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JM Fortier handles vegetables at his market booth at Marché Jean-Talon in Montreal

Farmers And “Organic Experts”

Jean-Martin Fortier doesn’t need to be certified with the Canadian Organic Growers. But he is. He doesn’t need to be certified with the Real Organic Project. But he is.

densely packed greens grow in rows of soil at La Ferme des Quatre-Temps
Crops growing in soil at La Ferme Des Quatre-Temps.

Selling all of his crops directly to eaters and restaurants, JM is a living example of Know Your Farmer. JM (as he is known to his friends) is already seen by his customers as a skilled organic farmer growing the highest quality food. For JM’s customers, Know Your Farmer is a reality. He is one of the most accessible vegetable farmers in the world. His activities go way beyond just growing food. He is also an author, a teacher and a social activist. His best-selling book, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, has sold over 100,000 copies. It has been translated into 8 languages. His sophisticated online training program, The Market Gardener’s Masterclass, has been subscribed to by thousands of farmers around the world. And for eaters, the highly popular reality show “The Farmers” follows the day to day adventures of the crew at JM’s new farm, La Ferme Des Quatre-Temps. His highly selective on-farm training program for the next generation of organic farmers is successful. After two years of training and hard work, crew members are ready to start their own farms, spreading these ideas and techniques like mycorrhizal fungi.

Dave Chapman and Jean-Martin Fortier pose with the 2019 farm crew at Quatre-Temps

We inspected JM’s new farm a month ago. It was a pleasure to spend a few hours with this gentle man who is so deeply committed to organic farming. He made clear that his reasons for getting certified were more political than economic. He grieves over the corporate destruction of the organic label, and is happy to join other farmers in an effort to salvage that which we have all built.

Eliot Coleman speaks on a panel about fraud under USDA Organic at the 2018 NOFA Summer Conference

JM gladly acknowledges his debt to organic pioneer Eliot Coleman, just as Eliot gives a respectful nod to the many who have taught and inspired him. JM’s farm is named after Eliot’s own Four Seasons Farm in Maine, translated to Quebecois French.

After spending a few hours with JM, I was filled with both hope and sadness. He is a builder and example of an alternate path. And he sees the destructive power of our current economic system, that sculpts all of us.

Farm workers use a planting machine to transplant greens
Photo from Civil Eats article.

I was struck by the stark contrast between JM’s message and a recent article in Civil Eats called, “After 10 Years of Rapid Growth, What Does Organic Mean Today?” This article asked 4 “organic experts” what they thought the impact was of the last ten years of USDA organic certification. The first thing that struck me was that, while there might have been farmers in the picture, there wasn’t a single farmer in the group of “experts”. All of them are Washington players, quoted in the national media, but unknown to most farmers. This is quite typical of USDA organic conversations. Where are the farmers? Go to any National Organic Standards Board meeting, and you will find hundreds of people wearing suits, but very few farmers in attendance. Sometimes a few of the 4 “farmer members” of the NOSB are not even farmers. Are we so hard to find? In 2017 over 60 organic farmers actually went to the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville. And their testimony was ignored.

Apparently, farmers are not that important in the New Organic. I am still trying to wrap my head around the 2016 OTA presentation that told me that only 1% of organic producers are from North America, but 47% of organic sales in the world are in North America. No wonder so little land in North America has been converted to organic.

pie charts showing organic eaters and producers worldwide
So many eaters in North America. So few farmers.

The Civil Eats panel was made up of Kathleen Merrigan, Laura Batcha, Abby Youngblood, and Rudy Arredondo. I will let you read the article to learn more about these people, but I was particularly depressed by some comments that Dr. Merrigan made. She was responding to the question from Civil Eats, “There have been reports about fraudulent organic imports, and some consumers are confused about the value or the meaning of organic. There’s also a suggestion that the organic label has been diluted or co-opted. How should the integrity of the organic label be protected?”

Kathleen responded, “I think that [divisiveness] comes from a historic feeling of disempowerment—people who were farming organically back in the day were decried by neighbors, made fun of, not treated kindly at all by government. So there is this historic feeling of disempowerment or minority gotta-fight. And it’s something that I don’t see in other agriculture domains where industry seems to work out differences with their stakeholders in better processes that don’t lead to a public blood bath. Take the recent controversy over the use of glyphosate in hydroponic systems. Well, USDA, in a matter of months, realized the error of their ways and they’re changing [the rule]. But it got blasted all over the place. And consumers don’t get to get the same blast of information when the situation is fixed, or on the way to being fixed.”

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan speaking at an outdoor event.
Dr. Kathleen Merrigan speaking at the Common Ground Fair in 2012. Photo by Jean English.


I think that Kathleen’s version of events is taking some serious liberties with the facts. Jenny Tucker and Laura Batcha (executive director of the Organic Trade Association also in this article) both knew that we had credible reports that glyphosate was being applied just prior to organic certification of hydroponic containers. Before the debate concluded, we had hard proof.

Apparently, the USDA no longer certifies farms, but rather “containers.”

This usage of prohibited inputs immediately prior to certification was reported months before “it got blasted all over the place.” I actually expected that our earlier revelation would cause a dramatic response of outrage and investigation. But that only happened after we “blasted it all over the place” months later.

Jenny Tucker, head of the USDA’s National Organic Program, knew of these reports for quite a while, and her only response was to continually insist that there was no transition period required for hydroponics. Only AFTER the public blasting began, Jenny finally responded in the most confusing way possible, stonewalling and avoiding the issue. And she is still avoiding the issue of transition time for hydroponic production in greenhouses. Despite certifiers requests for clarification, no clarity is offered.

Which is to say, change only came AFTER people stood up and talked loudly about what was happening. AFTER there was public outrage, and after it became clear that this was “not a settled issue.”

And as leading “blasters” we certainly sent out an announcement about the positive change in USDA policy. It was a victory, and we wanted to share the good news. We are not arsonists. We are firefighters. Don’t blame us that the house is on fire.

Dave Chapman and Jean-Martin Fortier at La Ferme des Quatre-Temps

So we have a stark contrast between JM and Kathleen. Two good people. A farmer and a bureaucrat. Kathleen has worked her entire life to be a good public servant. She was a powerful positive force in the USDA, after being a co-author of the Organic Food Production Act while working for Senator Leahy. It was not an easy task. She continues to be a force for good as a college professor and serves on many non-profit boards. I acknowledge and bow to her life of service, but I also hold her accountable for her public statements. Her work is not done. Our work is not done. If those in positions of power like Kathleen and Laura were more successful at protecting organic farming (and not just the brand), farmers like JM and many others could stick with farming. But silence has not proven to be a successful strategy for change.

There are three major failures of the USDA in protecting organic:

  1. The USDA certifies CAFOs as organic. This means that some very large dairies and poultry operations are ignoring the requirements to have animals outside on pasture every day that weather permits. These are confinement operations. They sell their calves and buy in conventionally raised replacement heifers. The chickens have never felt the sun on their backs or scratched in the dirt. The outcome is unhappy, unhealthy animals producing inferior milk and eggs sold at prices at which no real organic farmer can survive. This means that consumers can no longer find the organic food they want in stores. Nor can they tell if they have found it.
  2. The USDA certifies hydroponics as organic. This means that very large-scale hydro operations, both in greenhouses and outside on black plastic, are flooding the market with tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, peppers, and greens grown without the benefits of soil. The nutritional quality must be different. The taste is certainly different. And once again no real organic farmer can survive in selling to supermarkets against such unfair competition. Again, this means that consumers can no longer find the organic food they want in stores.
  3. Fraudulent grain imports continue to flood the US market, helping the CAFO “organic” livestock operations to thrive. Despite enormous public pressure, the USDA seems unable to stem the flow. “This thing gets more bizarre as you go along,” John Bobbe said. “The problem is that consumers are being potentially defrauded, and the price for farmers is going down.” To learn more about this, click here:

Speaking ill of those of us who are working to save the meaning of organic is not helpful. And we are many. Real Organic Project includes many former and current members of the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board), including 4 NOSB chairs. We include leading soil scientists. And of course, we are farmers and eaters. Many farmers and many eaters. We are not the loony brigade and we are not bitter, disenfranchised malcontents. We are the organic movement. We are the spring from which all that industry grows. Please don’t trash us. Please join us.

JM Fortier is a part of the Real Organic Project because he sees it is important, not because he will profit from it. Join JM by signing our petition to Protect Organic.


Dave Chapman

Do We Dare Speak Out

Do We Dare Speak Out?

I wrote an article that came out last week in the Independent Science News entitled The Hydroponic Threat to Organic Food. Co-editor Jonathan Latham forwarded several responses to me from readers. One from Mark Squire was particularly interesting to me, and I asked for permission to reprint it and respond publicly, which Mark granted. Mark is a co-owner for many years of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax and Mill Valley, California. He said he is glad we are willing to keep this very important conversation going. He is a long time organic advocate and an early member of the CCOF community. He runs a pioneering California store. Here is a video describing the story of Good Earth Natural Foods.

Mark Squire California Natural Foods Store Owner Speaks

Mark’s letter:
“I believe that rejecting the National Organic Program is the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I, for one, still think working with USDA and holding their feet to the fire on some of these issues is our best strategy.
“If anyone should be blamed on the Hydroponic mess it should really be the non profit, farmer controlled CCOF and other certifiers who pushed ahead with these certifications before adequate guidelines had been established. In fact all members of the organic community could have, and should have, seen this coming from the time the first alfalfa sprout was certified organic back before the NOP even existed.
“I understand the USDA bashing but I believe this is an example of barking up the wrong tree. I also believe that as consumers have embraced the organic seal it gives us, as a movement, more possibility, not less, to strengthen the organic program. Organic agriculture for all its warts is making a major contribution to the change we all want to see. Lets not give up on the seal that is currently the only way city folks can readily support growers who are doing a better job of stewarding their land. Maybe in five or ten years we will have an organic-plus seal that will guide their food choices, but we really do not have that much time to turn around the mess that agriculture has created.”

Young Mark Squier California Natural Foods Store Owner
A younger Mark back in the day.

My response:

These are important points for all of us involved in the movement to protect organic. I will set aside any response on the California Certified Organic Farmers for now. This is a large topic on its own. Let me speak in this letter to our public criticism of the National Organic Program (NOP).

The Real Organic Project (ROP) made the decision to work with NOP certification as the basis for our add-on label. To be certified as a Real Organic Project farm, you must be first certified with the NOP. So we aren’t rejecting the National Organic Program. We are building on its successes and moving beyond its failures.

I also insist that not all real organic farmers are certified with USDA. Many organic farmers sell locally and know their customers. In Vermont, many of those farmers choose to be certified anyway, as a political statement. But many organic farmers across the country are not certified. Certification serves a vital role in connecting those of us who want to buy organic food with unknown organic farmers who want to grow organic food. Reliable or not, I depend on USDA certification when I am shopping for the food I eat out of the local season and the clothes I wear. My coffee is never local but is always certified organic.

The Real Organic Project was not formed to reform or lobby the NOP. There are already excellent organizations lobbying the NOP such as Organic Farmers Association (OFA) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC) that we support and work with. We share a number of board members with both organizations. Those organizations are fighting a heroic and usually failing battle to maintain integrity in the USDA organic program.

The goal of the Real Organic Project is to create a label that will be more transparent for customers and bring together a national community that has become fragmented. We are a farmer-led, grassroots effort to reclaim the meaning of organic. We have chosen to do this without waiting for permission from the Federal government. In order to make sense of our effort to farmers and eaters, we have to educate people to what is happening with the USDA certification program.

The Real Organic Project Standards Board in Fairlee, Vermont
Our standards board includes board members from OFA and NOC. Though separate organizations, we are all working towards the same goal, which is organic that people can trust.

The Real Organic Project was not formed to reform or lobby the NOP. There are already excellent organizations lobbying the NOP such as Organic Farmers Association (OFA) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC) that we support and work with. We share a number of board members with both organizations. Those organizations are fighting a heroic and usually failing battle to maintain integrity in the USDA organic program.

The goal of the Real Organic Project is to create a label that will be more transparent for customers and bring together a national community that has become fragmented. We are a farmer-led, grassroots effort to reclaim the meaning of organic. We have chosen to do this without waiting for permission from the Federal government. In order to make sense of our effort to farmers and eaters, we have to educate people to what is happening with the USDA certification program.

What does usda organic mean eliot coleman and other protesters march in jacksonville

Criticising the USDA presents a double bind that we have found ourselves in for many years. If we publicly criticize the NOP, we risk turning customers away from the organic seal, thus playing into the hands of the chemical industry. They love it when organic farmers attack the NOP. They say, “See, we told you so.” This group sees organic as an enemy.

But there is another group of corporations who have decided it is better to embrace the organic label without embracing the organic practices. We can see Monsanto using a similar strategy when they champion “Climate Smart Agriculture” as a way of advocating for the widespread use of Glyphosate. It is a bitter pill, and unfortunately, it is quite effective at confusing public discourse. When I served on the farmers advisory council to the OTA, there was a serious conversation on whether to support “Climate Smart Agriculture,” not realizing at first that this “movement” was funded by Monsanto.

So if we DON’T publicly criticize the NOP, the corporations twisting organic use our silence as compliance. As Chris Hedges said, “To be complacent is to be complicit.”

close up black and shite photo of woman putting a finger to her lips, as in shhhh

If we remain silent, we will continue to see the organic seal lose its meaning, and perhaps even its relevance. To date, private criticism of failed USDA enforcement has proven to be very ineffectual. In the last 9 years, we have seen the loss of some 50% of the organic milk supply to certified CAFOs, and well over 80% of organic egg and poultry supply to certified CAFOs. We have lost over 50% of organic tomato supply to certified hydros, and significant erosion of soil production in berries, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, and greens to the steady invasion of certified hydroponic production. Is that certified organic berry grown in the soil? Who knows? Not to mention the steady loss of real organic grain production replaced by fraudulent imports from Eastern Europe and Turkey. Is it organic? Who knows?

greens being grown hydroponically in an artificial indoor environment

At every turn, the fake organic pushes the real organic out of the market. It is no surprise that industrial-scale CAFOs and hydros can produce food cheaper than real soil-based organic. But they can’t produce real organic food cheaper. Their food costs less, and it is worth less. But the organic seal gives them access to every supermarket in America.

I once had a conversation with the produce buyer for one of the biggest supermarket chains in America. I pointed out that the cheaper Mexican tomatoes were not grown in the soil, and that they weren’t really organic. The buyer said to me, “Dave, they are certified as organic by the USDA, and that is good enough for us.” As a result of that perspective, millions of people are losing the CHOICE of buying soil grown organic tomatoes. And they never know a thing about it.

usda organic logo with black background

The outcome is that real organic farmers are going out of business, and real organic customers are being deceived on a regular basis. The choice of buying real organic food in the stores is being lost. How can you tell the pasture-raised milk from the confinement operation? How can you tell the soil grown berries and produce from the hydroponics?

The answer is you can’t. Even the stores don’t know what is real and what is fake.

You can often tell by the taste, but that is not a strong enough factor to change the decision of the stores about what will be on their shelves. What is nutrition worth? What is health worth? Who will protect us from the sharks?

a variety of sharks swimming in water

It is my belief that, unless we act, the organic label will become so degraded that it will lose the public’s trust. Trust is very hard to get and very easy to lose. People buy organic because they want something different, something better. For the first time since the formation of the National Organic Program, sales of certified organic milk and eggs were flat last year. All other organic categories continued to grow. Other organic continued to win people away from the conventional market. What happened? The Washington Post published front-page stories on CAFO production of certified organic milk and eggs. People learned the truth.

At what point does the label no longer deserve people’s trust? At what point is not a meaningful way for people to find the food they are looking for? We are not arsonists. We are firefighters trying to save the house. Because people we love live in there.

Enid Wonnacott once said to me that she was concerned about publicly denigrating the organic label over every small failure that came along. I asked her if she thought that hydroponic production was such a small failure, and she said, “No, on this we must stand up.”

We face invading food empires for whom “organic” production is only a business opportunity. For Driscoll’s and General Mills, their conventional production is the large majority of their business. They embrace chemical agriculture as a viable way of producing food and money. Organic is a profitable sideline, not their core mission. Either way, they win. If the organic label is so degraded that it fails, they still win. Will we trust THEM with defining organic?

A farmhadn works in rows of soil on an organic farm

Some things ARE worth fighting for. Not just worth it, but necessary. If we speak out, we will turn some people away from the organic label. But if we don’t fight, there will no longer be an organic label worth fighting for.

We must remember that the organic movement is not the same thing as the National Organic Program. When we can work together, we celebrate. When we cannot, we must do our work alone. It is not our goal to abandon the USDA. In the end, we will need the government to represent us if we are to survive the climate and social challenges that we face. But we will have to lead the government, not the other way around.

We have built an amazing agricultural organic movement around the world. Because it is successful, others will try to steal it. Real Organic Project is building a label that will represent organic farming in the US as we first intended. I believe it is the same kind of organic farming that many millions of Americans want to support.

Please sign this petition to remind the USDA that this is not a settled issue. Please forward this letter to your friends.

Many thanks,


The USDA Gives In

We don’t get many wins with the Federal government these days. But we had one last week. USDA had been allowing the use of prohibited substances for hydroponic producers just days before certification. We stopped them from allowing glyphosate and insecticides for hydro berry operations. That means there will be a little less Roundup sprayed in America next year.

colorado windmills surrounded by fruit trees against backdrop of snow covered mountains

It is a small victory, but we must celebrate our wins. The bigger problems of integrity in the National Organic Program continue. Hydroponics, CAFO eggs and milk, and fraudulent imports all continue. Real Organic Project was not created as an advocacy group to reform the USDA. Perhaps that is why we were successful in this organizing effort. We were formed to create a viable add-on label that would represent real organic food to the eaters of America. Still, when we learned about the glyphosate spraying, we couldn’t ignore it.

owl in flight

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

This was written by Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird By Bird. It is a good story to remember when we face overwhelming tasks.


The News Starts To Come Out

I started to raise this issue of spraying prohibited chemicals in a session at EcoFarm last January. It was a panel on add-on labels that was facilitated by CCOF Executive Director, Kelly Damewood. It included Laura Batcha, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of Regenerative Organic Certification, and Paul Muller representing Real Organic Project. At the end of the panel, Laura made a statement that the NOP would NEVER permit the use of herbicides in certification. I stood up at the microphone and told her that I had reports that glyphosate WAS being permitted just weeks before receiving certification in hydroponic berries.

Her brief reply was, “If you have proof, file a complaint.” I have since gotten to hear that line a lot.

I can’t think of many examples where filing a USDA complaint led to a positive outcome. The complaint against Aurora Dairy following a front-page expose in the Washington Post led to a perfunctory USDA investigation. The sole visit to the Colorado CAFO was announced ahead of time. Unsurprisingly, the cows were on pasture THAT day.

More to the point, where was the outrage of these organic leaders at my report?

aerial shot of concentrated animal feeding operation dairy where animals cannot possibly make it out to graze grass

Finally, Public Outrage

The outrage came months later, after I put out a very public letter. I wrote about meeting with Jenny Tucker (Head of NOP) and asking if such practices were being permitted by the USDA. She said yes they were permitted. The public outrage following that was so extreme that some even accused me of making the whole thing up. Some insisted that this could not be happening. In an interview with Civil Eats, Jenny Tucker claimed that she had investigated these reports with the named farms and certifiers, and that they were not following these practices. It was another failed “investigation.” Then at the Seattle NOSB meeting, Jenny stopped answering all questions relating to the issue, claiming these were all “hypothetical.” Apparently, she thought she didn’t need to answer because the certification of hydroponics was “a settled issue.”

farmers rally to protest the usda at a national organic standards board meeting in the fall of 2017 in Jacksonville Florida

The Americert Letter

Recently I was able to send out compelling evidence that this spraying was, in fact, happening. A letter from the accredited certifier Americert clearly laid out that prohibited pesticides such as glyphosate had been used just prior to gaining certification in hydroponics operations, and that the USDA knew about it.

farm worker sprays chemicals on crops while wearing protective gear

USDA Response

The USDA responded to my last letter by immediately issuing a memo to certifiers imposing new standards on transition time for hydroponic producers. They are now requiring that hydroponic producers follow the same three year transition time required of real organic farmers. Of course, the memo simply applies the laws codified in the Organic Food Production Act. It doesn’t contain new rules. It just insists that the old rules be applied.

One of those rules (6504) states that organic crops shall “not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products”. So that seems clear. The only question is how they thought that this would not apply to hydroponic producers? Is that because they aren’t really organic? USDA Certified Sort Of Organic?

They also state that:

“The OFPA, Section 6502 defines a certified organic farm as ‘a farm, or portion of a farm, or site where agricultural products or livestock are produced.’”

So that would mean that greenhouses are included in this “decision”. They might not have any “land” but they are certainly sites where agricultural products are produced. Unless we can’t even call hydroponics “agriculture”.

But wait a minute. They go on to say:

“This memo clarifies that the legal requirements related to the three-year transition period
apply to all container systems built and maintained on land.

“Certifiers must consider two questions when certifying container systems:

• Eligibility: Is the land eligible for organic production?”

I’m just wondering if USDA considers greenhouse and enclosed factory production to be “land”?

greens being grown hydroponically in an artificial indoor environment

Is It Clear Now?

So amazingly, even the clarification isn’t entirely clear. This is not a minor question, with the prospect of hundreds of acres of conventional hydroponic greenhouse vegetables transitioning overnight to become “organic.” That is coming quickly. So please, Dr. Tucker, answer this question. Does your clarification include ALL certified organic production, or only that outside, in the fields?

The memo goes on:

“Certifiers must evaluate the compliance of the overall system, including maintaining or improving natural resources, supporting nutrient cycling, promoting ecological balance, and conserving biodiversity.

“This memo applies to all new container systems that have not yet been certified under the organic program. It is not retroactive to already certified operations and sites. All currently certified container system operations retain their certification as long as they maintain compliance with the regulations.”

Well, that first paragraph is a whopper. How is it possible for a hydroponic system to support nutrient cycling and promote ecological diversity? Is the USDA going to honestly evaluate that?

The second paragraph is a whopper as well. They have earlier said that none of this is happening. Now they are saying that yes, it has happened, and yes, it was against the law, but we are letting them keep their certification. We are giving them a mulligan. Because…???

Beautiful winding field of organic kale

Call To Action

I ask that the USDA reverse this position. Make these producers go through the 3-year transition period like all other organic growers. Failing that I ask that they tell us which farms have sprayed prohibited chemicals. Don’t we, as customers, have the right to know? And which certifiers approved them in the first place?

Having written about all the problems, let us take a moment to enjoy that we won something. This is our first win of any significance since they passed the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit hydroponics. It has been a long dry spell.

Organic farmer Mike Brownback is all smiles in his Protect Organic t shirt in Jacksonville where he testified to the National Organic Standards Board

What Did We Win?

I believe that the most important victory here isn’t the shift in USDA policy. It is still an immensely flawed policy that permits hydroponics, CAFOs and fraudulent imports. We don’t need to change the laws to fix all this. We “merely” need to enforce the laws we already have. As it turns out, that is not easy.

A respected certifier recently wrote to me:

“We always caution container folks that they are going to be required to meet ALL requirements. We certified a hydroponic grower back around 2010. I took that app because “everyone else” was doing it, so we thought we would jump in. It lasted about a year and a half and when that grower surrendered we notified NOP and the world that we would no longer certify hydroponics. When we did an audit in 2012, (a coworker) asked me why. I slid the copy of the regulations that were on the desk over towards him and said: “If NOP tells me which regulations to ignore, and which to apply when certifying hydroponic, we’ll consider it”. He quickly closed the regs, slid them back, and said we didn’t have to if we didn’t want to.

“We’ve never seen an application from anyone who even approached CAFO status – but know this – there is nothing in the new OLPP that we did not already require/look at. To us, all of the livestock requirements were already in plain view and still are.”

It really isn’t better laws that we need. It is enforcement of the good laws that already exist. Hydroponics are already forbidden. CAFOS are already forbidden. Fraudulent grain imports are already forbidden.

But who will police the police?

The important victory we won last week is the coming together of the organic community. As we wake up from our trance of helplessness against the power of the government/corporate alliance, we remember that the government only functions with our permission, and the corporations only thrive with our support. We do have choices that we can make. This conversation has been going on all of our lives, and it will continue much longer than we will. Unless we fail so badly that there are no people, corporations, or governments left.

The Real Organic Project is thriving with your support. Our certification program for our add-on label is growing splendidly. Linley inspected 12 farms last week. Applications are coming in a steady stream now. And so are donations. Our thanks to all of you who are being so generous. Our special thanks to the two large donors in the last two weeks. One angel donor made such a large and generous anonymous donation two weeks ago. But to all of you, large or small, your donations make our work possible. We are building a new system, and we don’t want the foundation of this movement to be the backs of the farmers. They are already carrying enough weight.

Please share this letter with your friends. I apologize for the lawyerly details, but such is government policy. To help create the change, please sign our petition to take back organic.


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hydroponic tomatoes being grown in an indoor facility

Instant Organic Continues To Be Allowed. Just Add Water.

It is a simple question.

Is a three-year transition required for all operations in USDA organic?

We finally have proof of the answer.

Zero transition time means that glyphosate, malathion, and other egregious materials can be permitted the day before organic certification. With no transition time, what is there to stop some cynical hydroponic producers from transitioning in and out, taking a week between crops to “bomb” their greenhouses with an insecticide or “clean up” their fields with an herbicide? Then the next week they could bring in new “containers” and get recertified as organic.

And what if people find out?

They will say, “Surely this isn’t allowed!”

a big tractor rolls through a farm field

But when the National Organic Program (NOP) has been asked, they have given very confusing answers. NOP head Jenny Tucker told the National Organic Coalition on several occasions that NO transition time is required for hydroponic to be certified. When I asked Jenny if a producer who sprayed glyphosate a week before certification would be disqualified, she said no, confirming her earlier statement to NOC. Then, in an interview with Civil Eats on April 23, Jenny seemed to be giving confused and contradictory answers. And in repeated questioning at the Seattle meeting of the NOSB, she simply refused to answer at all, saying that the questions were hypothetical. And she said she wouldn’t answer hypothetical questions.

An old time comic scratches his head, baffled.

This is not a hypothetical question. What is the policy of the USDA?

Another simple question is whether this is actually happening? Have some hydroponic producers already been certified immediately after using prohibited substances?

We finally have a clear answer to that question.

I am including a copy of an April statement by an accredited certifier from Florida named Americert. You should read it! It is pretty interesting. Here is one paragraph. Skip it if this is too technical:

“The USDA NOP organic rules in section 205.202(b) requires that “any field or farm parcel from which harvested crops are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “organic,” must: . . . Have had no prohibited substances, as listed in §205.105, applied to it for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of the crop”. Previously, Americert had not applied this requirement to container based operations, including systems of raising perennial crops in containers where the onsite soil was not a component of the production (i.e. the soil onsite was not used in the container based production and the containers did not have direct contact with the ground), as it was determined, consistent with 2010 National Organic Standards Board guidance on container based systems, that the requirements of this rule did not apply to container based systems. However, there has been recent controversy generally about container based production and specifically about field based container systems. As a result of that controversy, Americert reached out to the USDA National Organic Program for clarification of whether or not Americert was interpreting this aspect of the rule correctly and in line with the NOP’s current thinking on this issue. On the one hand there has been widespread (but not universal) adoption of the approach taken by Americert, and there has been comments and discussion with NOP officials which appeared to suggest that such an approach was in line with the NOP standards and the NOP’s approach to this issue. There is also the NOSB 2010 proposed criteria for container based production which is consistent with Americert’s approach on this issue. On the other hand, there have been some few but vocal critics of this approach. Not all certifying agents use this approach. On this basis, we asked for confirmation from the NOP that the approach used by Americert was a proper interpretation of the NOP rules. We have not been able to obtain a clear statement from the NOP one way or another on this issue. It may be that the NOP itself, having not previously considered this issue deeply enough, does not know where it stands on this issue. To date it has not publicly and specifically approved of the practice, but neither has it specifically and publicly disapproved of this practice. While the NOP is aware that many certifying agents, including Americert has interpreted the rules in this manner, it has not issued a Notice of Noncompliance to Americert on this basis, and has not issued specific guidance or a specific statement approving or condemning the practice. It appears that on this issue, we are left on our own to determine how to proceed.”

The highlights of the letter are:

  1. Certification immediately after the use of prohibited substances has been “widespread.”
  2. The National Organic Program has made comments implying support of this policy.
  3. Americert has asked the National Organic Program for clarification on this practice and has gotten no answer, forcing Americert to make up their own standard.
  4. In a burst of caution and based on their own judgment, Americert has changed their own “best guess” standard for ongoing certification, limiting approval of prohibited substances on the ground where containerized plants are at least 6” above the ground.
  5. Which means that Americert is still allowing the use of glyphosate (or any other prohibited substance) immediately prior to certification if the pot is sitting on a 6” base or bench.
hydroponic tomatoes being grown in an indoor facility
Because these plants are more than 6″ off the ground, it is being permitted to spray any prohibited insecticide or herbicide in a greenhouse or field just days before planting.

Hypothetical? It is happening. According to Americert, it is “widespread.” Why did the NOP state in Seattle that they wouldn’t speak about hypotheticals? According to the Americert letter dated April 26, the USDA knows it is happening. And the USDA has not stopped it.

It appears that the USDA has a very warped idea of what organic means. One starts to wonder if the USDA WANTS to destroy the organic seal, or if they are simply very bad at their job. To serve and protect? Integrity and transparency?

The reason the USDA is thrashing around so helplessly is that they no longer have a North Star to guide them in their decisions. Earlier, the NOP was guided by the law. The Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) is clear that soil is the foundation of organic agriculture. In fact, OFPA Insists that the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility is the basis for all organic farming. Organic farming is a process, not just a thing. Not just a list of approved ingredients. The law is clear. It is a good law. But who will enforce it?

Senator Patrick Leahy speaking at a Vermont farm rally, where he said "Let Organic be organic be organic!"
Senator Patrick Leahy is the co-sponsor of the Organic Food Production Act. Speaking at the Thetford Rally In The Valley to protect organic, he said “Let organic be organic!”

Hydroponics has no place in organic farming. Nor do CAFOs and animal detention centers. We mustn’t get sidetracked on trying to “reform” organic hydroponic or organic CAFOs. Better standards on how many years a producer is allowed to cover the soil with black plastic and pots before “responsibly” disposing of them are not the answer. Better porches on detention centers are not the answer.

Nor do we need to protect hydroponics or CAFOs.

They are already flourishing as the epitome of conventional agriculture. They are doing fine without allowing the USDA to redefine organic. Organic farming is meant to be something different. Americans are hungry for real food. They are desperate to find food grown differently. And they are turning to organic as a hopeful solution.

We must not allow them to be cheated. There MUST be a genuine alternative to all that.

The Real Organic Project is our attempt to return to the original organic. Return to a pioneering way of farming that was imagined as a genuine alternative to the industrial-agricultural complex.

That phrase can sound hackneyed, but it describes a reality that is only intensifying in its damage to us all. Let us turn away from “Certified Sort Of Organic” and build a movement that can feed everybody real food.

Please sign this short petition calling for the USDA to return to the basic premise of organic farming: Feed the soil, not the plant.

Please join us by signing to up to receive our updates by sharing your email address with us. Please make a donation if you can afford it so that family farmers don’t have to carry this weight alone. Please share this letter with all of your friends. Truly, we can do this, but we can only do this together.

Have you ever heard a young child say something over and over, hoping by repetition they can make it true? That is what the USDA has done this winter, saying over and over that hydroponics in organic is “a settled issue.” It is not. Clearly, the USDA doesn’t know what they are doing, They are staggering around making up new regulations by whim. The USDA has the arrogance and clumsiness of power. They don’t have the right to tell us what organic means. It was their task to protect organic, not to redefine it. And without our permission, they don’t have the power either.

Many thanks,


Real Organic Project Pilot Farm growing blueberries in soil

USDA Organic Now Allows Herbicides

USDA Organic Now Allows Herbicides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to see this 20-acre hydro operation.

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

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

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

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

So back to my question for Jenny Tucker.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

It is not settled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please share this letter to friends who might care.


organic fruits and vegetables in back of pick up truck

The Truth About Real Organic Food In The Supply Chain

The Truth About Real Organic Food In The Supply Chain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in the dirt,

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

To Enid With Gratitude

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

Enid Wonnacott NOFA VT Executive Director

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

young Enid Wonnacott during her beginnings at NOFA VT

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

Enid Wonnacott addresses the crowd at a speaking event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The Organic Community Gathered at Dartmouth

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

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

The subject of the day was the reclamation of organic.

It was a celebration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Dear Sonny Perdue – Do Better!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we must work to protect it.

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

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

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

Dear Secretary Perdue,

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

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

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


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

Yours in the dirt,


2019 EcoFarm conference graphic Resilience is Fertile

EcoFarm 2019: As The Community Gathers, Resilience Is Fertile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019 EcoFarm conference graphic Resilience is Fertile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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