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JM Fortier handles vegetables at his market booth at Marché Jean-Talon in Montreal

Jean-Martin Fortier doesn’t need to be certified with the Canadian Organic Growers. But he is. He doesn’t need to be certified with the Real Organic Project. But he is.

densely packed greens grow in rows of soil at La Ferme des Quatre-Temps
Crops growing in soil at La Ferme Des Quatre-Temps.

Selling all of his crops directly to eaters and restaurants, JM is a living example of Know Your Farmer. JM (as he is known to his friends) is already seen by his customers as a skilled organic farmer growing the highest quality food. For JM’s customers, Know Your Farmer is a reality. He is one of the most accessible vegetable farmers in the world. His activities go way beyond just growing food. He is also an author, a teacher and a social activist. His best-selling book, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, has sold over 100,000 copies. It has been translated into 8 languages. His sophisticated online training program, The Market Gardener’s Masterclass, has been subscribed to by thousands of farmers around the world. And for eaters, the highly popular reality show “The Farmers” follows the day to day adventures of the crew at JM’s new farm, La Ferme Des Quatre-Temps. His highly selective on-farm training program for the next generation of organic farmers is successful. After two years of training and hard work, crew members are ready to start their own farms, spreading these ideas and techniques like mycorrhizal fungi.

Dave Chapman and Jean-Martin Fortier pose with the 2019 farm crew at Quatre-Temps

We inspected JM’s new farm a month ago. It was a pleasure to spend a few hours with this gentle man who is so deeply committed to organic farming. He made clear that his reasons for getting certified were more political than economic. He grieves over the corporate destruction of the organic label, and is happy to join other farmers in an effort to salvage that which we have all built.

Eliot Coleman speaks on a panel about fraud under USDA Organic at the 2018 NOFA Summer Conference

JM gladly acknowledges his debt to organic pioneer Eliot Coleman, just as Eliot gives a respectful nod to the many who have taught and inspired him. JM’s farm is named after Eliot’s own Four Seasons Farm in Maine, translated to Quebecois French.

After spending a few hours with JM, I was filled with both hope and sadness. He is a builder and example of an alternate path. And he sees the destructive power of our current economic system, that sculpts all of us.

Farm workers use a planting machine to transplant greens
Photo from Civil Eats article.

I was struck by the stark contrast between JM’s message and a recent article in Civil Eats called, “After 10 Years of Rapid Growth, What Does Organic Mean Today?” This article asked 4 “organic experts” what they thought the impact was of the last ten years of USDA organic certification. The first thing that struck me was that, while there might have been farmers in the picture, there wasn’t a single farmer in the group of “experts”. All of them are Washington players, quoted in the national media, but unknown to most farmers. This is quite typical of USDA organic conversations. Where are the farmers? Go to any National Organic Standards Board meeting, and you will find hundreds of people wearing suits, but very few farmers in attendance. Sometimes a few of the 4 “farmer members” of the NOSB are not even farmers. Are we so hard to find? In 2017 over 60 organic farmers actually went to the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville. And their testimony was ignored.

Apparently, farmers are not that important in the New Organic. I am still trying to wrap my head around the 2016 OTA presentation that told me that only 1% of organic producers are from North America, but 47% of organic sales in the world are in North America. No wonder so little land in North America has been converted to organic.

pie charts showing organic eaters and producers worldwide
So many eaters in North America. So few farmers.

The Civil Eats panel was made up of Kathleen Merrigan, Laura Batcha, Abby Youngblood, and Rudy Arredondo. I will let you read the article to learn more about these people, but I was particularly depressed by some comments that Dr. Merrigan made. She was responding to the question from Civil Eats, “There have been reports about fraudulent organic imports, and some consumers are confused about the value or the meaning of organic. There’s also a suggestion that the organic label has been diluted or co-opted. How should the integrity of the organic label be protected?”

Kathleen responded, “I think that [divisiveness] comes from a historic feeling of disempowerment—people who were farming organically back in the day were decried by neighbors, made fun of, not treated kindly at all by government. So there is this historic feeling of disempowerment or minority gotta-fight. And it’s something that I don’t see in other agriculture domains where industry seems to work out differences with their stakeholders in better processes that don’t lead to a public blood bath. Take the recent controversy over the use of glyphosate in hydroponic systems. Well, USDA, in a matter of months, realized the error of their ways and they’re changing [the rule]. But it got blasted all over the place. And consumers don’t get to get the same blast of information when the situation is fixed, or on the way to being fixed.”

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan speaking at an outdoor event.
Dr. Kathleen Merrigan speaking at the Common Ground Fair in 2012. Photo by Jean English.

Well.

I think that Kathleen’s version of events is taking some serious liberties with the facts. Jenny Tucker and Laura Batcha (executive director of the Organic Trade Association also in this article) both knew that we had credible reports that glyphosate was being applied just prior to organic certification of hydroponic containers. Before the debate concluded, we had hard proof.

Apparently, the USDA no longer certifies farms, but rather “containers.”

This usage of prohibited inputs immediately prior to certification was reported months before “it got blasted all over the place.” I actually expected that our earlier revelation would cause a dramatic response of outrage and investigation. But that only happened after we “blasted it all over the place” months later.

Jenny Tucker, head of the USDA’s National Organic Program, knew of these reports for quite a while, and her only response was to continually insist that there was no transition period required for hydroponics. Only AFTER the public blasting began, Jenny finally responded in the most confusing way possible, stonewalling and avoiding the issue. And she is still avoiding the issue of transition time for hydroponic production in greenhouses. Despite certifiers requests for clarification, no clarity is offered.

Which is to say, change only came AFTER people stood up and talked loudly about what was happening. AFTER there was public outrage, and after it became clear that this was “not a settled issue.”

And as leading “blasters” we certainly sent out an announcement about the positive change in USDA policy. It was a victory, and we wanted to share the good news. We are not arsonists. We are firefighters. Don’t blame us that the house is on fire.

Dave Chapman and Jean-Martin Fortier at La Ferme des Quatre-Temps

So we have a stark contrast between JM and Kathleen. Two good people. A farmer and a bureaucrat. Kathleen has worked her entire life to be a good public servant. She was a powerful positive force in the USDA, after being a co-author of the Organic Food Production Act while working for Senator Leahy. It was not an easy task. She continues to be a force for good as a college professor and serves on many non-profit boards. I acknowledge and bow to her life of service, but I also hold her accountable for her public statements. Her work is not done. Our work is not done. If those in positions of power like Kathleen and Laura were more successful at protecting organic farming (and not just the brand), farmers like JM and many others could stick with farming. But silence has not proven to be a successful strategy for change.

There are three major failures of the USDA in protecting organic:

  1. The USDA certifies CAFOs as organic. This means that some very large dairies and poultry operations are ignoring the requirements to have animals outside on pasture every day that weather permits. These are confinement operations. They sell their calves and buy in conventionally raised replacement heifers. The chickens have never felt the sun on their backs or scratched in the dirt. The outcome is unhappy, unhealthy animals producing inferior milk and eggs sold at prices at which no real organic farmer can survive. This means that consumers can no longer find the organic food they want in stores. Nor can they tell if they have found it.
  2. The USDA certifies hydroponics as organic. This means that very large-scale hydro operations, both in greenhouses and outside on black plastic, are flooding the market with tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, peppers, and greens grown without the benefits of soil. The nutritional quality must be different. The taste is certainly different. And once again no real organic farmer can survive in selling to supermarkets against such unfair competition. Again, this means that consumers can no longer find the organic food they want in stores.
  3. Fraudulent grain imports continue to flood the US market, helping the CAFO “organic” livestock operations to thrive. Despite enormous public pressure, the USDA seems unable to stem the flow. “This thing gets more bizarre as you go along,” John Bobbe said. “The problem is that consumers are being potentially defrauded, and the price for farmers is going down.” To learn more about this, click here:

Speaking ill of those of us who are working to save the meaning of organic is not helpful. And we are many. Real Organic Project includes many former and current members of the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board), including 4 NOSB chairs. We include leading soil scientists. And of course, we are farmers and eaters. Many farmers and many eaters. We are not the loony brigade and we are not bitter, disenfranchised malcontents. We are the organic movement. We are the spring from which all that industry grows. Please don’t trash us. Please join us.

JM Fortier is a part of the Real Organic Project because he sees it is important, not because he will profit from it. Join JM by signing our petition to Protect Organic.

Together,

Dave Chapman