National Organic Standards board member Emily Oakley and her husband Mike Appel discuss their views on the recent changes in the USDA Organic label and why they’ve chosen to pursue the Real Organic Project’s add-on label for Three Springs Farm near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Read the full transcript below.
Emily Oakley & Mike Appel, Three Springs Farm
Emily: So I’m Emily Oakley, and this is Mike Appel and our daughter. And our farm is Three Springs Farm. We’re in our 15th season. We own 20 acres, but we only have about two-and-a-half-ish in crops, maybe a little less and a few acres of cover crop for rotation and fallow periods. The rest is in wildlife habitat, trying to grow back. We sell to a Saturday farmers’ market in Tulsa, and we have about 140-member CSA.
Mike: Moving forward with organic, I think we have to start really thinking about growing our own fertility more and more and not relying on importing things to the farm. I think it’s, the dark side of organics, that we’re relying on a lot of large-scale animal feeding operation, or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), for our fertility. There’s a lot of composted chicken manure and a lot of the blends and pelleted chicken litter; and we were ignorant about it at first. We thought, “Oh, it’s chicken manure, how harmful can it be?” And then the more we learned about the fact that there could be arsenic in it and antibiotics and then there’s the whole industry, about being a part of that really bothered us. And we just really don’t want any part of that.
Emily: Joining the National Organic Standards Board gave me such an eye-opener into inputs that I didn’t really have. And I think as an organic farmer, I just sort of assume, “Oh, if it’s fish emulsion, it’s got to be from byproducts, and it’s got to be great. Or if it’s kelp, isn’t that a great thing?” And it’s not until you learn more of the history of each of these things that you realize they’re not so innocuous. A substantial number of products that are fish emulsion products on the market are coming from fish harvested exclusively for fertilizer use, which shocked me and also horrified me, because I don’t wanna be doing that. I have no intention of thinking that there are boats out there scooping up fish to grind them up into fish meal for me to apply to my farm.
Mike: It’s probably what I would consider to be the most important thing we do on our farm, which is to grow a summer cover crop. It’s sorghum-sudangrass, sun hemp, soybeans, and sunflowers. They will get even taller than that. So it’ll get way up over our head, lots of biomass both above and below the ground. We’ve learned that having a diversity of cover crops is also having biodiversity in the soil microorganisms. So by doing this, we’re able to really reduce the amount of stuff we import onto the farm.
Emily: I think, as organic farmers, we’re trying really hard to build a fertile soil that has what it needs. So, yeah, hopefully, if in another 10 years a beginning farmer is looking to find ways to grow their fertility through cover crops, there will be more information on that. We feel unbelievably lucky to get to do the thing in this world that we believe so strongly in. And it’s funny because our daughter, who’s five and a half, just asked us that last week, “Why do you guys farm, especially when it’s hot in the summer?”
Mike: There’s nothing that can top that knowing that you’re bringing really healthy, clean food to people and knowing what it’s doing to their body. You’re providing health.