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Know Your Farmer | King Grove Organic Farm

King Grove Farm, Florida

 

Hugh & Lisa Kent of King Grove Organic Farm talk about what makes their blueberries more than an ordinary organic berry found in supermarkets. They touch the land with loving hands, and the land replies with a profusion of jaw-droppingly good berries.

Sure, we might sell more blueberries if we grew in plastic buckets instead of rich soil, used harsh chemicals, and chose blueberry plant varieties developed to elevate yield over quality. But we couldn’t happily live on that land, or put the King Grove name on that kind of product.”

April – June, King Grove Organics ships nationwide – visit their website here to order the best berries you’ve ever tasted, shipped ripe and arriving perfectly ready to eat.

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Know Your Farmer | King Grove Organic Farm, Florida

Hugh Kent:

“When the organic consumer is paying a premium for organic food, they are expecting not just good food but are expecting us to use their support to take good care of our land for the future. I take my promise to them very seriously – to me it’s a sacred promise.

The farm was a conventional citrus farm before we converted it to organic blueberries. The organic decision was easy for me. The word has an inner meaning now. If it’s not sustainable, that doesn’t mean it’s neutral, it means it’s UNsustainable. If it’s unsustainable, ultimately it’s destructive and I didn’t want to farm in a destructive way, I wanted to farm constructively.

It was important to me to be able to grow very healthy food for people and do that in a way where I could leave the land healthier and more productive than when I started. The foundation of our organic system is to make the soil as healthy as we can, get as much variety and microbial activity in the soil and allow the plants to pick and choose what they need from that environment.

The plant knows what to do from there.

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King Grove Organic Farm Is Being Harmed by Hydroponic Competition

They’re saying “go ahead, go out there, compact the land and level it so it’s unsuitable for farming” This is a huge problem for people like me. Because allowing that cheap hydroponic system, a disposable plastic farm, to be labeled as organic the same way that this farm is labeled as organic creates a situation where, on the shelf, the consumer has no idea.

The prices may be different but they have no idea what it is they are buying or how it was grown.

The standards are so lax and they’ve been eroded so much. There’s so much lack of integrity now in the USDA’s administration of the National Organic Program.

If Farmer A is growing real organic, and farmer B has got this hydroponic organic… then Farmer A has two choices:

Go out of business or adapt to the hydroponic system…

Or a third choice is to explain to people that their product is different and worth more money. That’s my job – to explain to people what’s going on.

It’s frustrating that the hydroponic industry should explain why it’s good but they don’t. They never are labeled as hydroponic and it confuses the issue and ignores the fundamental differences in the growing methods.

People in the general public don’t understand the importance of the soil – it’s not just about clean food – it’s also about stewardship:

Of the farms where it’s produced: taking seriously the obligation to care for the immediate environment (woodlands, wetlands, soil quality). That’s how real communities are retained.

If we have more sustainable farms in this country, we bring back the health of our rural communities. The primary intention of the statues that made the National Organic Program was the stewardship of the soil… it’s the living organisms that are in the soil that create this quality of the food. We’re now understanding now is that this is where there’s a huge potential for carbon sequestration.

Good healthy soil isn’t just for growing good healthy plants that sustain healthy people, it’s also about the larger system. It’s also about having a healthy planet.”

 

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Know Your Farmer | A-Frame Farm

A-Frame Farm, Minnesota

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

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

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

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Know Your Farmer | A-Frame Farm, Minnesota

Carmen Fernholtz:

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

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

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

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

Carmen & Company

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

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

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A-Frame Farm has organic integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Know Your Farmer | Greener Pastures Chicken

Greener Pastures Chicken, Texas

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

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Know Your Farmer | Greener Pastures Chicken, Texas

Cameron Molberg:

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

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

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

Organic Farming in Texas

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

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

Cameron Molberg of Greener Pastures Chicken

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

Keeping Birds Comfortable & Pastures Healthy

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

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

Minimizing Off-Farm Inputs

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

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

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These chickens have plenty of space to roam

The Two Sides of Organic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scaling Up Without Compromise

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

Top notch quality

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Know Your Farmer | Swanton Berry Farm

Swanton Berry Farm, California

 

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

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Know Your Farmer | Swanton Berry Farm, CA

Jim Cochran:

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

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

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

So it adds up.

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

Swanton Berry Farm strawberry sign

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

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

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

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A bunch of strawberries

Swanton Berry Farm Puts Employees First

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

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

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

Swanton Berry Farm Fields

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

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

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

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

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

The employees of swanton berry farm

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

 

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Know Your Farmer | Happy Hollow Farm

Happy Hollow Farm, Missouri

Liz Graznak, owner of Happy Hollow Farm, explains that community supported agriculture is her way of being a political force. Her CSA members have the option of participating on the farm through distribution shifts and farm work days. Their CSA is already full for the 2022 spring-summer season, but be sure to check their website for 2022 Winter Shares!

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Know Your Farmer | Happy Hollow Farm, Missouri

Liz Graznak: I love growing things. I love feeding people. I love the community that exists around my CSA – the community of people who support my world.

Liz Graznak carrying celery at the farmers market

Organic Farming at Happy Hollow Farm, Missouri

My wife and I have Happy Hollow Farm.  This is my eighth year farming full-time. We are certified organic and located in Jamestown, Missouri, which is about 45 minutes outside of Columbia.

Columbia is my main marketing area. I do have a few local customers who live out here and shop with us. But mostly, I go to Columbia and sell via CSA, a local farmer’s market, some local restaurants, as well as to a Natural Grocers, which is a pretty good-sized grocery store in Columbia.

The Happy Hollow market setup

Being a Political Force Through Community Supported Agriculture

All of my CSA members participate. I have a work requirement. All members per share are required to do two 4-hour farm work shifts and two 2.5-hour distribution shifts.

CSA is my way of being a political force in the world. I’m never going to run for office, but I have a direct connection with my customers. Many of my members have been members since I started farming, and so I’ve been watching their kids grow up. They’ve watched my little girl grow up. And that’s fabulous.

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Workers in the high tunnels at Happy Hollow Farm

Small Farm, Big Impact

The main motivation for certifying when I first started farming was maybe was twofold. It was me in my tiny little world of being a small-scale farmer feeling that my voice makes a difference. I also felt that we should all be certified because I think that the grander, bigger world of the consumer just doesn’t understand what “organic” really is. There should be more of us growing organically so that more people start to appreciate this way of farming.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any more certified organic growers in my area than there were eight years ago when I first started. There are more smaller growers, but nobody is certifying.

Farming Methods that Customers Can Trust

In the consumer world (certainly in Natural Grocers, restaurants, and my wholesale vegetables) being certified organic matters. People view it as an important distinction between me and the other growers. They believe that if I am growing organically, I’m following the practices that I say that I’m using.

I know that there are a lot of issues in the organic world right now, but I do not think that the general public knows that, understands that, or has any idea that those things are going on. Regardless, it is important that my customers know the practices that I am using in farming, and that they can trust the things that I’m saying about those practices.

Crops in a field at Happy Hollow Farm

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Butterworks Farm Know Your Farmer Video

Know Your Farmer | Butterworks Farm

Butterworks Farm, Vermont

Butterworks Farm’s 100% grass-fed Jersey cows bring premium organic dairy products to the market including yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and heavy cream. In addition to producing delicious food, they are committed to using their land and livestock to sequester as much carbon as possible.

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Know Your Farmer | Butterworks Farm, Vermont

Jack Lazor: It’s much more difficult for us now to sell our yogurt now than it was 20 years ago because we’re competing with all these slick-looking brands on the shelves that don’t even come from farms, but they’ve got “farm” written all over them.

Butterworks Farm Products

Producing a Signature Product at Butterworks Farm

Anne Lazor: This is Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont. We are a dairy farm with about 40 Jersey cows, all grass-fed. We have a lot of pasture all around us here and some hay land. All of our milk is made into Butterworks Farm yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and heavy cream.

Jack: We decided to produce a signature product – something that we could put our name on and pour our heart and soul into. We did it at a time when the marketplace and organics were growing. It was the beginning of the movement.

Market and Media Forcing Out Small-Scale Dairies

Jack: The movement has kind of flattened out now. We are dealing with a lot of huge corporate competitors. You hear every day about how organics is growing, and you go to the store and you see all this packaged stuff – everything from cheddar flavored lotus nuts to cold brewed coffee, and it’s all in fancy packaging.

The other big thing in the dairy industry right now is the proliferation of “plant-based milks” whether it’s oat milk or almond milk or soymilk or any of these things… or the Impossible Burger. It’s a foregone conclusion in The New Yorker and the New York Times that these are better for the earth, and consumers out there really want to do the best. Many, many of them do. But small farms are really at a disadvantage right now.

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Butterworks Farm Jersey Cows

Unsustainable Exceptions for the Mega-Dairies

Anne: The price of milk is at an all-time low. There are huge dairy farms out there milking 500 or 1,000 cows. Some of them are even certified organic, which raises eyebrows because how do you be certified organic without giving your cows pasture? The organic rules require farmers to have the cows out on pasture for 130 days a year, and the big dairy farms that are trying to milk that many cows often don’t have the pasture that can support that. So, they tend to have what they call concrete grazers where they bring in green feed and call it “good enough.” For some reason, the USDA National Organic Program has okayed this, much to the chagrin of small farms.

A supposedly "organic" farm with little to no pasture A supposedly “organic” dairy farm with little to no pasture. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

Defaulting to “Cheapest is Best”

Anne: All sorts of people, high-income as well as low-income, are buying their food at the cheapest places, which might be Trader Joe’s or Costco or Walmart or wherever. I think our values have really shifted to a place that’s probably not as good for the human body as well as the environment. It’s perfectly alright to spend $1,000 on a phone, but it’s not alright to spend money on food anymore.

Farming for the Planet

Christine Lazor: Regenerative agriculture and the way we farm can do so much for the quality of our food, air, water, and animal lives while building soil organic matter, fostering healthy soil microbes, and pulling atmospheric carbon down into the soil through photosynthesis.

Jack: We have undergone a transition ourselves in the last five years from being a dairy farm that grew all its own grain (and also sold grain) to a 100% grass-fed operation. We had our own cornmeal, flour, rolled oats, and oat groats in the stores. I even wrote a book called The Organic Grain Grower. Anne: We wanted to be fully sustainable. In the past, we tilled a lot of land and we depleted some of the resources in that land by exposing it to the air and doing a lot of tillage. Yeah, we used cover crops and things like that, but it just didn’t have any comparison with having grass roots in the ground all year round.

Jack: Five years ago, we stopped feeding grain to our cows. In the process of going 100% grass-fed, we also started learning about climate issues. We took all our grain land and seeded it all back down to forage and hay crops. That land has just gotten better and better.

Rainbow over butterworks farm

Sequestering Carbon Through Dairy Farming

Jack: Whatever time we have left at the end of our careers here, we would like to devote it to working on methods that actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back down in the soil. We are in a project right now with Dartmouth to see if we can even sequester more carbon. Anne: Don’t underestimate the value of the cows in the carbon sequestration process because the cows are actually eating the grass and improving the biology by leaving their manure behind. The manure then gets incorporated into the soil, and it builds the organic matter. Our farm is hopefully contributing a lot more carbon into the earth than we’re taking off (although we’re all taking carbon off the earth).

Jack: I feel better about the way we farm than we did five years ago. The contribution that agriculture could make to climate issues is just tremendous, and it’s hardly ever mentioned. We need to have our side of the story told. We need more articles in The New York Times that will actually tell you that cows on grass are not bad. As a group, we know what we’re doing. And we know how to heal the earth.

Recognizing Farmers’ Work

Christine: I’m hopeful when I hear the voices of women farmers, young farmers, minority farmers, that as caretakers of the soil, our work can be recognized as it becomes ever more important. I think we need to hear a more diverse array of voices among farmers to build the awareness and empathy we need as a society and also to grow the respect farming deserves as an occupation.

Christine Lazor in front of a Butterworks Backdrop Poster

Bringing Together Those Who Care

Dave Chapman: A long time ago far, far away, organic was simple. It was about healthy soil. We all know that organic was about respect and care. Jack and Anne are here – they are symbols of Real Organic farming, and one of the things that we are coping with and the reason that we’re creating this effort is because these symbols are being used as false representations of what people are often buying.

Jack: The Real Organic Project has been a great thing because it’s bound together a group of farmers who really, really care and there’s farmers who are longtime farmers like us. And then there’s farmers who are fairly young and new. But we’re all here to care for the earth and care for our customers.

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Know Your Farmer | Park Farming Organics

Park Farming Organics, California

Images in this video courtesy of Park Farming Organics

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Know Your Farmer | Park Farming Organics, California

Brian Park: I have kids, and I want them to grow up in a healthier world than I did. I think that if we had more organic farms, I think us as a people would be healthier.

Two Generations of Park Farmers
Image Courtesy of Park Farming Organics

Crops and Distribution at Park Farming Organics

Park Farming Organics is located in Meridian, California. We have about 1800s acres of certified organic crops including tomatoes, wheat, rice, beans, alfalfa and various seed crops. Most of our tomatoes go to a cannery over and Williams and then they’re canned into diced tomatoes, peeled tomatoes, or a tomato sauce. Some of them also go to Bianco DiNapoli – they have a pizzeria in Phoenix. The rice goes to Lundberg Family Farms up in Richvale and gets made into rice chips, rice cakes, and bagged rice. We grow different varieties like Akitakomachi, Koshi, and short grain. Most of our beans go to Eden Foods in Michigan, where they just get canned, and some of our corn goes to Amy’s Kitchen.

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Processing tomatoes
Image Courtesy of Park Farming Organics

Keys to Success: Intense Crop Rotations and Cover Cropping

A key component of our success growing organically is having a pretty intense crop rotation. This alfalfa field would be followed by tomatoes, then rice, then a legume, then corn, and then wheat. Not only does the rotation keep the soil healthy, which is the most important part, but it keeps a lot of the pests out. For example, aquatic weeds in rice fields don’t get to build up a population if we only have rice for one year.

We almost never leave ground fallow during the winter. We just find that the amount of benefits we get from cover cropping is too good to pass up. Whether it’s the insects, the less compaction from rain, or living roots having that symbiotic relationship with the microbes. And then the kicker that we get coming into the spring – being able to get on the ground earlier. It just makes our tillage easier; it just works up like a garden. That’s what we think helps us be successful – just taking care of the soil.

Winter Cover Crop
Image Courtesy of Park Farming Organics

Cutting Back on Inputs

We’ve actually had some success growing rice for a nonprofit called Shumai. This happened about seven years ago and was a really neat learning experience for me and my dad. They contacted us probably because they know that we’re kind of the local guinea pig and we’ll try anything. So, we planted 25 acres in of Akita rice, but the 7 acres that we planted for them, we didn’t put any manure, kelp, or any of our microorganisms that we typically use when we drill in rice. So, it got nothing other than a cover crop.

After watching the rice grow, we noticed that it had the same vigor as the rest of the field, had the same color, and when we went to harvest, it had the same yield. That was one of those “Aha” moments. Maybe we’re putting down too much compost and we can start cutting it back. Maybe our soil has gotten to a point where there’s some residual N from previous years. That’s kind of fun for us to see that our ground can go without any inputs.

Hay fields with mountain range backdrop
Image Courtesy of Park Farming Organics

Continuous Improvement

As an organic farmer you can expect that over the years, on older organic ground, you will start have yields that are comparable to conventional farming. We’ve noticed that our older organic ground is continually improving in all different facets. In the springtime, we’re able to get on the ground faster because the cover crop is helping take up moisture, but also all of the winter rains that we’ve received have gone into the ground instead of running off. And the plant itself seems healthier as well. Also, with a healthier plant that’s not jacked up on synthetic fertilizer, it seems like it’s able to fight off pests naturally. Very rarely do we see an outbreak in any kind of insects or disease. We grow around 1800s acres and 10 to 12 different crops and never seem to be in fear of losing a crop because of insects or disease. So yeah, I think that’s totally 100% because of the healthy soil.

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Know Your Farmer | Durst Organic Growers

Durst Organic Growers, California

Jim Durst, farm director at Durst Organic Growers, was a member of the California organic certification board when the organic standards for CCOF were first being debated and written. In his “Know Your Farmer” video, Jim explains that agriculture should be built upon the premise that the soil brings us life.

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Know Your Farmer | Durst Organic Growers, California

Jim Durst: Organic is all about soil. It is about putting as much carbon and nutrients back into the soil as you take out – or hopefully more! My philosophy is: healthy soils make healthy plants, and healthy plants make healthy people, and healthy people make healthy communities.

Jim Durst Looking at a Tilled Field
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

Farming at Durst Organic Growers, California

Our farm is in central California – in Yolo County. We currently farm about 700 acres, and our major crops are asparagus and snap peas (in the spring), cherry tomatoes and seedless watermelons. (in the summer), and in the fall we start out winter squash. Our markets are mostly into the wholesale and retail markets across the United States. So we do ship to the East Coast and to the Pacific Northwest, but a good deal of our product stays on the west coast. During production time we have about 175 people working here and we try to pay above what anybody else pays for wages.

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Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

Competition from Mexico

I’m in the tomato business, and our season is only four months long, but right now we’re getting a lot of competition coming out of Mexico. At our farm, we pay more in one hour than they do in 10 hours in Mexico. Where’s the parody there? And that’s organic; I’m glad they’re growing organic. However, it’s not Mexican farmers who are growing organically. They are mostly California farmers who got tired of the regulations in this state and moved their operations to Mexico. Then they’re sending it back up here because they have marketing organizations all set up in this country.

Boxes of Squash
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

A Broken Food Distribution System

The hardest thing for new farmers is getting food into a local supermarket – one that’s within 5 or 10 miles of the farm. It is pretty difficult because the grocery stores already have established buying channels, and these buying channels are tied into big marketing organizations that are working all over the world.

Unless you can tie into one of those marketing organizations, there are very few retailers that will give you a spot on the shelf – even if you only have 10 boxes [of produce]. The retailers don’t want 10 boxes; they want what they want. They want how many they want. You have to be able to produce and keep up with them if you want to be one of their preferred providers.

There is something about the distribution system that we are working in right now that is probably unhealthy. We need to decentralize our distribution systems. We have developed a culture that is addicted to strawberries 360 days out of the year. They don’t even taste good out of season!

Box of Organic Cherry Tomatoes
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

Shaping Organic in California

When I joined California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 1984, I became Certification Chair for our chapter – this meant that I was automatically on the state certification board. At that time, we were writing a lot of the rules and the regulations for organic agriculture in California. Every week, we just hammered on one point, and wrote, and rewrote, and finally came up with things that we thought had to do with the integrity of working with the soil and creating healthy soil.

Agriculture, wherever you are, should be built upon the premise that the soil brings us life. We have a responsibility to return, enhance, and build up the life in the soil. It’s a living creature. The soil is not dead. It’s a living thing. When we learn this, as a culture, we will have a different outlook on how we fit into this planet.

Jim and Deborah eating watermelon
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

There is a lot of philosophy in the organic rules. We were constantly asking, “How are we going to steward this in a way that is sustainable, not just for our generation, but for generations to come?”

For us, working with people and working with plants and working outside –  It doesn’t get any better than that.

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Know Your Farmer | Frey Vineyards

Frey Vineyards, California

The Frey family has been farming in Redwood Valley, California since 1980. Eliza Frey, winemaker at Frey Vineyards, says that healthy and diverse soil profiles are the basis of their wine quality.

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Know Your Farmer | Frey Vineyards, California

Eliza Frey: One of the reasons that we want to be part of the Real Organic Project is just to make sure that organic farming literally keeps its roots in the soil.

Paul Frey working the soil
Image courtesy of Frey Vineyards

Farm Overview and Organic Methodology at Frey Vineyards, California

We farm about 325 acres of grapes, and that is about a third of our production. Some of our fruit is bought from other vineyards in the area, so in total, we are sourcing from around 1,000 acres. We are lucky that here in Mendocino County we have the highest percentage of certified organic vineyards in terms of our acreage.

Our grapes are not fertilized beyond working with soil fertility. We incorporate a small amount of compost every couple of years, and cover cropping is our main fertility method. But we’ve noticed that with a little bit lower fertility, you often get a nicer quality in the grapes. The vines need to work a little harder in order to get what they need, but then the flavor and the quality is better.

One of the things that is rather unique about our winery is that we are both grower and processors certified organic. In order to use the term “organic wine,” the grapes obviously have to be grown organically, but then the whole process of the wine making has to be certified organic too. So that means you cannot use any synthetic additives or processing aids or preservatives. That is important to us – that we carry it all the way through, both the grower and processor certified organic.

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Organic and biodynamic wines
Image courtesy of Frey Vineyards

Nutrition Starts with the Soil

One of the main reasons that people are drawn to organics is for health – their body health and the health of the planet. There is a lot of research to come in the next few years about the nutritional qualities that soils can bring into food and then pass on to people.

Soil is the base of the quality of our wine. A term that a lot of people are familiar with in wine is terroir, which is the unique quality given to the grapes and wine from the land where it is grown. California is pretty young (geologically) with a lot of tectonic movement, so we have a wide variety of soil compositions. Even though most of our vineyards are within about 20 to 30-mile range, we have many different soil profiles.

Organic zinfandel grapes
Image courtesy of Frey Vineyards

I am personally passionate about the whole concept of soil health and the mysteries beneath the soil. Soil science was seen as something that was inorganic for so long in the history of agriculture. There was the belief that the different soil components and nutrients were static, and in order to remediate something, you just add more of another. There is a huge body of research and experience that has been growing over the last several years that says that it is the life in the soil that really dictates the whole nutrient flow.

There is no lack of nutrients or minerals in the soil. There is plenty of nitrogen there, there is plenty of phosphorus, there is plenty of potassium, there is plenty of everything you need, and what a lot of soils lack is just the biology to access it.

goats in the vineyard
Image courtesy of Frey Vineyards

Decreasing the Carbon Footprint

Many people are not aware of the role of organic farming in topics like climate change and the carbon footprint of agriculture. The carbon footprint of a lot of the inputs that are used in conventional agriculture is really vast, and that is something that I have just started learning over the last decade or so. It is not only the distance that your food needs to travel to get to you, but all of the inputs on the farm had to come from somewhere as well.

Really focusing on the hydroponics – it is just a full-on input system. Whereas if you grow in healthy soils and have that biology, you don’t need all of those inputs. The soil food web will take care of a lot of that. So we want to harness that and work with nature.

vineyard rows and rustic tower
Image courtesy of Frey Vineyards

Creating Community

One of the beautiful things about people getting more educated about some of the issues in [organic certification] is the sense of community that is fostered. It takes a little bit more vigilance and research on the part of the consumer, but there is also a lot to be gained with having relationships with your farmer and knowing where your food comes from. It is one of the things lot of small vegetable farmers that I know talk about – just that sense of community and that sense of camaraderie that happens when you know where your food comes from. It is really enriching to the human spirit and something that we can all strive for a little more.

I do still feel like the USDA Organic label is probably your best assurance if that is all that you have. It will be exciting to see more and more products with the Real Organic label on them, which gives people another lens into their choices.

A group of Frey farmers and farm animals near the rustic tower
Image courtesy of Frey Vineyards

Updates from Frey Vineyards, California: Rebuilding After Wildfires

In 2017, we had wildfires that came through Redwood Valley and burned down our winemaking facility, all of our corporate offices, and a bunch of homes of the different family members in the Frey family. So, one of the responses to that is a whole rebuilding effort. People are building new homes and we are building a new winery. This is going to be a crushing facility where grapes are brought from our own farms and from the farms that we buy from. It will also be a processing and bottling facility. We will have all of the presses, tanks, and everything that we need to make and bottle our wine. Our offices will also be here. Ever since the fires happened, we have been disjointed. We had an office rental in the nearby town and a modular office. It’ll be nice to regroup and be here together – we’re very excited about that.

The Frey team at the old winery office
The Frey team at the old winery office. Image courtesy of Frey Vineyards

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