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Dave Chapman | Real Organic Project Symposium | Going Beyond the Battle for Organic with the USDA

Dave Chapman speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Dave Chapman, Executive Director of the Real Organic Project, addresses the crowd at the Symposium on March 2, 2019.
Last week some 200 people gathered at Dartmouth College to participate in the Real Organic Project Symposium. A third of them were organic farmers from all over the country. This group included many of the same farmers who traveled to Florida in 2017 to testify to the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board). They demanded that the NOSB once again vote to prohibit hydronic as organic. The NOSB failed us in Florida, but we had a resounding success in New Hampshire.

Five of the NOSB Soil Seven were at the symposium. The Soil Seven were the NOSB members who courageously voted to reject hydroponics as organic. Three of them spoke at the symposium. The audience had a number of current and former NOSB members. The subject of the day was the reclamation of organic.

The subject of the day was the reclamation of organic.

It was a celebration.

Harriet Behar speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Farmer and NOSB chairperson Harriet Behar presenting.
No one who attended the symposium left unchanged. From morning until late afternoon, speaker after speaker told their stories of success and failure, always connected by hope, if not always by optimism. The speakers laid out the principles of real organic farming and gave wonderful demonstrations of what that looks like on actual farms.

Farmers Paul Muller (Full Belly Farm), Emily Oakley (Three Springs Farm and NOSB), UNH Professor Dave Mortensen (NOSB), and ROP executive director Dave Chapman listen to biodynamic pioneer Jean-Paul Courtens, founder of Roxbury Farm. All four presented talks.
They also revealed how far the National Organic Program (NOP) has fallen. The NOP now embraces both enormous CAFO livestock facilities and soilless hydroponic production covering hundreds of acres with black plastic mulch and soilless pots. Perhaps most disturbing was seeing how the real organic crops are being relentlessly pushed out of the marketplace, so that eaters are losing the choice of real organic food grown in healthy soil.

Alan Lewis speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Alan Lewis gave a chilling explanation of how the wholesale market works, keeping out so many family farms.
Over and over we heard about the loss of choice. This was not a story about the triumph of competition, but rather about the triumph of fraud and influence. Real competition is being lost. Eaters are mostly unaware that they are losing anything. But inexorably, the market is being taken over by enormous producers who represent themselves as the very farms they are driving out of business.

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

Onika Abraham speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Onika Abraham spoke of the need to build the diversity of the community as well as of the soil. We are all part of one food system.
The world is changing. We can’t be passive observers. It is our world. It is our government. It is our choice, if we will only make it.

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

Eliot Coleman Keynote at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.

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

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

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

We recreate the world every day.

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

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

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

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Dave Chapman
Executive Director
Real Organic Project

“The stereotypical large farms of today’s agriculture are not unsustainable because they are large, they are large because they are managed unsustainably. They are unsustainable because they are managed ‘extensively’ – meaning they rely more on land and capital and less on thinking people.” -John Ikerd

Know Your Farmer | Hobbs and Meyer Farms

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

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

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Dan Hobbs, Hobbs and Meyer Farms, Colorado

Dan Hobbs: We’ve got this tradition all throughout agricultural history in North America of having to step up at different times to counter these corporate interests that want to take land, take water, take our resources, take our markets.

And when needed, farmers come together. And this seems to be one of those times. And this is why we’re getting involved in the Real Organic Project and we’re interested to see where it goes.

I’m Dan Hobbs. This is Hobbs family farm in Avondale, Colorado Pueblo County. We’re about 15 miles east of the city of Pueblo.

We basically have evolved into three enterprises: One is our garlic deal, and another is fresh vegetables, and also open-pollinated seeds. And then lastly, just because we love the whole learning process of agriculture, we’re getting into heritage grains.

We have a very long growing season – we’re at about 4,600 feet. We have warm days, well hot days really, and cool nights. So that diurnal temperature swing really adds something special to the quality of the vegetables and the seeds.

We’ve got these silty, clay-loam, rocky ford soils that are classified as irrigated soils, “soils of national importance”. They’re very low in organic matter, but high in mineral content.

And we’ve basically set the farm up as a rotational system, kind of along the lines of the sort of conservation farms of the 1930s and 1940s following the Dust Bowl. A lot of the iconic dustbowl photos, in fact, were taken here in the Arkansas Valley on Black Sunday and out into the panhandle of Oklahoma.

So the system is basically divided up into five-acre fields; we have six 5-acre fields. One is in alfalfa grass, one is usually in an annual cover crop for plowed down peas and wheat that we keep our own seed from. And then we have a garlic/ allium field and then basically a pepper and mixed vegetable field, and then another veg seed field.

And then the last piece we’re about to put into a mulberry and pie cherry orchard.

This farm is really set up along the lines of what I would say is elemental agriculture.

We basically, in this five-year rotation that we have here, we spread aged manure on just before the garlic crop and then we have one full, 5-acre field that’s devoted to a plow down crop to the Austrian winter peas and a white winter wheat that we’ve been maintaining.

The constant rotation is the basis of our fertility program. Also, we don’t own our own livestock. And so we’ve made a relationship with a biodynamic farm down the road to graze their cattle here in the winter.

That’s been an important strategic relationship – to bring the animals onto the property without owning them and without all the headaches that go along with it. And the reason for that is because I work with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union in the offseason and travel extensively, working with farm groups around the southwest.

And there’s no plastic on this farm, or at least not in the field. We’re flood irrigators and water deeply every ninth and 10th day. And we’re teaching these plants to work for a living.

It seems to be holding true that some of these seeds are adapting over time and are drought hardy and if they’re not we’re kicking them out of the mix. We’re trying to focus on plants that are climate change ready and ready for the harsh conditions that we encounter here in the southwest.

You know I think one of the things that interested me when I first got into farming and still holds my interest is this notion of the farm organism and individuality and all of the relationships that happen on the farm you know the relationships in the ecology of the agriculture.

The soil and the plants and animals and the insects and the farmer. And I just love that role of trying to guide this system. you know and always ever trying to improve the systems and the relationships in the farm organism.

The organic certification is still very valuable. Particularly like this garlic crop, one of our main activities here, we produce about 7,000 to 8,000 pounds annually and a lot of the seed-sized garlic goes to national – four or five national seed companies. They require that certification for their customers.

And so we’ve been certified now I guess for 18 years. And it’s largely because we market outside of our local region. We feel compelled to make it work, even though we’ve had lots of hard years and especially the last few years with the droughts and the flooding and the hail and all the other things we get around here, we want to demonstrate that it can work.

We are excited about all these young farmers that are coming on. And we want to we want to stay in and we want to mentor some of these people and share the seeds and share what skills and knowledge we can with some of these folks to help give them a leg up.

And this also really motivates me on the professional side with the Farmers Union work and the co-operative development work to help strengthen and establish these alternative systems, so that people that want to do it can stay into it and get into it. So we’re going to stick with it.

And then just this ongoing challenge of encouraging and facilitating the relationships on our piece of ground are just endlessly gratifying and we learn something every year.

And we still try something every year. That keeps it fresh and exciting for us.