Home » Know Your Farmer Videos

Category: Know Your Farmer Videos

Know Your Farmer | Spiral Path Farm


Mike Brownback grows organic produce on 300 acres near Harrisburg, PA with his wife Terra and sons Lucas and Will, relying on trusted soil building techniques for over 30 years. He is passionate about not allowing hydroponic fruits and vegetables to use the USDA Organic label and is shocked that our government has enabled the United States to become the hydroponic “dumping ground for the world.” Although many hydroponic vegetables are grown in Europe, Mexico, and Canada, they are forbidden to be labeled organic in the countries where they’re grown!

Mike has spoken in front of the National Organic Standards Board twice in his career; once, at the beginning, to voice his opinion against allowing irradiation and GMOs in USDA organic. After winning that fight, he returned to the farm assuming everything was going well. After finding out that hydroponic production was being labeled organic, Mike returned to testify in front of the NOSB in November of 2017. Here, Mike spoke to NOSB members of the enormous benefits of carbon sequestration in soil and how that simply doesn’t occur in hydroponic containers. The definition of organic, by law, is shamefully overlooked for the sake of pure greed. Read the full transcript below.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

Mike, Terra, Lucas, and Will Brownback, Spiral Path Farm, Pennsylvania

Mike Brownback:
We moved up here to Perry County in 1978. When we started, the first person that came to see me was a fertilizer salesman. The next thing I know, I found myself farming conventional.

View of Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania
View of Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania, where Mike Brownback and family have steadily increased organic matter and soil fertility since 1977.

We always had our garden as organic – it wasn’t certified, but was always organic. One evening, I was taking a walk. I stripped an ear of corn and I peeled it down. It was an ear of corn I was growing for my pigs.

I bit into the corn and I got to thinking, you know, I sprayed this corn with herbicides (I wouldn’t use pesticides even back then). I thought you know this is kind of hypocritical.

Here I am spraying corn to grow feed, or something else that I sell, but for my own family I’m using organic.

It was really my midlife crisis. And I had to come to terms with what was in my heart, what I knew was right – and that was not using any “weapons of mass destruction” on my crops.

Organic integrity was something that I think was deep-rooted in me.

Growing Vegetables And Building Soil Since 1977

I’m Mike Brownback and we’re here at sunny Spiral Path Farm. After two weeks of rain, we’re happy for the sun to be out.

My wife Terra and I founded Spiral Path Farm in 1977. Today we’re farming 300 acres, along with our two sons, Will and Lucas, and also Deirdre and the children.

We have three generations on the farm and we’re really proud of that.

Spiral Path Farm is certified organic; we’ve been certified organic since the mid 90s.

We have a vegetable operation and we market pretty much A to Z. We do asparagus to zucchini and a whole lot in between – anything that’ll grow in our climate.

long rows of field grown kale at sunset on Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania
Long rows of field grown kale at sunset on Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania. Excess sugars produced by soil-grown plants are stored in the soil as carbon.

We’re fortunate that we have a very large CSA here in the greater Harrisburg area. And we also direct market to Wegmans supermarket chain.

Great Tasting Food Comes From Very Healthy Soils

As you can see, we have a hilly farm operation. It is mandatory that we have soil stewardship and conservation practices – all our fields are cover cropped.

We use cover crops to create biomass. We use compost on top of our cover crops and we really strive to build healthy soil.

We want healthy soil because we intend to build the most nutrition we possibly can into food and improve the flavor profile. Great tasting food comes from very healthy soils.

Put Your Resources And Trust Into Building Soil

All our compost is farm-derived. We actually have a lot of fallow fields – I don’t know if you can see in the background, but we have fields that we’re not farming.

We actually harvest those fields once a year as a hay chop that we use as the main ingredient for our compost.

View of hayfields at Spiral Path Farm
Hilly hayfields surround Spiral Path Farm. Hay is grown and harvested as the main ingredient for the farm’s compost operation which along with cover cropping serves as their on-farm fertility. Plants fed with slow-release nutrients like compost and cover crops build nutrients into their fruits that are passed along to eaters. Hydroponic growers rely on quick-release liquid nutrients such as hydrolyzed soy protein and fish fertilizer that are not sustainable. Fish fertilizer, for example, is not a byproduct of the fishing industry as many believe, but rather is contributing to the problem of overfishing our seas.

We also use our packing house waste, so our compost has no animal manure from off-farm inputs; we use what we have on the farm.

My advice to young growers is: “Put your resources into building your soil and trust that system.”

Time-Tested Methods Vs. Easy Money

The organic scene has changed some over the years. Really, back in the early days, it was easy to overwhelm the market if you had good crops.

Now that the market opportunities have increased, so have the players – now there’s a lot of players out there.

We find that there are many, many organic stewards that are really into it for the improvement of the soil. But there are also some players out there that are really looking for the money and the easiest way to grow their crops.

Mike Brownback grows tomatoes in soil at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania
Mike Brownback grows tomatoes in soil at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania. Tomatoes are one crop that is increasingly grown hydroponically, including in containers filled with soil-substitutes such as coir from coconut husks. The barrier between plant roots and soil prevents excess carbon from being stored in the earth and prevents the soil from developing the necessary water-retaining qualities that help to prevent drought and run-off.

We prefer the method that is time-tested: trusting building the soil, getting the nutrition into the soil, and getting the nutrition into the crop through building soil.

Certified organic started without the USDA. It was all private certifiers, some state certifiers and with the Organic Food Production Act it became mandatory that all organic certifiers were accredited by the USDA.

It’s up to us as eaters of good food to make sure that our government is following the letter of the law.

Family Farmers Unite to Reclaim Organic Farming
Family Farmers Unite to Reclaim Organic Farming. Note the message on Eliot Coleman’s t-shirt (far right) that reads “Protect Organic from the OTA” (Organic Trade Association).

Organic farmers across the US began speaking out against the organic certification of hydroponic produce in 2015. Other concerns included the weakening of organic livestock regulations and reports of fraudulent “organic” grain imports. Organic farmers testified at the National Organic Standards Board Meeting (NOSB) in Jacksonville, Florida in the fall of 2017. They were stunned by the overwhelming passion and support for their words and the board’s decision to turn a deaf ear and move forward regardless.

Read: Hooked on Hydroponics, Dave Chapman on the Shallowing of Organics by Dan Bensonoff

Mike Speaks Out Against Allowing Hydroponics To Use The USDA Organic Label

Mike Brownback, speaking to the NOSB in November 2017: “This is my second time commenting to the NOSB. The first time was at the proposed rule back when it was the big three, you know, the sludge the irradiation and the GMOs.

And we’ve come a long way from then and congratulations everybody.

But I’ll tell you one thing, back then, one of the rationalizations was that we were going to have
reciprocity internationally. And that IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) accreditation was going to be something that we’d all have.

And I don’t understand why the United States is the dumping ground of the world for hydroponics.

What’s going on here? This is something that’s very confusing to me.

The Brownback family of Pennsylvania's Spiral Path Farm in 1977 and today
Mike and Terra Brownback today and the family playing ball way back when.

As far as following plans for soil improvement, we’ve taken a farm that was run down that we purchased in 1977 with 1.7 percent organic matter. It’s now, well over 5%.

You know, raising organic matter, that is carbon sequestration.

I only have a ninth grade education as far as my biology goes, but basically, the simple sugars that come from photosynthesis, they go into the soil, the excess.

How can they go into the soil if it’s protected by a layer of a container, of a raised bed or whatever term we want to use?

I don’t get it. I’m somewhat confused. Where is our integrity?

What do we have for anatomy as a people if we’re willing to turn a blind eye to the facts of life?

We’ve had many people here eloquently state what is true and what is simple, what a child can understand.

What do we need to do?

I don’t see anybody in this room who is opposed to hydroponics that’s going away.

(Turning to address the organic farmers seated behind him) Are any you guys going away? I don’t think so. We’re here for the long haul.”

Know Your Farmer | Ela Family Farms


Steve Ela of Ela Family Farms in Hotchkiss, CO shares how he manages his organic perennial fruit orchard with a holistic eye. Grateful for the long view that a multi-year crop like trees gives the grower, Steve and family implement highly sophisticated low-impact practices that “benefit the commons” rather than polluting. Steve shares his secrets to naturally controlling the infamous apple codling moth and green peach aphids – pests that result in the massive use of harmful pesticides in conventional fruit production. In the 1950s, Steve’s grandfather was one of the first to plant cover crops for fertility in a fruit orchard. Read the full transcript below.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

Steve Ela, Ela Family Farms, Colorado

The organic ecosystem fascinates me. How we work from soils, to tree, to pruning, to thinning, to a peach that drips down your chin when you eat it – that whole system is what I love about Organics. It’s so unknown.

I mean, we know so little about soils and perennial fruit systems.

I’m Steve Ela, of Ela Family Farms here in Hotchkiss, Colorado. My family has actually grown fruit in Western Colorado since 1907. We started organic farming in 1994 and the farm became 100% certified in 2004.

Before that, we were conventional farmers, but at this point, I would never go back. If something happened and I couldn’t be an organic grower I’d probably just put up a for sale sign and move on and do something else.

We grow organic sweet cherries, peaches, pears, apples. We have plums, and rhubarb, and heirloom tomatoes, as well.

“I Love Being an Organic Grower Because I Love Ecosystems.”

We grow perennial trees that are here for 20 to 40 years. We grow cover crops between the trees. The whole thing is a system. We have to think multi-year no matter what because they’re trees.

Every year is different because the weather is different, the trees respond differently; we have different rainfall, the cover crops behave differently, and the insects behave differently.

Some years our predators are ladybugs and other years they’re lacewings. What makes that shift in any given year? There is no doubt that I could farm for 100 years and still be learning from this system.

“My goal as a grower is no externalized costs.” – Steve Ela

My goal is to not have nitrate leaching in my groundwater, not have soil erosion that floods rivers, not lose phosphorus, and not have some of these things that we as a society subsidize otherwise. Rather we want to keep costs on the farm, and account for them, and take care of them.

Orchard Cover Crops Grow Fertility on the Farm

My granddad actually was one of the first people to plant cover crops in orchards. They were all clean cultivated up until that. He bought a rotor beater, a mower that can mow the cover crops – that was really innovative. We have a newspaper article from the 50’s showing this innovation.

We’ve always had cover crops near trees. We’ve managed them differently than we do now, but my goal, and we’re not there yet, is to grow all our own fertility on the farm.

We’re planting our cover crops, we’re planting legumes, we use a lot of alfalfa, Dutch white clover, and hairy vetch.

We’re certainly looking into some of the other cover crops that we need to play with more. We have very shallow top soils and very deep, clay subsoils and alfalfa is one of the few roots that goes down into that subsoil.

Most other plant roots hit that subsoil and go sideways, and so alfalfa is really critical in our system to build that topsoil layer deeper, to bring minerals up from below, to build water channels through that subsoil.

We’re running 3.5% organic matter, so in these soils, that’s 1.5-2 percent above normal.

Organic Growers Sequester Carbon in the face of Climate Change

One of my hopes for organic farming is in mitigating the climate change that we’re facing.  Organics can lead in the way in terms of carbon sequestration – how much carbon and organic matter we’re tying up and holding onto in the soils. I hope that Organics gets a lot of credit for that.

There are very few insects that we actually have to control. Aphids and mites are biologically controlled by natural predators, if we don’t screw the system up by using insecticides, which also harm the beneficial insects.

Codling moth, which is the worm in the apples, if we don’t control that, we’re going to get eaten alive. So, if we’re going to control it, how do we control it without screwing up the rest of that system?

When we were conventional, invariably you put on the worm spray, the codling moth spray, and then because you killed off many of the natural predators, you’d have to put on an aphid spray and also a mite spray. Those are really harsh sprays and the pests are really good at developing resistance. So, you’re on this chemical treadmill.

Whereas, once we got rid of those conventional materials, aphids and mites disappeared from the system because of the proliferation of natural predators. They’re there, you can find them – you need some food for the biological predators, but I don’t even scout for them anymore. They’re a non-issue.

Natural Insect Control with Pheromone Mating Disruption

If you look at our insect control program, it’s really the result of organic research in the last 20 years.

For example, for codling moth for worms, our first line of defense is pheromone mating disruption. We’re putting out dispensers with the pheromone specific for that insect – the pheromone that the female insect emits to attract the male.

We’re blanketing the orchard with that pheromone. Those pheromones are very specific to that insect. We’re not disrupting any natural beneficials by putting out this specific pheromone, but we’re controlling codling moth.

Our second line of defense, if they’re still finding each other, is a natural virus that is specific to codling moth again. So you can apply it, it doesn’t affect any other insects, and it doesn’t disrupt the system. It only hurts the insect that we’re going after, and it’s a naturally occurring virus – essentially like releasing ladybugs to control aphids – so I think that’s really elegant.

This spring in fact, we came out and green peach aphid, which can sometimes blow up was there. At one point I thought “uh-oh, this may be one of those years that the peach aphid is going to get ahead of us.” Two weeks later, you couldn’t find them. Ladybugs and other natural predators moved in, and away they went. If you look at the trees now, you wouldn’t even know they were there.

Funding for Research on Organic Farming is Needed

I still hear “Organics can’t feed the world” and I just don’t believe that.

I think if you compare our peach production to conventional peach production we can equal it. Apples, maybe not so much, but other crops, we can do better.

I think if we did more research on Organics, if we had the equivalent amount of research money into Organics that we’ve had in conventional, those arguments would go away.

If people take a taste at our farmers market and walk away and then they turn around and come back and buy from us because they’re stunned, that’s a good day. And that’s means we’re doing our job.

The more we do that with carrots and broccoli and tomatoes and all these things that people should eat for health, but we make them enticing and stunning, then the five-a-day program isn’t even needed because people just want to eat those things.

Growing “The Best” in a Complex System Requires Humility

We as organic growers need to be proud of what we do. But one of the concerns I guess I do have in Organics, just my own personal philosophy, is that I think we have to be careful about making claims that organics is “the best.” I think we can always say, “our goal is to be the best” – that’s what I strive for here.

Can I tell you I grow the “best peach” this weekend at the market? Well, that’s up for you to decide. You can go around and taste everybody’s peaches, and if mine are the best then great – that’s what I want to be. Sometimes I hit that, and sometimes I don’t.

In Organics we have to be wary that we are dealing with complex systems and we don’t know everything. I think it’s the wording of striving for betterment and to continuously improve is really critical, instead of saying “it’s just the best.”

We’ve seen conventional growers not become Organic but over time soften up their programs. Oftentimes it was giving them space where they didn’t have to be wrong. They’ll say “Wow, when we took this pesticide out of our system, we saw this result and that was pretty cool!”

So there’s no judgment. Then suddenly you see some of these hardcore growers going “I don’t know if I should spray because I might not want to take that beneficial out” and you’re like “Bingo!”

I think we need to give people room to change gracefully and to learn and to be proud of what they’re doing. This is really, really important.

Even as organic growers we need to say, “Yeah, maybe we’re not as good as we could be, but that’s the direction we want to go.”

Know Your Farmer | Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery


Caitlin Frame and Andy Smith of the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery in Monmouth, Maine talk about having their contract terminated by Horizon, the largest supplier of organic milk in North America. The recent and wide-spread sweep of contract terminations against small, family farms by companies like Horizon and Stonyfield is a direct result of mega-scale confinement dairies (CAFOs) entering the organic market.

A Washington Post investigative report in 2017 asserted that Aurora, the large certified organic CAFO was not meeting the USDA Organic Pasture Rule requirements. In addition, Aurora milk tested nutritionally similar to conventional milk, lacking the omega-3’s and conjugated linoleic acids found in milk from organic pastured cows. Unlike many small dairies across the country, Caitlin and Andy have found a way to differentiate their milk from USDA organic and thrive amidst the industrial take-over of organic dairy. Read the full transcript below.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

Caitlin Frame and Andy Smith, the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery, Maine

Caitlin Frame: My name is Caitlin Frame. This is Andy Smith. We have the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery and we are in Monmouth, Maine.

This is a pasture-based organic farm. We milk about 30 to 35 cows at a time. We also raise laying hens, and we have pigs that we rotate through a woodlot.

We bottle raw milk, which we can sell directly into stores and to people off of our farm. We also make a lot of yogurt.

Cows grazing on pasture at Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery Monmouth Maine

Andy Smith: We rotationally graze our cows. They generally have fresh pasture every 12 to 36 hours. The USDA only mandates that we get 30% of daily dry matter intake from pasture. But our cows average closer to 80% to 90% of dry matter intake from pasture because that’s the way we believe in raising cows because we think it’s better for the cows and it produces a better product for the end consumer.

Caitlin: For the last four seasons we’ve had a contract with Horizon. And this past January, we were notified that the contract was being terminated. We had six months notice. This was in a wave of contract terminations.

Horizon and Stonyfield Terminate Small Dairy Farm Contracts, Buy More CAFO Milk

In Maine, there were six other farms who received that notification which was part of a greater wave of contract terminations that is happening in many states.

Andy: The excuse that was used by Horizon, the company that had been buying our milk, was that they were no longer going to allow farms to divert milk supply for any other purpose including on-farm processing.

Caitlin: Which is really just so sad to see, even in small ways, what that does to a community and what that does to a farmer’s sense of ownership over their farm and what they’re producing on their farm. Maybe they want to sell a little bit of milk to their neighbors or 50 or 100 gallons to a local cheesemaker or someone who does small-scale processing. There was a lot of that going on in Maine and people are now afraid to lose their contract.

Basic Math Makes Milk Fauxganic, not Organic

Andy: There’s a huge shift underway towards large confinement, “organic” in-name-only operations in the Western United States that milk 5 to 10 to 15,000 cows and somehow supposedly meet the 30% dry matter intake from pasture rule, which they don’t. And if they do, it’s only because they do really creative math.

The organic market has provided a haven for a lot of family-scale farms, particularly in the Northeast in New England, but we just don’t have the land base to be able to expand to that scale, even if we ever wanted to, which most of us don’t.

So the organic market has allowed us to survive and even thrive for years. And now the same thing is happening in the organic market that happened in the conventional market, where all the family-scale farms are being forced out of business by these large corporate entities.

In a hot, dry summer like we’ve had the last three years in a row now we’ve had to walk the cows pretty far from the milking facility. It can take as long as a half hour just to get our little 30-35 herd of milkers to and from pasture twice a day.


So it’s pretty laughable to hear that somebody could be milking 5,000 or 10,000 cows in the arid west and still be meeting the pasture rule of 30% dry matter intake.

When the state of Texas has six organic dairy farms and they produce more milk than all of the organic dairies in the state of Wisconsin combined, by 25% more, it’s fraud.

There’s no way you can do that organically. Not if you’re meeting the pasture rule. I’m sure that you can keep them in a feedlot and feed them feed that’s been produced without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But to us pasture is such a critical part of raising cattle and chickens and pigs that making organic just about what you’re excluding from the production system instead of what you’re including just doesn’t really jive with us.

Small Dairy Farms Turn to On-Farm Processing and Shared Resources

That’s why a lot of us are trying to differentiate our products from USDA organic and trying to figure out different ways of doing that.

We’re really lucky that we have the on-farm processing because we’re now in a position where we don’t have enough milk. We’ve just expanded in several different directions and have taken control of our milk supply. There’s a group of us through the Maine Organic Milk Producers and Maine Farmland Trust and MOFGA trying to come up with an in-state processor for organic milk because the writing is on the wall that Horizon, Stonyfield and potentially even Organic Valley don’t have long-term interests in the state of Maine.

Our farms are generally so small and so dispersed that hauling milk in this state is very costly relative to other big farming states like New York, or Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin and certainly the big dairies out in the arid west.

Another thing that we’re considering is trying to form our own cooperative. Our hope would be that that we would have more stringent standards when it comes to things like grazing to further differentiate our products in the marketplace.

Caitlin: It’s just so unfortunate that when the industry saw organic farmers actually making money, then the big guys came in to get a piece of that pie, which is what has created this total glut of milk.

Andy: For years sales of organic dairy products just masked a lot of what was going on with the consolidation of these massive fraudulent organic dairies out west dumping milk into the organic market at prices we can’t touch because they’re just feedlots.

Caitlin: We really believe in organic food and that it is better for people and the land and communities.

It’s like magic making you know, if I’m feeling lofty about it, it’s pretty amazing that we are grass farming and these beautiful, lovely cows make milk out of that and we make this really nourishing food for people out of that milk.

rotational grazing at Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery is a family affair

It really feels like a privilege to provide people with food and nowadays, obviously we are still very small in the scheme of any kind of food processing company, but we reach thousands of people now.

And that’s really satisfying and very moving to think that our grass is feeding that many people.

Andy: I also really like cows – they’re nice.

Know Your Farmer | Full Belly Farm

Full Belly Farm grows over 80 different organic crops on 400 acres of land in northern California. With a sharp focus on biodiversity, the farm plants large swaths for pollinators and produces their own fertility on-site by cover cropping. Multiple generations share ownership and manage year-round labor on the farm. Listen as Paul Muller explains how the fundamental wisdom of organic lies in soil health. Read the full transcript below.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

Full Belly Farm, Capay Valley, California

Hi, I’m Judith Redmond. I’m Paul Muller. My name is Hannah Muller. I’m Drew Rivers and I’m with Full Belly Farm.

Drew Rivers: I’m one of six partners here at the farm. We have a unique ownership structure; four principal partners and two smaller partners.

We’ve been farming here at this farm since 1984. We farm about 350 acres of certified organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. We have a huge variety of things that we grow.

Paul Muller: We think about diversity from the soil up all the way through the system.

What this farm does is try to create more places for more layers of life to live.

Just in what you can see here, we have flowers, and in the flowers we will find a lot of bees that are out there pollinating, and beneficial insects. We try to integrate our farm in a kind of multi-storied way by having places for birds and beneficial insects and things that will migrate into our fields and provide us services, because we’re providing them pollen and nectar and food that they can eat. They become part of the whole approach as to how we farm and how we’re trying to provide a healthy place for more layers of life.

Underlying that is the soil that we’re standing on and the earth we’re standing on.

Judith Redmond: So to me, and to this farm, Full Belly Farm, organic is much, much more than a set of things that we do not use. Organic is a very proactive process.

Soil’s Important Role at Full Belly Farm

Paul Muller: As an organic farmer, one of the fundamental principles is that we are taking care of the soil because the soil is a complex universe that provides elements of health for all the pieces that come above that soil. So the health of our tomato plants are really dependent upon the health of the soil underneath of them. Their ability to resist diseases and insect attacks and provide us with the best tasting produce is related to the soil and our management of the soil ecology there.

Hanna Muller: I grew up here at the farm and some of my earliest memories are going out into the field with my dad and tasting the soil! My dad would bend down, and he would run the soil through his fingers, just to sort of test whether it was loamy, or was it too silty, or what was going on there. And then he would ask if I wanted to try it.

The first rain that comes down and the soil gives off this amazing aroma at our farm and my mouth still waters a little bit because it was like such a huge part of my childhood to get in my dad’s truck and go out to these fields and taste the soil that we are growing this produce from.

Drew Rivers: After every crop is harvested we always plant a cover crop afterwards. It could be either summer cover, which is this Sudangrass or a winter cover, which is usually rye and vetch. So we just really believe in the fact that we have to create soil fertility here at the farm. Every school group that comes, every visitor that comes here, we stress the importance of this, of our biggest goal: creating a healthy soil.

Everything comes from the soil and then goes into our bodies and then is creating us, as healthy human beings.

We can’t ever stress enough how important our soil is to us and as stewards of Full Belly Farm we really believe that it’s our responsibility to create a more healthy and vigorous soil for the future generations that will be farming here.

The Future of Organic Farming For the Next Generation

Hannah Muller: I am a seventh generation farmer. I am the second generation of Full Belly Farm. I think that a lot of second generation or third generation farms are struggling because I think that a lot of times people have this one idea of what farming needs to look like. And I think we need to crack that open and we need to sort of dissect that and say: “You know, we’re in this whole new generation and farming can look like so many other things now.”

It’s always felt really valuable to know that farmers don’t look a certain way. They can be women, they can be from minority groups and I feel like Full Belly Farm encapsulates that.

A really great thing about my family and the way that our farm works, is that it was never like we were supposed to come back and take over for our family’s roles. We were given a lot of opportunity and a lot of room for experimentation here. And so, my brother started a catering company using our food. And I do a flower business using our flowers. My brother has incorporated all these animals into our farm here.

And so it’s never felt like you need to follow in my footsteps. It’s more like walk in your own path; but do it your way and do it here because it’s a really amazing spot.

Organic Food Needs Strong Standards and Regulations

Judith Redmond: There’s a whole community of stakeholders who’ve had a very strong role in creating avenues for small and young farmers to get involved in organic agriculture and who have worked to create the organic label that we now have. So I really believe that organic farmers, young and old need to be actively involved in the future of our movement.

There is a huge institutional investment in the status quo and to change that, we do need regulations. Those regulations are inevitably going to be imperfect and even at times, completely ineffective. But we need to keep moving the needle. In addition, though it’s really clear to me from my experience with agriculture that those regulations aren’t effective and they’re not going to be enough.

So that we also need farmer to farmer educational efforts and incentives for agriculture that recognize agriculture as a very diverse industry with a lot of vulnerabilities and a lot of stress points.

And so any organization, like the Real Organic Project, that can help to represent an ideal and a vision, at the same time as being open to honest dialogue that recognizes the difficulties in agriculture and provides farmer to farmer exchange and educational efforts, will help to expand the umbrella of organic rather than to narrow it. And I think that should be our goal.

Noting How Far Organic Has Come And Where It’s Heading

Paul Muller: It comes to the question of where’s organic agriculture going? Organic has been amazingly successful. It’s from a small group of devoted believers that we can begin to remove some of these things from pesticides and other things from our system that we had questions about.

And a small group of consumers who believe that that’s what they wanted in their food.

It’s grown into this amazing industry where now everybody wants to have a piece of it. And that’s great. I think it’s something that’s cleaning up our food system. It’s something that’s allowing farmers to ask a new set of questions. And when you ask new questions you’re going to get new answers.

So we should celebrate the fact that organic’s growing and that there’s just a whole lot of new interest in creating clean food and healthy food systems. But any success attracts people who are interested in doing the minimum in order to achieve an economic outcome that may be beneficial for them, but misses some of the essential points.

I’ve decided that we really need to begin to look at where organic is now veering off a bit into becoming something industrial and commercial. And we need to bring it back some.

We need to celebrate our successes as an industry and as a group of farmers and a group of consumers to where we could have more confidence in the purity of our food. But we need to understand that we can’t allow ourselves to go to the “cheapest as best” paradigm.

At the heart of organic from the beginning was that soil health was critical to the health of all other pieces in that system. And I still believe that there’s something profoundly wise there. And so we have to be careful that we don’t separate, for economic efficiencies, our relationship to soil.

I’m a part of the Real Organic Project because I feel like we should not allow organic to be hydroponically grown or grown in a “medium” without the complexity of soil to be called organic.

I’m also concerned, when livestock isn’t integrated into the system, as livestock has plays essential role in making for more complex soil. We have sheep and chickens and some pigs incorporated into the whole dynamic of Full Belly farm. We feel like they can impart something into the soil ecology that’s very important.

So when animal welfare standards changed in 2017 and animals aren’t allowed access to sunlight and pasture and all the things that make their character essential to the whole ecology of the system, when that’s denied, and they are put in confinement situations, and then called organic, it’s again, a violation of the fundamental principles of animal welfare that are just key to the (USDA Organic Standards) rule as it’s written now.

The Rule says that animals need to have access to sunlight and a certain amount of pasture every year. This is for their health, and in turn, if you believe that the natural chain of relationships is that their health and our health are intimately tied together, it’s for our health as well.

The Real Organic Project is simply saying, “let’s not forget that whole chain of relationships there. Let’s not forget that the fundamental wisdom of organic is about soil.”

Know Your Farmer | Roxbury Farm

Jody Bolluyt and Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm operate a 400 acre integrated family farm in the North Hudson Valley, NY. Each year they grow 30 acres of vegetables and 30 acres of cover crops and practice rotational grazing with their livestock. Through skilled management they have doubled the organic matter in the soil and minimized the use of off-farm inputs by growing their own fertility. Jean-Paul is optimistic about our future in the face of climate change. The changes observed on their own land due to their thoughtful production practices are evidence that “the soil is going to save us.”  Read the full transcript below.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

Jean-Paul Courtens, Roxbury Farm, New York

Vegetable crop production, organically – the way that we’ve been doing it, is not sustainable. This is not working. It’s all nice and well, it’s better than using chemicals, and it’s a good alternative, but in the context of global warming, in the context of where we are as a planet, we have to do things radically different.

Integrated Family Farms Thrive On Diversity

I’m Jean-Paul Courtens. I’m one of the farmers here at Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook New York. Roxbury Farm is an integrated family farm. We grow vegetables, but we also have livestock. We raise beef, pork, and lamb on our farm.

And most of it goes to a community supported group in New York City and in Westchester County, also here in Columbia County, and in the capital district.

This farm was all in potatoes for 40 years. The land had very high weed populations, very low organic matter, and very low pH. We had a lot of work to do to bring this soil back to life again.

Learning How To Farm While Protecting the Soil

All the techniques that I learned in Holland, when I came to the US – I actually had to start all over again. We have severe weather here, which we don’t have in Holland. We have very cold winters here and very hot summers. There, they moldboard plow in the fall and leave their ground open all winter long. There it is not an issue; it’s flat. You don’t do that here!

I haven’t used the moldboard plow for 30 years. I mean, it’s something that, we just don’t invert the soil. We don’t turn the soil over. It just doesn’t happen.

When we came here, we went out with a soil penetrometer, which is a tool that you test where the compaction of the soil is. And we went seven inches down and it was rock hard. So then we had to use the subsoiler to break that. And so now we, once in awhile, need a subsoiler to break up a plow pan or something that is compacted deeper down.

But generally all we do is what we call vertical tillage where a tine goes into the soil and basically works the soil loose. But the idea is that you go shallower and shallower and shallower, so as not bring up new weeds. That’s the idea.

Rotating Crops and Growing Soil Fertility

The rotations are generally 50/50, whereby we take half of our land at any given time out of production.

If we grow vegetables every year, we learned that we are depleting the soil. And we cannot offset that by inputs of compost, especially not animal-based compost.

Our animal-based compost comes from our own cowherd. And then what we are short, what doesn’t come from cows comes from composted poultry manure, which is very high in phosphorus.

And so we’re very concerned about using that as an input because we don’t want too much phosphorus (which can cause damage in local waterways), but we do want to offset all the organic matter losses that we have in our field from the vegetable cultivation. And also, the incredible exports of minerals from our fields, minerals which leave the property when we harvest and export our vegetables off the farm.

We like to minimize our inputs on this farm as much as we can. Nitrogen is an important input with vegetables. And we like to get at least half of our nitrogen needs out of our green manure crops.

Integrated Farming, Cover Crops and Rising Soil Organic Matter

We’re quite tickled to see the organic matter go up from one 1.2% – 1.4% to 2% – 2.4% over 15 years and to most people that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually a lot. We doubled the organic matter with just the green manure crops.

Right behind me here, you’re looking at a mix of sorghum, crotalaria, which is also called sun hemp, sunflowers and cowpeas. Normally we let this crop just grow until the frost and then we chop it, then we leave it over the winter.

We can then no-till drill forage peas and that is then followed by cabbage and broccoli and cauliflower. And that’s one of the ways in which we rotate our crops. We’ve gotten more involved in rolling and crimping whereby we take a cover crop, rye or triticale and vetch and we roll the crop and plant directly into that.

We don’t want to see any erosion on our farm. That’s our hope. And the only way we can accomplish that is by keeping the soil covered at all times.

In the past, we made straw and deposited the straw in between the plastic and actually we’re now more interested in using a hay crop and putting it directly from the field into vegetables as mulch.

Regenerative Farming Can Reverse Climate Change

For me, the real challenge is to come up with some answers about how we can farm differently. That’s why I love collaborating with researchers – collaborating with other like-minded people.

There’s no way we can ever replace what the soil does for us. In the end, we come from soil and we become soil. This is the living medium that makes us.

We are nature. I don’t think that has really sunk in yet to most people that if we continue to separate ourselves from it, it’s going to make this place uninhabitable for all of us.

Agriculture has such an interface with the natural world. What better place to be than in a profession that interfaces with feeding people in the context of these incredibly big challenges that are ahead of us that have to do with global warming and climatic change. Some people say it’s already too late.

I am not like that, I continue to be an optimist. I think I have seen changes in land in three years – a turnaround of not seeing a single earth worm, to the soil thriving again and so I think it is possible, if you really put a tremendous effort in it. If you really put all your will behind it – it is possible to make a change.

I think we can do it. We’re going to have to find answers here if we want to be around here as a species. Plus the soil is so important in general, a healthy soil will be able to absorb rain. It will be able to absorb carbon. These things are not just about food. The soil is going to save us.

What Does USDA Organic Mean Today

Why the Real Organic Project exists:
The Real Organic Project is a farmer-led movement created to distinguish soil-grown and pasture-raised products under USDA organic. In response to the lack of enforcement of some vital USDA Organic standards to protect soil health and animal welfare, organic farmers rallied together to fight to protect the integrity of the organic label.

Organic farming has always been based on “feed the soil, not the plant.” Real organic farming relies on the microbial activity of the soil to slowly release nutrients to the plant. In recent years, many organic farmers have grown distraught over USDA decisions that have negated this fundamental truth, even though growing in soil is original to the USDA Organic standards. Further, rules have been overlooked regarding the proper care of grazing animals resulting in cruel and unhealthy circumstances.

Where things stand today:
The lobbying efforts of Big Ag ultimately won, allowing the input-dependent confined animal operations and hydroponic industries to bend the rules for their own benefit. Family farmers meeting the letter and spirit of organic law are suffering while consumers are once again in need of transparency in the market place.

What Does USDA Organic Mean Today?

Fertile soil has always been the foundation of organic farming. In 1995, organic was defined by the National Organic Standards Board, the USDA’s expert advisory panel, as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

But in recent years, the USDA has changed their definition by allowing large-scale certification of vegetables and berries grown hydroponically without any soil at all. They have allowed industrial confinement operations, that provide animals zero access to soil, to become certified organic.

Organic farmers have long known that healthy soil creates nutritious food, healthy people, and a healthy environment. This leaves us to wonder, what does USDA Organic mean now? How can we protect the movement that organic family farmers have built?

Organic farmers rallied across the country to protest USDA’s failure to enforce organic laws requiring proper soil stewardship. The largest rallies were in Vermont and Jacksonville, Florida, with hundreds of farmers and eaters calling on the USDA to keep organic farming based in the soil. The failure of the USDA to uphold the legislation governing soil health and animal welfare has resulted in the formation of the Real Organic Project.

Big Ag Enters USDA Organic to Bend the Rules

Representative Chellie Pingree, Maine: “In case you don’t know, there are 1,200 lobbyists on the hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend about $350 million a year on forming opinions in Washington. And that’s more than the defense industry, so don’t underestimate their power.”

Representative Peter Welch, Vermont: “You’ve got folks out there, including in Big Ag, who want a free ride and to get the benefit of the hard work that organic farmers do, and take some of that market share with a label that wasn’t earned.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, Vermont: “I know the fight I had to go through to get the original organic farm legislation through. I want organic to mean organic to mean organic. Would you agree with that?”

Eliot Coleman, Four Season Farm: “We the creators refuse to see the promise of organic farming compromised by profiteers. We won before and we will win again.”

Jake Guest, Killdeer Farm: “You know we have a right to this term ‘organic’ – we have a right. I have a right. I’ve been doing this all my life, you know? And I have a right to that continuity. This hydroponic growing is a perversion of the word organic.”

Davey Miskell, Miskell’s Premium Organics: “The 40 years that I’ve been involved in organic farming, I’m not willing to let this group of people take that away.”

Real Organic Farmers Are Fighting to Protect Organic

As organic standards have eroded and been ignored, the movement to protect organic has grown. In 2017 there were 15 rallies to promote Real Organic practices all across North America.

The rallies were a call to action to reclaim strong standards based on traditional organic farming. Ignoring earlier recommendations and world standards, the USDA has sided with industry and embraced soil-less production as organic. Hundreds of millions of dollars of hydro berries and vegetables grown without any soil, or any means of identification, are currently being certified and sold as organic each year.

Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute: “Without soil, it’s not organic.”

Onika Abraham, Farm School NYC: “As an urban ag. grower myself and a person that works very closely and advocates for people who grow in the city, I am staunchly in support of anyone who’s stewarding soil.”

Maddie Kempner, NOFA-VT: “Soil has always been the foundation of organic growing. So I think in a lot of important ways soil represents the history of organic. But I think it’s also important to remember that healthy soil as one of the keys to reversing climate change should be the future, of organic as well.”

Connor Crickmore, Neversink Farm: “Regardless of what’s going on with big business, we have to own that word and keep the spirit of it.”

USDA Organic Now Means Input Substitution

Jim Riddle, Blue Fruit Farm: “We’ve always said that organic is not based on input substitution. Well, hydroponic is totally input dependency!”

Pat Kerrigan, Organic Consumers Association: “You’re getting a watered down crop and you have no idea.”

Jack Algiere, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture: “Our relationship to the soil and our relationship to place is the key to this whole thing.”

Dave Zuckerman, Full Moon Farm and Lt. Governor, Vermont: “Organic without soil and without all the microorganisms in the soil is like democracy without people. It just doesn’t work.”

Tom Beddard, Lady Moon Farms: “Well, here we are, and we’re not going to stop until everybody in this world knows that organic farmers farm in soil. It’s the only way you can be an organic farmer.”

USDA Organic Now Means Poor Animal Welfare

The rallies were also protesting confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for meat, milk, and eggs. These CAFOs are now being passed off as organic farms to unsuspecting eaters.

Lisa Stokke, Next 7: “As a mom, I’ve always really counted on that organic label so that I know what I’m feeding my children.”

Dave Chapman, Long Wind Farm: “If the new animal welfare standards had been implemented, 3/4 of the certified organic eggs in America would have been decertified.”

Jesse Laflamme, Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs: “Small farms cannot compete with ‘organic egg farms’ housing two million hens in ten industrial-sized warehouses with only the most cynical description of outdoor access to offer.”

Farmers Testify to the National Organic Standards Board to no Avail

At the rallies, over 50 organic leaders spoke out calling on the USDA to protect Real Organic. They pointed to the widespread loss of integrity of the USDA organic program, which permits hydroponics, factory farming of animals, and massive imports of fraudulently certified grain.

John Bobbe, OFARM: “66% of the imported grains since May of 2016 has been total fraud, and the NOP seems to have a problem finding these ships.”

In November of 2017, farmers and eaters from all over the country testified to the National Organic Standards Board in Jacksonville, Florida. They called on them to keep the soil in organic and implement animal welfare regulations.

Michael Besancon, Advisor to Patagonia: “When the consumer loses confidence in the brand, the sales go down.”

Gerald Davis, Grimmway Farms: “We say let the hydroponics production method develop its own marketing label, based on the merits of their system – not ride the coattails of a successful label that doesn’t match their methods or goals.”

Despite the amazing farmer turnout, the National Organic Standards Board failed to prohibit hydroponics in the organic standards. This historic failure strengthened the growing split between the USDA and the organic community. What happens next is up to us. As the USDA attempts to redefine organic, we won’t back down.

Michael Brownback, Spiral Path Farm: “I don’t see anybody in this room opposed to hydroponics in organic that’s going away. Are any of you going away? I didn’t think so. So we’re here for long haul.”

Know Your Farmer | Radiance Dairy

Organic dairy farmer, soil scientist, and former National Organics Standards Board member Francis Thicke owns Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa. He offers scientific insight into how rich prairie soils can be built through proper management of rotational grazing. He also shares his concerns with the integrity of the USDA Organic label when it comes to enforcement of grazing requirements and the origin of livestock. The lack of enforcement of the Organic rules by the National Organic Program has caused a glut of Organic milk, resulting in the loss of many family scale organic dairies. Read the full transcript below.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

Francis Thicke, Radiance Dairy in Fairfield Iowa

My name is Francis Thicke (Tick-ee) and this is Radiance Dairy. We are an organic dairy, mostly grass-based, and we milk about 90 cows. We have 160 head of all ages.

We’re unique in that we process our milk on the farm. We make bottled milk and yogurt and cheese and we market it almost all locally.

We started out here with 176 acres and put it all into pasture. We have about 60 paddocks so the cows get fresh grass twice a day after each milking. And then as time went on, some land surrounding us became available and incrementally, we bought more land and now we have 730 acres.

We do some organic cropping, as well. The cows get fresh grass twice a day. We try to manage the pasture so that as they rotate around the pastures, it regrows and it’s fresh and ready for them the next time we rotate through the pastures.

It takes a lot of management to actually make that happen, because in the spring the grass grows very fast. We can rotate more quickly around the pasture, so we use a smaller area. Some of that area in the periphery we will make hay on for the winter. And then as it gets hotter and drier in the summer, we slow the rotation down, so the grass is longer, has more time to regrow, and a longer rest period.

That’s the biggest mistake most grazers make is that they don’t slow the rotation down. And so eventually it gets faster and faster because the grass is shorter and shorter. But if you give it a longer rest, it can regrow and then it helps to build the soil as well. A taller pasture is deeper rooted and so it’ll help to build the soil.

If you graze your pasture down very short your roots will be very shallow, and so you’re not going to really be building your soil.

Rebuilding Rich Prairie Soils, Organically

We try to mimic the process that the bison in the prairies interacted in, the model that created our rich soils. Iowa is famous for having great soil, they claim to have the best soils in the world.

But think about it – 12,000 years ago, when the last glacier left Northern Iowa, where the best soils are, there was no soil at all. It was a geologic wasteland. Material from Canada and Minnesota had been scraped off and dropped here in Iowa and there wasn’t any soil at all.

So over that 12,000 years, as plants and animals colonized that geologic material they created this rich soil. It’s an ecological process and we try to mimic that here on this farm.

The prairie grasses were very tall and very deep rooted. But when the bison come through and grazed it off, then it was short and it didn’t need all that root mass so it’s sloughed some of those roots off in the ground. Then it grows new top, more roots, and so those episodes of grazing of the bison were actually a big part of contributing to the deep, rich soils here in Iowa.

So the way we try to mimic that process here on our farm is we give the cows just as much grass as they can eat in half a day. And then wet take them off pasture, just like the bison leaving, and then it can regrow more, and develop more roots, and so we’re building the soil back up.

This land, if you look at it, it’s pretty hilly. This had all been in corn and soybeans when we bought this land in 1995. And so it was very eroded, on the hillsides all the topsoil was gone. It was down to the ‘B horizon’ – down to the subsoil. It’s kind of like when the glaciers just left, and we’re starting over. And so we’re rebuilding the soil, using that same ecological processes that built them in the first place.

Animals on Pasture Produce Healthier Meat and Milk

The microbial life in the soil is very important. I think that one thing that’s helpful is to have a lot of diversity because if you have diversity then the microbes that are symbiotic with the different plants will all thrive.

So we feed about five or six pounds of grain per head per day in the barn because our milking parlor is set up so that we bribe them to come into the barn with a little bit of grain. But basically, they get about 70% to 80% of their dry matter intake from grass in the summertime.

The National Organic Standards require dairy cows or ruminants to get at least 30% of their dry matter intake (people call it DMI) from grass. We know that when cows are on grass the milk and meat is higher in omega 3 fatty acids and other beneficial nutrients. When cows are on grass, they’re a lot healthier.

My oldest cow, I just finally – when they get 10 years old, and they milk for 10 years, we retire them, put them on out pasture. But they gotta make 10 years. But my oldest cow was 16 years old and still milking.

And the average cow will milk for 2 and 1/2 years in a confinement kind of a system. So when cows are on pasture, we have a number that are ten, twelve years old. They live a lot longer. Matter of fact I had somebody visiting our farm here a couple years ago and she used to milk cows in a confinement dairy and she said “How can those cows even walk out to pasture? The farm I worked on, the cows couldn’t walk at all, they had such poor feet.”

I’m a little concerned that many organic dairy farmers are just shooting for 30% dry matter intake when they could easily feed 70% to 80% dry matter intake from pasture. And now a lot of dairy farmers seem to be going to total mixed rations, so they’re feeding them, after milking for example, a lot of corn and silage and soybeans and so on, and filling them up before they go on the pasture so that they don’t really have a lot of desire to graze. Or maybe they don’t provide them a lot of pasture.

We kind of bribe them to come into milk and then they know they’re going to get fresh grass after milking. So they’re usually pretty eager to get out in the pasture, sometimes they’ll start running to get to the grass.

Saving Energy With Cows on Pasture vs. Cows on Concrete

Considering cows on pasture, there are really a lot of benefits, and one of them is the energy. The design is important – we have 60 paddocks and we have lanes coming up through them. So all we have to do to get the cows in the next pasture is open the gate and it closes the lane off and the cows are shunted into the paddock and then we close the gate.

And so, in a grass-fed system, the cows do all the work; they harvest their own feed and they spread their own manure where it needs to be. And they enjoy their work. And they’re healthier because of that.

Now compare that with cows on concrete – where you have to harvest all the feed and bring it to the cows, and then collect all the manure and haul it back out to the fields. Those are all energy intensive things to do and probably we never would have done that if it weren’t for cheap oil.

We’d like to eventually be self-sufficient for energy. We have a 40K wind turbine on the farm and we have some solar applications now. We want to have more in the future. One solar application we have is for pumping water for the cows. We have 60 paddocks and we have a tank that the cows can access at each paddock. The water comes from a pond that’s in an organic watershed and that’s pumped up to a 6,000 gallon tank and then the water gravity feeds to all the pastures from that 6,000 gallon tank.

A Glut of Organic Milk

We seem to have a glut of organic milk today and there are several reasons for it. One is that we have these big confinement CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations that are being approved for Organic and they are questionable, whether they really meet the grazing rule.

But another one, is that the Organic Standards are written so that once you’re established as an organic dairy farm, all the cows have to be from organic mothers from organic farms – and there is a little loophole, that people are trying to claim is there, that allows them to buy conventional cows and then convert them to Organic within one year. And that works well for them because they can buy conventional cows that are one year from milking age and then just feed them Organic for a year, and then they can be Organic.

And the problem with that is, I think that’s really against the spirit and the letter of the Organic Standard. So in the Real Organic Project Standard add-on to the National Organic Program, cows are not allowed to be transitioned from conventional to Organic, except for a one-time herd conversion of a whole herd.

If, for example, an existing dairy farmer is conventional and they want to go Organic they can convert that herd to Organic as a one time thing. Thereafter, they can’t convert any conventional cows to Organic – they have to be raised within the herd. That’s the essence of the Real Organic program standard.

Know Your Farmer | High Meadows Farm


Vermont farmer Howard Prussack describes his mixed veggie operation, High Meadows Farm, and his love for growing food in the soil. He uses techniques such as cover cropping and landscape fabric to keep the soil covered on his hilly acreage. Organic matter in his soil has increased significantly in the years he has been farming. He touches on the importance of small farms in maintaining the health of rural communities across America. Read more