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2019 Symposium | Onika Abraham

Onika Abraham Farm School NYC

I want to invite everyone who's here right now who it feels accessible for to stand with me just for a moment maybe stretch a little bit and just ground down your feet because what I want to do right now before I move forward in my talk and what I often do before I start speaking especially in a place that I'm new to.

I've not been to New Hampshire in quite some time is to just ground down in the space where we are, in the land where we are in the soil that we all care so much about and give acknowledgement and thanks and respect for the indigenous people whose land we're on. We haven't yet had a moment to do that together yet today.

My understanding, this is not where my people come from, but my understanding is that the Abenaki are part of the indigenous peoples of this land and the Western Pennacook I think – but I see some heads nodding and I'd love you to speak the names of some of the native peoples if you know them too. To just gives some recognition, whether they're original to this land or have come on to this land.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

So, these peoples are the roots of this organic movement in so many ways. They stewarded this land before any of us came to it and built those layers of soil and beautiful organic matter that we're all talking about.

Those weren't accidental they weren't works of nature only, they were intentional and so thank you so much for coming together and just grounding down in that experience with me.

I arrived yesterday and last night and I was really so happy to be welcomed on to Dave Chapman's farm. And so even in the dark I could tell it was beautiful there and I had some wonderful conversations with y'all many of whom are in the room right now, many of whom have spoken today.

I was really so impressed because I could really understand so much of the concerns that we all had. And they were common concerns, and so much of the knowledge I felt just immersed in this environment where we all understood that the centrality of soil to our health and to the growing techniques that we all care about. And I thought how wonderful.

How wonderful to be immersed in that. How wonderful to feel that commonality. And it also reminded me of, one of my own religious practices is actually listening to “On Being” with Krista Tippett. Am I alone? Okay. I am a little obsessed with the show and if you listen to this week's podcast you might have heard this quote:

“If we live in an environment where we take the right opinion for granted as a given, “now everybody knows that,” maybe you're called upon to explore ideas that not everybody knows.”

So that was by a thinker, Harvard professor, an essayist, poet Teju Cole, and it made me think about what I could actually come and talk about today with y'all because so many of the farmers that are here already share what I know and love about organic farming and about the soil and we've heard so much of that today.

Building Biodiversity and Racial Diversity within the Organic Movement

So what am I called upon to talk about, was my question. And I think what I am challenged to do, what I'm challenging myself to do, and it's a little uncomfortable for me I have to say, but my idea is:

If we want this movement to grow, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of our pockets, for the sake of your plate, you must care as much about the racial diversity and equity of America's farmers as we do about the biodiversity of the farmland.

Black and brown farmers are severely underrepresented in farming as a whole and in organic farming in particular.

Black people, my people make up 13% of the people in this country. We make up 1.4 percent of all farmers, organic or not. So for me, stewarding not only the biodiversity of our soil but also of our farmers is one of the key points, the key origins of Farm School NYC and that's the organization that I'm so blessed to steward.

Focusing on the Abundance within Urban Gardens and Communities

So, Farm School NYC was created by a collective of farmers, urban farmers community gardeners, activists, educators who all came together and really wanted to give back to their communities in a way that they had wasn't seeing happening.

In particular, they were working in low-income communities mostly communities of color throughout New York City and they were so used to people defining their communities by everything they lacked, right.

Lack of access to fresh healthy foods. Lack of access to education. Lack of access to economic opportunity.

And they wanted to redefine and change that framework to focus on the things that they had in abundance.

600 community gardens that were growing food for communities often free low-income communities, giving that food or embracing the fact that people can feed themselves.

And then “people resources”, knowledge base, expertise of growing for generations in urban areas; we had that in abundance in New York City and so they figured what they really were missing was an opportunity to bring those things together and to train the next generation of growers.

So they created a professional level school that's comprehensive organization really training farmers and sustainable agriculture adults, everyone's over the age of 18, and really looking at not only just the practices of organic agriculture but looking at how we do this work as a community and how we do this work grounded in social justice, it's the key part of Farm School's mission.

One of the things that I love about Farm School is that we not only really we don't have our own farm per se because we're a collective of all these different farms and gardens came together to develop this organization we really go out into the community and go to all these different farms and gardens around the city.

So here you see us at Taqwa Community Farm in the Bronx in 2014 doing a wonderful soil health class together. And these gardens that you see here, this is the real root of my own agricultural history.

So I am a born and bred New Yorker. I was raised on the Lower East Side of New York City. Who here has been to the Lower East Side of New York City recently who was in the New York City Lower East Side in like 1973?

Okay. So that's when I was born 1973 in New York City and that was the real heyday of this community gardening movement that really birthed me in a lot of ways and my interest in organic and my interest in organic and sustainable agriculture.

There are so many beautiful community gardens in New York City.

This is the ninth Street community garden. It's a lovely garden a lot of produce grown here. This is another community garden El Sol Brilliante. It is a beautiful community garden tons and tons of tomatoes I've picked in this very garden.

I'm so obsessed with community gardens that I actually got married in one. That's me and my husband at 6pc garden. There's an incredible lots of beehives right above that garden because there's so much wonderful fodder for all of the bees to enjoy and appreciate. It's really beautiful.

So our founders at Farm School really wanted us to ensure the growth and continuity of our city community gardens and urban farms because they knew that I was so vital for the health and self-determination of money poor folk in New York City.

I grew up surrounded and inspired by these community gardens and I still am to this day.

I also remember the epic battles over land on the Lower East Side battles that resulted in these beautiful gardens and battles that still continue on today.

Soil as the Foundation of Urban Agriculture

But Urban Ag is actually older than these gardens. It is as old as the concept of a city itself and since the first plot was first dug in the first city, soil has been at the heart of organic agriculture of urban agriculture, it's practice innovated and dominated primarily by those who really needed that food for survival the poor and the marginalized and the people of color and it still is.

Urban Ag might be hip, but it's not new and for the clear majority of urban farmers it's not soilless.

Soil has always been integral to organic agriculture in urban settings and in my city in New York City, it's a city of migrants and immigrants and each new wave of these migrants and immigrants brought soil-based practices to our patch of land.

From Italian immigrants using fig trees and backyard gardens to my own black and brown ancestors bringing collard greens and callaloo to church yards.

My ancestors had generations of experience farming marginal land, the only land they could access in the south due to racist practices and business policies and they brought those practices to New York City where the land they could farm was often just as marginalized and worst polluted.

But they believed that the soil could provide and with the hard work of digging and hoeing and testing and amending and stewarding the soils it did provide.

This is a wonderful picture of one of the original farm mavens matrons Carmen Pabon and she was celebrating on the Lower East Side in the 1980s.

I remember this kind of liveliness and vibrancy in this in the community of farms that really nurtured me when I was growing up in New York City so not just food but there was so much cultural and relational richness that were birthed in those gardens which I really loved but also a fair amount of food.

And this is the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Brooklyn.

There are really hundreds of thousands of pounds of food that are grown sustainably in New York City farms and gardens each year and most of it is in the soil that our residents worked hard to reclaim for over generations.

So in restoring our city's soil our urban farmers are restorers of our communities our families our local economies our own bodies.

Urban agriculture has been the bedrock of food sovereignty for generations of urban poor because we can do it with a few seeds and the sun and the rain and the soil. We can have control over what we eat and what we grow without a GoFundMe site or venture capital.

We Need More Farmers of Color

We have a stake in urban areas of keeping soils central to the conversation around urban agriculture and sustainable agriculture in general Urban growers especially people of color have fought to reclaim and protect and restore our soils so we seek solidarity with fellow stewards of the soil everywhere and solidarity does go both ways.

We want to see the organic movement embrace and reflect the racial diversity of the growers that we see in New York City and in all of our cities.

We need more farmers of color to be part of the organic organic movement. Farmers of color in this country are much more likely are much less likely to be certified organic but are much more likely to grow fruit and vegetables then commodity crops and they're more likely to use sustainable farming techniques like biodiversity and closed-loop systems.

In fact, the same external forces of racism and white supremacy that limited our entry into large-scale commercial agriculture may have served to preserve and even innovate the sustainable practices of farmers of color so we really do feel like we're on the growing edge of this movement.

But more than just diversity we really want to see the organic movement work towards equity.

The Organic Agriculture Community Should Not be Complicit in Racism

We need a shared understanding that racism isn't just mean people saying racist things but well-meaning folks living quiet lives of inaction while systemic racism lives on.

Just by living in this country where structural racism exists, we are all complicit unless we actively resist it.

And I want to thank you Jean-Paul for bringing up that Buckminister Fuller quote earlier this morning about how resisting isn't enough, right because I agree fighting against existing realities isn't enough.

We need a new model that really looks at making old models obsolete, the ones that aren't working for us.

Places like Farm School we're training farmers and activists who are building these new models as are organizations like the Black Urban Growers and SAFFON and the White Earth Land Recovery Project and the Real Organic Project has so much to gain by working in solidarity with these efforts and I'm really excited to see that grow in the years to come.

I want to know that this organic movement is willing to investigate and address the ways in which it's upholding patriarchy and white supremacy just as I am striving each day to do this messy urgent critical work in my own organization and in my own heart and in my own mind.

It isn't easy work, it isn't easy for me. Every day it takes guts and courage to stand up in rooms like this to talk about this.

It also isn't easy in relationship with my own colleagues and comrades of people of color. I stumble, I fail, I fall, I get up, I get help which is so important, from my comrades and my mentors and other people of color and other people and allies and I get held accountable and I keep going.

So when we find ourselves in a room like this – a safe space where the sanctity of soil is a given, where everybody knows the true meaning of organic and its virtues, it's time for us to get brave in a different way. Let's go further.

There are powerful forces working to keep us divided and silent but we get to be brave together in spaces like this.

2019 Symposium | Dave Mortensen

I am going to do something that I every once in a while do, which is to completely deviate from what I've prepared.

The speakers that I've been hearing today, this has been profound for me.

I work at a university and it's easy to get lost in the hubbub of just being on a campus, just all the hubbub stuff. And so sometimes I actually feel quite guilty of not having gotten more involved than I have to date in this activity, Real Organic.

Dave Mortensen – National Organic Standards Board

I joined the National Organic Standards Board a couple of years ago and I can tell you one thing I did not know, was what I was getting myself into. And I was so thankful for Francis and Emily and Harriet welcoming me into the fold so I could kind of understand where I might fit into this.

Some people have called me ‘a numbers guy' which is funny because I'm not a particularly strong mathematician. But I remember, and not to get too personal here, but a close friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer and the surgeon said “We're gonna do this, that, and the other thing” and we said “Could we see the data, can we see the pictures so that we can make an informed decision?”

And it is kind of the way my mind works, whether it's genetically modified crops – where I spent 10 years, really about ten years on a somewhat failed effort to prevent herbicide-resistant crops – and then now, with this so-called ‘new generation' of 2,4-D and Dicamba crops from being deregulated.

All the while that I was working on that – it was the farmers that were supporting the effort – myself and the folks in my lab where we collected the data – I was always struck by how quick we were to make a decision with so little insight.

I went to the MOSES conference last year and it broke my heart, I'll tell you, to hear two sessions that weren't even in the program on Dicamba drift problems on crops. This is an herbicide that corn and soybeans were deregulated and genetically modified for, so the herbicide could be applied on them.

The Real Stakeholders in Organic Agriculture

That was my ten-year project, but I didn't do so well convincing EPA and USDA not to deregulate. So I honestly was naive when I went off to attend this hydroponics vote for the year. Leading up to it, I was thinking “Well, gosh this is the organic community and they're going to look out for one another, and it's not like it's the GMO thing where I felt like I was fighting against Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences.”

And they were trying to convince USDA and EPA to please make the right decision, we should not do this. And then they (USDA, EPA) would say “Well, you got to think about the stakeholders Dave, that's where you're missing the boat. We read your stuff Dave, but you don't understand that we need to hear from the stakeholders and we're hearing from them.”

Data, Stakeholders, and NOSB Sub-committees

So Linley and Dave, gave me four questions, including:

“Why do we make decisions that don't seem to make sense to us?”

And I would say that one of the reasons why we make bad decisions – NOSB, EPA, USDA, APHIS, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service – is that this “stakeholder” thing is nonsense.

That's one of the reasons why. Because we can just handpick our “stakeholder group”.

Like a group of farmers that will come into a presentation of EPA where the farm, on the bottom right hand corner of every one of their slides, has the Monsanto logo. And they'll step through their no-till farming practice, right next to Francis's place on how badly we need to have this legislation go through.

The ‘numbers guy' would ask, “Where's the data?”

Let's look at the data we have, for goodness sakes.

You increase the area treated, the amount of stuff that we put on the land, and the probability of seeing it in our water – groundwater, surface water, our neighbors' fields – increases by a predictable function. We know that.

We have that data and yet we deregulate and make bad decisions.


Because we're talking to the wrong stakeholder group.

This is a powerful stakeholder group here. I am deeply moved by what you presented. And Francis and Cameron's pictures of those aerial images, my goodness, the data are there.

Okay, so we have a problem with stakeholders. And here's another problem that we have (I think my NOSB colleagues agree though I should not assume that or presume that):

To get really specific, the subcommittees on the NOSB work on things. And that certainly was the case with hydroponics, that the subcommittee was pretty much on the same page. But the subcommittee is only a fraction of the NOSB; the whole group is 15.

The subcommittee – I don't remember the number – five or six of us. I was, I will tell you, I was surprised by several people's votes there, that were not from the subcommittee. And all of the team that's here from the NOSB knows, and I think they all agree, I believe we need way more time in conversation and debate to perfrom our duties as a National Organic Standards Board.

We came to that meeting debating amongst ourselves.

But to sit there in that room for 3 days and then come together at the end for a vote, where you have 3 minutes to say what you think?

It's an insult to me and to all the rest of the board members. That is not good pedagogy. That does not lead to good decision-making.

We need to create space for conversation.

A Picture of Carbon Sequestration vs. Hydroponics

I had prepared most of this to be about climate change and diversity; we heard it all.

How are we going to sequester carbon or mitigate the effects of plastic reflecting and trapping heat in the air?

We're not saving carbon. And these hydroponic things? I spent so much time with the students looking at these images and what did we see in hydroponic operations?

We saw lighting, the cost of lighting, compressors, synthetic lubricants, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, lexan, tygon tubing, duct tape. That's what I see in the pictures, you've shown them.

Chlorinated hydrocarbons.

This is the same as 2,4-D and Dicamba. This is unacceptable and my goodness, to call it “organic”?

It looked like a paved over roadway through the plastic there.

How is Academia Doing Supporting the Real Organic Project?

“How is academia doing supporting the Real Organic movement?” was this third question and I'll tell you and I have strong feelings about this.

We could argue about it, or some of my university friends would argue with me about it; University folks are really uncomfortable advocating for anything.

I am serious about that. We write papers about advocacy and neutral arbiters and most of my colleagues are very comfortable being a neutral arbiter.

You, let me look at those plastics, and look at the light transmission quality, and let me look over here – I've got some plants growing and we can measure that – and I'm exaggerating, but when they come down and say “Man, we got a problem with that plastic system” you will not hear a lot of University folks go out and make that claim.

Not advocating.

Yes it's what Onika is saying about being passive and being quiet and being like okay. This is a real problem.

I just moved to the University of New Hampshire. Durham, New Hampshire, where I took the role of chair of the newly formed Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems program and it's a progressive thing and I'm very excited about it.

And by the way, I'm looking for some young folks to join me. We've got funding for this kind of stuff that I'm – I haven't even told you the kind of stuff we do, I'm just telling you about NOSB stuff here – but we're looking for some people. So if you know some people that would like to work on policy or Real Organic, Linley and I were speaking at lunch about how it would be interesting to study farms as a network of farms. A participatory network that contributes data about the quality of their farmsteads.

So enough on the university thing. We can do better and we have. The younger faculty are doing much better than the older faculty; they're much more willing to engage and that's really encouraging.

Is the USDA Going in the Right Direction?

As to “Is the USDA going in the right direction and if not what can we do?” personally, I think that the direction that I see this group going in, towards a supplemental label, to me this makes a great deal of sense and I totally support that idea.

As a shopper, I have two sisters that are shoppers, and when they hear me telling them what is going on with hydroponics and they buy organic? They are shoppers that do care actually about not just about the price, and my kids care and not just about the price, and their friends care and not just about the price. So I think it does matter for folks to know what's going on with this.

And I'm personally also really annoyed with getting vegetables that don't have any taste.

I am a bagel eater in the morning. A bagel with egg and tomato – and it freaks me out to no end to get a white tomato on my bagel, which is becoming more and more common. A light pink tomato with a white center that doesn't have any taste.

When Onika was born in 1973 in New York City, I was a junior in high school in New York City. I taught in Spanish Harlem for a while, before going back to graduate school, I taught 5th grade children.

I can't agree more with Onika that we have to bring the food system and our people together. Together, we have to be touching food and cultivating soil and understanding the difference between something that has co-evolved in the soil to grow in the soil.

I see hope.

2019 Symposium | Harriet Behar

Harriet Behar – National Organic Standards Board Chair

Hello everyone, thank you for being here. So, I'm coming to you from the Upper Midwest. I live in Wisconsin on a small farm.

I've been certified organic since 1989.

I was one of the original people that helped start Organic Valley; I actually came up with the name ‘Organic Valley.'

I have a unique background in that:

  • I was the first marketing person for Organic Valley – I did the marketing for about nine years.
  • I get dirt under my fingernails as an organic farmer.
  • I've been an active organic inspector since 1992.
  • I've trained organic inspectors.
  • I now educate farmers.

I've moved a lot into educating farmers. I've been doing that for about 15 years, but meanwhile, I still keep doing everything else. I don't know how but I do.

So, I see a kind of a unique perspective and I really want to talk about trying to be as inclusive as we can in our message. I've been on a lot of organic farms, I've talked to a lot of organic consumers, and I understand the marketplace and the need for people to feel that they need to make a living.

I care about the earth and that's why many of us are in this. We know we share this beautiful blue marble and we know that organic farming really respects life and understands that interdependency we have with all living things, both below the soil line and above.

And we have a really positive message.

The Most Common Answer to “Why Did You Go Organic?”

In my time working with organic farmers, I've been on many organic farms where it's their first organic inspection. And I would always say to them “So, why did you go organic?”

And I would say as a significant portion, maybe thirty percent, would say that there had been sickness in their family or there had been sickness in their neighborhood.

And you know, I'm talking about out in Iowa and in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Missouri – you know big tracts of land and many generations of farmers.

Many farmers also spoke to their understanding of the ‘dead zone' at the base of the Mississippi River. And even though I am at that Upper Mississippi River region, we realized that what we're doing there is affecting the shrimp farmers down in the Gulf of Mexico, and these farmers didn't want to contribute to that degradation.

They also recognized that there was a chemical treadmill that once you start kind of killing off soil bacteria – when you go in and you kill insects, you're not only killing the problem insects, you're killing the beneficials, too – and that just leads to needing to use more and more and stronger and stronger chemicals. And we know that to be true.

We've seen that already with Roundup and the super weeds and now we're moving on to who would have ever thought 2,4-D and Dicamba – known carcinogens that we really don't want to be using, and the farmers really know that.

I wish that the consumers knew more about what was going on in agriculture, because they would be shaking their fists and saying “How could we be spraying Agent Orange all over our land?!”

Big Ag Wants Farmers to Just ‘Phone It In'

I was also very impressed that many farmers would say that they were sick of Monsanto running their farm.

That they (Monsanto) just didn't like this independent streak that many farmers have.

These farmers didn't want the multinational corporations basically owning them and they didn't want to really be “farming by phone” where they basically just call up the co-op, a guy comes out, takes a soil test, someone else comes out and they spread the chemical fertilizer and then the farmer plants the crop, and then they come back out and spray what they (Monsanto) say and then, at the end of the year, the farmer brings in their crop and gets what little is left after they've paid for all the chemicals that were put on the land.

And a lot of farmers also wanted to be able to earn a better price on a small acreage – and there really is nothing wrong about wanting to make a living from your farm.

So you know, the hydroponic people are saying “Well this is the best way I know how to make a living” – and I just think they're quite misguided.

Many Organic Farmers Are Dedicated Students of Nature

And lastly, there's a whole group of organic farmers that just love organic farming for the opportunity of learning. Just because it's so exciting to feel a partnership with nature, and because of all the different things that you get to learn over time about your place on the planet and what you can do to continually improve it.

I spent a lot of time out in fields with farmers and I'm always wondering you know, when I'm looking at their crops, what are they thinking?

Maybe they're just thinking about the money. But you know what, if that brings them to organic farming I think that's good. If they need that to start out – but I'll tell you, if they don't fully embrace the organic foundational principles, they won't be in it for long because they won't be successful.

When Jean-Paul (Courtens) was just talking about the shovel, there's times when I've been out doing a first-year organic inspection and the farmers are like “Well you know, I'm just going to kind of get into it, you know, it's such a better price” and then, if I show up at that farm again maybe four years later (I never know when I'm going to be assigned to a farm) and the farmer is so excited to see me, they're always like “Wow, you wouldn't believe it! You wouldn't believe all the earthworms I have now! You should see all the birds that are living in my fields and I'm just so excited!”

And then he throws a shovel in the back of the truck – and I'm there, the inspector, and I'm thinking “I've got another inspection in four hours and I'm never gonna get off this farm.”

Those are some of the people who came to Organic because of the money, but stay because they see the benefits and that's where we have to go and recognize the power of our positive message.

So, as Linley (Dixon) said, this is the actual definition in the USDA Organic regulation for organic – and it doesn't say anything about not using synthetic chemicals. This is about integrating cultural biological and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

And so, when I teach organic farmers, I say “What does this mean to you?” You know, how can this be?

We will not achieve this on all of our farms but what a wonderful goal to reach for.

Owner-Operator Model vs. Industrial-Corporate Model

I'm talking to a lot of owner-operators – and I think really what we're finding here now is that the higher price has brought the kind of industrial corporate model into Organic, which really offers a great danger to the owner-operator.

Because it's the owner-operator who has that long term vision for their land. Passing it on to their family, and even if they don't have family to pass it on to, they want to feel that every year they're making improvements on their land, just as Jean- Paul showed on his little graph there.

And Organic really can offer differentiation in the marketplace.

This morning when I was taking a shower I opened up my bar of soap and it said “Vermont Organic Solutions Soap” right, so the word organic means something to people.

I looked at the ingredients on it, not a single organic ingredient in their soap. What, was I gonna be their organic policeman? No.

But the point is that we already have a word that means something.

But it's true that the USDA, and especially under this administration, has very much narrowed our focus to what they think we should be looking at, and has narrowed the focus from the bigger picture of what organic is to just a substitution of acceptable inputs.

Exploring Inclusion in Organics

One thing that I do believe that we in the organic world can tend to do, is that when we see the problems that the other side has, we sometimes exaggerate the worst to make a point, but we don't really need to do that. We should have integrity in what we are saying as well.

Instead, we really need to be exploring ways to be inclusive to others and to listen to their concerns.

I'm part of the National Organic Coalition which has environmental groups, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, farmer groups – and believe me when we sit around and talk about organic issues we do not all agree. But we find a way to understand where each other is coming from and we find a way to find a compromise that meets all of our needs. And of course, when we come together on a tough position, it usually has a very strong foundation because we've taken everyone's needs into account.

Consumers need to be able to afford food, right? We should be trying to not just sell only to the elite – we need to make the art of practices available to all and to listen and understand the cultural and social values that people bring and how to reach them.

I learned on my high school debating team that if you use other people's concerns and then frame your position to meet their concerns, they usually have to agree with you because you're meeting their concerns.

Like I said, it's important to share personal stories that are positive and to not just only focus on the negative.

Organic Delivers Biodiversity; Hydroponics Never Will

Organic can result in just an abundance of wildlife and beauty.

The methods that we have of encouraging biodiversity, the incredible tools that nature provides of parasitic wasps eating the pest worms, releasing beneficial insects, etc.; when you talk to consumers about all of that, they're in wonder.

But then, when you look at the hydroponic side, where is the biodiversity?

Where are they encouraging more beneficial insects and healthier soils and in sequestering carbon?

There are so many things that when, like with hydroponics, you just only rely on the input side of things that you're missing out on, including this great opportunity when we grow in nature that we have for improving our environment for the future.

I believe most of, many of you, are consumers, we're all consumers, but we have such a positive message in organic.

So if an organic inspector shows up at a farm and the before picture is what they see, they will be written up in their inspection report and they will be encouraged to use the resources of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to really cover their land.

But think about it – is the farmer gaining more for their animals by having them on a grass-covered pasture rather than keeping them on a feedlot? Of course they are and that is it's beneficial not only to the farmer but also to the greater environment.

So, I wanted to speak a positive message but we also have to not be too mamby-pamby about it. I mean because we do have problems.

Touring CAFOs Firsthand

I used to work for a group called MOSES – the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service – and we used to go to the large farm progress days which moves around the state of Wisconsin and is basically focused on conventional agriculture. I mean like the biggest tractors you've ever seen, and it's like six stories tall.

For the past few years they move these huge tractors around to these CAFO conventional farms and have a tour of the farm and it's like “This is modern farming and look at all the wonderful things we do for the calves” and they basically have the calves like in a maximum-security prison. The calves are in these pens with solid walls so high that they they do not even see any living thing since they've been born from their mother until they're 6 months old, and all they hear is other calves mooing and crying all around them.

I mean, the stalls are so high they don't even see the people who are feeding them milk and water and so this is not the one I was in but they let us you know they took us in a school bus through this calf barn that had like 1,500 calves in it and by the time I got to the you know at the end I'm just like bawling and crying I can't stand it to see these animals treated like this and I you know I happen to be towards the front and the Extension Agents is like “everything is for calf comfort, look there's slatted floors so they don't have to lay in their manure” and I just lost it. I couldn't stand it.

We don't do this in Organic and we have to make sure this is not what Organic looks like.

Because what we're doing here is, we're basically starting out by having mentally and physically inferior animals. And this is not the kind of food that we want to be consuming nor the way we want to approach agriculture.

If any of you believe in karma, this is not the way we want to be tied to it – and if you're eating that kind of food you're encouraging it.

The same thing is with hydroponic operations.

I believe hydroponics is kind of like CAFO's for plants.

There have been studies that the food on organic farms is higher in antioxidants, not only because there's a better balance of nutrients and more soil biology for transferring those nutrients, but because the plants have to deal with wind and sun and maybe a little weed pressure – so they have to develop stronger immune systems themselves.

They have some insects feeding on them and this builds the antioxidants that we then consume and make us healthier. But if we're basically growing food in a laboratory, in an industrial situation, we are losing those benefits that we could have possibly gotten in addition to all the other things (biodiversity, carbon sequestration).

We have to look and encourage farmers and consumers that the short-term monetary gain is not worth it versus long-term resiliency and the health of all living things.

The Real Price of Our Food

I really think that with climate change and all the things that people are seeing, people are starting to learn that, you know, this year's profits are not worth ten years from now not even having a farm, or not even having an environment.

Although, my senator (I have one good senator and one I don't get along with) but he's actually said “If it's cheaper, I don't care where we buy it. You know, we could buy all our food from Brazil as far as I'm concerned” and this is the senator from Wisconsin when I was trying to tell him that we should be investing in the dairy infrastructure in Wisconsin he goes “well, if you could buy it for ten cents cheaper from New Zealand that's where we should go.”

I almost fell off of my chair.

So, soil-based agriculture and livestock production respects that natural behavior of the animal and the plants. And what is the natural behavior of a plant? It is not roots in water. It is that complex soil-based system.

I was talking with someone earlier about how you sometimes see plants growing out of rocks, like along a river or a lake. You don't see those roots going for the water, right, they are reaching for soil.

Studying Nature is as Important as Studying Tech

The other thing too is even at land-grant colleges and universities, the study of nature's systems can be incredibly exciting. I mean we don't have to turn our backs on “technology” but we are learning more about the complex systems that nature has evolved over time can be really, really exciting and I agree if we had been spending all the money that we had put into genetic engineering and chemicals, if we have been studying natural systems, just think how far along we would be, but hoping the next generation will bring us there.

So it's very clear, it's clear to me, that the reductionist organic regulations that only look at the inputs as what matters does not live up to the immense promise that organic agriculture provides and I am the current chair of the National Organic Standards Board and I have been working very hard to figure out how to get through to the USDA bureaucrats and I've had a few small wins.

I don't know if I'll be able to get hydroponic back on the work agenda, but I certainly have planted a few seeds to see if I can at least try to bring forward some discussion of some of the worst aspects of especially the container growing where they come in and they
spray herbicide and then lay down landscape cloth and then put containers on top and then call that “organic agriculture”.

The positive message id that Organic offers the best hope for environmental balance and health for all, the humans, the animals, the worms, the birds. And nature can be very resilient if we provide the space and conditions to let her heal from the damage that we have. I've seen this on my own farm.

I bought a farm that was kind of old and tired and had been abused and over time. I just can't believe how I've seen the organic matter go up, I've seen the diversity and I'm constantly planting more diverse items out there. I have honeybees, so I'm very aware of the need for pollinators.

We cannot give up on soil-based agriculture for organic because that is truly our only hope.

We need to keep spreading the good word across the whole landscape and get those not just five acres here and ten acres there but break through to the people who are growing a thousand acres and ten thousand acres and some of them are coming to organic for the money, but if we can help them actually do that ecological balance that organic actually
means to just think of the change that we can make.

And lastly I am very aware as most of us in this room are is that the USDA organic label has been steered off of its foundational principles but I'm going to be optimistic and I'm going to say we can bring it back and that I really do see the Real Organic Project as something that to show the organic label the people at the USDA that it can be done and it is being done and it's a viable marketing system and that we don't have to be reductionist in order to bring everyone to the table.

2019 Symposium | Jay Feldman

Good morning everybody. So, the solution I think, is in this room. And the question is, “How are we going to apply it to the mainstream on behalf of our children and our grandchildren?”

The concept of pesticide reliance is not a new one to folks in this room.

The question is, “How are we going to move beyond that?”

Rachel Carson explained that to us back in the 60s and the interesting thing is that every time I reread the book, what I glean from it is her attention to complex biological systems. Or, as she called them ‘communities.'

Silent Spring quote by Rachel Carson

And that there were solutions she pointed us to. She also said we needed to devote more of our energy and resources to developing new solutions. She thought we should use our ingenuity in that way.

So my goal is to listen, to follow the research in the science, to educate through public awareness, to advocate, to seek policy adoption so we can institutionalize the changes that you all have adopted, to follow the implementation of that policy and to affect marketplace change.

We originally started out calling ourselves a National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides because we didn't want to offend anybody. We wanted people to focus on their misuse.

I showed up at a meeting one time with a bunch of farmers, a lot of conventional guys, and one of them said “You think any pesticide use is a misuse.”

And I realized he was right.

Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides speaks to organic farmers and concerned consumer at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019

So we changed our name, about 20 years ago to Beyond Pesticides. And our focus was on identifying unacceptable and unnecessary poisoning while advancing solutions by listening to the victims – from farmers to farm workers.

We heard stories of adverse health effects, of cancer, of reproductive damage, of nervous system poisons.

Video Clip:

Robert MacNeil, MacNeil/Lehrer PBS News Hour, 1989:
“President Bush today proposed legislation to make it easier to remove pesticides that are thought to be harmful from the market. He referred to widespread public concern over stories about the cancer-causing chemical alar on apples and the fungicide EBDC on fruit and vegetables.”

President George Bush, 1989:
“And it is true that some of the public's perception is based on valid concerns about the government's slow and cumbersome process for removing pesticides from the market and that's why we're here today to announce a major new initiative.”

Robert MacNeil, MacNeil/Lehrer PBS News Hour, 1989:
“Environmentalists attacked the plan. Criticism also came from another environmental group, the National Coalition against the Misuse of Pesticides.”

Triptch of Jim Lehrer, President George Bush and Jay Feldman in 1989.

Jay Feldman, speaking on behalf of the National Association for the Misuse of Pesticides, 1989:
“The president is more interested in calming public fears about pesticide than actually doing something substantive about it.

In fact, the proposals, if implemented, for the most part would mean business-as-usual, when in fact the public is calling for a dramatic change in safety of food in their grocery stores.”

End Video Clip.

So contaminated food brought people's awareness to this issue, but we realized that we needed to go beyond food safety issues and connect people at their dinner tables to what was going on in the fields.

I spent two years traveling the country meeting with farm workers and small farmers, farm workers like these who'd been contaminated by Benlate in Florida, a fungicide widely used. We talked about adverse effects, collaborated with Cesar Chavez, and these folks helped to form the Association of Florida Farm Workers.

Poisoned Florida Farm Workers pose in  group photo decades ago.

So bringing environmental justice into our discussion is key and it's part of what we're trying to do with our work, We have a database that is called Eating with a Conscience where we connect people to the adverse impacts.

But the outrage comes from the fact that we're not always moving forward despite the proclamations of a president.

We actually repealed the Delaney Clause back in the 80s and early 90s, which was intended to remove carcinogens from the food supply. Yet as an environmental community, as people concerned about health who pushed for banning carcinogens – today we find that glyphosate is in our food, every food group that's evaluated.

I think the ecosystem is one of the biggest failings of our regulatory system.

Video Clip:

California Beekeeper:
“We started looking at pollen samples and we started seeing things that nobody ever knew was there. Looking at pollen samples we're finding as high as 127 different contaminants, just in a little sample of pollen, about the size of the end of your little finger.”

End Video Clip.

So I've been spending a lot of time with conventional beekeepers who take their truckloads of bees to the almond orchards of California, because pollinators don't exist out there and they're experiencing an insect apocalypse.

“We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life and are currently on course for an ecological Armageddon, and I find these guys are the best ones to talk about it.” – Dr. David Goulson, Sussex University, UK

In back of this rally in front of EPA, this is Dave Hackenberg a beekeeper and his truckload of bees dead bees, standing right in front of the EPA.

So what do you do when you identify a problem like this? You write a report, right? So that's what we did, we wrote a report. It was called Unnecessary Risks and was inspired by a board member, an organic farmer on our board who was also a PhD chemist, and we went about the process of identifying that there were no benefits evaluated by EPA related to pesticides. So, we felt more empowered to ask for pesticide free zones.

We went into communities and said “we don't need these pesticides” and then we identified the regulatory bias that is associated with the regulation of pesticides.

And if you look at this cartoon you'll see “could you please hurry up and find a cure for cancer?” That would be so much easier than prevention.

So we were asking for a shift in the paradigm. We're asking to go from a risk assessment based system to one that's precautionary. And that's what we did when we started introducing laws in Congress to institutionalize what we knew was happening on organic farms.

The '82 the Organic Farming Act failed. The Agricultural Productivity Act.

Bob Rodale came in and we actually used the “O word” in the agriculture committees of Congress. That started, that did pass, and it started the Low Income Sustainable Agriculture Program which then became SARE, and later, in 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act.

So now we're into this new era of talking about organic integrity based on an existing law. And the law is really intended to address some of the frustrations and the failures of those failed processes that the president said we were going to fix back in 1989.

So those foundational processes that are in the Organic Foods Production Act really for me stems from democratic decision-making, transparency, stakeholder assessment, and control of allowed substances, reliance on science and farm experience, and meeting consumer expectations. All of these things take a high degree of public involvement.

You know the saying goes “democracy only works if you choose to use it.” The same is true for the Organic Foods Production Act.

So we are looking at core values, which you've already heard about this morning – a systems approach to looking at the ecosystem, biodiversity enhancing ecological harmony, which is part of the Organic Foods Production Act.

What's different here is that we're looking at a systems approach which ae don't do when we regulate pesticides. It is purely reductionist. We're looking at NPK, we're looking at feeding soluble nutrients to plants, we're not looking at the ecosystem in which those are functioning.

That's how EPA allows chemical after chemical to be included and we move from organochlorines to organophosphates to synthetic pyrethroids to you know, to the newest – neonicotinoids, and in each iteration, each generation we experienced new problems. Deeper problems, more insidious problems.

We've now gone from cancer to epigenetic effects to trans-generational effects.

This is a systems approach and it requires that we look holistically from cradle to grave; a full lifecycle analysis of what that input is and what it does from manufacturing through production to disposal, taking into account all forms of exposure whether it's through ingestion, inhalation, absorption – what the emissions are, what the contamination is.

That's a holistic analysis. That is part of our law. That is what we have to make happen. But it's not always happening.

How do we evaluate those adverse health effects?

That's our job when we're on the National Organic Standards Board. That's our job in this room.

So we're looking at biological and chemical interactions in the agro-ecosystem, that's the mandate. Now when we assess synthetic inputs (which a lot of people tell me I start to sound wonky when I'm talking about,) this is where the rubber meets the road. Because if you don't focus on the system, which you do – everybody in this room does, but if we allow the law not to focus on the system, that's when we allow Big Food to come in and identify inputs as the basis of organic production.

That's when we lose that ‘whole system analysis' and we lose the outrage associated with EPA's failure to do it.

So how do we prevent a Big Food takeover like that?

Well we make sure that the stakeholders on that board represent the groups, the farmers, the environmentalists, the consumers, the retailers. We make sure that their voice is strong and we lobby our sector. We go there. We know who our farmer is on the NOSB.

Do you know who your farmer is on the NOSB? Who's your consumer rep? You're also a consumer, right? You're an environmentalist – who's your environmental rep?

You also shop at a retail store. Who is your retailer on that board? That retailer is representing your retailer, and if that retailer is not saying what you think he or she should be saying then we need to get in their face.

So the default assumption for natural inputs, in accordance with standards, is that we go through this checklist of ensuring that it doesn't cause adverse effects in a holistic cradle-to-grave analysis.

We make sure it's compatible with organic systems. That it does not adversely affect biodiversity, that it's building and enhancing soil, that it's protecting the ecosystem, and we make sure it's essential. We ask: is it necessary?

You can meet the first two factors here health and compatibility, if it's not essential, if it's not necessary, go away because you know what you're asking us to allow a synthetic input into organic production and I don't care what anybody says, there's always going to be an uncertainty, whether it's an inert ingredient, whether it's a mixture, whether it's a synergy effect, there are going to be unknowns associated with that.

So there's a petition process. The petition is rigorous, right. You've got to show that you meet all these factors. And then, there's the sunset process.

You know I don't care how much research we do, I don't care how many models we have of good work, if we want to create a mainstream movement, which we need to do, we need to convert the 2% to 98% of agriculture, we need to understand that we cannot allow an erosion of the processes around what the inputs are in organic production. And this is a very informed and robust discussion.

Farmers come in, explain the essentiality, explain their experience with the product, the scientists or the science is informed by technical review documents but this process must default on a cycle bit, this was the intent and spirit of the original law, was intended to have these materials sunset off the list.

Why? Because different from EPA and that madness that I showed you at the beginning of this presentation, different from EPA is the idea that we DO want to modernize, that we DO want continuous improvement, that we DO want to hear far more experiences. We DO want farmers to come in and say “I don't use this material, this is why, this is what I do”.

We want that to inform the debate. And that's how we stay modern and we don't get into the rut that we see on the pesticide side. And then, so then the question is, is that relisting? Is that just relisting these materials.

Just because you sunset a material, does not mean that it can't come back as a relisted material.

This is an iterative process and it's an interactive process. It's transparent, but it only works if we participate.

If the knowledge in this room doesn't come before the NOSB then we fail. We fail to grow the experience. We fail to grow the models.

Models grow by bringing that information to a format in which we can institutionalize these changes.

We can see continuous improvement under this law and we will.

All of this has happened with tremendous all of this the things like sunset which are being eroded, the makeup of the NOSB is being eroded, the materials that are allowed are being eroded.

This industry is the result of a rigorous program – look at this, a fifty billion dollar industry from basically nothing, grown with a rigorous program. I think that's evidence that we should make it even more rigorous and maintain the integrity. And that's what the Real Organic Project is about.

We need to drive the market, we need to maintain this integrity, we need to grow the integrity. We're only as strong as our weakest link. If we allow that weak link to emerge in the public it threatens the value of the label, it threatens people's trust in that label, it influences their decision when they're standing there deciding are they going to go with the Non-GMO Project, or the bird friendly project, or the rainforest alliance project, or the organic project?

What are they going to do? They need to be drawn to that organic label and trust it. This for me is the bottom line.

Here's a study out of Washington State, I guess this is a (Charles) Benbrook study. So, look at this on the right side, look at what Organic is doing for us. I mean there's no question – this is the solution to our problems.

Whether we're talking about nutritional quality, yield, soil quality, minimization of energy use, biodiversity, water pollution, profitability, total costs, ecosystem services (which a conventional farmer doesn't seem to get most often,) employment of workers, reducing worker exposure, that is an incredible benefit on an organic farm – and it's also minimizing pesticide residues.

Whereas on the conventional side you can see it's totally out of whack it's not offering solutions. It's taking us in the wrong direction.

So, the only option for a livable future is organic. And the Real Organic Project.

2019 Symposium | Caitlin Frame

Caitlin Frame: Real Organic Dairy Farming in Maine

My name is Caitlin Frame and I own and operate the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery in Monmouth Maine with my partner Andy Smith. I'm really excited to be here with you all today.

Caitlin frame nuzzles a cow nose-to-nose on a snowy winter day

My partner Andy went to college in Maine and I ended up there after going to college in New York State and after a few apprenticeships at veggie farms with family cows and a micro dairy management position where we made a lot of cheese which we liked but didn't relish the painfully long process of that.

Andy and I ended up at a farm called Two Loons in South China Maine. Two Loons Farm is a certified organic commercial dairy, midsize by Maine standards and it's owned and operated by Paige Tyson and Spencer Aitel and that's where we spent three years starting to build The Milkhouse as well as working on Two Loons Farm.

It's not easy to get into agriculture as a first-generation farmer which is very much what Andy and I both are and there's no way that we would have been able to be where we are now without the guidance and wisdom of those who've been farming for years and generations before us and we were really provided with an incubator space by Paige and Spencer to even be able to launch our business.

So at Two Loons Farm we started making yogurt in a twenty-five gallon pot on a couple propane burners and from one quart of yogurt you get our sorry from one quart of milk you get one quart of yogurt. We liked that one-to-one ratio, the simplicity of making yogurt and the quick return.

Plain whole milk, wild blueberry, and maple yogurt from the Milkhouse in Monmouth, Maine

Pretty soon we had our first product line, our original whole milk yogurt, blueberry yogurt, and plain Greek yogurt which we started selling at local farmers markets and a handful of wholesale accounts. So over the course of being at Two Loons Farm our small processing business grew steadily. We added accounts bought new equipment and then in 2014 we began looking for a permanent home farm for our family business and our animals and in 2015 in August we were milking cows in Monmouth Maine.

Milkhouse Creamery Monmouth Maine Farm Store

Our farm now is located in a little valley on the western edge of Kennebec County. We found the land to be beautiful, nearly 280 acres much of it fairly flat open pasture as well as woodlot and wetlands, kind of sounds like an easy transition and while we did find the land we wanted to be on quickly, you know there was a very many years process of you know continuing to build our little business, writing a business plan, getting a lender.

And in the end too, to purchase this land, we put a conservation easement on it which was bought from us at the time of purchase by Maine Farmland Trust. That greatly reduced the pay price to us and was the only reason that we could access that land at all.

All the food that's produced on our farm, milk, yogurt, eggs, meat is certified organic or raised as such. We strive to improve the health of our soils, crops, livestock through regenerative, ecologically based farming practices. Principally, on our farm, this means intensive grazing on perennial pastures.

Cows on pasture at the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery in Monmouth Maine

We want to be adding organic matter, building microbial populations, releasing nutrient reservoirs, generally creating a rich environment where plants can live and thrive stress-free and well-fed.

These practices also lead to nutrient-dense meats and milk with a healthier nutritional profile for the humans that consume it.

I believe pasturing animals in the growing season and giving them lots of outdoor access in the winter should they choose to make use of it, it's crucial to the health and well-being of animals.

I believe that domesticated animals should be able to act out their natural behaviors.

To me that means first and foremost ample space. Consider this, a confined feeding operation is in itself stressful to animals subject to that ituation and their limited access to fresh air, sunlight, clean bedding and contaminated food make them susceptible to bacterial and viral infections.

I believe animals should have a sort of basic right to the following conditions:

  • fresh pasture
  • air
  • sunlight
  • soil
  • clean food
  • water
  • shelter

To do anything other than let a cow be a cow or a chicken a chicken or pig a pig is to create a problem for us to figure out and to go a little further into a place that feels perhaps a little radical given the number of humans that live on this planet and what kind of food production systems are needed to feed them all, but I think that's what we're trying to figure out here.

I will say this: I believe that we ought to extend our attention and care to the full animal dignity of each creature we encounter as well as the full dignity of the land that sustains us.

Newborn calf resting in the grass at the Milkhouse Creamery

To bestow our fondness and love upon what we do is powerful. If we as farmers say we do this endless work for the love of it then we ought to practice love for the land, the animals, the farm systems that we partake in through regenerative agricultural practices.

Our cows average close to 80 to 90 percent dry matter intake from pasture in the growing season, well over the USDA mandate of 30 percent. Not only do we believe this practice is integral to soil health, we believe this is best for the health and well-being of our animals and ultimately what's healthy for the humans consuming the milk and meat of cows.

Cows like being outside and can seemingly display enthusiasm, true enthusiasm over fresh grass. They're not content to be enclosed or stand on concrete for the entirety of their lives.

This is a video of our turnout. Funny you know the excitement definitely diminishes over the season. You know they're just like a little more chill about it later but sometimes you know they're really psyched for a fresh paddock when they start galloping.

Dairy farming in New England is challenging in that our growing season is a short six months. We do some bale grazing on pasture in the fall to replenish worn out areas of pasture hay land by adding organic material and allowing the dormant seeds in the hay to take root, but after the cold really clamps down our farm seems to shrink dramatically in size and to really integrate the winter housing into our farm system we use a bedded pack barn.

Caitlin Frame feeds her cows from hay bales in the winter barn

So this is dairy farming in New England in the winter. That's frozen water. This is our bedded pack barn the dairy herd side and then the center of the barn with the dairy herd on the left and the heifer, young stock heifer steers on the right. So the dairy herd side is roto-tilled daily and fresh wood shavings or chopped mulch hay or straw is added. As an actively composting system, the pack material is very warm. Over the course of the winter the pack material builds up.

We rarely have foot and leg issues that you know we've seen in free-stall barns that you know cows scraping themselves on concrete etc. Comfortable cows that have little environmental stress have less issues with illness and make more milk. Our bedded pack system ties into our farm's goal of being regenerative. The compost that results from the bedded pack barn system is more stable and it makes for a more nutrient-dense high organic matter feed for the soil richly populated with microbes.

So in addition to our cows we raise laying hens and also feeder pigs that we buy in from neighboring farms whose practices we feel in line with. We do buy organic grain in for our animals. We tend to stay on the very low end of the grain rations spectrum and that of course is the ource of fertility but we also feed any of the dairy byproducts from the creamery into the pigs. That's skim milk, whey, and sometimes whole milk that would otherwise be a waste product is transformed into high quality pork.

The other big part of the Milkhouse is our on-farm creamery which we started in 2012 at Two Loons Farm.

When we moved to Monmouth in addition to wanting to continue the yogurt and bottled milk part of our business we also signed a contract with Horizon that explicitly allowed us to use our milk for our creamery business. The remainder of our milk would be sold to Horizon. The contract we signed specified a maximum amount of milk we could produce and there were some loose expectations around a minimum amount in our bulk tank on pickup days but otherwise we could use as much milk as we needed for our creamery.

Caitlin Frame and children at the Milkhouse in Monmouth, Maine

In our creamery we make yogurt, bottle raw milk, and make eggnog in the months of November and December. Yogurt is one of those foods that can be highly processed made with lots of sugar or thickeners or it can be incredibly simple. When you start with good clean milk high in fat and protein you can make yogurt simply with milk, probiotic bacteria, heat, and time. That's all you need. You don't need skim milk powder or carrageenan or any other strange sounding thickener xanthan gum.

Our yogurt is of the two ingredient variety, fresh organic whole milk and probiotic bacteria. Our flavored yogurts are made with maple syrup and Maine wild blueberries. The maple syrup is also from Maine we buy from other small producers. It's a simple, nourishing, and delicious staple food. It's also truly representative of the Maine milk-shed and like our own very local milk-shed.

Our cows are raised and sustained by the land of our farm where they produce an abundance of rich milk and we, along with all that good bacteria, magic that milk into yogurt which is both an incredibly simple and complex conclusion to a process that begins with sunlight, soil, water, grass, and cows.

For years we've sold our yogurt mainly to natural food stores, coops, and a handful of cafes and restaurants slowly adding a counter with the seasons and years. Over the past two years we've added a number of independent grocery stores, 10 Hannaford supermarkets, four school districts, three colleges.

We have also been selling bulk milk to our neighbor and co-farmers at Grace Pond Farm on a neighbor farm. They use a transport tank on the back of their pickup truck to bring milk from our farm to a couple different cheese makers in a neighboring town. Both of the cheese makers that Grace Pond Farm sells our milk to have turned to us after larger dairy farms who wanted to maintain their contracts with Organic Valley or Horizon stopped selling them the small amounts of milk that they were buying so we are happy to be able to continue to provide these other small businesses with the raw product they need to make their local cheese.

So we were notified in January 2018, a little over a year ago, that we would cease to have an outlet for milk with Horizon starting 6 months from then, so at the end of July 2018. That was a huge blow to our morale and for a few weeks there our situation felt pretty desperate.

Even if Stonyfield or Organic Valley had been signing contracts with new farms at the current pay price for organic milk we had no wish to give up our processing business and ship only bulk milk. Our only option was to use more of our milk to make yogurt and then find a way to sell that yogurt.

I don't want to minimize the struggle it took to feel like we wouldn't have to sell the cows but as it was in the wake of our contract termination we were uniquely positioned with a branded farmstead product that we thought we had a market for.

When we started milking cows in 2015 organic milk prices were at record highs and now in 2018 and 19 the organic and conventional milk market is flooded and prices have plummeted. We were one of six of 15 farms in Maine who've been shipping milk to Horizon to lose our contracts and just one of hundreds probably thousands of organic and conventional farms across the country to lose contracts in waves of terminations starting at the end of 2017 and continuing through to the present.

Dairy farms contribute in a huge way to rural economies keeping all farm support systems thriving. According to a 2004 report by the Maine Dairy Industry Association, the total economic impact of the dairy industry on the state of Maine amounts to $570 million in business sales and 4,000 jobs generating nearly 150 million in earnings for Maine citizens. This report was updated in 2012 and those numbers stayed consistent and this economic analysis can be extended to rural economies throughout the country, but especially in the Northeast and Upper Midwest where dairy farming has been the heart of the farm economy for over a hundred years.

Dairy farms command large tracts of land that in part define the rural character of Maine and other states. These lands are invaluable for their many ecosystem services that benefit humans and animals alike and biodiversity overall. As small family dairy farms die, so too do rural communities.

The consolidation of industry has had dramatic impacts on communities throughout the country. Some of the most severely impacted are farming communities. Take for example poultry and pork production where what was once produced on tens of thousands of independent farms throughout the country is now controlled by a small handful of multinational corporations that contract terms with growers that eliminate their autonomy as farmers, let alone their ability to make a living.

Organic dairy has resisted this consolidation and style of industry but now seems poised to suffer a similar fate as family scale farms are losing their contracts, declaring bankruptcy, and selling their herds at an alarming rate.

We are rapidly headed towards a world where the vast majority of milk is produced on a handful of massive confinement operations owned by processors and big-box retailers themselves. It would seem that the regulations outlined by the NOP would prevent this trend in the organic sector providing a safe haven for independent family farmers.

This should be especially true of the Pasture Rule which besides ensuring product quality and animal welfare would cap the ultimate size any operation could reach. After all, as any dairy farmer would know, cows can't spend all day walking to grass and still produce milk. However we live in a time when so many organic standards are not being enforced and the organic milk market is flooded with milk from confinement operations that are organic in name only.

There has been a great failure on the part of the NOSB to uphold standards but consumers also will have a definitive role in this process of whether or not family-scale farms will continue to exist.

When consumers say they want organic, do they want the cheapest possible store-brand milk that originated 3,000 miles away as ultra-pasteurized and has an expiration date of three months from now and a nutritional profile that looks exactly like conventional milk, or does the consumer want organic milk from family scale farms and from companies and individual farms that have integrity and that are part of communities from reputable dairy farms whose cows live healthy long lives and produce high-quality nutritious milk because they are actually able to walk themselves to grass that grows out of healthy soil that provides the majority of their feed intake?

It's our job to illustrate the different farming practices and draw the comparison between the two worlds that will result from the different types of Agriculture we choose to support.

We at the Milkhouse remain committed to regenerative organic agriculture as is in line with the Real Organic Project standards and we stand in solidarity with the other pilot farmers and the future farms that are part of this program. Standards that include a higher dry matter intake from pasture, a strict origin of livestock standard, and higher standards for animal welfare and soil management to name a few.

Farming has this great possibility to be like magic making if you know we can all stand back and look at it with that ah that Linley talked about. It's pretty wild that we're grass farming and these lovely peaceful animals make milk out of that grass and we make this very nutrient-dense nourishing food for people out of that milk.

It's a privilege to provide to what is now thousands of people the food that we make. Every one of those interactions is meaningful. It's our grass grown in our soil that is feeding that many people and in the process we're improving our soils so that the land of our farm may continue to be a source of nourishment for our community for generations.

Just imagine this process replicated over many thousands of farms throughout the country bringing this meaningful exchange and nourishing food to thousands more people, hundreds of thousands, millions maybe, and it is a beautiful vision to be sure.

2019 Symposium | Jean-Paul Courtens

Watch biodynamic farmer Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, New York speak about agricultural's pivotal role in reversing Climate Change, why he believes no-till isn't always the gold-standard, but can be incorporated into a mixed vegetable operation, and the importance of pasture and livestock to help heal and build soil.

Jean-Paul Courtens

What Have We Learned? Healthy Soils For A Healthy Climate

2019 Real Organic Symposium
March 2, 2019

I was asked to speak on Climate Change because when Linley visited the farm (Roxbury Farm, New York) I passionately spoke about what's happening to the climate and what our role is as people within that, especially as farmers.

Now I recently became a grandpa. How many people of my age became a grandpa/grandma recently? Wow!

It's a bit of a mixed blessing, isn't it? It's the most incredible thing that can happen to you, but at the same time it makes you look at this wonderful human being and think what's the world going to look like in 2100?

Will she have a viable future?

And the big question I ask myself is “What do I, as an organic farmer, either contribute or not to help her to have a more livable planet?

roxbury farm csa diversification breakdown

And let's not beat around the bush here, agriculture has a terrible reputation on the environment.

When hunting and gathering became displaced by farming, it caused a lot of disruption on the planet. Desertification and loss of biodiversity are just two things that happened.

Actually, land use has contributed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and annually it's responsible for about 13 to 14 percent of greenhouse gases. And we all know that it's responsible for significant pollution of rivers, oceans, and groundwater.

Agricultural Solution to Climate Change

So the question is, can farming change from having a negative impact on the environment to becoming a positive contributor?

I actually believe that the solution will not come from technology, although maybe there will be some technological solutions.

I actually believe that the change that is needed needs to come from people who work with the natural world, including organic farmers.

wild spaces and native plants are left to bloom and attract pollinators at Roxbury Farm
Wild spaces and native plants are left to bloom and attract pollinators, create habitat and promote biodviersity at Roxbury Farm.

It's like what we need here is a ‘future thinking' – thinking outside the box. And we have to come up with something that will allow nature and help nature to come back in the equilibrium that we have disrupted.

Organic farming, as it was intended is based on the fundamental principle of integrity; that everything in nature is interdependent, and that a farm is a living organism.

I'm a biodynamic farmer and I quote here from Rudolf Steiner that “the farm can be conceived as a kind of independent individuality, a self-contained entity. Every farm ought to inspire to the state of self-contained individuality.” Now this state cannot be attained completely, but it needs to be approached.

Now let me share with you how I understand that statement, and it leads to this kind of ‘future thinking' – that I think we need to actually turn farms from being a threat to this planet to actually being part of the solution.

So, the farm as a ‘living self-contained individuality'? I think of a single-celled organism as the simplest life-form for an analogy of the farm as a self-contained organism.

Any organism has one or more semi-permeable membranes and semi-permeable membranes are not designed to keep everything out or to keep everything in. They discriminate what comes in and they discriminate what goes out.

And it's really the membrane that allows it to have integrity. A more complex barrier to consider is actually our own skin, and we know that healthy skin protects us from the environment.

The Soil Membrane and Loss of Organic Matter

Now if we view the farm as a ‘self-contained individuality', the analogy of all that I have told you earlier is found in the soil.

The soil is really that membrane that allows the farm to have integrity.

(I've been working the land for most of my life and I've opened up the soil quite a bit, but I have actually concluded every single time I open it up isn't like opening up the skin, or somehow allowing that membrane to be violated.)

But the rapid depletion of organic matter on the prairies, now that gives us plenty of evidence of what happens when you open up that skin.

When the settlers took the land and started plowing it up, there was indication of 15% organic matter. I mean if you go out to the Midwest today, if you can find even 5%, you know that's pretty good.

Building Soil to Hold Nutrients

The other thing is that it doesn't just reduce organic matter, it reduces or even eliminates the mycorrhizal fungi that Linley was talking about. And we know how incredibly important they are.

Now this particular study that was done recently actually proves that arbuscular mycorrhizae when inoculated in soil – it was actually in dune sands – led to reduced nitrogen and phosphorus losses under heavy rainfall. Because mycorrhizae act like a filter.

Beneficial fungi growing between crop rows at Roxbury Farm CSA on left, mixed harvest on right

Mycorrhizae allow the soil to hold these nutrients. So if you want to have integrity in your soil and you don't want to wash your nutrients away, you need these mycorrhizae and disruption of the soil eliminates that network.

Pasture Animals Build Healthy Soils

So isn't it safe to conclude that a healthy farm has most of its land covered? You know, at least most of the time.

And the best way to do that of course, is to cover it with grass and legumes and put some animals on it.

And I'll make another step.

I think that a healthy farm, it has to include livestock.

There has to be a way in which we incorporate livestock into the farm as an organism.

I've actually done that at Roxbury farm. It's 425 acres. We took a corn and potato farm and took a lot of land out of production of cropland and put it back in grasses and legumes. Whereby about 10% of the land is opened up each year to put into annual vegetable crops, another 10% is put into green manures, specifically to build soil and the rest of the land is allowed to remain in a natural state for biodiversity purposes.

A new generation of piglets huddles with their mother

Alternating Pasture with Cropland

So here's the question: Why can we build soil on a larger scale?

There were 40 million bisons on the prairie. There are nine million dairy cows. There's about 31 million beef cows.

bison grazing on the prairie

What a novel idea if we actually start looking at these farms in the Midwest as a diversified operation, whereby pasture and hayland is being alternated with cropland. Just a thought.

So here's the argument against this, right, every time you talk about grass-fed beef and everything else – oh my god, you know the greenhouse output.

Here's a recent study from UC Davis. All we have to do is feed them one pound of seaweed a day and we actually can reduce their methane output. We know that methane is a harmful greenhouse gas, so I'm not trying to minimize that. It's 30 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. But there are ways that we can be better about this.

Alternating pasture with cropland is definitely an important step towards making agriculture part of the solution instead of the problem, but how are we going to grow all these human food consumption crops? Because I don't know about you, but I don't live off grass.

Cows on pasture at Roxbury Farm CSA on left, new rows of crops being planted on right

You can Build Soil and Till

So we need to find ways that we can be more regenerative in our approach to soil building. And you might conclude from what I said earlier that I would be a proponent of no-till, that everything should be no-till, and the USDA will say that no-till that's the gold standard.

Let me make this clear: no-till is not the gold standard.

Might be a little shocking to hear. No-till might keep the soil in place – but it doesn't build soil. And there will be another speaker here talking today about what no-till does, so I will not go into that.

You can build soil even if you do applied tillage, but the way in which we do that is a responsible tillage. Some of the things that we do at Roxbury are mulching after we till to protect the soil again and incorporating full standing crops of green manures. We actually found that we really can build soil. Not inverting the soil by moldboard ploughing, but by using a chisel plow or a yeoman plow. And constantly trying to keep the land covered at any given time – so as soon as the vegetables are out of the ground, we plant the cover crop.

And what have we seen? We started with a very low organic matter soil, and this is on land where we did not rotate in with the animals, this is just alternating lands with cover crops. The soil organic matter goes up, you start tilling it, it goes down again, but it's a gradual way of stepping it up.

Suppressing Weeds With Living Mulch

Ok this is great, we are actually building soil even though we do tillage. But I want to find a way that I don't have to till the land when I actually plant my vegetables. You cannot do it for all vegetables, but we did some experimentation with rolling and crimping, whereby we actually take a full standing cover crop and we roll it down and then we plant directly into that. Here with a transplanter, we transplanted sweet corn. In other plots we planted broccoli. We planted cauliflower.

You can see here that there's excellent weed suppression and we did a side-by-side comparison.

planting corn in rolled and crimped vetch

We had very good yields of sweet corn. I would say they were equal to the conventional tilled plots, except for that the ears were healthier.

Now here's the ticker. This is a picture taken from the conventional till, where we disrupted the soil before we planted broccoli and I don't know if you can see, but it's wilting. Now this is where we rolled in Austrian field peas, which didn't give us a lot of weed control, but you can see, same irrigation practices and these plants stand upright.

The water holding capacity of the soil is so much greater when we didn't disturb the soil.

Cauliflower is very interesting. Our crew said, “Can we just harvest in that plot? Because it doesn't stink!” That was interesting. So we thought, like ok ,let's go dig around, you know, let's see what's going on. Always gotta keep a shovel with you.

We started digging around and look what we saw, earthworms everywhere, wormholes, the soil structure was round. You know we went through the disturbed soil, same field, same soil, and the soil was blocky and didn't hold together as well.

Measuring the Impact of Building Organic Matter

We're are at an interesting point in the history of mankind, I think. We are able to look back, seeing that our planet is a living organism. In some ways we're also at an interesting point where we can say that agriculture, with all the knowledge we have right now about the soil and everything else, that we in agriculture can turn things around.

We know we can do different.

I wanted to see what impact do we have actually have on our planet. And the amount of land that we actually have on this earth that is in agriculture, it's really only about 11%, and only maybe a third of that is the land that we put into croplands.

Well, that alone makes you think. Because this is what sustains us right, so we better take care of that little sliver.

arable farm land on earth

This sliver of earth that's planted in agriculture is the sliver where will have the most impact. I'm not talking about the impact we can have planting trees, but if we change the impact we have on our cropland, if we change our practices, if we apply the practice that I talked about, what could happen?

And so, I did a little bit of the back-of-the-envelope numbering. Like okay, what happens if we are able to increase the organic matter of Roxbury by about one percent over ten years?

What about if we use those practices on other land as well? So if one percent organic matter is 12 tons, that means that it's about twenty five and a half tons of carbon dioxide.

That little sliver of land represents four billion acres. 1% organic matter on four billion acres is 102 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Now, if we think about doing rotational grazing on some of the grassland on the other land that we have, we can actually have an impact.

Agriculture can have a positive impact on climate change, but we do have to have the will to change it and it takes a lot of management.

Real Organic Farming

So Real Organic farming alone of course can't reverse climate change, but it can take important steps in the right direction.

Real Organic farming fills an enormous important role in preserving biodiversity and also in protecting our water resources.

I believe the real change that needs to happen is that we, as people, all of us start realizing that nature is just not “out there.” The real ‘future thinking' that is needed here is “We are nature. We are part of it.”

And by learning to work with nature being a better steward of that little sliver of land where we grow food, we can not only secure our source of nutrition but make a contribution to Climate Change and to greater biodiversity. And, you know, it's a personal issue for me ensure that our children and grandchildren have a better future.

Thank you.

Eliot Coleman Keynote | Real Organic Project Symposium

This is Eliot Coleman coming to you from Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. I was given good advice many years ago about what to do if I was the final speaker at a day-long conference. I was told to begin with a few humorous anecdotes, make one last salient point about the issue, tell a final joke, and get off the stage – and that's just what I'm going to do.

My opening attempt at wit starts with a few quotes I collected while thinking about this talk. The first quote is from scientist William Albrecht who wrote eloquently about how his research had taught him the importance of real soil fertility for the proper nourishment of human beings. He expressed the idea in just five words at a talk he gave back in 1944.”Food is fabricated soil fertility.” Clear, concise, accurate.

I don't believe it would have had the same toothsome ring if he had said “Food is fabricated chemical slush”.

I'm very fond of the following statement which as far as I know is an unattributed quote: “Human civilization owes its existence to six inches of soil and the fact that it rains.” Pretty clear.

It does not say “Human civilization owes its existence to complicated technological gimmickry that produces food-like substances”.

I'm sure you're all familiar with the photo taken from lunar orbit of the earth in 1968 and titled ‘Earth Rise'. That photo inspired the concept of Spaceship Earth. A wise commentator has suggested that when you are seated comfortably on Spaceship Earth following a delicious meal, you should notice that the sign on the back of the seat in front of you says, quote “The life preserver is under your feet.”

In other words, the sign doesn't say “The life-preserver is a series of styrofoam trays floating on a nutrient broth.”

And finally, the astrobiologist Dr. David Grinspoon, in his book ‘Earth in Human Hands', wrote “Understanding some small part of nature, learning to hear its music, and singing along” – he did not suggest hitting the mute button and bringing out the Moog synthesizer.

The USDA National Organic Program and its embrace of hydroponics is an attack upon all of us old organic hippies who successfully defied the arrogant, know-it-all attitude of industrial agriculture. <

We took on the USDA and kicked their butt, by growing spectacular crops without toxic chemicals. In the process, we undermined their hegemony and Organic gained the trust of the food-buying public. Today's USDA is now trying to get even.

By certifying hydro as Organic, it is basically saying “See, we were right all along. Soil is not important, we can do it all with soluble fertilizers as we have always claimed. Even organic farming and now agrees.”

We cannot allow the public understanding of the true potential of organic farming to be confused by association with an input-dependent, energy-intensive, sterile system of plastic troughs and pumps and filters and controllers and conditioners and test tube nutrient solutions, that bears no relation to actual soil fertility.

In a world of diminishing resources, Real Organic Farming is the only sustainable solution for feeding the world.

Real Organic Farming does not need inputs, because biological soil fertility is powered by crop rotations and green manures and cover crops and farm-derived compost and grazing livestock and deep-rooted legumes and other time-honored management practices that nurture the boundless energy and logic of the earth.

Real Organic Farming is a circle of endless renewal and it can succeed wherever there is soil.

Real Organic Farming can provide mankind with exceptional food in perpetuity. Well, you've heard that message many times today.

All of us involved with the Real Organic Project are expending every effort to defend the original meaning of our organic farming against these white-collar crooks. But we're up against enormous economic resources and powerful political connections.

The odds are against us, but what are we going to do if we fail? We may need a new word.

So, to end the day on a note of humor, I offer the following story: A few years ago, my wife Barbara and I and another good friend of the movement, were sitting around drinking beer and wondering what new word we could come up with to replace Organic if we lost this battle.

We all felt the new word should incorporate an ecological and sustainable and biological understanding, but it needed to be short, exciting and catch people's attention.

Eventually, we focused on the name Biological Agriculture, shortened it to Bio-ag and then in a flash of beer-fueled brilliance we had it. Bio-ag became bi-ag-ra. Biagra!

The perfect slogans came to mind immediately: “Put the organ back in organic – a new high in sustainability”. If we do lose this present battle, I offer that story to inspire the new movement. Thank you very much.