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Know Your Farmer | JSM Organics California

JSM Organics, California

Javier has spent the past eight years creating his farm, JSM Organics, California with a mission to provide his community with high quality organic food that is both affordable and accessible.

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Know Your Farmer | JSM Organics, California

Javier Zamora: I enjoy what I do. And I’m blessed. I’m a blessed individual because I’m still able to farm. I’m doing what I enjoy doing, which is producing lots of food for the community. And I’m really proud that I have employees that actually make really good money and can do things that they perhaps wouldn’t be able to achieve if they were working for somebody else.

My name is Javier Zamora. I’m a certified organic farmer, and the name of my business is JSM Organics. We’re in beautiful Royal Oaks, California, which is a small little town between Watsonville and Salinas. I grow mainly strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, lots of vegetables like celery and cabbages, and lots of organic flowers.

Well, I come from a farming family in Mexico. I didn’t come to the States until the age of 20. I lived in Southern California (L.A.) but I didn’t do any farming there. It wasn’t until 2011 that I moved up here to Watsonville, and I started educating myself more about farming, and I started my own farm in 2012. I started with a little acre and a half – it was just me at the time. And now, seven years later, we grow over 100 acres and employ about 27 full-time and about 30-something during the season. We feed a lot of people out of this land. It’s here for us to make the best out of it.

Becoming Stewards of the Soil at JSM Organics California

We have to understand that the way we treat the soil will impact the future generations of farming and food production. I don’t just use and mine the soil. I feed the soil. All the time. Cover cropping, composting, rotating – you must do these things. Just like the way we nourish our body and our system; we have to do the same thing with the soil. We’re just using the soil. We are really blessed that we have it, so we have to leave it for somebody else in better condition than when we took it on.

The Importance of the Farm Experience

The biggest thing for me is to connect the end consumer, the eater, with the farm. I’m a big advocate of having college students, universities, and people from the community come and visit the farm so they can taste a strawberry off the plant or they can chew on a green bean off the plant and experience how it’s incredibly different than when they buy a clamshell of strawberries at the supermarket. At the supermarket, they don’t know how long the food has been picked for. Having the farm experience and visiting the farm changes people’s mentality about where their food comes from. And they get informed and educated about the real cost of food.

A group of students at JSM Organics

Creating Better Opportunities

At most big farms, the labor force is mostly mexicanos, they’re from Mexico. The hourly wage is anywhere from $11.50 to $12.25. My employees make from $14 to $21 an hour. And I know their names. I get involved in a little bit of their lives so that I know what issues they might be facing or how I can help them. They’re not just a number for me, and they’re not just a group of people that are coming in for four months to do all kinds of work for me – pick all my strawberries or all my celery and then go away. And then I won’t know anything else about them. No. They’re people.

When I was a farm worker myself, I wasn’t… I wasn’t treated as I wish I would have been. I don’t want my workers to feel the same way. So, I want to make sure that they feel really good about doing what we do. And make sure that they can pay for the bills so that they can, if they wish, build a home in Mexico, or send their kids to school here in California, or have an apartment by themselves with their families instead of having to live in a trailer with six or seven other people.

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Diversification: Not Only Better for the Soil, Better for Employees Too

One of the things that I do as a diversified farm is that I grow different types of vegetables and fruits at different times with different varieties, with hoop houses, with perhaps even a little green house in order to extend my season and keep my employees working longer. I don’t have to just employ them seven months per year – I can actually employ them eleven months out of the year. And my temporary employees can work seven months instead of five months. Having a diversified farm allows you to do that.

So, the farm needs to be diverse, but your employees have to be very diverse as well. Not just Juan, Miguel, and Maria. It has to be the Hannah, the François, James, and Josh. And anybody that wants to farm and wants to be a part of your operation must be included. And must be giving an opportunity to give it a chance. When you deal with bigger farms, they get contractors and they have these massive amounts of land that they just do lettuce and their profits are within pennies, because they have investors and they have all these people that want returns, so they’re not able to do certain things that I’m doing. But that’s not sustainable.

Small Farms Growing for the Community

We just need many more small, family-owned farms that are closer to where people are eating. Our zucchinis, they can come from California in October and November – we don’t have to depend on the Mexican zucchinis or the Chilean blueberries or things like that. There are a lot of things that we can do locally. And when you have a large number of small farmers near the people that eat, things get a lot better. Right? Instead of having big farms far, far, far away –only God knows what’s in those fruits. You don’t know. Here at my farm, we know. And that’s why you guys come and see me. That’s why everybody comes to see the farm because they want to know. They want to know, “How is Javier growing these beautiful and tasty strawberries?” So, thanks for coming out here and letting people know what we do.

Freshly picked organic blackberries

Supporting Your Farmer

We all want to do good things, but we can’t do it by ourselves. We need a team of people to get on board. One of the biggest things that you can do is actually know your farmer. Where is the farmer farming? Come and visit the land where he’s growing those tasty strawberries or bell peppers or watermelons – whatever it might be. Talk to him. Find out what issues he’s facing. Find out the success that he’s having. What can you do as a buyer or as a consumer to support his goal of being a successful farmer? Because sometimes it takes years to do that. And it takes many people in the community for that farmer to succeed himself or herself. It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to really be a farmer that can have an impact in the community. There is a team effort of members of the community, employees, and many other things that are part of being successful.

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Know Your Farmer | Hawthorne Valley New York

Hawthorne Valley, New York

Spencer Fenniman of Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley talks about real organic farming and biodynamic practices.

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Know Your Farmer | Hawthorne Valley Farm, New York

Spencer Fenniman: So Hawthorne Valley has been a part of the organic farming movement for about 25 years, especially with the dairy farming. The recent trend in really what seems to be a watered-down organic standard, of hydroponic production, and large CAFO dairies, and confinement animal production, it really runs contrary to our principles.

And we have invested a lot into the organic name over the years. We want it to be something that really continues to mean what it intends to be.

Hawthorne Valley Farm New York Dairy Barn

So, I think that’s something that drew us to the Real Organic Project. Because we like to support a farmer- driven effort, to kind of take back what organic means in the public’s eye.

I’m Spencer Fenniman and this is Hawthorne Valley Farm. We are organic; a Demeter-certified biodynamic farm, in Columbia County, New York.

The farm was founded in 1972 by the Hawthorne Valley Association in an attempt to bring kids in Waldorf schools out to a working biodynamic farm.

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Spencer Fenniman in the Hawthorne Valley Farm pasture with dairy herd

The farm originally comprised of a dairy herd, and that’s about it. And over the years, we’ve added vegetable production and a meat operation that includes beef cows and chickens.

We’re only producing chickens – we buy in our first batch in mid-March if we’re feeling a bit risky. And the last batch goes before Thanksgiving, and then we’re done.

We’re not going to produce chickens in the winter inside because we feel they need to be out on pasture.

chickens on pasture at Hawthorne Valley Farm New York

The Farm As An Organism

The current dairy climate is very unsettled and it’s been a very difficult patch for other organic dairy producers. Lots of the milk that’s being produced is not quite in line with what most consumers think of as organic practices.

The cows really are a bit of the linchpin for the whole farm system and in biodynamics we have this concept called the farm organism, and what we’re looking to do is balance the farm. So, not swing in too many directions and not have too many vegetables where we don’t have enough fertility to supply those vegetables (with nutrients to grow).

Our cow herd provides the compost and the manure for all of our fields and we compost it and spread it on our vegetables, on hay fields, and sometimes pastures as well.

Field crops grown in soil at biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm

So it’s important for us to keep the right amount of cows for our acreage.

What I appreciate about long term biodynamic management is that there is a certain attention to the land. But I don’t think that’s unique to biodynamics, I think it’s a method by which that attention is promoted, but I think that farmers of the same mindset have that same attention to their fields and it’s usually shown.

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Know Your Farmer | Pete’s Greens Vermont

Pete’s Greens, Vermont


Pete Johnson has been growing vegetables for most of his life and has been selling them for just as long. Today, Pete’s Greens is one of Vermont’s largest-scale growers with a CSA that gets delivered to 25 sites across the state. He’s also a strong, respected voice within the national organic community. Click here to read the newsletter paired with this video, Pete’s Greens and Dartmouth Symposium.

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Pete’s Greens, Vermont

Pete Johnson: Really confronting the problems of organic and really speaking up about them is a double edged sword to some degree.

I mean, I believe we need to do it. But it’s sad to me. It’s sad that that has to happen.

I’m Pete Johnson. We’re at Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, Vermont.

We grow about 100 acres in mixed vegetables, have about 2.5 acres of covered production, cover crop a couple hundred acres every year and we market through a year-round CSA, farmer’s market, little farm stand, and lots of different stores and restaurants all over – mostly in Vermont, but also some to Boston, New York City.

When you walk into a hydroponic greenhouse or lettuce operation, tomato operation, it’s clearly different from a soil system.

greens growing in soil at Pete's Greens Vermont

And I’m not a zealot. I’m not here to tell you it’s necessarily better or worse, but it’s definitely different.

It doesn’t need to have the same name.

Organic Consolidation Hard On Small Dairy Farms

And the consolidation of organic production into bigger and bigger operations, you know, in the vegetable world that had already happened 20-plus years ago. And we’ve been living in that environment ever since. And we’ve developed our own niches within that.

Where it’s really having a big effect in Vermont right now is on the dairy side, where we had about a 10 year run where small organic dairies did really well.

They were able to make a living for a family with 30, 40, 50, 60 cows which was really exciting.

And really good for the culture of our region.

And those days seem to be ending because the Pasture Rule seems to be taken very seriously in the Northeast. I know farms that spend a lot of time and energy making sure that they achieve the [Pasture Rule] requirements there.

And some of these (dairy farms) out west are not doing that at all.

So it seems like one of the most unlevel parts of the whole organic playing field, and USDA is not preventing it.

It’s a big mystery to me why that is OK.

Anytime you can capitalize on something and figure out how to make more money doing it, somebody will do it.

And it’s really sad because for dairy farmers to take the leap to processing their own milk (to overcome low commodity pricing) is a big step and only some people can do that.

And I’m just sort of watching that world deteriorate where it was really a bright light for a while. I have lots of friends and neighbors who are stuck in that right now and are still mostly limping along.

But it’s not like it was at all. And the writing’s on the wall.

Vermont Farmers Rally Against NOSB

There was the [National Organic] Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Stowe, which is about as close to here (Craftsbury) as you can get.

And we decided to put together a few tractors and some posters and banners and head over there and have a rally. And it was fun and seemed to have, I think it was good for them to see that people in Vermont cared.

Pete Johnson testifies NOSB meeting Jacksonville

It’s been a tough uphill fight the whole time. And that’s led us to this point where we’re starting a different program.

One of the things I like about the Real Organic Project is that currently it’s not super burdensome.

We’re tagging along with USDA inspectors and there’s a few additional things. But we’re not creating a whole additional really burdensome system that I think would be hard for farmers to engage with.

But branding is really important.

I mean, part of our appeal is something that can differentiate your product from others and I’m excited to watch the branding of this organization really take off and become something that people understand and we can all talk about more because I think that’s really where the value starts to come.

Pete's Greens farm stand

And those of us who are farming in this way can start to show people more easily “this is how we do things” and have them understand that.

Real Organic Food Has Truly Enforced Standards

Some of the differences [with Real Organic Project Standards] are no hydroponic production – it’s prohibited.

We actually have real standards that are enforced and verified about pasturing and much stronger standards about housing of organic livestock. I’ve had the privilege of being in some factory scale organic chicken layer houses.

And I don’t think it’s quite where most people imagine organic egg production to be.

So we tightened up some of those things. And I think it leads to production systems across the board that are more like what consumers have in mind when they pick up something that’s organic off the shelf.

I see most people coming into organic, or many people come into organic when they have kids. I think they’re mostly worried about chemicals and hormones and things like that in their food when they have kids and that seems to be the opening for many people.

pepper grows in the soil at Pete's Greens

And then, in Vermont it’s been amazing what’s happened in the last 10 to 15 years with the education, the consumer and people really get much deeper into that now. They learn what it means to support small farms. What that does for the community.

I mean, again, it [organic] means to me so much more than the prohibition on what you can’t use.

Low-Input Vegetable Growing Is A Fast Game

So I guess for me, it’s really sort of a way of growing where you try to create the proper conditions. Set things out there, take care of them at the level required but not spend more time or energy than is needed and let nature really manage most of it.

And now I think of vegetables as being like, you go in, you have this cover crop system going, this nutrient flywheel, organic matter flywheel, and you dash in and grow a vegetable crop and get out of there again as quick as you can because it only makes it worse.

hoop house veggies growing at Pete's Greens

Vegetables bring pests and diseases. It’s hard to control the weeds and when we’re cultivating our vegetables we’re more open to erosion then and we really like to minimize the period of time that we’re cropping vegetables on a given piece of land.

And that has led to a pretty low input system for us where we have a lot of land to manage.

But we [on our farm] don’t have to worry too much about crop performance, because we’re going into a good system where there’s a lot of organic matter decomposing, a lot of nutrients, a lot of healthy tilth.

And so it’s sort of a balance of traveling more around the neighborhood in order to have better conditions.

We don’t irrigate outdoors. We just let organic matter take care of that. And so it’s lower-input as far as caring for each crop.

But we’re managing more land as the trade in the end, hopefully have a profitable scenario that’s good for the environment, good for people there.

The Power Of Money Vs. Power Of Voice

That NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] meeting in Jacksonville was the first one I had really spent much time at. It was really clear how many interests there are tugging on everybody’s sleeve trying to get their attention.

We all understand this, but powerful, moneyed voices sometimes get more attention. But then there’s always something powerful about people coming out of the woods and speaking up.

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Know Your Farmer | Legend Organic Farm, Saskatchewan

Legend Organic Farm, Saskatchewan

Real Organic Project interview with farmer Stuart McMillan of Legend Organic Farm Saskatchewan and Dag Falck of Nature’s Path. You can read Legend Organic and NOSB Testimony here, the accompanying newsletter that featured this video from December 1, 2019.

Legend Organic Farm, Saskatchewan

Stuart McMillan: It is more than simply the presence or absence of pesticides. That’s where I think I see the biggest challenge.

“Oh, you’re organic. So you don’t use any fertilizers or pesticides!”

“Yeah, I don’t use any fertilizers or pesticides.” But what am I also doing?

It means that I’m trying to actively build soil health, trying to actively promote the environment, actively preserve and maintain our biodiversity. All of those things are also parts of what being organic really is about.

Dag Falck: I’m Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager for Nature’s Path Foods. I’ve been working with the company for 16 years now. Nature’s path is a company that is very committed to organic so every product we have is certified organic.

And that means that we don’t have to sort of double-think anything. We know what we are about: we are about organic. And we don’t have to protect a non-organic side of our business.

We’re totally in on organic.

We believe that’s the way that we are going to leave the earth better, by using this system that’s developed around organic.

We’ve been involved with buying farmland since 2008. We started to buy farmland, and we’re not aiming at, you know, growing everything that we need to make our cereal.

nature's path granola product photo
Photo courtesy of Nature’s Path.

Legend Organic Aims For Biodiversity

We’re aiming at learning about agriculture, being a very active participant and hands-on with the farming aspect of our business so that we understand the farmers that we work with, we understand the issues that they are dealing with, and we can also hopefully be of help to them by experimenting with leading-edge technology and methodology and organic principles.

Stuart: I’m Stuart McMillan, I’m a farmer at Legend Organic Farm, one of the farms supplying into Nature’s Path Foods.

We’re almost on the fringe, where the agricultural region of the prairies meets in with some of the northern boreal forests. So some of the crops that we end up growing are ones that suit this area, so peas and oats and wheat and flax — those are what I’d say are our principal crops.

And we’re always trying to see if there could be a new crop that might fit in here, to allow us to diversify our rotation, and yet one that’s still suited to our area and our ecology.

Our harvest was interrupted by four weeks of snow last year and our crops ended up being buried under snow and we finally resumed harvest in October. So the region definitely poses some challenges for management, especially as an organic farmer trying to use the best practices.

stuart macmillan inspects grain at legend organic farm
Photos courtesy of Louise McMillan and Legend Organic Farm.

It does make things a little more complex, but that, I think, is the interesting thing about real organic farmers. They are always innovative, they are adapting to their region, they are trying to come up with a solution that fits with their crops, their ecology, their region.

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I think having goals that can be adapted across this wide variety of growing regions and the wide types of operations is something that’s essential in how we maintain the integrity of organic standards and how we maintain the integrity of the goals of what we want organic to truly stand for.

Having complex and desirable crop rotations, protecting pollinators, the water, or soil health — those are goals that we can all work towards and, again, approach with different tools in a different region.

When you look at a lot of the peer-reviewed, scientific studies, It’s not just a hunch that organic is better for biodiversity, It’s proven!

Time and time and time again Whether looking at organic soybeans in the Cerrado of Brazil, whether it’s organic dairy farms in Germany, or whether it’s organic apple orchards in Washington State, or organic grain farms in the prairies of Canada.

In this crop of oats, I know I have dozens and dozens and dozens of different plant species, all of which are flowering at different times; I’m quite happy with this crop.

crimson clover at legend organic farm

It’s not overly weedy or overly problematic, but there are flowers that are out there and those flowers, some of which come early in the season, like the dandelions, are providing pollen and nectar for all sorts of insects. And those insects, in turn, are supporting song birds, and this ecosystem just keeps building up and up and up from a diverse soil, to diverse plants, into a diverse ecosystem.

Soil Health Written Into Organic Standards

When it comes to thinking about the standards or the regulations in organic agriculture, I do think that having a recognition that promotes soil health is a goal that all farmers, regardless of what they’re growing, whether they’re a dairy farm, a vegetable farm, an almond orchard, or an oat farmer, we all need to, and should be trying to, promote and protect soil health.

How do I start building up carbon in my soil and have it out of the atmosphere?

The research has shown that organics can play a really important role in that.

But I would say that it also shows that the right type of organic farming can really do that [sequester carbon] and that’s where I think it’s important that we really always think about, “How do we do things better?”

How do we make our systems more sustainable?

How do we champion those that are doing more for the soil, doing more for the environment, and not just meeting the base rudiments of the expectations but are really being innovators, and adapters, and trying to go beyond?

farm equipent and silos at legend organic in saskatchewan

Dag: I consider my job at Nature’s Path kind of my dream job because I get to be in the places that I have an interest in being, and also educating about what organic really means.

And that’s a wonderful opportunity to help build this movement and to help people understand what it’s about because there is a lot of lack of understanding of what organic is really about.

Because of the fast growth [in organic] in the last few years, a lot of new people are coming into it and not having a real full picture of what it’s about.

wetlands at legend organic

It is complex. It’s a complex style of agriculture. And it takes knowledge and skill to do it.

And it’s not push-button, you know, it doesn’t have push-button solutions. It’s not like you have this problem and you just solve it with this one single solution.

In conventional agriculture, that’s the approach that’s favored.

Aiming For A More Fertile Agriculture

In organic, the approach is to recognize the holistic system of nature that we are functioning within and to function in that environment in a way that’s not disruptive, and is taking advantage of the ways that nature creates fertility, for instance.

And so if we can take advantage of that because we are not disrupting the natural system and then we can utilize that and build our crop fields with those technologies.

We think that, who’s going to win in the end of all that?

The environment is going to be healthier, fertility of the soil is going to have natural robustness.

An organically managed field will be more fertile each year that it’s growing something.

farm fields at legend organic, a nature's path grain farm

In conventional agriculture, it’s not necessarily inherently more-fertile after each growing season, because of the inputs of chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers don’t strengthen natural fertility.

So we’re focusing on strengthening the natural fertility. We don’t put any more fertilizer on next year, yet because of our crop rotations and our management systems, the soil is more fertile.

And that’s the goal: to build a more fertile agriculture.

Because we have to face it, we have a growing population and we have people to feed for many, many generations to come, and they have to have this resource of soil to rely on.

We cannot squander it.

And that’s why we believe we’re doing the very best method that we know, in not squandering the soil and actually nurturing it and building it up.

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Know Your Farmer | Skokomish Valley Farms Washington

Skokomish Valley Farms, Washington

Paul Miller of the cooperatively owned and managed Skokomish Valley Farms, Washington speaks of the benefits of growing in soil, the challenges under the current USDA organic label, and his history as a fighter jet pilot and gardener.

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Skokomish Valley Farms, Washington

Paul Miller:While an organic label is kind of a step in the right direction, don’t just trust that as the end-all, be-all of it.

The more close you can get to your food, the closer you can be to knowing your farmer, the more you can know what their practices are and the land where that food is grown, and how it was grown, then you’ll be in a better position to make an informed judgement, an informed decision on what food you want to buy and consume and feed to your family.

About our farm here at Skokomish Valley Farms, we have 18 owners, each with 40 acres, and the majority of that 40 acres is in an agricultural easement that we then cooperatively farm together.

We grow mostly vegetables, some fruits, and we have chickens as egg layers.

So, a wide variety of vegetables, I think our crop list this year had 70 different crops and 120 different varieties, and that’s not counting the cut flowers that we have as well.

salad turnips being weighed on a scale at skokomish valley farms washington

The Organic Difference Is Living Soil

Anderson, one of our part-time workers on the farm When she was driving cross-country to move out here, she was talking with one of the checkout clerks at the store and noticed that she was buying a lot of organic produce that costs more than the traditional.

Store clerk: “Can you really taste the difference? Is it really any better?” You’re kinda missing the point. It’s not just about the taste or flavor, you know. The extra health benefits, one, of the food, and two, of the whole practices beyond organic to grow it in a way that we’ll be able to continue to grow it and all of the additional micronutrients that you’re having in your food when it’s grown in living soil makes a big difference.

So, I think it’s important to recognize and not let the organic label be diluted by practices that are run counter to those ideas.

One of the reasons that I find organic farming is important to me is that I want the land to better every year that I’ve been farming on it rather than using it up.

We had asked ourselves questions at the beginning, “Okay, we are going to be organically growing our food.” “Is it really sustainable for the world — can we grow enough food this way?”

After looking into it more and having done some ourselves, I kind of turn it around and ask the question of, “You know, could we continue to grow enough for the growing population of the earth using conventional methods?” Because it really seems like the organic methods are in the long term, a lot more productive, more sustainable, and that that seems the way to go.

soil close-up at organic skokomish valley farms

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The Organic Label And Animal Welfare

So some of the things with the Real Organic Project and things that we love about that are conversations that we have been having with many of our other customers and other growers in our community, both owners on the farm, but also other farmers in the local area.

One side of it is sometimes the organic label can get a little bit of a bad name because of a lot of the practices that larger organic companies are doing which are not necessarily as beneficial for the environment or for their soil or animals that they have on their farm may not be treated in a manner that most people would consider to be responsible.

We find that a chicken should live the life of a chicken. It should live the best life it can in accordance with its agricultural purpose.

And having it in a cage or just with a tiny little door to a dirt path outside doesn’t seem like the way a chicken is supposed to be living.

So we find it important to have chickens much more out in the open, spending their life like a chicken. And we have to think that, in addition to it being a happier and healthier chicken, that’s going to result in more healthy food from the eggs and from the meat of the bird as well.

chicken on pasture at skokomish valley farms

Working With The Natural Complexity Of Microbiomes

Soils are another important thing. So the soil and the microbe community in the soil is so complex, just like we’re finding now that your gut biome, in a human is much more complex than we ever used to think it was.

And that complexity is something that’s a lot more difficult than we can just put together a bag of mix to add to your water to assume that everything in there is going to be everything that that plant needs to grow and thrive and provide healthy nutrients for us to then consume.

Let’s work with nature instead of against it. Make the environment and your soil in such a way that it can provide those nutrients from a healthy, living soil to the plants, so they’re nice and healthy and nutrient-rich and able to resist pests and disease both to make farming easier and more productive for you, but then also to have a better consumable product, that it’s a more highly nutritious and nutrient-dense for when we’re eating it.

You can make all of the money claims of sure, it’s a growing portion of the market, commands a higher price, but those are really more ancillary benefits than the reason we chose to do what we’re doing.

washing radishes at skokomish valley farms

The Power of Growing Food Everywhere

My electrical engineering degree and computer science degree and being a fighter pilot for 20 years didn’t really directly prepare me for being an organic farm manager. While we were stationed in Misawa, Japan, I had a fairly sizable garden and found that I really enjoyed working out in the garden whenever I had the time for it.

Also, really got a kick out of neighborhood kids coming by and they were more of a pest than the rabbits were, I guess you’d say. Wake up Saturday morning, you hear the hose going and kids are out and have been pulling carrots and washing them and eating them right there!

Also getting a kick out of other kids [who were] not really sure what was going on with the garden. One young girl asked, “Why do you grow your own food? Can you not afford to buy it?”

Just people getting in touch with their food — I love that whole idea. Another girl was there helping us harvest some ears of corn, and I didn’t realize until later that she had shucked the corn and was pulling all of the kernels off of the cob, because it was the only way that she’d ever seen it — was frozen nibblets you know, in the grocery store, she thought that was the only way you could have corn.

Just a lot of good getting to share that with our kids growing up and then also with other kids around in the community.

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Know Your Farmer | Emerald Veil Jerseys Oregon

Emerald Veil Jerseys, Oregon

Bob Bansen is a fourth-generation dairyman farming at Emerald Veil Jerseys, Oregon with his son and family. They milk a 200-cow herd and manage 500 acres of organic pasture. Bob’s favorite day of the year is in spring when the cows are set out to pasture and reunited with grass after winter. He’s never missed this “Spring Dance” in his life and even kept his kids home from school when they were growing up, so the whole famliy could celebrate this joyous occasion with their herd.

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Emerald Veil Jerseys Oregon

Bob Bansen: There’s definite challenges to staying in this industry. There’s some massive, massive farms producing the lion’s share of the milk now.

And while you’re not seeing any decline in milk production you’re seeing a decline in number of [farming] families, which is not a positive thing because we want to be here.

We want this lifestyle. We want to, we want to stay in the industry.

But if you are in the red and you financially just cannot make it then there’s only one way out that’s to walk away.

So I’m concerned not only about the dairy industry but every other section of ag, too. About how sustainable it is and how as families we can stay in the business.

I’m Bob Bansen. I have an organic dairy here in Yamhill, Oregon. We milk 200 cows plus accompanying young stock.

info slide of Emerald Veil Jerseys in Yamhill, Oregon

I’ve got a 500-acre farm, all pasture, although we do harvest some hay off of it also. So it’s kind of dual purpose grounds.

I’ve been shipping to Organic Valley for 15 years.

I’m fourth generation dairymen. I’ve got a son who is the fifth generation who’s working with me on the farm. I got four grandsons so hopefully that extends to a sixth generation. That would be the goal.

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Sizing The Herd To The Pasture

All my girls are named I don’t use numbers. So yeah, I recognize everybody. And I really kind of feel like it keeps the cows here too, because I have a bond with them.

So Penny is right down there standing. Penny is Penny to me. And I know Penny’s mother and you know so, she’s got a, she’s got a whole history.

Jersey cows grazing on pasture at Emerald Veil

We keep our herd at this size, 200 milk cows because it fits our acreage.

We don’t want it so large that the cows are no longer comfortable and capable of pasturing and grazing.

During the grazing season we feed no forage inside whatsoever. So 100% of their forage is from what they graze. The system is set and works and we will keep it that way.

When Cows Do Their Spring Dance

The best day of the year is the day in the spring when we open the gates and let the cows go. When the weather has dried up enough and the temperature is warm enough to grow grass.

We let the cows out and they go out and they do their spring dance. And it’s just their celebration of being outside and having fresh grass.

And it’s a spectacular thing to watch every year and I’ve seen it every year for my entire life, never gets old.

Young Jersey cow on pasture looks directly at the camera

We’ll bring the kids over, let the kids stay home from school to watch it. Now that would be my grandchildren that were doing that with. Everybody’s happy that day, that is Christmas, New year’s, the whole bit, 4th of July – all wrapped into one. And it’s spectacular.

Dealing with my animals dealing with nature itself makes getting out of bed real easy in the morning.

There are days when I don’t have any reason to do it, but I’ll just go for a ride around the farm just to take it in.

We’re going to do what we can to keep it going.

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Know Your Farmer video Ole Brook Organics Jesse Buie

Know Your Farmer | Ole Brook Organics Mississippi

Ole Brook Organics Mississippi

Jesse Buie of Ole Brook Organics Mississippi, is a certified organic farmer and National Organic Standards Board member.

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Ole Brook Organics Mississippi

Jesse Buie: The Real Organic Project now focuses on making farmers like me appreciate the fact that the soil is the basis of certified organic farming.

Plus it’s attempting to shine light on practices that are going on there where customers don’t really know what they’re getting.

Some customers don’t know that their crop is soil-based or hydroponic, but I think it’s important that that differentiation be made.

I’m Jesse Buie, I’m President of Ole Brook Organics.

The Need For Organic Standards

I’ve been certified for approximately five years. I’m also a member of the National Organic Standards Board. I’m honored to be on it because I believe in standards.

You hear the terms out there “I grow organically” or “naturally grown”.

These are terms that farmers use for marketing purposes, which for the most part, have not been validated. And so the difference between a certified organic product and everything else out there, is that the certified organic has documentation behind it – that it is what it is.

Jesse Buie digs into the soil in his greenhouse

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Speaking As A NOSB Board Member

As a member of the NOSB I feel that the Real Organic Project exists because we didn’t fully fulfill our duty, I’m gonna be perfectly honest.

We as a board are there to make sure that certain, to make certain regulations and then to, in many cases to follow up and make sure those regulations are being followed. And there was a major issue and I think we disappointed many of the stakeholders because we did not follow through and were not successful.

soil surrounds a root system at ole brook organics

Healthy Food Comes From Soil

The basis of organic is the soil; that’s the name of the game because the soil then is going to produce a healthy plant.

Having a stronger plant helps the plant to deal with the changes in temperature.

In July, if we got a squash plant, it’s going to be 100 degrees one day and maybe 80 degrees the next day. Those changes in temperature affect the plants. But if you develop a strong plant then it’s able to withstand these changes and you can produce a beautiful fruit.

Whenever young mothers take the squash that I grow and puree it and give it right to the babies that’s a beautiful thing. That’s what organic is all about. It produces a quality product that we need for healthy bodies and minds.

squash growing in soil at ole brook organics mississippi

As a certified organic farmer I want to make sure that, and a member of the NOSB, I want to make sure that the consumer has confidence in buying certified organic products. I think this is one of our [the planet’s] salvations if we put more emphasis on certified organic farming.

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Know Your Farmer | Misty Meadows Farm, Washington

Misty Meadows Farm, Washington

Mark and Melissa Moeller raise organic poultry on pasture with love at Misty Meadows Farm, Washington. Read more about the struggles they and other real organic poultry farmers face in our November 2019 newsletter, Organic AND Pastured Eggs.

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Misty Meadows Farm, Washington

Melissa Moeller: I’ve been inside some large organic operations and seen the organic colorants that they add to their feed to get a more orange yolk because there are people choosing for that which is really sad.

Mark Moeller: And that’s a great example of… that stuff should not be in the organic standard.

Mark and Melissa Moeller and famiy pose in the pasture with their chickens at Misty Meadows Farm Washington

Melissa Moeller: The other thing that people find with our eggs is that the yolk color will change. And to me, honestly, that’s the best indicator of what you should be looking for, because the yolk is going to represent the state of the grass that [the chickens] are eating. Right?

So a yolk from a chicken laid today is going to look different from an egg laid in April or in November – right? It’s going to reflect how much chlorophyll is in the grass and the other things that they are eating.

Using the Outdoors to Strengthen Immune Systems at Misty Meadows Farm

Mark Moeller: We start our babies right over here in our brooder, but once they get past a certain age, we actually open our outside doors. They can start wandering out into the dirt and into the grass and slowly begin to get acclimated to the sunlight and the natural environment and also natural bacteria.

Soil has a number of bacteria that live in it regardless that in a confined operation, if the chickens aren’t closely cared for that bacteria could really cause a problem.

Here, we let their immune systems develop naturally, and what that does is prepares them for when they move out of the brooder out into our colony houses to have a more robust immune system.

chickens sunbathing in the pasture at Misty Meadows farm

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Organic Nutrition Beyond Standard Feed

That really helps us raise birds that are pretty rugged and have learned to eat what’s on the ground, not just what is in the feeders. That, of course, gives them a richer diet and makes a higher quality egg, because there’s more nutrients going into those eggs that they wouldn’t necessarily get in standard feed.

It takes taking care of your pastures and making sure that they’ve got the grass and the bugs. They get a good bit of protein out of this space!

And they are pest control as well as anything.

All of that goes into the eggs. It’s pretty hard to feed them that way in a controlled environment.

Sanitizing Birds and Coops With Sunshine

Melissa Moeller: We feel like the best sanitizer isn’t medications but sunshine.

We air sanitize all of our coops between flocks. We make sure that they are exposed to lots
of sunshine and fresh air, and that’s how we keep the pastures clean and the coops clean rather than using chemicals.

I want organic to be meaningful.

eggs and trays in the processing room at Misty Meadows

When people see that organic label, I want them to know and believe in the integrity of the product that they are really getting — particularly with livestock — that they are getting animals that were treated well that were treated with the most natural methods possible for the animal.

I kinda see it as like the way we raised our kids! Right? Let them go play in the dirt and build your immune system.

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Know Your Farmer | Footprint Farm Vermont

Footprint Farm, Vermont

Taylor and Jake Mendell of Footprint Farm Vermont share their thoughts on finding the right words to describe their farming practices to customers in the changing landscape of USDA organic.

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Footprint Farm, Vermont

Taylor Mendell: We’re looking for what’s next. How do we say “we’re what organic used to be.”?

Jake Mendell: I’m Jake Mendell.

Taylor: I’m Taylor Mendell.

Jake: And we’re in Starksboro, Vermont at Footprint Farm.

Taylor and Jake Mendell at Footprint Farm Vermont
Photo courtesy Footprint Farm.

Taylor: We didn’t grow up on farms but both went to school and ended up studying different food-related fields. I was in health policy and Jake did nutrition science.

And through one way or another, we realized that where we wanted to be in the stream of health was growing food and teaching people about food and trying to get kids to start eating real foods earlier.

So we met on an educational farm where we took kids out of the city and onto a small farm and milked goats with them and made bread with them and really enjoyed it.

But, we liked the farming part a lot more, so, we kept on with it.

Managing Land And Shopping Locally

Jake: We manage three acres of cropland and we have about an acre and a half to two acres in production each year of diversified vegetables. The other third is in a year of cover cropping and weed management.

View of crops and hoop houses at Footprint Farm in Starksboro Vermont
Photo courtesy Footprint Farm.

We grow what, 60 different varieties of vegetables? And we raise about 120 laying chickens and a few pigs for mostly us and friends and family to eat.

Taylor: If I don’t have food that I grew or that somebody I know grew and I go to the grocery store I don’t know what I’m buying. And I think even with the organic standards there’s still uncertainty about what that means in the actual practices.

It’s been broadened so much that there are farms that are certifiably organic now that are growing crops in a way that I don’t really want to eat myself.

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When Farmers Shop For Eggs

We lost most of our flock to a bear last fall. So we didn’t have eggs of our own through the winter, and we were having to buy eggs and it was really difficult because we’d go to the grocery store and there are all these words “vegetarian fed” “pasture-raised” et cetera, et cetera.

And even as experienced farmers, it was really hard to navigate. You can be organic and have access to outdoors but I really want chickens that are outside.

Farm crew harvesting and chickens enjoying the pasture at Footprint Farm Vermont
Photo courtesy Footprint Farm.

I love that bright, orange, flavorful yolk that you really only get from birds that are raised outdoors.

What outdoors really means is that they can go outside and be entertained by scratching around in the dirt and looking for bugs and taking dust baths and catching frogs.

Like, watching a chicken catch a frog is the best thing ever.

Chickens aren’t meant to be inside all the time. Nobody is.

And so for them to be able to actually go outside and do things that chickens are meant to do.

Jake: And eat the food that chickens would naturally want to eat like bugs and worms and grass. They’re omnivores.

So while they can survive on just grain, the egg that you get out of them when they’re not eating their natural diet is not going to be as nutritious as one where they are.

The Search For Better Food

Taylor: People are grappling with what is the word now to find the food that I want.

And maybe it’s not “grocery store organic”, maybe it’s “farmers market organic”.

People are also grappling with how do I know what I’m getting?

I think they’re realizing that the word has lost something and they don’t know what that is.

Colorful organic vegetables displayed at the Footprint Farm market booth
Photo courtesy Footprint Farm.

So we’re trying to figure out, how do we describe what we do in an elevator pitch:

You can take this food, and you can take it home and you can eat it without worrying about what’s on it.

It’s going to be super healthy for you, it’s better than a lot of the foods that you can get in the store.

It’s just grown in dirt you know? And there’s not much to it.

I think that’s the beauty of organic is that you can explain everything that’s happened to these crops. And feel good about eating them.

Taylor Mendell of Footprint Farm in Starksboro Vermont posing with huge bouquets of carrots
Photo courtesy Footprint Farm.

Oh, I have to say, I went to the doctor and got my cholesterol checked and it’s through the roof like she’s never seen. But it’s the good kind, the HDL cholesterol.

She was showing it to her doctor friends, my cholesterol report. And she said, “What do you do? How do you do this?”

I said, I eat two eggs for breakfast every single morning they just happen to be eggs that are raised in a specific way.

Linley Dixon: So an egg’s not an egg?
Taylor + Jake: An egg’s not an egg! Exactly.

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Know Your Farmer | McCluskey Brothers Farm Wisconsin

McCluskey Brothers Farm, Wisconsin


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Know Your Farmer | McCluskey Brothers Farm, Wisconsin

Patrick, Brian, and Mary Ellen McCluskey of McCluskey Brothers Farm, Wisconsin and Shillelagh Glen Farms share their perspective on what it means to survive as real organic farmers in today’s market. While they find their immediate customer base to be educated and supportive, there are concerns that well-meaning consumers don’t realize the difference between what they have to offer and the corporate brands that hide behind the USDA organic label beside them on the shelf.

Mary Ellen McCluskey: Being organic is important.

The problem we run into is the consumer wants the true organic – the small family farmer who’s doing what we’re doing. But they can’t differentiate it from people that are just hiding behind the organic label.

McCluskey Brothers Farm sign and barn

Certified Organic and Rotational Grazing at McCluskey Brothers Farm, Wisconsin

Patrick McCluskey: Everything we do is certified organic. We’ve been organic since, certified organic since, 1996.

We have approximately 800 acres here in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin.

We just got into intensive rotational grazing this year. We’ve always grazed but this year we took it up a notch, or several notches. We’ve put about 180 acres of our crop land into permanent pastures.

We milk Holstein, Holstein-Normandy cross. Oh and Brian has 2 Jerseys!

Cows graze on pasture at McCluskey Brothers Farm Wisconsin

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We cut that herd back too, this year. We were milking 60 and when we went into intensive rotational grazing, we went the opposite way of what everybody else is doing.

Everybody else is expanding their herds, we’re contracting.

We found we can do more with less.

When we’re making our cheese, we don’t need a huge volume of milk to make a great product.

Direct Marketing at McCluskey Brothers Farm, Wisconsin

We have cheeses that the only place you can buy them is at McCluskey Brothers Shillelagh Glen Farms or at our farmer’s market stand. Those are the only two places in the world, you can get them.

inside the dairy processing room at McCluskey Brothers Farm

We’ve got some cheeses that we’re really proud of; well all of our cheeses. And our beef, also. And our syrup is – we knock the socks off people with our maple syrup when they sample it at market!

We do a lot of direct marketing with our products and that’s really been a godsend for the farm. It’s the way to go, as far as we’re concerned. To get your name out there, and your face, and your products – and for making connections with people.

We have a lot of our “customers” who are now our friends. I mean, they bring us peaches from Colorado! So it’s just been a good experience.

And the beef, it’s definitely helped being organic, and grass-fed is equal or more than what the organic label is now.

Patrick McCluskey poses with reel of fencing as he rotates cows on pasture

Honestly, I would say it’s probably more important to people that we’re grass-fed than organic at this time. It just so happens that we’re both.

It really manifests itself in the dairy aspect of things. I mean, we ran into it this year where the factory wanted us to keep producing organically, but they had marketing issues of their own because of all the organic milk that was on the market.

Here we are producing organically, and naturally, you’ll take less. You’ll get less milk per cow, it’s just how it’s going to be. And we’re fine with that.

But you can’t take away my organic premium and expect me to… They can’t have the best of both worlds. So challenges do present themselves. I mean, it does stare us right in the face and it makes it hard.

Patrick and Brian McCluskey in their pasture, being interviewed by Real Organic Project

Organic Still Matters To Consumers, Even If It’s Harder To Find

Mary Ellen McCluskey: Just this week there were reports that Roundup is in the food system, is in the food chain, and that’s not good.

So, organic does really matter.

Customers that we see at farmer’s market want to support the small family farmer that’s practicing good stewardship, organic principles.

So a certification or some sort of designation that would help us educate the consumer and say, “Yes, our cows are out on pasture. Yes, our cows are eating grass” would be great.

If there’s a way that the consumer can learn the difference, see the difference, so they can support the true organic, it’ll be really helpful.

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