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To certify or not to certify, that is the question.

Dear Friend,

Today we would like to feature a letter we received from one of our real organic farmers about his choice to drop USDA certification, despite continuing to farm organically. We have featured Todd Ulizio for his work in co-founding The Farmers' Stand, a locally run grocery store that carries local and organic products.

This week, Todd shared with us an exchange with his certifier (the Montana Department of Agriculture) along with a reply from Doug Crabtree, a fellow Montana real organic farmer.

Todd and Rebecca Ulizio of Two Bear Farm
 Co-founders of The Farmers' Stand in Whitefish Montana

Letter from Todd:

Hi Linley and Dave,

Given our past discussions, I wanted to let you know that I formally surrendered by organic certification to the Montana Dept. of Ag for the 2023 season. I did so with mixed feelings, and it was not an easy decision. I am saddened that something I believe in so much is in the hands of a federal agency that seems to excel at violating trust. In the end, I need a break from the USDA for a year. And this may prove to be a bad choice, and I may be back, so let's just consider it an experiment.   I've forwarded the letter that I wrote to the current organic administrator, as well as Doug Crabtree (who is a ROP member), Real Organic farmer, and former head of the organic program with the state, just to share what I said and to keep you in the loop. If you are interested, you should read that first. The response I received from the Montana Dept. of Ag was exactly the type of shoulder shrug I expected. What I would have liked to hear from her was recognition that there are issues with the NOP, and that she sees them, and hears me.  But maybe she doesn't feel that way.


Todd's letter to the Montana Department of Agriculture:

Back in 2016, I gave a presentation at the annual Montana Organic Association (MOA) conference with the head of the Montana Department of Agriculture and Doug Crabtree in Kalispell on transitioning to organic certification. We all stood in front of the audience and said that while the organic label is ultimately a marketing tool, it means far more than just being free of synthetic herbicides and chemicals. It's a set of whole farm standards that address soil and ecosystem health. Fast forward to today, and this is no longer the case.

The NOPs decision to allow and certify hydroponic operations (going against NOSB recommendation in doing so), violates the trust of the organic movement, it directly harms soil-based fruit and vegetable growers, and it undermines the integrity of the label. When I go to fill out my Organic Producer Plan, I recognize that all those areas for crop rotations, weed management, habitat, etc. would be non-applicable to a hydroponic operation, which provide no ecosystem services. So then what is required to be organic? Can I leave half the application blank? Or does this simply set a double standard where soil-based farmers need to reach a high bar, but hydroponics can get the same certification by achieving a lower bar?

At the end of the day, this not only harms small soil-based farms, but it violates consumer trust and it degrades the nutritional reputation of organic food (if you accept that hydroponic food is nutritionally less dense than soil grown food). What needed to happen is the creation of a separate hydro-organic label. But even the hydro industry knew that this would be too transparent for consumers, and consumers would choose soil-based. So the NOP caved to the industry in the name of creating a “bigger tent” for organics. They violated the trust of the movement in order to favor the industry. Go ask strawberry and blueberry growers in California and Florida how this has affected them. This change in policy creates a real risk to our business, and it goes against our values.

I have been a part of the Real Organic Project, as I know Doug is as well, which is fighting for enforcing certification based on the letter and intent of the original organic legislation. Even this large group with arguments based in reason and fact seems to have no effect on the USDA and its pro-industry approach. One only need to look at the history of farming in this country to see that the USDA tends to favor industry over individual farmers. So, while abandoning 50 years of the organic movement is difficult to consider, staying in a relationship with the USDA that undermines my business (and costs me money to do so) and violates my trust seems even more unpalatable. As a community-based farm that has built trust with our customers and sells directly to them, we never needed the label for marketing. We chose to support it because it stood for values and integrity that we believed in. After 15 years of USDA organic certification, we are choosing to surrender our certification for 2023 as an act of protest. I recognize that in the halls of government, this may result in little more than a shrug of the shoulders, but here on our farm, integrity still matters to us.

Thank you for your time,

Todd Ulizio
Two Bear Farm
Whitefish, MT

Response from the Montana Department of Agriculture:

Thank you Rebecca and Todd for your complete, detailed and powerful explanation.

We wish you the best for your future business endeavors.


Response from Doug Crabtree:

Thank you for including me in your communication.

First of all, I share your bewilderment at the unfortunate series of illogical decisions that have led us to organic certification of hydroponic plant production facilities. It is a travesty! If our markets did not require (NOP) certification, we might consider a similar protest to yours.

In addition to the absurd certification of hydroponic plant factories, we also continue to certify far too many farms that utterly lack crop diversity. I (still) note that there are more acres of wheat certified in Montana than all other crops, combined. We continue to certify farms that routinely practice fallow, which is actually the second most common “crop” certified in our state. These facts are further evidence that the standards for rotation, diversity and soil health are routinely ignored. I am not sure if a wheat-fallow farm is more or less damaging than a hydroponic factory. But, neither have any place in organic, as I define and believe in it.

Finally (maybe should be first), on my list of concern/complaints is that the organic market is growing ever-more to resemble the utterly corrupt and exploitive commodity market that plagues the majority of agriculture. I have always insisted that organic is a community- more than simply a certification or a market. While I hold to that belief, I observe more and more certified entities that neither value nor participate in the community that I am part of.

That said, I must argue that despite deep disappointment with a few aspects of organic certification, I still believe that it is the best vehicle to bring market support to healthier and more sane farming systems. We will continue to certify our operation, while also working “within the beast” to improve standards and practice. Most importantly, we will continue to model practices that adhere to the letter of standards AND to the spirit of the organic movement.

While I understand- even respect- your decision to surrender organic certification, I am deeply disappointed. The loss of farms like yours and farmers like you from the certified community is a great loss to all of us.  I suspect that you will not suffer significantly, as your markets are local and direct. But, it is farms like yours that consumers envision when they choose to purchase organic food- even flour, rye whiskey or pea protein that started on our farm. As you rightly observe, the unfortunate decision and policies that we decry benefit a few in the short run, but- rightly- threaten consumer trust in the organic label. Without that trust, there is no market, no need for certification, no organic, and no reward for sanity in agriculture.

Continue to treat the earth and each other with love and respect. I wish you well!

Doug Crabtree
Vilicus Farm

Hi Linley and Dave,

Thanks again for all the work that went into the recent symposium!

After the Symposium, I received a call from both Bob Quinn and Robin Kelson (AERO Montana) asking me what I thought the path forward was. I know Bob has plenty of experience fighting directly against the industry, and he likes to say all he ever ends up with is a bloody nose. I told him my goal was to focus on my direct community. We opened a grocery store / market named The Farmers' Stand two years ago, to support local ag and to build a new system from the ground up.  Bob came to visit us when we were remodeling the space, and he loved the idea. Now that we're 2 years in and it's thriving, Bob feels like it's a great, tangible approach that any community could replicate (although every community is unique). I mention it because I think a lot of people are struggling with what the path forward is. And I think the community-based approach offers some real opportunities for real change that maybe the national/global arena does not. And maybe that can be a newsletter topic one day as well.  



The Farmers' Stand in Whitefish, Montana
A farmer-owned grocery store
Produce cooler at The Farmers' Stand

Thanks to Todd for keeping the Real Organic Project in the loop. His email leaves me wondering…

Organic farmers set out to create an alternative to chemical agriculture and to the system that such Big Ag is a part of. Initially, one positive result of the USDA Organic seal was the support it brought for the survival of family farms and communities. Unfortunately, the industrialization and consolidation that has occurred in chemical agriculture is now coming to USDA Organic as well.

Will the Real Organic Project be enough to hold on to all the gains we have made as a community by creating USDA Organic? Our executive board member, Paul Muller has reminded us time and again. The farmers will not succeed if the “eaters” don't come with us. So, if you live in NorthWest Montana, support The Farmers' Stand and if you live elsewhere we can help you find farmers like Todd and Rebecca. We can only do this together.

Yours in the dirt,

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COP26 Allan Savory Talk (November 2021)

COP26 Talk by Allan Savory

November 2021  

There is a growing demand for world leaders to act on climate change.   This is the 26th conference discussing what they should do. 

The 25 million dollar Virgin Earth Challenge seeking fizzled out, and now the Royal Foundation and Prince William seek solutions through  rewarding innovation.

Everyone knows that we cannot solve any problem without addressing its root cause.  So, what is the root cause of climate change?

Most people believe it is caused by greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, deforestation, and livestock. Solutions focus on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, planting billions of trees, protecting tropical forests to heal our planet losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.

I have been invited to talk about how regenerative agriculture might help address these causes and sequester carbon in the soil. I do not however intend to do so because I know so little about agriculture, carbon or soil and more knowledgeable speakers than I are doing so.

While I fully support regenerative agriculture and the rapid replacement of fossil fuels, I want to talk about something I believe is of greater importance.  

My subject is the root cause of the problem, because as everyone knows unless world leaders address that we will not succeed.  

I will also propose an immediate action, that perhaps the Royal Foundation can lead, which will enable world leaders to see a simple way to address the cause of the problem.

So, what is the cause of the problem?

After decades of denial that humans are causing climate change, now almost all scientists acknowledge that we are causing it.  This acknowledgement is profound.

If we are causing climate change then management is the root cause.  It is how we manage coal, oil, livestock, forests, food production and other resources that results in biodiversity loss, desertification, mega-fires and climate change.  

What could we recommend world leaders do about management when we manage millions of things daily?  This seems an impossible task.

Society believes that we manage many things but is that true?

It is true that we produce millions of things daily such as cars, cell phones, clothing, computers, art, weapons and various forms of food. 

Participants at COP26 are discussing producing electricity less harmfully from nature – sun, wind, geothermal, nuclear.  Some are discussing producing food based on industrial corporate management, chemistry and smart technology, while others discuss farmers producing food based on the biological sciences.  Everything that we produce is not self-organizing.  This means that it stops if we stop producing it, a part breaks, a battery or fuel runs out.   We can produce things independently – cell phones or violins, food or weapons.   Nothing that we make or produce is managed, it is produced.

So this is not where the cause of the problem lies, although it will dominate discussion at COP26.

What then do we manage that is causing the problem?

We manage only three things.  Humans (our own lives, families and organizations) and we manage economies and nature.   These we do not produce or make, we manage.

Each of these continues, although in changed form, no matter how many millions of people die, no matter if entire economies collapse and no matter how many species go extinct.  Humans, nature and economy are inseparable – as the Covid pandemic taught us.

Our inability to manage complexity is the cause of the problem and this is what COP26 participants need to advise world leaders how to do because we citizens cannot do so.  Let me explain.  

Each of us can manage our lives and families, but only to a point – because we are doing so within our local economy and global finance is driving environmental destruction.  As grassroots individuals and families we cannot act to save mankind from the environmental catastrophe we face.

Beyond our families we manage at an institutional scale through corporations, governments, universities, churches, environmental and other organizations.  Institutions, generally do what they are formed to do efficiently by managing themselves, their finances and through those nature at scale. 

Everything humans produce comes from nature and returns to nature.   


Governments manage through policies, laws, regulations, and in earlier societies by customs and taboos.

In summary management at large scale through institutional policies is the cause of the problem. 

How can we advise world leaders to address that when there are so many hundreds of ways of developing policies?  

Society believes there are many ways of developing policies but is this true?  Over sixty-five years of working with thousands of fellow scientists and resource managers we discovered a new management insight. 

Governments – democratic or dictatorship – develop policies in exactly the same way.   They develop policy in the context of meeting a need, desire or to address a problem. The policy is then developed based on advice from highly trained experts often in integrated scientific teams, interested parties, pressure groups as well as their own political persuasions.

Such policies automatically reduce the complexity of humans, economy and nature to meeting a need, desire or addressing a problem. That is reductionist. 

Political leaders and governments do not develop policy in a context that embraces complexity by tying our lives, economies and behaviour, to our life-supporting environment (nature) far into the future.  A way of developing policy that does address the cause of the problem.

Let me illustrate with a future pandemic and climate change example – agriculture and biodiversity loss in national parks.  

Agriculture is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters.  Harvesting fish from the oceans, wildlife, timber, livestock and crop production are all agriculture.  Without agriculture we cannot have an orchestra, church, university, bank, any business or economy. 

Agriculture is the foundation of civilization.  


Almost our entire planet is engaged in agriculture.  Ocean life and tropical forests are being decimated and man-made deserts are expanding.  We are producing twenty times as much dead eroding soil every year as food we need for every human alive today.

Where I live I am surrounded by some 30 National Parks in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.   Intended to preserve biodiversity, these parks are some of our worst examples of biodiversity loss, desertification, contribution to future pandemics and climate change.

If we look at these national parks, or those in New Mexico where I lived for forty years, we see the canaries in our mine dying wholesale. 

This we cannot attribute to climate change, fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, livestock, deforestation, corporate profiteering, greed, corruption, poaching, hunting or excessive animal numbers, none of which is the cause of the problem.

The cause is the management dictated by the policies of environmental organizations, governments, and international agencies.  Something I became aware of as a young ecologist and began studying sixty-five years ago.

Earlier I said that society’s belief that there are many ways of developing policy was we learned a false belief. 


 Let me now deal with another management belief that is false.

Society believes that we have many options to address global desertification playing a major role in climate change, and the point at which we can begin to break the cycle of desertification, mega-fires and climate change spiralling out of control.

We are a tool using animal.  Using all the money, labour and creativity in the world no human can even drink milk without using technology – unless we go to a cow and use hand and mouth to suck. We cannot even plant a tree without a tool.  We can only reverse desertification using tools.

For brevity I will simply refer to a 2013 TED Talk I gave on reversing desertification viewed by about 8 million people and refuted by no scientist who studied the process.

In that talk I pointed out that we have three tools with which to address desertification.  We can use fire, technology in all its manifestations or we can use the concept of resting the environment as a positive action or tool, to allow biodiversity to recover.  The latter is being advocated as rewilding, conserving, or preserving vast areas of land and oceans to restore biodiversity.

Two of these tools lead to desertification and the third (technology), even in science fiction, cannot prevent it as I described in that TED Talk.  

No amount of management or policies can address the problem without a tool that can reverse desertification.

No amount of conferences from COP1 to COP100, or prizes and awards will save future generations unless we replace beliefs with science and address the cause of climate change.

I, like everyone at COP26, would like to see a positive outcome that helps world leaders by not saying what they should do, but demonstrates how it can be done by developing policy in a way that does address the cause of desertification, mega-fires and climate change spiralling out of control.

I would like to propose that one outcome of COP26 participants, media and independent reporters is support for the idea of having one, internationally observed, case in which the government of a small nation develops an agricultural policy embracing the complexity. The knowledge needed to develop a policy that also ensures the national parks do not contribute to biodiversity loss, pandemics, desertification and climate change is already available. 

Remember, it is not scientific knowledge that was missing but the inability to manage complexity. What is lacking is facilitation skill to enable any government to use the available scientific knowledge to develop policy addressing the complexity.  This facilitation skill can be provided by the Savory Institute based on over half a century of such policy development and reversing desertification restoring biodiversity. 

Doing this the best ideas and science, as opposed to beliefs, will float to the top without disagreement and conflict.  The subsequent policy, developed with the full support of the nation as well as local and international scientists and experts, can then be considered by for adoption.

I propose such a test case be observed by all major nations so that world leaders can see how team humanity can address the problem at it’s root cause.

Perhaps what I propose can be done under the auspices of the Royal Foundation and the Royal Society, as the oldest national scientific institution in the world, after they have fully investigated what I am proposing.

If, as I believe will happen, the policy so developed under international observation, is seen to unite humans while addressing the problem to everyone’s satisfaction it will be beyond valuing in terms of human life or money.

For thousands of years we did not know how to fly and many men died trying.  When the Wright brothers learned to fly the human spirit flew and we were on the moon in seventy years. Now that we know what is causing climate change, I believe the human spirit can once more fly offering future generations hope.


David Montgomery Book Club Interview

David Montgomery: We really look at What Your Food Ate as kind of a capstone piece that looks at why the WAY that we farm is important, not only for the health and longevity of human societies but, how that actually affects our own individual health. And then how does that impact population health?

It probably won’t be much of a surprise to anybody on this call that essentially the bottom line is that what’s good for the land is good for us too. But we tried to trace the science that connects those dots from soil health, to crop health, to livestock health, to human health. And there’s an awful lot of dots to connect there, and there’s an awful lot of contingency and variability that affects all that.

But, there’s a clear thread that runs through it that really suggests to us that, yes, we can argue effectively that the health of the land, soil health, in effect actually influences human health. And not just at a multi-century population scale idea of keeping the soil on the land where I started back in writing the book Dirt. But much more personally in terms of what goes on in our own bodies, and how the compounds in the food that we raise can be suffused with the micronutrients and phytochemicals that actually help support human health—even though they do not have caloric value and traditionally aren’t considered nutrients. And how modern farming with the conventional trilogy of over-tillage, overuse of agrichemicals, and the underuse of diversity has really undercut what’s in the food that we’re all getting.

How much does that integrate up and affect our individual or population health? Well, that’s pretty complicated, but the connections seem to be there, and the connections seem to be real, even if it's difficult to predict specific outcomes, like if you ate three peaches from some wonderful orchard that we know about. What will that actually do to your health? You can’t answer questions like that.

But I think we can make the case that agricultural policy IS health policy at a national scale. And that what we do to raise our food actually matters for what the food can do for us in terms of maintaining our health over the long run. So that’s kind of the short version of the book and the basic message of it.

Dave Chapman: A couple of years ago Will Brinton said to me that he felt that the science of the last 60 years had strongly supported the observations of Albert Howard back in the 1940s. And it's fascinating to see that as we learn more and more, we get more and more sophisticated descriptions or understandings of what Howard was just observing with his naked eye. How do you feel about that?

David Montgomery: You know, I agree with Will on that. That’s one of the themes that runs through the book and why we deal with some of the historical characters like Howard. But also McCarrison, and Eve Balfour, and others in his time who are really seeing connections between healthy land, healthy animals, and healthy people. But what they really lacked at the time was a mechanistic understanding of how the connections actually worked. They had ideas, some of which were insightful, and some of which were kind of wrong. But at the gross level, the level of observed connections and seeing what matters, they were pretty ahead of their time.

One of the things we do in the book is break the pieces of those connections down, and write about the studies that have come up, not just very recently, but starting in the 40s. There’s a lot of good science that was done that looked at how nitrogen fertilizers impacted the nutritional value of food back in the 40s and 50s. But growing quantity was the goal at that time, not necessarily growing quality.

And I think that Howard and his peers got short-changed by history, in part because of that thing that scientists are so good at doing. And that is criticizing things that they don’t understand the mechanisms behind. And so the pioneers had insightful observations, they connected the dots right, but they couldn’t really explain what lay between the dots. How the connections actually worked.

And a lot of science, as Will was arguing to you, has filled in those dots over the last 80 years. And it's pretty amazing when you think about it through this framework, how much of what we’ve learned about the soil microbiome, and the effects of agrichemicals and tillage on crops and crop health, and what’s actually IN our crops, has actually lined up pretty well with their insights, with the insights of the original organic pioneers. They were definitely on the right track in terms of arguing that soil health is really something that underpins the health of the things that then grow on the land and derive their sustenance, albeit indirectly, from the soil.

Dave Chapman: I just got sent an article that was about the head of Syngenta. And he was saying, “We can’t afford to have organic farming. We’re all going to starve!” And he was portraying Ukraine as the final nail in organic’s coffin. And that we have to abandon all this foolish talk of nutrient density, and we have to focus on producing calories, and lots of them, as cheaply as possible. What’s your response to that?

David Montgomery: (Laughing) You know, that could be a recipe for feeding the world, but maybe not necessarily nourishing the world. I think we can aim higher than that. And I think the real lesson of what’s going on in Ukraine in terms of the world’s food supply is twofold; We shouldn't be so dependent on nitrogen fertilizers, and we shouldn’t be so dependent on grains. That’s a recipe for diversifying our farming practices, and for diversifying our diets, actually. You know that we’re the only top carnivore that exists off of seeds. It’s kind of odd when you think about it that way. Or maybe I should say, top omnivore. So I think that gentleman is taking the wrong lessons from the current geopolitical situation.

If we want to actually look at a resilient style of farming that can both feed the world AND nourish the world, we have to reexamine the basic premises of modern conventional agriculture, and that boils down to tillage and the overuse of agrichemicals and the diversity of what we’re growing and eating. And the Ukraine example I think plays right into that. The current situation is also a good example of why we need to get off of fossil fuels. We are completely dependent on them for running the economy of Europe and keeping Europe warm in the winter at this point. But we’re also dependent on fossil fuels for our agricultural system and nitrogen fertilizers are a BIG piece of that.

Among the things I have been very interested in since I wrote Dirt are the studies that looked at the comparisons of organic yields and conventional yields. And just how biased some of the reporting has been on that, in the sense that the conventional thing that you hear in the media is that there is a 10% to 15% to 20% yield penalty on organic.

But what you don’t get until you actually dig into those studies that underlie some of those comparisons is that when the comparisons are done with crop varieties that are bred for yield in organic systems and grown on healthy fertile soils in organic systems, they can match or outcompete comparable conventional farms. And so there are some real apples and oranges comparisons that have gone on and been solidified in conventional “wisdom” around that issue.

The thing I like to bring up is what if we actually invested in building healthy fertile soils? There are studies we cite in What Your Food Ate that argue that the yield penalty could be reduced to just a couple of percent, or even eliminated altogether. And then look at how much food we actually waste in cities, like 20% to 40%, depending on where you’re at. That’s bigger than even the worst-case assessments of the organic versus conventional “yield penalty.”

So the idea that we would all starve if we went organic is fiction. It depends on assumptions that are not necessarily true. And you can make a strong case for a resilient agriculture being one that is founded on soil health, and well done organic practices have long advocated for that, as you know and as Howard was advocating a hundred years ago.

Dave Chapman: Thank you. I loved that. You mentioned that it’s amazing how the small and the large tie together here, like fractals, and that it turns out that really growing nutritious food is also growing food in a way that benefits us as human beings and as citizens of the planet in so many other ways than just nourishment. Could you speak about that?

David Montgomery: One of the take-home lessons for me, both from Growing a Revolution and from What Your Food Ate was how advantageous it is across the board to actually rebuild healthy soils, in terms of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and parking it in the ground. There are lots of benefits to be had there, and lots of controversy over just how MUCH carbon could be taken agriculturally from the atmosphere and parked in the ground for just how long. But there are some pretty good studies that have demonstrated that there is an effect there.

And the single best way to reduce nitrate pollution in, say, the Gulf of Mexico, is to use less soluble nitrogen for agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin. That is the simplest way to do it because that is the root cause of the problem.

Phosphorus in the Great Lakes is similar, with a different geography and a different chemical. Going to more regenerative, soil health building practices that rely far less, if at all, on soluble synthetic fertilizers, that’s the way to reduce those sources of pollution, as well as keeping nitrates out of the drinking water supply in our rural communities in the Midwest.

And I also think that restoring profitability to small farms is the key to unlocking the economic potential of rural areas across North America once again. It’s kind of sad to give book talks across the Midwest and drive through town after town with a vacant downtown. The population density of rural America has been going down. Smaller, more profitable farms is something a more regenerative style of farming can help foster. So there are all kinds of ancillary benefits to just improving the health of the soil. The one we focus on in the new book is what it could mean for human health, but there are all these other benefits in terms of reduced pollution, increased carbon sequestration, and greater resilience in terms of moisture holding capacity on agricultural soils that have a higher carbon content. When we talk about building soil health, we’re really talking about building soil carbon and soil life. These are the two components of soil health. To do that, we have to think about the soil differently, and we have to farm differently than we do conventionally.

Dave Chapman: Could you describe the ways in which soil carbon and soil life are different? Are they completely one hand in a glove or is there a difference?

David Montgomery: I think of them as a little different, because I think of soil life as the actual living organisms. And once they die, they become soil carbon. So the difference is: Are they alive, or are they in the process of being recycled? One of the interesting things we uncovered, that Anne and I hadn’t known when we went into researching the book, was that there have been a bunch of studies in the last decade that have looked at how a lot of soil organic matter, soil carbon, is the remains of dead microbes. And so that soil life BECOMES the soil organic matter.

I used to think organic matter was mostly just the remains of things like leaves and grasses, and roots and plants. But it turns out that those plants are pushing out exudates into the soil, dripping out carbohydrates, fats, and proteins out of their roots to feed life around the root zone. Stuff that Anne and I wrote about in What Your Food Ate, but also a lot in The Hidden Half Of Nature. And how that life in the soil produces things that help the health of the crops, and helps crops get things like the mineral elements, like nitrogen and phosphorus, out of soil organic matter or mineral particles, thereby obviating the need for so many agrochemicals in an agricultural setting.

But that soil life, once it dies, then IT becomes soil organic matter that MORE soil life can feast on to actually keep the process going, and as more plants add more of their ”shed” parts, or their “dead” parts, it’s this whole bustling world of life that’s just taking the elements that have been brought into the biological domain, taken from the geological domain by plant roots and fungi, integrated into biology, and then this wheel just keeps spinning, turning them over. So I’ve used soil life and soil organic matter as two pieces of that cycle. Very intimately related, but not quite the same thing, by virtue of one being alive and one being formerly alive.

Dave Chapman: Yes, that’s great. On any one of these, we could go for a long time, and I would like to, but I have two more quick questions. One is were you surprised by anything you learned when you both were researching this book?

David Montgomery: Oh yeah. In the new one in particular, when Anne was looking into the connections between the flavor of foods and the healthfulness of foods. And one of the things that she uncovered as part of her research on this were studies that actually looked at how our bodies have taste receptors, not just in our mouth, but throughout a lot of our organs. Like our livers and kidneys, if I remember right, have taste receptors for things like fats and phytochemicals. Or bitter taste receptors, in particular, turn out to be instrumental in communicating and T-ing up our immune system.

I think you could ask quite fairly why would we have taste receptors throughout our body when the food goes in our mouth, and that’s where we taste it? Well, we’re not TASTING with our other organs, but those receptors are being informed about what’s in our food. And there’s a hypothesis that Fred Provenza’s been very big on writing about, thinking about, and greatly influencing our thinking about in terms of animal husbandry and how livestock choose their diet out in the wild, how they choose what to eat. It’s called the Flavor Feedback hypothesis. And that’s looking at how the flavors that appeal to an animal, like us, are those that reflect the content of things that are health-promoting in that food.

There was a study on tomatoes, in particular. We have all, I am sure, had those horrible flavorless tomatoes that one can find in grocery stores. The question that has long sort of bugged me: Is that a less nutritious tomato? Is that a worse tomato in terms of human health? I can’t tell you how many times we have been asked that in the last twenty years. And Anne found a paper, I think it was in Science, so fairly credible stuff, that looked at a study, I think it was Florida State or the University of Florida, I forget which, where they fed people a range of different tomatoes and asked, “Which ones do you like? What ones are most flavorful?”

And then they analyzed the chemistry of the ones from the least flavorful to the most flavorful. What they found was that the ones that appealed most to the human palate were those that had higher levels of, if I’m thinking right, omega-3 fats, carotenoids, a class of phytochemicals, and also particular amino acids. And they were essential amino acids, meaning that they were the kind of amino acids we can ONLY get from our food. Our bodies can’t make them ourselves. So these are all things that are health-promoting compounds that were the things that characterized the most flavorful, delicious tomatoes. That suggests that there is a feedback that helped people pick a diet in the pre-agricultural world when we were picking our diet from nature around us.

How did we know what to eat? Well, it turns out our bodies have evolved mechanisms where what’s in our food gets communicated throughout our body to our various organs, and that gives feedback in terms of how we feel after we eat and how satiated we are. Whether we want to eat more? Whether we’re satisfied? And it can help guide us to the foods that we like that are more healthy.

Now, of course, that has been perverted in the modern food processing world, because sugar, salt, and fat were all pretty rare in the ancestral human diet. So our bodies are hardwired to LOVE that when we get it. You know, I’m top of the list. Sugar, salt, and fat, I love it. But it’s pretty abundant now. And so when that guy from Syngenta is arguing we just need to grow quantity, if he is basically just arguing quantities of carbohydrates, simple sugars, made palatable by salt and fat, that’s not really a recipe for health, but it sure is a recipe for getting people to eat it. Because that appeals to our taste buds.

But what I was really fascinated about, back to your original question, in learning and researching this new book, was how our bodies, when we are consuming whole natural foods, our bodies have this internal radar, if you will, for guiding us to the healthier stuff. We’ve just kind of disarmed and disoriented that in the modern grocery store.

Dave Chapman: I’ll have to get that article about tomatoes and tape it to the wall.

David Montgomery: And if anyone is interested, the source materials for What Your Food Ate run to 56 pages of references. There are literally a thousand references. It is all on the website.

Dave Chapman: I have one last question. This one is maybe provocative. You go through the book and you show many, many studies comparing organic to conventional and showing, time and time again, that the organic production is genuinely more nutritious, not that it’s guaranteed to have a certain health outcome, but that overall, it certainly does have a positive health outcome. A friend pointed out to me that all of that organic agriculture involved tillage. It ALL did. The organic no-till is JUST just now being played with. And you know some of the people who are playing with it and I do too. And the conclusion of your final chapter was, “and thus, we should support regenerative agriculture.” And I thought “Wait a minute, shouldn’t we be supporting organic?”

We’re going to have a symposium this winter asking the question: “Is organic regenerative? Is regenerative organic?” And I know that what you mean by Regenerative might be different from what Syngenta means by Regenerative, because they claim to be a Regenerative company also. And they ALL do, all of Big Food, Big Ag is waving the Regenerative flag, regardless of what any of us think about it. And I’m just curious what you think about that? You mention Real Organic in the book. Do you think that that research demonstrates something? And that the research for what we are calling Regenerative hasn’t yet happened?

David Montgomery: No, if you read our book, what we’re arguing for are practices that build soil health. And so when you look at a definition for Regenerative agriculture as an agriculture that builds soil health, that’s what we’re talking about. Syngenta can say whatever they want about what they are doing, but if their practices aren't building soil health, they’re not doing regenerative agriculture.

So you mentioned tillage. You know one of the big topics in the Dirt book was that looking at past societies, none of which had agrochemicals in their arsenal, destroyed their land through tillage. There’s absolutely no question that tillage is bad for the soil. Now the question you SHOULD be asking is how MUCH tillage? Because if you have healthy fertile soil, you can get away with a little tillage. You can probably get away with even a fair bit of it if you’re doing other things in terms of composting and mulching and practices that build and maintain soil health. On the other hand, if you’re NOT doing those things, and you’re routinely doing a lot of tillage, you’re going to degrade your land really fast. And I've been on “organic” farms that have degraded their land. No Question. But I don't consider those to be using good organic practices. Right? So it’s not so much, in my view, regenerative versus organic as two things that need to be set up as flags to rally around. The flag we all should be rallying around is building soil health.

There are some big problems with many of the comparisons of organic and conventional produce that I think actually make organic look not as good as it actually is, particularly the great variability in practices across both ends of the spectrum. And there are other structural things in those comparisons in terms of growing crops that were bred for success in conventional systems and then trying to grow them organically and going, “Oh there’s not much in the way of yield” or “There’s not much in the way of differences.”

But the things that actually come out as very consistent in the studies that we’ve reviewed on the differences between organic and conventional as a background to talking about soil health, was that there are always differences in phytochemicals, and those are rooted in interactions with soil life. There are often differences in mineral micronutrients. Those are things rooted in interactions with soil life. There are rarely big differences with the macronutrients, and that’s in part because a tomato is a tomato. It's the basic chemistry of what makes a tomato.

And there are big differences in the livestock world in terms of the fatty acid composition. But those are all things that soil health influences. And so when Anne and I talk about Regenerative farming, we’re not so much talking about any particular company's definition of what Regenerative farming is. And it’s kind of like the whole purpose of the Real Organic Project is to try to highlight how the term “Organic” has sort of lost its way in terms of the USDA’s program. That’s a good example of what I think you may be concerned about, but the term “Organic” has just as much baggage as the term “Regenerative” in that regard today. That's why you guys started the Real Organic Project. So what we’re arguing for with the term Regenerative is an umbrella term for building soil health and fertility. Rebuilding that as a consequence of agriculture. And there are lots of different ways to do that. You know, Biodynamic farming is a really good example of practices that I may sort of roll my eyes at some of the philosophy that goes with it, but when you look at what people actually do on biodynamic farms, it's about building soil health and fertility. It's like, this is regenerative! And if you look at well done Organic farms, probably most of the Real Organic Project farms, I would call those all Regenerative if they are building soil health.

But there are also some conventional-ish farmers, or like the two no-till vegetable farms we write about in the book. Neither one of them is certified Organic as I recall. And they’re both incredible in terms of their soil. And it’s exactly what we want to be doing. And I’ve even been on some big ranches and farms where farmers who come out of the conventional farming world have virtually weaned themselves off of agrichemicals by adopting these more regenerative agricultural practices. And they will NEVER go Organic because it's not their tribe. I mean you talk to them about it and you realize, Oh no, this is just NOT going to happen. And yet, what have they done? They’ve basically become organic farmers. (laughter). Why? Because it built the health and fertility of their land.

So I’m trying to take the big picture view that by 2050 we need to make farming practices that build the health and fertility of the land as a consequence of intensive farming the new conventional farming. And frankly, I don't really care what you call it as long as it’s building soil health. And I think Regenerative is a very good term for that. But the worry about the term being co-opted is a real one. That’s a very real and legitimate concern.

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.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

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.

Find a Real Organic Farm Near You

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.”


Watch more Know Your Farmer Videos


Are You Getting Real Organic Food?

The Real Organic Project requires tomatoes to be grown in fertile soil

The USDA allows hydroponic tomatoes to be certified organic

The Real Organic Project requires berries to be grown in fertile soil

The USDA allows hydroponic berries to be certified organic

The Real Organic Project requires cows to be raised on pasture

The USDA allows confinement dairy operations to be certified organic

The Real Organic Project requires chickens to be raised on pasture

The USDA certifies eggs from chickens who have never been outside

The Real Organic Project was started by farmers to protect the meaning of organic. We grow food in the soil, not hydroponically. We raise livestock on pasture, not in confinement. In this time of concern about the erosion of integrity in the USDA, Real Organic remains exactly what organic was always intended to be.

Real Organic Label Sweeping The Nation

Dear Real Organic friends,

We are proud to announce the official release of the Real Organic Project label. We have just under 500 farms approved for certification. It is a sign of farmer commitment to Real Organic that so many have been certified without a label to show! And yes, we now have a label to share with the world so you can find our nutritious products.

Watch Real Organic farmer Glenn Elzinga discover the new label on his farm!

It's been 3 years since organic farmers were officially set aside at the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. The board listened to the corporations rather than to the farmers. This led to the formation of the Real Organic Project.

We told the NOSB then: “We, the farmers, are not going to sit back while the National Organic Program continues to degrade the meaning of organic.” 

Not only did we not go away, but we've been busy reaching out to organic farmers across the country, and the world. As VT organic farmer Davey Miskell said, “Farmers know how to get things done.” Here and abroad, the organic movement is, and always will be, soil-grown and pasture-raised.

While certifying her farm for the Real Organic Project during the 2018 pilot program, former NOSB member Jennifer Taylor told me, “They can change “USDA organic,” but they can't take the organic movement away from us.”

Three years later, I understand her words more than ever.

Organic farmers understand that soil health, crop health, animal health, and planetary health are intimately connected. The Real Organic Project will exist until the USDA National Organic Program understands that too.

Three Spring Farm, Oklahoma (Thank you for your work on the NOSB, Emily)
“What we do is REAL!”

It's been life-changing for us to get to know these passionate, knowledgeable, hard-working farmers. The bonus has been the number of scientists, authors, and deep environmental thinkers who support the Real Organic movement as well. We can't wait for you to learn more from them at our upcoming January symposium.

This winter Real Organic farmers will be busy getting the label on their products and continuing to spread the word about the Real Organic Project. We are unique in that we are a labeling effort that is coming from the farmers, rather than another marketing brand. Just as it happened the first time around. As Eliot Coleman said at the Thetford Rally, “We did it once before, we can do it again.”

Thanks for your support of our farmer-led effort to protect organic! Please take the time to look below at just a few of the hard working farmers who are part of the Real Organic movement.

Yours in the dirt,
Linley, Dave, Ariel, Forrest, Ralf, and the many Real Organic farmers.

P.S. Farmers, please forward this email to your customers, family and friends to let them know about this new label coming from the organic farmers. I'm sorry if your picture didn't make it below, it wasn't intentional!


Hemlock Grove Farm, New York (welcome to the NOSB!)

Ole Brooks Farm, Mississippi (Thank you for your work on the NOSB)

Radiance Dairy, Iowa (Thank you for your work on the NOSB)

Ela Family Farm, Colorado (Thank you for your work on the NOSB)

Shirley Ela, matriarch of Ela Family Farms, Colorado.

Lady Moon Farms, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida

Lady Moon Farms, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida

Full Belly Farm, California

Kilt Farm, Colorado


Oak Spring Farm, Maryland

Shadowood Farms, Florida

Eden Urban Gardens, Ohio

Box Turtle Farm, Missouri

Biophilia Organic Farm, New York

Full Belly Farm, California

Full Belly Farm, California

Full Belly Farm, California

Full Belly Farm, California

Villa Creek, MAHA, California

Taul Farm, Kentucky

The Farm at Our House, Maryland

Filaree Fruit, Washington

Vibrant Gardens, Wisconsin

Intervale Farm, Maine

Adobe House Farm, Colorado

Thompson Creek Farm, Washington

Spring Thyme Herb Farm, Delaware

Marion Gardens Organic, New York

Harvest Moon Organics, Wisconsin

Long Wind Farm, Vermont

Half Wild Farm, Vermont

Trail's End Organic Farm, Illinois

Frog Valley Tropical Fruit Farm, Florida

The Martin Family Farm, Michigan

Lockewood Acres, California

Jessen Wheat Co., Wyoming

Thompson Creek Farm, Washington

Happy Hollow Farm, Missouri

Happy Hollow Farm, Missouri

Happy Hollow Farm, Missouri

Farming Engineers, Indiana

Grindstone Farm, New York

Sally Negroni Farm, California

Good Find Farm, Pennsylvania

Cada Family Farms, Nebraska

Meadowlark Hearth, Nebraska

Kingbird Farm, New York

Alpenfire Cider, Washington

Bug Hill Farm, Massachusetts

Alderspring Ranch, Idaho

Checkerberry Farm, Maine

Mountainyard Farm, Vermont

Mount Hope Farm, Missouri

Uff-Da Organics, Minnesota

Last Resort Farm, Vermont

Last Resort Farm, Vermont

Last Resort Farm, Vermont

Lida Farm, Minnesota

Rising Sun Farm, Minnesota

Bravo Botanicals, Vermont

Spunky Ridge Ranch, Missouri

Eastview Farm, Vermont

A Way of Life Farm, North Carolina

Fulton Farms, Nebraska

Adobe House Farm, Colorado

Old Athens Farm, Vermont

Bottle Hollow Farm, Tennessee

Sweet Rose Farm, Virginia

Foraged & Sown Farm, Ohio

Terra Amico Farms, California

Alaska Navigation Services, Washington

Alpenglow Farm, Idaho

Rainbow Roots Farm, Iowa

Kane Plantation Avocados, Hawaii

Bittersweet Valley Farm, Vermont

Bittersweet Valley Farm, Vermont

Wheatfield Hill Organics, Wisconsin

Hurricane Flats, Vermont

Bow Valley Jersey, Nebraska

High Meadow Farm, Vermont

Full Circle Community Farm, Wisconsin 

Newfield Herb Farm, Vermont

That Guy's Family Farm, Ohio

Milkweed Tussock Tubers, New York

Milkweed Tussock Tubers, New York

“When great farmers like the ones behind the Real Organic Project ask something of us, we listen.”

-Zach Wolf, farm manager of Real Organic Project certified Caney Fork Farms.


Linley Dixon
Associate Director / linley@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

Who Owns Organic?

Who Owns Organic?



I was in a debate last week hosted by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).  It was an exchange of ideas about the certification of hydroponic as organic. We debated the following resolution:

 “The future of certified organic production will include hydroponics.” 

Speaking in support of this resolution was Kelly Damewood, the CEO of CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). I was opposed.

I will limit this letter to what I said. Kelly has asked that I not quote her, concerned that her comments might be taken out of context. I will respect her wishes, so you will have to watch the full debate when OEFFA makes it available to hear both sides.

What is organic farming?


For me, this was not a complicated question. When I looked at the historical foundations of organic, it was ALWAYS based on the idea of “Feed the SOIL, not the plant.”

What does that mean? It sounds interesting, but…what does it mean?

“Feeding the soil” means feeding the living things in the soil. Healthy soil is teeming with life, with countless invisible bacteria and fungi. There can be billions of bacteria in a single gram of soil. There can be 24,000 kilometers of mycorrhizal fungal hyphae in a cubic meter of healthy soil. Those hyphae could go halfway around the earth if strung together. Plus vast numbers of soil animals (worms, springtails, moles and voles, arthropods such as nematodes, anthropods such as mites and spiders). It is dizzying.

Like us, all these living things need to eat, and they thrive off of the products of photosynthesis made by plants converting sunshine into food. Plants are Nature’s solar collectors. The life in the soil gives minerals to the plants in exchange for the sugars. Plants are a necessary part of a healthy soil. No plants; no life. Plants provide the organic matter and photosynthates that feed that life in the soil.

Organic farming, put simply, is returning organic matter to the soil so that the life in the soil cycles nutrients back to the crop. Highly soluble fertilizers kill much of the life in the soil, whereas organic matter feeds it.


That is organic farming. “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Feed the life in the soil, and the life in the soil will feed the plant, and it can feed a plant better than any chemist. There are 40,000 known secondary plant metabolites. Who knows the proper ratios? Who knows the proper compounds to become truly available to the plant or to the animal? No one. The results of a healthy living soil are superior nutrition for the plant, for the animal, for the human. The results include vastly less soil erosion, vastly better water retention, less drought, less flooding, less pollution in the rivers, better carbon sequestration, and a more resilient, reliable agricultural system. 

And, oh yes, the plants will be less sickly and less attractive to insects. So there will be less need for spraying poisons on our food, and on our farmers. Less cancer. Less destruction of biodiversity.

And, oh yes, the food will taste better too.

So that is organic farming at its best.

What is “conventional chemical” farming?


It is based on the principle of “Feed the PLANT, not the soil.”

It is simple. The soil is not considered to be important for feeding the plant. The farmer feeds the plant by applying processed fertilizers that have been treated to be “plant available.” They feed what they think is a proper diet for maximum plant growth in the shortest time possible. The simplified nutrition and the monocultures create greater pest and disease problems. The farmer deals with pests by spraying chemicals to kill the pests and other chemicals to kill the diseases. 

What is hydroponic production?


Hydroponics is most simply defined as providing the plant’s nutrition with a liquid solution. The nutrition for the plant is contained in the liquid. The plant gets little to no nutrition from whatever material (substrate) its roots are in. The nutrition is all added as a liquid fertilizer.

Some hydroponics have the roots resting in a water bath. Sometimes in a “pond” and sometimes in a tube of water.

Some hydroponics have roots dangling in the air where they are sprayed with a nutrient-rich mist. This is called “aeroponics.”

Driscoll's organic hydroponic berry production has greatly expanded from the 1,000 plus acres reported in 2016.

Some hydroponics have the roots sitting in containers or bags of “substrate.” In this kind of hydro, the substrate can be many materials, but the most common are shredded coconut husks (called “coco coir”). 

Growers use different systems based on the crop they are growing. Most hydro greens are grown in water baths or aeroponics. Most tomatoes, peppers, and berries are grown in containers of bags filled with coir.

So the basic principle of ALL hydroponics is… “Feed the PLANT, Not the Soil.”

Hydroponic tomatoes grow in white plastic square pots inside a green house. On the ground is a rail system between rows.


THAT is why we don't think that hydroponics can be called organic. It is a DIFFERENT system. It has a different understanding of how to grow a productive crop, of what is important in nutrition, even of how we encourage health in human bodies, animals, or plants.

Does it matter? To whom?

Well, according to the hydroponic industry, as represented by lobbyist Lee Frankel, “hydro sales certified as organic” exceeded $1 billion in 2017. 

What are the results?

  1. Consumers who think they are buying food from a farmer growing in healthy soils are defrauded.
  2. If organic advocates are right and the nutrition of food grown in healthy soil is superior, those same people are getting nutritionally inferior food while paying for something else.
  3. The real organic farmers who are displaced by that billion dollars of sales go out of business. The thought that the “organic tent” just gets bigger is not accurate. Some of those sales are new sales that come as a result of “cheaper” food (think Walmart), but some of them are the result of soil farmers being pushed out of the marketplace.
  4. The land that gets pushed out of organic production is no longer being farmed organically.

Kale plants are fertilized by a living mulch, a nitrogen-fixing cover crop, a foundational organic practice.

We learned in the debate that CCOF now estimates that they certify close to an 5000 acres of hydro/container acreage. I appreciated CCOF's transparency. 

At the same time, we learned that out of 4,000 CCOF certified organic producers, only 94 are hydroponic/container. Former USDA program director Miles McEvoy once agreed that far less than 1% of certified organic operations are hydroponic.

What this means is that a VERY small number of hydro producers are now deciding the standards for the National Organic Program. They just have too much money to stop.

There is no other reason that hydroponic is accepted as organic by the USDA.

When I served on the USDA Hydroponic Organic Taskforce, we learned that Driscoll’s (the biggest organic berry vendor in the world) was also the biggest “hydroponic organic” producer in the world with over a thousand acres of hydroponic berries being certified at that time.

Now their acreage is far greater.


Suddenly we understood why we were losing this fight. There was just too much money involved.

So who will protect organic?

The organic movement started with Albert and Louise Howard. They based their agricultural philosophy on the traditional farming methods of India and Southeast Asia. Their work was carried on by Eve Balfour in England and J.I.Rodale in America. 

In 1980 the USDA worked with Eliot Coleman to produce their first report on Organic Farming. And they got it: “Soil is the Source of Life.” and “Feed the Soil, Not the Plant.” 

This was continued by all the regional organizations that supported organic farming. We all agreed that the foundation of organic was to “Feed the Soil, Not the Plant.” 

This definition of organic has been supported by the law, when Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act (known as OFPA).

It was reaffirmed by the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit hydroponics in organic certification.

It has since been embraced by the Organic Farmers Association and the National Organic Coalition.

In 2017 a petition calling on the USDA to prohibit hydroponics in organic certification got over 100,000 signatures in three weeks. This petition was presented to the USDA (and got no response).

Hydro Blueberries in Florida. The future of USDA Organic?

In 2014, the USDA’s  National Organic Program made its first-ever announcement that it was embracing hydroponics. Before this, there had never been a stated policy. This announcement was in direct opposition to the 2010 NOSB recommendation (which the NOP had promised to act on). 

To this day the USDA has not set out actual standards for hydroponic production. The problem with this is seen by the USDA permitting the use of glyphosate (RoundUp) on land used for hydro production immediately prior to certification. This practice was finally banned after the Real Organic Project mounted a public campaign opposing this in 2019.

The USDA STILL allows the use of prohibited pesticides in hydro greenhouses immediately prior to organic certification. They have refused countless times to even answer questions about this allowance.

The hydroponic invasion is leading to the serious undermining of the organic brand.

Please don't shoot the messenger!

This erosion of public trust has led to the growing popularity of the “Regenerative” brand, which faces even greater problems than the organic brand. 

Customer doubts about organic have been blamed on the organic movement for daring to speak up about the eroding standards.


As  people who care are seeking a path forward, there are four choices

  1. Remain silent and accept a corporate redefinition of “certified organic.”
  2. Fight for reform of the USDA.
  3. Create a new word for organic. Something like “Agroecological.”
  4. Create a Real Organic add-on label to represent the original meaning of organic.

At the Real Organic Project, we still fight for reform, but we have chosen not to wait for government approval. We are pushing for a label that people can trust today.


The OEFFA debate had a vote at the beginning and at the end to see if people’s minds had been changed.

The results of the vote

“Proposition- The future of certified organic production will include hydroponics.” 

In the beginning:
Agree – 17%
Disagree – 47%
Undecided – 37%

At the end of the debate:
Agree- 12%
Disagree – 77%
Undecided – 11%

This outcome confirmed my basic belief that hydroponics can only survive in the organic label with smoke and mirrors. Any actual examination of the facts leads to a simple conclusion. Hydroponics has no place being called organic. Along with CAFOs, its future inclusion will damage or destroy the real meaning of the word organic.

Let’s not let that happen. Join 1000 Real Fans today and help us build organic into a transformative force in the American food system.

See you at the MOSES Conference this week.

Many thanks,
Dave and Linley

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.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

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.

Find a Real Organic Farm Near You

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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Black Lives Matter

The Real Organic Project was created to build community around the core beliefs of organic farming. These beliefs are based on a biologically diverse soil ecosystem. This kind of farming has profound impacts on our health and on our climate. If we change our farming systems, we change our world.

Real Organic Project has been created to make change. We seek individual actions to change institutional failures.

If there is one belief that is central to organic, it is that everything is connected. Every action has a profound impact on the system, although we are often unaware of that impact. When we reduce the diversity of a soil community, we make it more brittle, more fragile, more vulnerable, more dysfunctional. Diversity brings health.

Our movement for greater diversity in the soil community is often lacking racial diversity in the farming community. We certainly have people of color in the Real Organic Project among our farmers and on our boards. We feed people of all colors. But we are a predominantly white movement.

The authentic organic movement has always been a part of the Blessed Unrest described by Paul Hawken. A complex ecosystem of diverse social movements struggling towards a common harmony.  The organic movement was always part of a larger cultural movement intended to reimagine our role on the planet.  It intended us to live lives based less on greed and more on kindness and generosity.

The murder last week of George Floyd, yet another black man killed by yet another white policeman, has plunged the country into pain, into anger, into rage, into grief, and hopefully, into action. There are spontaneous demonstrations everywhere. The rest of the world is responding as well. 10,000 people march through the streets of Copenhagen in solidarity. 10,000 people march in Australia.

The problem isn't just that some dangerous racists have badges and guns. The bigger problem is that there is a bitter history of those dangerous racists then being protected by police departments and courts.

I am also hit by all this personally as the scared white father of a black man. I am afraid for my son. At least with COVID he can choose to stay away from others to protect himself. But as a person of color, where is he supposed to stay? He lives in New York City, but even in Vermont, black men have been assaulted by police while sitting in their own homes. There is literally no safe place. My son was pulled over by police 12 times in the first year he had his license, never getting a single ticket. Just checking…. Every black person in America is faced with real danger from some of the very people they pay to protect them.

I don’t know how to deal with this. I share my confusion. Somehow, we must do much better. 

None of us can do it alone. We can’t do it alone.

We all have little corners of the social universe that we inhabit. these corners are our responsibility. Real Organic Project is a group of farmers and eaters who know a little bit about biology, ecology, and growing food. But the world of growing food is sculpted by American racism as well. We are the inheritors of a system of land ownership that began by excluding people of color to the benefit of white people. That deep pattern is continued by the decisions of our banks and Federal lending programs. America actually has a lower percentage of black landowning farmers today (a little over 1%) than we had 50 years ago. AS a white person my privilege is real, but invisible to me. That is the nature of privilege. As Malcolm Gladwell has said, it isn't wrong that I am given such support from the system. It is wrong that such support isn't extended to EVERYBODY. 

Black farmers have been pushed off the land. It is easier to rob a person with a fountain pen than with a gun. Although the gun is used as well.

So I am offering links to a few talks that have been important to me. These people have taught me. Even in our busy world, it isn't hard to become better informed. Learning is always the first step. It can't be the last step.

First is a talk by Onika Abraham at the first Real Organic Symposium at Dartmouth in 2019. It is a powerful talk that I really appreciated. Onika is Director of Farm School NYC, an adult training program for city dwellers interested in growing food.  Onika also spoke at the NYC rally to protect organic in 2017.


Next is a talk by Leah Penniman called “Farming While Black” given at the EcoFarm conference in 2020. Leah is a farmer activist who wrote the classic book Farming While Black. She has given keynotes at many conferences since the publication of her book.


Next a talk by Malik Yakini, a highly respected pioneer in urban organic farming. He is the co-founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Malik's work is focused on building food sovereignty for black people. I chose this talk given at Dartmouth College in 2017. It shows his generosity of spirit.


Finally, the New York Times put out a powerful series directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones called “1619”, marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in America. There were 246 years of slavery in America – 10 generations. Now, it is 150 years after abolition, and there is still so far to go. How can we still have so far to go? They describe how the wealth of America was built on slavery. Slavery was the economic engine that created America. And it also created our American version of capitalism. It goes on to show how black Americans continue to be driven out of farm ownership. The podcasts include two episodes on land ownership for Black farmers called “Land Of Our Fathers.”


Know Your Farmer | Full Moon Farm

Full Moon Farm, Vermont

Rachel Nevitt and David Zuckerman own and operate Full Moon Farm in Vermont, where they grow a delicious variety of produce, including melons, sweet corn, and heirloom tomatoes. When David isn't farming, he's representing the state of Vermont as Lieutenant Governor. In a rally in Thetford, Vermont, David announced, “Organic without soil is like democracy without people.”

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Know Your Farmer | Full Moon Farm, Vermont

David Zuckerman: I'm David Zuckerman with Full Moon Farm along with Rachel Nevitt. We started the farm in '99, and Rachel became a part of it in 2000, and we've grown the farm from a couple acres to about 15 to 20 acres of production, and added pigs, chickens (layers and meat birds) and a summer camp. I'm also Lieutenant Governor of Vermont.

Going Back to the Original Organic

Rachel Nevitt: The reason why we choose to be involved and want to be involved with the Real Organic Project is because the organic movement has, for a while, needed some changes in the opposite direction that the changes have been happening. At the federal level, these changes had been coming from large ag that sees the value in the monetary benefit of the word “organic.” But they don't believe or seem to care about the real intention behind organic and sticking to the practices that make something organic.

So, they use their money and influence in Washington to change what the standard means. And it has diverted from its original intention, and we want to go back. Back to the original intention of really taking care of this planet and creating food that's healthy for us to eat.

DZ: Yeah, I would say to me, the Real Organic Project is about the integrity of the term organic. As customers learn more and more that there are 20,000-cow CAFO “organic dairy farms” or they hear that there's organic food grown without soil, and they might get sold as “less energy” or “less dense” or “less fat.” But in the long run, they have to extract everything you put into that water to make hydroponic things grow. If we lose consumer confidence in the term organic, then we lose the ability to raise food in a holistic way because economically, we won't be able to survive. Real Organic Project is about rebuilding the integrity to the name that makes it so that people can farm and sustain themselves both nutritionally, and economically which is sort of a critical combination.

RN: We really do need consumer confidence back. I hear it a lot from people that “What does that really mean anyway?” And they found some product that, you know, wasn't really organic. Clearly it's large ag. So, they know that the USDA standard has been watered down and that makes people lose faith in their regular local farmers, and we want to give them the ability to get that faith back.

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Educating Customers About Their Food

DZ: We raise between 15 and 20 acres of vegetables. I'd say the highlights are our stemless, clean spinach, melons (cantaloupe and watermelons). We sell a lot sweet corn because we have the acreage to grow it. A lot of organic farms and even non-organic farms don't grow a whole lot of sweet corn because of acreage issues. Tomatoes. Rachel's tomatoes are just phenomenal. We grow almost exclusively heirloom tomatoes, and you don't get as many to fruition. But the flavor just knocks every other hybrid tomato off the shelf.

RN: We are almost 100% direct marketing (CSA and farmer's market). I think a big part of our farm is the educational process. People really appreciate having us at market and CSA pickup to talk to us. They can go anywhere and get a tomato in Vermont. I mean, there is lot of health food stores, co-ops, and whatever. But they appreciate having the farmer there so that they can say, “what tomato would you recommend?” “Why is this tomato black?” “Does that mean, it's rotten?”

Our customers also just like hearing about the challenges. Years ago, we were at our CSA pickup, and it was about 98 degrees and had been for a few days and a member showed up at pickup and they're like, “Hey, yeah, what do you guys do on the days that are hot like this?” “Uhmm, we work, we grow food!”

They were like, “no, no, no seriously, like you don't stay outside in this and work?”

We were like “you see the food we brought for you? This is what we do! This is the job.”

DZ: And then also people do talk to both of us markets and CSA about the bigger picture about food production. We're pretty outspoken about what organic means to us, what the industrial organic situation is with a lot of foods, not really meeting the holistic intent and the values intent of what the original organic farmers. We don’t consider ourselves “original farmers,” but we are in the same vein of value as farmers with respect to the new conversations, whether it's hydroponics, soil health, animal husbandry practices that are being allowed to be certified with certain certifiers.

There are certain certifiers that are really questionable. VOF is great, but some of the big international certifiers are pretty questionable.

What Does Organic Mean?

DZ: Organic means a number of things to me. First and foremost, it's keeping our soil healthy and  actually building it so it's healthier for the next generation, whether it's our own child or whether it's the next person that is going to farm the land. It also means not poisoning the water or poisoning the ground with synthetic herbicides pesticides, fertilizers. The idea is to leave it better than you find it. And if you're building the soil and your soil is healthy, then you're going to be growing healthier food, which also means your customers and the people eating it are going to be healthier.

I mean, the old adage, “you are what you eat.” You look at the food that most people eat in this country, and they think nothing of it, because government says, “it's fine.” And you're getting your ratios and whatever. But the actual nutritional value, the diversity of health in that food, the variety of nutrients in that food, are just not really there in the way that I believe they are with organically grown food.

RN: For me, organic is the only kind of food there is. When people tell me that they're eating and I say, “what are you eating?” And I go, “that's not, that's not food. It's not safe to put in your body.” And when people complain about the cost of organic. And I look at them, and I say, “what's the cost of treating cancer?” If you're putting food in your body treated with chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, that adds up in your body. It's there, it accumulates, and then you feed it sugar. And it's off to something that you don't want to have in there.

DZ: And we've been doing it to the planet. Right now, the planet is sick. Climate crisis is the sickness of small individual additions, day in and day out, of carbon dioxide. Well, one little breath of carbon dioxide or one heating of a stove or one running of a car doesn't do it, but it’s the cumulative effect.

If you're eating food that's got all these chemicals on it that they say is “fine to eat. It doesn't hurt you.” But people eat this kind of food day in and day out, day in and day out. And you wonder why we have higher cancer rates than a lot of other countries; you wonder why we have all these kids with ADHD and all these challenges. Well, what are we eating? What are you drinking? what are we putting into our into our souls, which are our bodies? That's all part of the equation.

Balancing Politics and Farming

Linley Dixon: How do you do it all?

DZ: Well, how I’m able to do it because of Rachel and crew. And I do think that they’re related. Both jobs have interesting overlaps and extreme differences. One of the overlaps is that in farming, you start seeds you build the soil. You water. And it's a long process to reach the fruits of your labor. And in politics, sometimes you talk about an idea and you have to sew the idea, you have to talk with a lot of people, you have to help foster that idea. Sometimes it takes 5, to get something to fruition. So maybe you are more like a tree farmer than a vegetable farmer. But at the same time, you can have sudden events that change everything. You can have a massive rain wind or storm of some sort that's going to really impact your crops, and you've got to adjust. And in politics, you can have a sudden event change the dynamic, and you have to ultimately, sometimes change what direction you're going on a policy or take an opportunity to put a policy into place. So both are long investments to reach the reward of the product.

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