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Pete’s Greens, Vermont

 

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

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Pete’s Greens, Vermont

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

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

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

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

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

greens growing in soil at Pete's Greens Vermont

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

It doesn’t need to have the same name.

Organic Consolidation Hard On Small Dairy Farms

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

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

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

And really good for the culture of our region.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vermont Farmers Rally Against NOSB

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

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

Pete Johnson testifies NOSB meeting Jacksonville

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

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

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

But branding is really important.

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

Pete's Greens farm stand

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

Real Organic Food Has Truly Enforced Standards

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

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

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

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

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

pepper grows in the soil at Pete's Greens

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

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

Low-Input Vegetable Growing Is A Fast Game

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

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

hoop house veggies growing at Pete's Greens

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power Of Money Vs. Power Of Voice

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

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