jacobs, Ken Kimes and Sandra Ward, Tom & Denesse Willey, Fruitilicious Farm, Bad Dog Farms, Prema Farm, TomKat Ranch, Jim Durst, Warren Weber, Liz Carlisle, Carol Presley, Cindy Daley, Susan Clark, Paul Underhill, Blue Heron Farm, and Paul Hawken. We learned from all of these, and many more. Thank you to all for sharing your energy, thoughts, questions, and concerns. And for your amazing food that sustained us.

Together.

Dave and Linley

A bag of Park Farming Organics rice sits next to a bottle of Little Paradise Farm olive oil. Also pictured are tomatoes, peppers, and yellow and green summer squash.

Join the Real Organic community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, engineers and artists. Sign up as a Real Friend, click here.

 

A hand holds plant roots pulled from the ground. They have small white nodes on them. This shows the roots storing nitrogen in the ground.

Mycorrhizae Relationships

Mycorrhizae Relationships

Though mycorrhizae are incredibly common (and functionally important) to land plants, they are in rapid decline. We are farming in ways that destroy these soil and fungi interactions, and we are now farming on half of the world’s land.

Read on below about the plant and mycorrhizae relationships and why they are important to preserve in organic farming practices in this week's letter:

 

A hand holds plant roots pulled from the ground. They have small white nodes on them. The roots store nitrogen in the ground and have a relationship with the fungi in the soil to access nutrients..
“Our hands imbibe like roots, so I place them on what is beautiful in this world.” – Francis of Assisi

 

Dear Friend,

The interactions between plant roots and fungi (aka mycorrhizae relationships) are quite intimate.

As the mycologist Merlin Sheldrake puts it: It’s not sex (there’s no genetic exchange), nonetheless, the intimacy of the partnership is sexy!

Changes to both the root cells and the fungus begin to occur before they even touch:

  • Root exudates lure compatible fungal threads while simultaneously deterring others that are not well matched.
  • The fungal threads have a special organ, the spitzenkorper, that guides the tip toward the chemical stimulus from the roots.

The mechanisms underlying plant/mycorrhizal compatibility are not well understood and while some fungi are quite picky about the identity of their host plant, many are promiscuous. If given the opportunity, individual mycorrhizae will form partnerships with many different plants at any given time.

Scientific literature is full of alluring words describing what comes next. Entanglement, stimulus, penetration, intracellular exchange. The fungus ultimately forms an arbuscule (a tree-like structure) inside the plant root cells, specifically for the exchange of fluids.

Do I have your attention yet? Good, because the relationship is important.

An image of microscopic fungal cells with the hyphae of plant roots interacting with the cells
Source: https://mycorrhizas.info/vam.html

Impacts of Farming on Fungi Symbioses

Though mycorrhizae are incredibly common (and functionally important) to land plants, they are in rapid decline.

We are farming in ways that destroy these interactions…

…and we are now farming on half of the world’s land. Fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides not only harm mycorrhizae, but they interfere with a crop’s ability to form these relationships. If the nutrients are hand delivered, why bother bartering for them with fungi?

Yes, plant and fungi symbioses are beautiful, but why should we care?

Because in healthy soils, plants exude roughly ⅓ of their carbon-packed photosynthates into the soil to lure soil life to their roots.

We need fungi lured by photosynthates to put this carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil.

On average, Soil Organic Matter (i.e. carbon) has already been reduced by roughly half in agricultural soils. Fertilizers speed up the decay of organic matter, releasing carbon into the air. Tillage that does not return ample biomass into the soil will oxidize the organic matter that is there. We must give back more than we take. Real Organic farmers understand this.

Potential Global change consequences:

The potential consequences of changes in arbuscular mycorrhizal communities are depicted well in the image below:

A diagram showing at the center "AM Fungal Community" and connected around it multiple connected issues. From top center clockwise: "Plant disease resistance", "Crop Yields", "Plant Stress Resistance (eg drought)",  "Global carbon and nutrient cycles",  "Other soil microbiota (eg nodulating bacteria, collembola)", "Soil stability", "Plant growth", and "Plant communities"
Source: FEMS Microbiol Ecol, Volume 94, Issue 11, November 2018.

Organic Farming is Carbon Farming

It is called organic farming for a reason. Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon

Organic farming is the farming of carbon.

Real organic farmers replace fertility in the form of slow-release compost, mulch, and incorporated cover crops.

Slow-release fertility does not interfere with a crop’s ability to form underground partnerships, because the nutrients are not readily available. They are locked up in the organic matter.

So the crop must feed the soil with its photosynthates to attract microbes to unlock the nutrients for them.

Our challenge is to support and incentivize Real Organic agriculture so we can reverse the loss of carbon from the soil.

Without soil, it is not organic farming.

There is so much essential beauty in the underground, and we are losing it before we even begin to understand it.

Yours in the dirt,
Linley

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Soil and Health Discussion

Soil and Health Discussion

What Your Food Ate is a capstone piece that looks at why the WAY that we farm is important, not only for the health and longevity of human societies, but how that actually affects our own individual health.” – David Montgomery in the Real Organic book club.”

Read our What Your Food Ate discussion transcript with David Montgomery in this week's letter:

 

Blue rectangle with white text that reads next to a small circle headshot of Michael Pollan: ""I think often, and I am asked often, how things have changed since then [writing Omnivore's Dilemma].  "And they’ve changed at the level of the conversation, at the level of the culture, at the level of people’s knowledge of the food system, but we still have a food system dominated by a small number of very powerful corporations. And no amount of shift in the consumer’s point of view is going to change that, I don’t think. This is really a matter for the government, for policy, for antitrust enforcement, things like that.  "So I’ve come to think that until we get action at that level, we’re not going to see profound change. Concentration is, if anything, worse than in 2006 when Omnivore’s Dilemma was published."  - Michael Pollan in our interview in 2021"

 

Dear Friend,

What Your Food Ate is a book about nutrition and soil.

The exploration of soil and health is important. We don’t want to be sick. We don’t want to feel bad. What we eat is fundamental to how we feel; how we thrive. Many of us don’t see that.

How our food is grown is invisible to us.

When I asked Michael Pollan if the food system is getting better or worse since he wrote Omnivore’s Dilemma, he said that the popular understanding and concern for the food system has gotten much better over the last ten years, but the actual food system itself has gotten worse.

It is the best of times and the worst of times.

An image of the cover of "What Your Food Ate: How to heal our land and reclaim our health" by Anne Bikle and David Montgomery

What Your Food Ate is another melody in the symphony of our popular culture.

The book addresses the most basic of questions:

Does it matter to our health how our food is grown?

We have come to believe that agriculture matters to climate, to the pollution of our air and water, to animal welfare, to worker welfare, and to building economically healthy communities. But this most basic food question, first raised in the 1930s and 40s, has not gotten the public discussion it deserves.

Does healthy, microbial-rich soil provide food that leads us to greater health?

This conversation began in the 40s when chemical agriculture really took off. The chemical agriculture of that era now seems innocent in comparison to the Industrial Ag of our time.

We have had considerable discussion on the issue of pesticides in our food. This is the legacy of Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring. Most of us are pretty clear that we don’t want to eat poisons, regardless of how safe the chemical companies insist it is.

But there is also the legacy of Albert Howard, Gabrielle Howard, Louise Howard, Eve Balfour, and Lord Northbourne. They focused on the nutritional differences between food grown in healthy, microbial-rich soil and that grown in impoverished soil fertilized by chemicals. Their observations are the foundation of the organic movement, so named by Northbourne and elaborated by the Howards and Balfour. Much of the Howards’ work was done in India, where they made “the peasants and the pests” their teachers.

 

David Montgomery smiles at the camera wearing a blue button up shirt. He stands in front of leaves that are green and orange.
David Montgomery, co-author with Anne Bikle, of What Your Food Ate.

A blue rectangle with white text that reads: ""I think that Howard and his peers got short-changed by history, in part because of that thing that scientists are so good at doing, and that is criticizing things that they don’t understand the mechanisms behind.  And so they had insightful observations, they connected the dots right, but they couldn’t really explain what lay between the dots, how the connections actually worked. A lot of science has filled in those dots over the last 80 years. And it's pretty amazing when you think about it through this framework, how much of what we’ve learned about the soil microbiome, and the effects of agrichemicals and tillage on crops and crop health, and now what’s actually IN our crops, has actually lined up pretty well with their insights, with the insights of the original organic pioneers. They were definitely on the right track in terms of arguing that soil health is really something that underpins the health of the things that then grow on the land and derive their sustenance, albeit indirectly, from the soil.”  - David Montgomery, at the Real Organic Book Club"

 

What Your Food Ate addresses those questions and more.

Since that time there has been a great deal of research done on soil, nutrition, and health.

But no one has pulled all that research together to try to see the lessons that we have gleaned from our scientific studies. What Your Food Ate is such a book, drawing on a thousand scientific references. It is trying to see the forest, not just the trees.

The Book Club session with David was lively. It started with his observations on living soil, and then included his thoughts about organic and regenerative.

We created the Book Club to share some of the amazing authors working in our sphere with our Real Friends. For those of you who can support us as Real Friends, the links to all the Book Club sessions are still available. But for all of you, an excerpt of the important conversation with David Montgomery is below. David covered a lot of ground.

What Your Food Ate Book Club Discussion Excerpt

“Agriculture policy IS health policy”

David Montgomery: We really look at What Your Food Ate as kind of a capstone piece that looks at why the WAY that we farm is important, not only for the health and longevity of human societies but, how that actually affects our own individual health. And then how does that impact population health?

It probably won’t be much of a surprise to anybody on this call that essentially the bottom line is that what’s good for the land is good for us too. But we tried to trace the science that connects those dots from soil health, to crop health, to livestock health, to human health. And there’s an awful lot of dots to connect there, and there’s an awful lot of contingency and variability that affects all that.

But, there’s a clear thread that runs through it that really suggests to us that, yes, we can argue effectively that the health of the land, soil health, in effect actually influences human health. And not just at a multi-century population scale idea of keeping the soil on the land where I started back in writing the book Dirt. But much more personally in terms of what goes on in our own bodies, and how the compounds in the food that we raise can be suffused with the micronutrients and phytochemicals that actually help support human health—even though they do not have caloric value and traditionally aren’t considered nutrients. And how modern farming with the conventional trilogy of over-tillage, overuse of agrichemicals, and the underuse of diversity has really undercut what’s in the food that we’re all getting.

How much does that integrate up and affect our individual or population health? Well, that’s pretty complicated, but the connections seem to be there, and the connections seem to be real, even if it's difficult to predict specific outcomes, like if you ate three peaches from some wonderful orchard that we know about. What will that actually do to your health? You can’t answer questions like that.

But I think we can make the case that agricultural policy IS health policy at a national scale. And that what we do to raise our food actually matters for what the food can do for us in terms of maintaining our health over the long run. So that’s kind of the short version of the book and the basic message of it.

Albert Howard and other important characters in organic

Dave Chapman: A couple of years ago Will Brinton said to me that he felt that the science of the last 60 years had strongly supported the observations of Albert Howard back in the 1940s. And it's fascinating to see that as we learn more and more, we get more and more sophisticated descriptions or understandings of what Howard was just observing with his naked eye. How do you feel about that?

David Montgomery: You know, I agree with Will on that. That’s one of the themes that runs through the book and why we deal with some of the historical characters like Howard. But also McCarrison, and Eve Balfour, and others in his time who are really seeing connections between healthy land, healthy animals, and healthy people. But what they really lacked at the time was a mechanistic understanding of how the connections actually worked. They had ideas, some of which were insightful, and some of which were kind of wrong. But at the gross level, the level of observed connections and seeing what matters, they were pretty ahead of their time.

One of the things we do in the book is to break the pieces of those connections down, and write about the studies that have come up, not just very recently, but starting in the 40s. There’s a lot of good science that was done that looked at how nitrogen fertilizers impacted the nutritional value of food back in the 40s and 50s. But growing quantity was the goal at that time, not necessarily growing quality.

And I think that Howard and his peers got short-changed by history, in part because of that thing that scientists are so good at doing. And that is criticizing things that they don’t understand the mechanisms behind.

And so the pioneers had insightful observations, they connected the dots right, but they couldn’t really explain what lay between the dots. How the connections actually worked.

And a lot of science, as Will was arguing to you, has filled in those dots over the last 80 years. And it's pretty amazing when you think about it through this framework, how much of what we’ve learned about the soil microbiome, and the effects of agrichemicals and tillage on crops and crop health, and what’s actually IN our crops, has actually lined up pretty well with their insights, with the insights of the original organic pioneers. They were definitely on the right track in terms of arguing that soil health is really something that underpins the health of the things that then grow on the land and derive their sustenance, albeit indirectly, from the soil.

Feed the world or nourish the world?

Dave Chapman: I just got sent an article that was about the head of Syngenta. And he was saying, “We can’t afford to have organic farming. We’re all going to starve!” And he was portraying Ukraine as the final nail in organic’s coffin. And that we have to abandon all this foolish talk of nutrient density, and we have to focus on producing calories, and lots of them, as cheaply as possible. What’s your response to that?

David Montgomery: (Laughing) You know, that could be a recipe for feeding the world, but maybe not necessarily nourishing the world. I think we can aim higher than that. And I think the real lesson of what’s going on in Ukraine in terms of the world’s food supply is twofold; We shouldn't be so dependent on nitrogen fertilizers, and we shouldn’t be so dependent on grains. That’s a recipe for diversifying our farming practices, and for diversifying our diets, actually. You know that we’re the only top carnivore that exists off of seeds. It’s kind of odd when you think about it that way. Or maybe I should say, top omnivore. So I think that gentleman is taking the wrong lessons from the current geopolitical situation.

If we want to actually look at a resilient style of farming that can both feed the world AND nourish the world, we have to reexamine the basic premises of modern conventional agriculture…

…and that boils down to tillage and the overuse of agrichemicals and the diversity of what we’re growing and eating.

And the Ukraine example I think plays right into that. The current situation is also a good example of why we need to get off of fossil fuels. We are completely dependent on them for running the economy of Europe and keeping Europe warm in the winter at this point. But we’re also dependent on fossil fuels for our agricultural system and nitrogen fertilizers are a BIG piece of that.

Among the things I have been very interested in since I wrote Dirt are the studies that looked at the comparisons of organic yields and conventional yields. And just how biased some of the reporting has been on that, in the sense that the conventional thing that you hear in the media is that there is a 10% to 15% to 20% yield penalty on organic.

But what you don’t get until you actually dig into those studies that underlie some of those comparisons is that when the comparisons are done with crop varieties that are bred for yield in organic systems and grown on healthy fertile soils in organic systems, they can match or outcompete comparable conventional farms.

And so there are some real apples and oranges comparisons that have gone on and been solidified in conventional “wisdom” around that issue.

The thing I like to bring up is what if we actually invested in building healthy fertile soils? There are studies we cite in What Your Food Ate that argue that the yield penalty could be reduced to just a couple of percent, or even eliminated altogether. And then look at how much food we actually waste in cities, like 20% to 40%, depending on where you’re at. That’s bigger than even the worst-case assessments of the organic versus conventional “yield penalty.”

So the idea that we would all starve if we went organic is fiction. It depends on assumptions that are not necessarily true. And you can make a strong case for a resilient agriculture being one that is founded on soil health, and well done organic practices have long advocated for that, as you know and as Howard was advocating a hundred years ago.

Dave Chapman: Thank you. I loved that. You mentioned that it’s amazing how the small and the large tie together here, like fractals, and that it turns out that really growing nutritious food is also growing food in a way that benefits us as human beings and as citizens of the planet in so many other ways than just nourishment. Could you speak about that?

The global benefits of a farm's healthy soil

David Montgomery: One of the take-home lessons for me, both from Growing a Revolution and from What Your Food Ate was how advantageous it is across the board to actually rebuild healthy soils, in terms of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and parking it in the ground.

There are lots of benefits to be had there, and lots of controversy over just how MUCH carbon could be taken agriculturally from the atmosphere and parked in the ground for just how long. But there are some pretty good studies that have demonstrated that there is an effect there.

And the single best way to reduce nitrate pollution in, say, the Gulf of Mexico, is to use less soluble nitrogen for agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin. That is the simplest way to do it because that is the root cause of the problem.

Phosphorus in the Great Lakes is similar, with a different geography and a different chemical. Going to more regenerative, soil health building practices that rely far less, if at all, on soluble synthetic fertilizers, that’s the way to reduce those sources of pollution, as well as keeping nitrates out of the drinking water supply in our rural communities in the Midwest.

And I also think that restoring profitability to small farms is the key to unlocking the economic potential of rural areas across North America once again. It’s kind of sad to give book talks across the Midwest and drive through town after town with a vacant downtown. The population density of rural America has been going down. Smaller, more profitable farms is something a more regenerative style of farming can help foster.

So there are all kinds of ancillary benefits to just improving the health of the soil.

The one we focus on in the new book is what it could mean for human health, but there are all these other benefits in terms of reduced pollution, increased carbon sequestration, and greater resilience in terms of moisture holding capacity on agricultural soils that have a higher carbon content.

When we talk about building soil health, we’re really talking about building soil carbon and soil life. These are the two components of soil health. To do that, we have to think about the soil differently, and we have to farm differently than we do conventionally.

What really is organic matter?

Dave Chapman: Could you describe the ways in which soil carbon and soil life are different? Are they completely one hand in a glove or is there a difference?

David Montgomery: I think of them as a little different, because I think of soil life as the actual living organisms. And once they die, they become soil carbon. So the difference is: Are they alive, or are they in the process of being recycled? One of the interesting things we uncovered, that Anne and I hadn’t known when we went into researching the book, was that there have been a bunch of studies in the last decade that have looked at how a lot of soil organic matter, soil carbon, is the remains of dead microbes. And so that soil life BECOMES the soil organic matter.

I used to think organic matter was mostly just the remains of things like leaves and grasses, and roots and plants. But it turns out that those plants are pushing out exudates into the soil, dripping out carbohydrates, fats, and proteins out of their roots to feed life around the root zone.

Stuff that Anne and I wrote about in What Your Food Ate, but also a lot in The Hidden Half Of Nature. And how that life in the soil produces things that help the health of the crops, and helps crops get things like the mineral elements, like nitrogen and phosphorus, out of soil organic matter or mineral particles, thereby obviating the need for so many agrochemicals in an agricultural setting.

But that soil life, once it dies, then IT becomes soil organic matter that MORE soil life can feast on to actually keep the process going, and as more plants add more of their ”shed” parts, or their “dead” parts. It’s this whole bustling world of life that’s just taking the elements that have been brought into the biological domain, taken from the geological domain by plant roots and fungi, integrated into biology, and then this wheel just keeps spinning, turning them over. So I’ve used soil life and soil organic matter as two pieces of that cycle. Very intimately related, but not quite the same thing, by virtue of one being alive and one being formerly alive.

Dave Chapman: Yes, that’s great. On any one of these, we could go for a long time, and I would like to, but I have two more quick questions. One is were you surprised by anything you learned when you both were researching this book?

The flavor and nutrition connection

David Montgomery: Oh yeah. In the new one in particular, when Anne was looking into the connections between the flavor of foods and the healthfulness of foods. And one of the things that she uncovered as part of her research on this were studies that actually looked at how our bodies have taste receptors, not just in our mouth, but throughout a lot of our organs. Like our livers and kidneys, if I remember right, have taste receptors for things like fats and phytochemicals. Or bitter taste receptors, in particular, turn out to be instrumental in communicating and T-ing up our immune system.

I think you could ask quite fairly why would we have taste receptors throughout our body when the food goes in our mouth, and that’s where we taste it? Well, we’re not TASTING with our other organs, but those receptors are being informed about what’s in our food. And there’s a hypothesis that Fred Provenza’s been very big on writing about, thinking about, and greatly influencing our thinking about in terms of animal husbandry and how livestock choose their diet out in the wild, how they choose what to eat. It’s called the Flavor Feedback hypothesis. And that’s looking at how the flavors that appeal to an animal, like us, are those that reflect the content of things that are health-promoting in that food.

There was a study on tomatoes, in particular. We have all, I am sure, had those horrible flavorless tomatoes that one can find in grocery stores. The question that has long sort of bugged me: Is that a less nutritious tomato? Is that a worse tomato in terms of human health? I can’t tell you how many times we have been asked that in the last twenty years. And Anne found a paper, I think it was in Science, so fairly credible stuff, that looked at a study, I think it was Florida State or the University of Florida, I forget which, where they fed people a range of different tomatoes and asked, “Which ones do you like? What ones are most flavorful?”

And then they analyzed the chemistry of the ones from the least flavorful to the most flavorful.

What they found was that the ones that appealed most to the human palate were those that had higher levels of, if I’m thinking right, omega-3 fats, carotenoids, a class of phytochemicals, and also particular amino acids.

And they were essential amino acids, meaning that they were the kind of amino acids we can ONLY get from our food. Our bodies can’t make them ourselves. So these are all things that are health-promoting compounds that were the things that characterized the most flavorful, delicious tomatoes. That suggests that there is a feedback that helped people pick a diet in the pre-agricultural world when we were picking our diet from nature around us.

How did we know what to eat? Well, it turns out our bodies have evolved mechanisms where what’s in our food gets communicated throughout our body to our various organs, and that gives feedback in terms of how we feel after we eat and how satiated we are. Whether we want to eat more? Whether we’re satisfied? And it can help guide us to the foods that we like that are more healthy.

Now, of course, that has been perverted in the modern food processing world, because sugar, salt, and fat were all pretty rare in the ancestral human diet. So our bodies are hardwired to LOVE that when we get it. You know, I’m top of the list. Sugar, salt, and fat, I love it. But it’s pretty abundant now. And so when that guy from Syngenta is arguing we just need to grow quantity, if he is basically just arguing quantities of carbohydrates, simple sugars, made palatable by salt and fat, that’s not really a recipe for health, but it sure is a recipe for getting people to eat it. Because that appeals to our taste buds.

But what I was really fascinated about, back to your original question, in learning and researching this new book, was how our bodies, when we are consuming whole natural foods, our bodies have this internal radar, if you will, for guiding us to the healthier stuff. We’ve just kind of disarmed and disoriented that in the modern grocery store.

Dave Chapman: I’ll have to get that article about tomatoes and tape it to the wall.

David Montgomery: And if anyone is interested, the source materials for What Your Food Ate run to 56 pages of references. There are literally a thousand references. It is all on the website.

Tillage, Regenerative Agriculture and Big Ag

Dave Chapman: I have one last question. This one is maybe provocative. You go through the book and you show many, many studies comparing organic to conventional and showing, time and time again, that the organic production is genuinely more nutritious, not that it’s guaranteed to have a certain health outcome, but that overall, it certainly does have a positive health outcome. A friend pointed out to me that all of that organic agriculture involved tillage. It ALL did. The organic no-till is JUST just now being played with. And you know some of the people who are playing with it and I do too. And the conclusion of your final chapter was, “and thus, we should support regenerative agriculture.” And I thought “Wait a minute, shouldn’t we be supporting organic?”

We’re going to have a symposium this winter asking the question: “Is organic regenerative? Is regenerative organic?” And I know that what you mean by Regenerative might be different from what Syngenta means by Regenerative, because they claim to be a Regenerative company also. And they ALL do, all of Big Food, Big Ag is waving the Regenerative flag, regardless of what any of us think about it. And I’m just curious what you think about that? You mention Real Organic in the book. Do you think that that research demonstrates something? And that the research for what we are calling Regenerative hasn’t yet happened?

David Montgomery: No, if you read our book, what we’re arguing for are practices that build soil health. And so when you look at a definition for Regenerative agriculture as an agriculture that builds soil health, that’s what we’re talking about. Syngenta can say whatever they want about what they are doing, but…

…if their practices aren't building soil health, they’re not doing regenerative agriculture.

So you mentioned tillage. You know one of the big topics in the Dirt book was that looking at past societies, none of which had agrochemicals in their arsenal, destroyed their land through tillage. There’s absolutely no question that tillage is bad for the soil. Now the question you SHOULD be asking is how MUCH tillage?

Because if you have healthy fertile soil, you can get away with a little tillage. You can probably get away with even a fair bit of it if you’re doing other things in terms of composting and mulching and practices that build and maintain soil health.

On the other hand, if you’re NOT doing those things, and you’re routinely doing a lot of tillage, you’re going to degrade your land really fast. And I've been on “organic” farms that have degraded their land. No Question. But I don't consider those to be using good organic practices. Right? So it’s not so much, in my view, regenerative versus organic as two things that need to be set up as flags to rally around. The flag we all should be rallying around is building soil health.

There are some big problems with many of the comparisons of organic and conventional produce that I think actually make organic look not as good as it actually is, particularly the great variability in practices across both ends of the spectrum. And there are other structural things in those comparisons in terms of growing crops that were bred for success in conventional systems and then trying to grow them organically and going, “Oh there’s not much in the way of yield” or “There’s not much in the way of differences.”

But the things that actually come out as very consistent in the studies that we’ve reviewed on the differences between organic and conventional as a background to talking about soil health, was that there are always differences in phytochemicals, and those are rooted in interactions with soil life. There are often differences in mineral micronutrients. Those are things rooted in interactions with soil life. There are rarely big differences with the macronutrients, and that’s in part because a tomato is a tomato. It's the basic chemistry of what makes a tomato.

And there are big differences in the livestock world in terms of the fatty acid composition. But those are all things that soil health influences.

And so when Anne and I talk about Regenerative farming, we’re not so much talking about any particular company's definition of what Regenerative farming is.

And it’s kind of like the whole purpose of the Real Organic Project is to try to highlight how the term “Organic” has sort of lost its way in terms of the USDA’s program. That’s a good example of what I think you may be concerned about, but the term “Organic” has just as much baggage as the term “Regenerative” in that regard today. That's why you guys started the Real Organic Project. So what we’re arguing for with the term Regenerative is an umbrella term for building soil health and fertility. Rebuilding that as a consequence of agriculture. And there are lots of different ways to do that. You know, Biodynamic farming is a really good example of practices that I may sort of roll my eyes at some of the philosophy that goes with it, but when you look at what people actually do on biodynamic farms, it's about building soil health and fertility. It's like, this is regenerative! And if you look at well done Organic farms, probably most of the Real Organic Project farms, I would call those all Regenerative if they are building soil health.

But there are also some conventional-ish farmers, or like the two no-till vegetable farms we write about in the book. Neither one of them is certified Organic as I recall. And they’re both incredible in terms of their soil. And it’s exactly what we want to be doing. And I’ve even been on some big ranches and farms where farmers who come out of the conventional farming world have virtually weaned themselves off of agrichemicals by adopting these more regenerative agricultural practices. And they will NEVER go Organic because it's not their tribe. I mean you talk to them about it and you realize, Oh no, this is just NOT going to happen. And yet, what have they done? They’ve basically become organic farmers. (laughter). Why? Because it built the health and fertility of their land.

So I’m trying to take the big picture view that by 2050 we need to make farming practices that build the health and fertility of the land as a consequence of intensive farming the new conventional farming.

And frankly, I don't really care what you call it as long as it’s building soil health.

And I think Regenerative is a very good term for that. But the worry about the term being co-opted is a real one. That’s a very real and legitimate concern.

–End of Excerpt–

If you are already a Real Friend, we thank you via this awesome opportunity to ask David Montgomery your questions on June 30, 6pm EDT. Your contribution supports our certification and educational programs.

If you have not joined us yet, now is the time. You will have so many opportunities to meet with wonderful minds such as David Montgomery in the coming months.

See you there,
Linley

 

The same six circles as the above photo but lines going all over from some circles to others, arrows pointing from some circles to others, and other connections from circles to others that look like a bunch of smiley faces or xxx's.

Organic’s Law Of Return

Organic's Law Of Return

“One of the great foundational lessons of organic farming is the belief that everything is connected. Albert Howard wrote about the Law Of Return and Dave reflects on waste and a whole system approach to organic farming in conjunction with Eli Goldratt's “no complex systems” argument in this week's letter:

 

A black and white photo of Eli Goldratt with brown curly hair smiling at the camera wearing a white collared button up shirt
“In reality, there are no complex systems” – Eli Goldratt

Dear Friend,

Eli Goldratt once taught a lesson where he showed two pictures.

Picture A:

Six circles in two rows.

A white rectangle with two rows of light blue circles. Three circles per row.

 

Picture B:

Had six circles with a “mess” of squiggles, lines, arrows, and symbols

The same six circles as the above photo but lines going all over from some circles to others, arrows pointing from some circles to others, and other connections from circles to others that look like a bunch of smiley faces or xxx's.

Eli asked, “Which one of these is a simple system and which one is a complex system?”

He insisted that the answer would depend on your background.

If you were a normal civilian, the answer would be obvious. The six circles in Picture A represent a simple system. If you were a physicist, the answer would be obvious. The “mess” of squiggles and arrows is the simple system.

That is because, in the mess, everything in the picture is somehow connected to everything else. In the six circles, nothing is connected to anything else.

Then Goldratt added one final statement:

“In reality, there are no complex systems.”

“All the great agricultural systems which have survived have made it their business never to deplete the earth of its fertility without at the same time beginning the process of restoration.”
― Albert Howard, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture

No matter how complicated the world seems, it is never a “complex system”. It is always a “simple system”. Everything is always connected to everything else, even if we don't understand why or how. That is the real world.

In our imagination, we often create unreal systems.

We start to actually believe that everything isn’t connected to everything else. Much of our science is based on isolating variables, breaking systems down into smaller parts. Only by “simplifying” can we make an experiment.

As Stuart Hill said, we think that science is putting a rat in a cage, giving it a shot, and seeing what happens. Stu called this “shallow science.” What we learn from this can be enormously valuable and powerful. But it is always a partial truth. Our actual lives are lived in environments that are complex and interconnected.

When we change reality, there are always unforeseen consequences. 

  • We discover drugs that can help us, but they always have “side effects.”
  • Our “science” is often used to create ways of producing cheaper food.
  • Not everyone can afford it, but we have historically cheap food.
  • And expensive health care.
  • The cheaper food often creates health problems that we then address with new (expensive) drugs.
  • Which often create problems that we treat with further drugs. Or with sophisticated surgeries.
  • We seldom seriously consider eating differently or exercising more. Or the many lifestyle changes that will make the drugs and surgeries unnecessary.  
A yellow text box with black text that reads: "“Our industries, our trade, and our way of life generally have been based first on the exploitation of the earth's surface and then on the oppression of one another--on banditry pure and simple. The inevitable result is now upon us. The unsuccessful bandits are trying to despoil their more successful competitors.  The world is divided into two hostile camps: at the root of this vast conflict lies the evil of spoliation which has destroyed the moral integrity of our generation. While this contest marches to its inevitable conclusion, it will not be amiss to draw attention to a forgotten factor which may perhaps help to restore peace and harmony to a tortured world. We must in our future planning pay great attention to food--the product of sun, soil, plant, and livestock--in other words, to farming and gardening.”  ― Albert Howard, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture"
Source: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/591023-the-soil-and-health-a-study-of-organic-agriculture-culture-of-the-land

Our conventional chemical agricultural system is constructed as if:

  • The nutritional quality of our food doesn’t matter.
  • Farming processes happen in isolation.
  • The way our food is grown isn’t connected to our weather, to our health, to our air and water.
  • It doesn’t matter to eaters how farm workers or farm animals are treated.
  • The profit motive will always lead us to the common good.

One of the great foundational lessons of organic farming is the belief that everything is connected.

Albert Howard wrote about Organic's Law Of Return.

Howard strongly advocated the recycling of all organic waste materials, including human manure, back to farmland. Everything must continue as part of a system. Everything must be returned. There is no “away” in which to throw our trash.

It matters. In reality, there are no complex systems. There are only simple systems. And our limited understanding. But our ignorance will not protect us.

Will Brinton wears a khaki button up short sleeved shirt in a field of grain. He points at something out of frame while holding a clipboard.

Will Brinton once told me that almost all of the research done on soil and nutrition since Howard’s writings in the 1940s has supported Howard's conclusions.

The recent book What Your Food Ate by David Montgomery and Anne Bikle has looked carefully at that ocean of research in the last 80 years and come to the same conclusion.

What Your Food Ate was released on June 21. Co-author, David Montgomery, will be our next guest at the Real Organic Book Club on June 30th. See you there!

Join the Real Organic community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, engineers and artists. To join Real Friends, please click here.

An illustration of two plants in soil with their roots showing. On the left is "Fertilizer On" and several roots are visible. On the left is "Soil Health Diet" and the plant is greener and has significantly more roots. Between them, it shows the plant on the right has more "good microbe metab's", more "micronutrients", and less "N, P, K" than the plant on the left.

Books helping organic grow

Books helping organic grow: What Your Food Ate

In their latest book, David and Anne tackle the question scientifically: “Is my health affected not only by what I eat but by HOW it is produced?”

“David Montgomery has a knack for writing books that help the organic movement grow…” Read Linley's letter about the soon-to-be-released What Your Food Ate discussion with David Montgomery in this week's letter:

An image of the cover of "What Your Food Ate: How to heal our land and reclaim our health" by Anne Bikle and David Montgomery

Yellow box with black text that reads: "“Once again, what's good for the land is good for us too." ―  David Montgomery, What Your Food Ate, coming this week! Join us for the next Real Organic Bookclub, June 30, 6pm EDT with David Montgomery"

 

Dear Friend,

David Montgomery has a knack for writing books that help the organic movement grow.

He has a wonderful talent for taking a simple claim (like when your farmer says, “Healthy soils make healthy animals and healthy people”) and backing it with reams of peer-reviewed research and historical context.

In his first book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations…

David brought us on an agricultural journey through time and taught us how we must avoid the mistakes of the past if we are to survive into the future. Just how many people can the earth support in perpetuity?

In The Hidden Half of Nature…

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle took us on a ride in their magic school bus to the rhizosphere so we could visualize how it resembles our gut turned inside out! They not only explored what foods bring us health, but explained why we should reframe the question to, “How do I foster a healthy microbiome?”

In Growing a Revolution…

David explored the ecological crises caused by agriculture and tells stories of the farmers showing us a better way. How do we shift our method of food production to one that is truly sustainable?

And now, in What Your Food Ate (published this week: June 21, 2022)…

David and Anne tackle the question scientifically:

  • “Is my health affected not only by what I eat but by HOW it is produced?”
  • “And if the answer is yes, how do we know this to be true?”

Fifty pages of peer-reviewed resources are synthesized, and David and Anne tell us we are just scratching the surface.

Two images side by side. On the left is a cover of "Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back To Life" by David R. Montgomery. On the right is a photo of David sitting outside in nature. Text below the images reads: "“Once again, what's good for the land is good for us too." ―  David Montgomery"

An illustration of two plants in soil with their roots showing. On the left is "Fertilizer On" and several roots are visible. On the left is "Soil Health Diet" and the plant is greener and has significantly more roots. Between them, it shows the plant on the right has more "good microbe metab's", more "micronutrients", and less "N, P, K" than the plant on the left.

Yellow box with black text that reads: ""We tend to think of diet-related ailments as arising from deficiencies in particular nutrients. Take scurvy, for example. If you start consuming vitamin C-rich citrus, scurvy clears right up, as British naval surgeon James Lind demonstrated in a famous 1749 medical trial aboard HMS Salisbury. Some cures are this simple, but curing other types of ailments and maintaining good health in the first place are far more complex. And on this point, the mix of foods in the human diet matters because phytochemicals, minerals, fats, and other compounds in food interact synergistically. And the fact that farming practices influence all of them leaves us with an unsettling question. How good, really, is modern agriculture for our health?" ― David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, What Your Food Ate"

A map of soil degradation all over the world. Red areas show "very degraded soil" and are prominant. Yellow indicates "Degraded soil" covers even more areas. "Stable soil" is mostly in arctic areas but several small areas in South America and Africa and Australia. "Without vegetation" is the least present. Text below reads "“It seems that the slower the emergency, the less motivated we are to do anything about it." "Homo sapiens, Wise Man indeed. There is still time to live up to our name if we stop treating our soil like dirt." ― David Montgomery"

If you are already a Real Friend, we thank you with this awesome opportunity to ask David Montgomery your questions on June 30, 6pm EDT. Your contribution supports our certification and educational programs.

If you have not joined us yet, now is the time. You will have so many opportunities to meet with wonderful minds such as David Montgomery in the coming months, including Vandana Shiva, Dan Barber, and Bob Quinn to name a few.

See you there,
Linley

Join the Real Organic community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, engineers and artists. To join Real Friends, please click here.

A Simple Lie or a Complex Truth

A Simple Lie or a Complex Truth

Our first June book club sessions focused on the complex truth of our soils, our food, and our health with Anne Biklé

“Our science is based on isolating elements from larger processes and learning all that we can about them.” Read Dave's letter about our What Your Food Ate discussion with Anne Biklé in this week's letter:

A painting of Alexis de Tocqueville. Below is text that reads: "“It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.”― Alexis de Tocqueville"

A photo of Milton Friedman standing behind a podium with the seal of the United States President. He addresses the crowd while smiling and wearing glasses. Below is text that reads: "“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” - Milton Friedman"

 

Dear Friend,

“It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.” and “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”… When we put these two statements together, we have a recipe for disaster. The easiest way to increase profits is to sell a simple lie. The outcome is a misled customer and a concentration of wealth with the owners.

In 1940, Albert Howard made a claim:

“The health of soil, plant, animal, and man is one and indivisible.” 

Last Thursday, Anne Bikle showed up at the Real Organic Book Club and embraced Howard’s statement. She and her partner David Montgomery, have written their second book on the complex truth of our soils, our food, and our health.

The first book was called The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. The book coming out this month is called What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health. It is a deep dive into the reams of research done on soil science, human health, and the processes in between since Albert Howard’s 1940 statement.

Anne Bikle smiles at the camera with green plants behind her. Text below the image reads: "Real Organic Podcast, Anne Bikle" and ""What happens in the rhizosphere is one of the grandest symbioses that we have on this planet." -From the Real Organic Podcast with Anne Bikle"

As Anne said in the Book Club session, they looked at many disconnected bits of data, and then stepped back to see the connections between these many pieces.

Our science is based on isolating elements from larger processes and learning all that we can about them.

Learning about the bits and pieces is extraordinarily powerful, but if we stop there, we miss the punchline. We need to step back and see the patterns that connect the pieces. This is understanding, and at some point, it becomes wisdom.

Anne discusses the current clamor over “evidence-based” agriculture, a claim that is amazingly used by the proponents of chemical agriculture. But Anne made the call for “evidence-based” agriculture that actually looks at the evidence, and not just at the profits.

Yellow box with text that reads: "Plants, and soil, and the environment are as variable as every human being on this planet... Really, what we’re after is evidence, observations, an understanding of the natural processes that let a plant talk to the soil, that let a ruminant converse with all the microorganisms in the rumen.  When we have those processes set how they’re supposed to be functioning, we get health.  It’s not a far cry from when a human being eats a diet free of hardly any ultra-processed foods, and we get sufficient exercise, and we aren’t breathing bad air and drinking bad water… voila, that’s a recipe for health.   Anne Bikle at the Real Organic Book Club"

Anne Bikle and David Montgomery's What Your Food Ate is a deep dive into the complex truth that we are deeply affected by how our food is grown, how our soil is cared for.

These things seem far away from most of us.  In the 1700s, 90% of Americans were farmers. By the Civil War, it was 50%. Today it is less than 4%.

Farming is mostly something that happens… somewhere else. For most of us, food comes from a store. Half of our food dollars are spent in restaurants. The other half goes to supermarkets. We are prime candidates for being misled, and we often don't see the connection between what we eat and how we thrive (or not).

This book shows that the problem isn’t just junk food. Junk food is easy to dismiss. Paul Hawken has said that junk food is a crime against humanity.

But what if you buy vegetables, berries, whole grains, meat, milk, and eggs? This book affirms that Albert Howard was right.

There are meaningful differences between a vegetable grown in healthy, living soil and one grown on land that has been sprayed with biocides and deprived of a diverse ecosystem.

This difference has always been the core belief of the Organic movement, and now that core belief is substantiated.

Yellow box with black text that reads: "The very best organic farmers have been onto many of the things that we need to see all of agriculture doing. What I want to see in terms of practices is everybody, farmers of all stripes moving toward… somebody else's phrase but I thought it was a really good one who said: “We want practices with no regrets and right now we have practices that we’re regretting. From the climate impact to land degradation and on and on and on.   The worst thing about a crisis is that this is what it takes for us to change, for us to put some guide rails on behaviors and practices. Why do we have to get to this sort of 11th-hour really bad horrible stuff?   ….I know it feels like, especially given how long ago the NOP was established and how we all thought it was going to go. We’re all like, “Oh you’re kidding me, this is where we’re at!?”  And it’s been really difficult to hang onto organic, and I guess you did reach a crisis, and that’s why the Real Organic Project came about.  You’re at the crisis point. As things coalesce around you and around what everyone engaged with ROP is doing, I think the movement will grow.    -Anne Bikle at the Real Organic Book Club"

If you missed Anne’s session, you can still watch it now if you are a Real Friend. Our work continues thanks to so many farmers and to our Real Friends. Please join us today.

Dave

PS. What Your Food Ate will be released on June 21. Anne’s co-author, David Montgomery, will be our next guest at the Real Organic Book Club on June 30th. See you there!

A farmer with a Real Organic Project hat smiles at the camera with yellow Swiss chard behind her.

“I hope someday you'll join us”

Join the Real Organic community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, engineers and artists. To join Real Friends, please click here or the image below.

What Your Food Ate

What Your Food Ate

Our June book club has two sessions focused on “how to heal our land and reclaim our health with Anne Bikle and David Montgomery”

“Their books are packed with data, interwoven with interesting stories, all of which result in a full understanding of why we need to transform the food system into one centered around soil health.” Read Linley's letter about their fourth book, What Your Food Ate, in this week's letter:

An image of the cover of "What Your Food Ate: How to heal our land and reclaim our health" by Anne Bikle and David Montgomery

Dear Friend,

At the Real Organic Project, we have a saying: “a carrot's not a carrot.” Sometimes it's: “an egg isn't an egg.” And so on…

What we really mean is…

How food is produced, changes nutrition, communities, the planet and, well… everything!

Authors David Montgomery and Anne Bikle are experts at taking this founding organic principle and connecting it to the latest scientific research.

If you haven't read their “Dirt Trilogy”: Growing a RevolutionDirt: the Erosion of Civilizations, and The Hidden Half of Nature, time to get reading before their next book is released this June: What Your Food Ate. 

Their books are packed with data, interwoven with interesting stories, all of which result in a full understanding of why we need to transform the food system into one centered around soil health.

An image about soil health. An illustrated brain underneath another image of plant roots. Text below the image reads: "The rhizosphere is plant intelligence in every sense of that word. There it is, out of sight, beneath our feet and we hardly even know about it. This is the key to a way of farming that we really need to be working toward."  - Anne Bikle at the Real Organic Symposium

Anne Bikle smiles at the camera with green plants behind her. Text below the image reads: "Real Organic Podcast, Anne Bikle" and ""What happens in the rhizosphere is one of the grandest symbioses that we have on this planet."    -From the Real Organic Podcast with Anne Bikle"

 

Did you know the rhizosphere is very much like your gut?

Or, how fiber in your colon acts like mulch in the garden?

Or, why you should think about the food that you eat in the same way that a farmer thinks about sowing a diverse cover crop?

Or how the structure of a seed is related to our modern diabetes epidemic?

All of these questions and SO SO much more are answered in their books that are based on the latest published science.

If you've ever said, “You are what you eat,” you might want to start saying, “You are what your food eats.”

Whether it's a carrot, a glass of milk, a steak, or an egg, come learn from the best why nutrition changes depending on how your food was raised.

A yellow text box with black words reading: "Fertilizer will grow your biomass, but what is the quality of that biomass? When you eat food from healthy soils, you are getting microbial metabolites because of healthy root systems.       -from Anne Bikle's Real Organic podcast"

Three illustrations of plant roots next to one another. The first shows four main roots with some smaller roots connected. The center is Conventional has two large roots and several small roots connected. The right image is Composted Manure and has many more roots than the others. Text under the images reads: ""The big problem with conventional forms of agriculture is that it completely scrambles the root microbiome. The intelligence that a plant has honed over millenia just gets perverted and messed up."      -Anne Bikle at the Real Organic Symposium"

We are pleased to announce Anne Bikle as our third Real Organic Book Club speaker.

She will be discussing What Your Food Ate, at 6 pm EDT on Thursday, June 2.

The session is open to all members of the Real Friends. If you would like to join this engaging community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, please click here or the image below.

An advertisement for the the Anne Bikle book club for "What Your Food Ate - Session One. Thursday June 2nd 2022"

 

An image of a grocery store produce section. A sign above bagged greens reads: "Produce for the People". At left of the text is the Real Organic Project logo.

Farmer-Led Food System Solutions

Farmer-Led Food System Solutions Examples

“We all need to think of ways we can work together to change the food system.” – Read Linley's letter about organic farmer-led solutions for a broken food system below.

Dear Friend,

One of our Real Organic certified farmers wrote to me last weekend with a story of hope.

There are so many similarities between his story of local action and The Real Organic Project:

  • We are both farmer-led solutions to a broken system.
  • We are taking matters into our own hands because no one is coming to save us.

First, I want to share the exchange that led to the telling of his inspiring story. While these emails were personal in nature, I wanted to share them with our audience in their original form because these conversations are important…how do we best create change?

The Farmers' Stand Co-Founders:

A man and a woman stand in front of a shoulder-height crop. Their golden retriever sits at their feet. Behind them are two hoop houses.
Todd and Rebecca Ulizio of Two Bear Farm – Co-founders of The Farmers' Stand

 

A man and a woman sit in a row of lettuces on their farm. Behind them are grey and blue skies and clouds and a row of trees.
Brooke Bohannon and Sean Hard of Wicked Good Produce – Co-founders of The Farmers' Stand

A storefront of a tan stucco building with a sign that reads "The Farmers' Stand" above the doors and windows.
The Farmers' Stand in Whitefish, Montana A farmer-owned grocery store

 

Our Farmer-Led Solutions Email Exchange:

First Letter From Todd:

Paragraphs of black text on a green background. Full text can be viewed in pdf form by at https://www.realorganicproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Farmers-Stand-Email-Exchange-1-May-2022.pdf
(Click the image to download this email as a PDF for accessibility)

My Real Organic Project Reply:

Black text on a light blue background. Click this image to download a pdf of the full text.
(Click this image to download a PDF of this email for accessibility)

An image of a grocery store produce section. A sign above bagged greens reads: "Produce for the People". At left of the text is the Real Organic Project logo.

Second Letter From Organic Farmer Todd:

Paragraphs of black text on a green background. Full text can be viewed in pdf form by at https://www.realorganicproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Farmers-Stand-Email-Exchange-3-May-2022.pdf

Paragraphs of black text on a green background. Full text can be viewed in pdf form by at https://www.realorganicproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Farmers-Stand-Email-Exchange-1-May-2022.pdf
(Click either image to download a PDF of this email for accessibility)
A small grocery store with wooden floors is in the background. A woman with long brown hair and a straw hat smiles at the camera and stands in the store.
Opening day at the Farmers' Stand!
A grocery store cooler of radishes, turnips, carrots, beets and many varieties of greens.
Produce cooler at The Farmers Stand

White signage on a glass door that reads: "The Farmers' Stand - Market and Takeaway"

Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to stop participating in the problem!

But when it comes to a global food system, that is easier said than done. While most farmers don't have the bandwidth to open a grocery store (nor should they have to), every community needs grocery stores that will say “yes” to local organic farmers. As the farmers from Two Bear Farm and Wicked Good Produce found, that's usually not the case. So they did something about it!

We all need to think of ways we can work together to change the food system. Like Todd said, “there are many ways (and scales) to engage on this issue.” Please let us know about all the good work you are doing (and send me pictures)! Together, we can inspire others to spring into action too.

To me, this is what the Real Organic Project is all about.

Yours in the dirt,
Linley

An image of farmers on the right holding the Real Organic Project logo. At left reads "1000 Real Friends". A yellow box in the bottom right reads "Join Now"

If you would like to join this engaging community of eaters and activists, farmers and authors, chefs and students, scientists and adventurers, please click here. please click here.