Home » Secretary Vilsack’s Response

Speaking at a rally to protect organic, Fred Kirschenmann was asked what he would do if he was Secretary of Agriculture?

He replied, “Well, that all depends on how long I wanted to remain Secretary of Agriculture.”

Fred Kirschenmann speaks to organic farmers at a rally
Fred Kirschenmann, former NOSB chair, Real Organic Project board member, and signer of the NOSB letter.

Dear Real Organic friends,

We (Francis Thicke and Dave Chapman) are writing again today about our meeting with Secretary Vilsack. Last week we wrote about our words to him. Today we will write about his response.

Dave went into the meeting speaking these words: 

“This year a thousand American farms will be certified with the Real Organic Project. But our dream is to fail because we hope the USDA steps up and does its job. Then there is no reason for an add-on label.

“There is literally only one person who can change this. And that is you.”

That was being honest. We hoped that Secretary Vilsack would take action that would take back the organic seal and end the need for a Real Organic Project. If we accept that real organic is important then we must find some way of protecting and promoting real organic. Whether or not it is with a capital “R” and a capital “O”. Not as a label, not as a brand, but as a living movement, as a way of farming, as a way of eating, as a way of interacting with the world.

After years of working for reform in the USDA, we felt that we had reached the moment of decision. We were talking with the supreme decision-maker. We had won the support of Congresspeople and Senators, of scientists, authors, and journalists, and even of a Nobel Laureate. Of farmers and of eaters. And all along the way, we had been directed to the Secretary of Agriculture. “If only we could win the Secretary, then things would be different!”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks in front of a blue wall of the National Press Club. An American flag and red drape are in the background.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

We met for forty-five minutes. We found Tom Vilsack to be courteous, respectful, intelligent, and very well-informed. He was very familiar with the issues we were discussing. He spoke clearly and in complete sentences. We agreed on many things.  He is a thoughtful person.

By the end of the meeting, it was clear to us that those at the Real Organic Project shouldn’t quit their day jobs.

We saw that the Secretary actually could not or would not solve these problems. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t a question of getting a “better” person in the job. We were not dealing with a person who lacked the courage to get it done. We were dealing with a system that was operating exactly as it was designed to operate. We were dealing with powerful forces like the lobbyists. Like the National Pork Producers Council. Like the Office of Budget and Management (OMB). Vilsack made clear that no matter what the USDA signed off on, nothing would happen without OMB support as well. Vilsack also has to assuage powerful Senators (of both parties) some of whom support CAFO (confinement) poultry being certified as organic. He has to deal with powerful industry lobbies that, with the support of the government, are redefining “organic.”

ROP farmers Hannah Smith-Brubaker and Jennifer Taylor in Washington. Here....We....Come!
ROP farmers Hannah Smith-Brubaker and Jennifer Taylor taking on Congress

So a very brief report:

  1. After twenty years in the making, the animal welfare reform known as OLPP will NOT be enacted anytime soon. The OLPP was intended to stop the certification of large confinement chicken operations. These chicken CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are flooding the market for certified organic eggs and poultry. Pastured poultry cannot compete. The CAFOs are opposed by everyone in the organic community except for the large CAFOs, the lobbyists and the politicians that support them. Vilsack said, “We have to start essentially at square one.” This was the most disappointing news from the meeting. He said that problems with their economic analysis need to be addressed. It will not be fast. It will not be easy. I think it might take longer than I will be alive. Once again the USDA steps back from action.
  2. Vilsack said that the USDA will investigate if the assertions of the Washington Post and the organic community are accurate regarding lack of enforcement for the “Pasture Rule.” Are organic dairy cows living in CAFOs? This response was also not promising.
  3. He clearly said that hydroponics is not a settled issue. “No final decision has been made on that.” This was surprisingly good news and is a very different tone from the Trump administration. They are continuing to work on it.
  4. The “Origin of Livestock,” worked on for many years and mandated by Congress, is due for a final rule by Spring of 2022.
  5. The Imported Grain Fraud Scandal which outraged Congress after being covered by the Washington Post, is being addressed by a new enforcement program in Spring of 2022. (It is entirely uncertain that the new program will actually stop the fraud, or will just create more sophisticated paper trails.)
  6. The issue of race wasn’t raised in the letter to Vilsack, but Jennifer Taylor brought it up in her comments. Vilsack made clear that this is a new day for the USDA around race.
(From left to right: Secretary Perdue, former Secretaries Mike Johanns, Ann Veneman, Dan Glickman, and John Block)
Five former Secretaries of Agriculture have not been able to protect organic. How hard have they tried?(From left to right: Secretary Perdue, former Secretaries Mike Johanns, Ann Veneman, Dan Glickman, and John Block)

Secretary Vilsack did comment on the Real Organic Project. 

“The reality is I get what you are doing with the Real Organic certification process that you put in place. But in reality, that buys you time, but it doesn’t solve the problem because somebody’s going to come along at some point and say, ‘Well, that’s really not organic enough, or the certification process or the enforcement process isn’t strong enough. We need a Real Real Organic.’  I mean, the idea here, and you’re absolutely right about this, there needs to be ONE BRAND, and that brand needs to be protected.”

This statement contains a lot of important considerations. We will touch more on this next week. It acknowledges the reason for the creation of the Real Organic Project. And most of all, it is a call to arms to protect the BRAND.

Perhaps surprisingly, that is not our goal. The problem with protecting “the brand” is that challenging “the brand” can somehow be presented as attacking organic. When we look at the multinational feeding frenzy on the “organic brand,” we see “organic” turning into something quite different from what it means to us.

Brands change. The Republican party was once the leftist party of American politics. England was once America’s boss and oppressor. Kellogg’s was once entirely unsweetened and whole grain.

“You may not agree with all of our decisions, (and I’m pretty sure you won’t agree with all of them,) but you do deserve to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And we need to commit to you to do the very best we can from our perspective to do exactly what you want us to do, which is to protect the brand.”

– Secretary Vilsack, in the meeting.

 

And so we are focused on protecting the MEANING of organic rather than the organic BRAND. This is a movement for the benefit of farmers AND eaters. If we can protect the meaning, then the brand will take care of itself. But if we are only focused on protecting “the brand,” then it becomes a marketing tool rather than a mission statement, and it soon loses its meaning.

Some people are very upset with us for saying that out loud, but we think that ship of silence has sailed. That bull has left the barn. That die is cast. It is time to Protect Organic, not to Protect the Organic Brand. 

We should not give in to cynicism that government can never work for the citizens. It is important to remember that it IS possible to successfully work with the government to create positive change. And it IS possible for organic to thrive without eroding it to make it more attractive to multinational corporations. Both of these things ARE a reality in Denmark today. Real organic is what people want. It can exist. It can grow. It can become a major part of our food system. We invite the USDA to join us in that effort.

But in the meantime, we will do what we can on our own.

We want to thank Secretary Vilsack for taking the time to listen and to share with a small group of organic farmers. We want to thank the organic pioneers who joined us in that call. We want to thank the 43 former NOSB members who had the courage to sign a troubling letter, calling out to the world to protect organic.

The Real Organic Project will continue to work hard. A friend asked me if we don’t get tired of fighting, and I replied that we seldom fight. We are mostly in conversation with both old and new friends who agree with what we are saying, and together we keep growing those conversations. Please join us.

Dave Chapman
Francis Thicke


“Keep up the fight!

“Should the opportunity arise to suggest a policy forum on developing the organic market and organic farming, you are more than welcome to suggest a presentation of the case from Denmark, where active policy is driving development.

“Rapid market growth, higher incomes for organic farmers without any of the compromises that some in the US think are necessary for organics to “go big”.

“I would so love to pitch all the policy opportunities Vilsack has.

“A number of countries have used a presentation of “Best practice in organic policy: the case of Denmark” as inspiration for new initiatives (and new energy among politicians and ministries).

“Denmark’s policies won the Future Policy Award for sustainability from the UN (FAO) in 2018. And many ministers say “whoa” if you mention organic market shares of 30-50 percent for basics like eggs, flour, milk, veggies and fruits.”

– Paul Holmbeck, former director of Organic Denmark and speaker at the Real Organic Symposium.

Paul Holmbeck with brown and grey hair smiles at the camera with lush green plants in the background.
Paul Holmbeck, speaker at the Real Organic Symposium in 2021.

 

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