Home » The Return Of The Light

In the dark of the year, we celebrate the return of the light.

That is exactly what the Real Organic Project is about. We are bringing the light back to organic after the crisis in the National Organic Program. The word “crisis” is based on the Greek word “krisis,” meaning “decision.”

We are at a time of decision. Do we allow things to go further into darkness, or do we return to the light?

Eric Sideman and Dave with the USDA Hydro Task Force in San Diego in 2016.
Eric Sideman and Dave with the USDA Hydro Task Force in San Diego in 2016.

Two weeks ago I attended the morning session on organic production at the New England Veg & Fruit Conference. It turned out that five of the seven speakers were Real Organic Project board members or certified ROP farmers.

The room had about one hundred and fifty farmers in it. At one point, a speaker asked how many farmers had ever testified or attended an NOSB meeting. Four hands went up. Then she asked how many farmers knew about the Real Organic Project. Almost every hand in the room was raised.

It was striking to me how far we have come in such a short time.

Eric Sideman and Jim Gerritsen at the Maine Rally to Keep The Soil In Organic before Jacksonville in 2017.
Eric Sideman and Jim Gerritsen at the Maine Rally to Keep The Soil In Organic before Jacksonville in 2017.

There was no plan to make this a group of ROP board members or farmers. And there were some ROP farmers in the audience as well. We just seem to keep showing up.

Jim Gerritsen in Jacksonville.

Speakers included Eric Sideman, Jim Gerritsen, Emily Oakley, Mike Appel, and Dave Mortensen. Four are Real Organic Project board members and 3 are ROP certified farmers. Three farmers and two scientists.

Emily  Oakley and Dave Mortensen at the Pittsburgh NOSB meeting in 2019
Emily Oakley and Dave Mortensen at the Pittsburgh NOSB meeting in 2019

The first speaker of the morning was David Mortensen. David is an ROP Advisory Board member. He is also the chair of the UNH Dept. of Agriculture and a current member of the NOSB. He gave a wonderful talk on “Soil As The Foundation Of Organic Farming.” While some members of the NOSB have little to no connection to organic farming, Dave does. He has a deep understanding of soil, plants, and ecology. He has been a strong activist in the campaigns to require GMO labeling.

Before I share some of David’s talk, I think it is worth hearing a quotation from David Ferman speaking to the National Organic Standards Board in Pittsburgh. Ferman is the Marketing Director for NatureSweet Tomatoes, a large, conventional, hydroponic greenhouse producer.

NatureSweet is reported to have over 1600 acres of hydroponic greenhouse production with annual sales over $300 million. They are founding members of the Coalition For Sustainable Organics. They successfully worked to get hydroponics allowed by the NOP. Only after the terrible failure at Jacksonville did they begin to produce certified organic hydro tomatoes. They created Brighthouse Organics for marketing their hydroponic “certified organic” tomatoes, now flooding the market.

“The words yesterday, “soul of organic”, were used, and I also thought about some words from November of 2016 where they talked about “the magic of the soil”. And I think about that language really as kind of fluff used to distract from the real motivation for that opposition group, which would be to limit supply and artificially — and benefit from the higher price that would result. So really purely economic.”

  • David Ferman, Marketing Director of NatureSweet Tomatoes

So now “the magic of soil” and the “soul of organic” are just “fluff” used to “distract” us?

So there it is. We won’t get a much clearer description of two opposing perspectives. I am the person who talked about “the soul of organic” the day before, so I guess it is fair for me to respond to these comments.

In my Pittsburgh testimony, talking about hydroponics in organic, I said, “This is not a settled issue and I think trying to force it into being one is not going to be a good direction to go. In organic certification, the largest hydroponic producers insist that they are not hydroponic. The largest CAFO producers insist that they are not confinement operations. We know that this is not true. The question is what do we do about it? Do we quietly surrender the soul of organic?”

It is significant to me that Mr. Ferman so casually dismisses the significance of soil. And he also dismisses the thought that organic could have a soul. Clearly, for him, it does not. As the marketing director for a huge “sometimes-sold-as-organic” enterprise, his influence on the USDA standards is far greater than yours or mine. The Coalition For Sustainable Organics won in Jacksonville, and the rest of us lost. Companies like NatureSweet are literally redefining organic in the USDA, discarding the importance of soil as they go.

It isn’t personal. It isn’t ideological. It’s just business.

And so I especially appreciated David Mortensen’s talk last week. David Mortensen is a scientist and an educator, not a marketer nor a lobbyist. He is not interested in confusing people by creating distracting bits of “fluff”. He is not selling anything.

We have to ponder what happens when the National Organic Program is more influenced by marketers than by scientists, by corporations than by farmers.

UNH Professor and Chair of Agriculture David Mortensen.
UNH Professor and Chair of Agriculture David Mortensen.

So I am reprinting a good deal of David Mortensen’s presentation in New Hampshire. It was a short talk, but it makes for a long letter! His talk was entitled, “Soil As The Foundation Of Organic Farming.”

“I was thinking about what I would say in Jacksonville at the NOSB meeting. We were discussing soil versus hydroponic production. One of the things that struck me in thinking about soil and plants is that they have been hanging out together for about 400 million years.

“It raises some very interesting questions about what happens in 400 million years when organisms are growing in intimate connection with one another for that period of time. Clearly, our cultivated crops have been around in some crude form for 10,000 or 20,000 years. But their ancestors have been interacting with soil over this incredible period of time.

“And through that period of time, fascinating things have been happening on our behalf. There is more carbon in the soil than all of the carbon tied up in all of the plants and in all of the carbon in the atmosphere, in the air that we breathe.

“I started out studying plants a long time ago. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I was working in Alaska on the North Slope, where we were studying the effects of the increasing carbon dioxide concentrations on carbon stores in the Arctic. We had the idea that increasing carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, which could thaw the permafrost, which would release more CO2 and thus create this positive feedback for accelerating carbon loss.

“In those days we all believed that the loss of carbon was through CO2. Interestingly, we learned that besides losing CO2 from the tundra as it melts we were also releasing enormous amounts of methane. We didn’t even know that back in the late ‘70’s.

“But I remember measuring the effect of carbon dioxide on the plants. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at that time was almost half of what it is today. It has changed that much in my lifetime. That’s pretty striking in that amount of time!

Carbon-rich pasture at educational center and historic farm at Shelburne Farms, Vermont
There is more carbon in the soil than all of the carbon tied up in all of the plants and in all of the carbon in the atmosphere, in the air that we breathe.

“And what’s important then, from an ecosystems services point of view, is to imagine ways through our farming practices in organic farming in the soil, that we can actively increase the carbon stores in soils. Because if you increase the carbon stores in soils, you are building on the largest sink of carbon in our terrestrial system.

A third of that carbon in the soil is tied up in a kind of fungi that are called mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae proliferate in the soil. That is a third of the carbon! That is a third of the soil carbon, which is greater than ALL of the carbon in the air and in the plants. So a third of that carbon is in fungi in the soil.

“Now isn’t that fascinating?

“In 400 million years there are all sorts of ways that these mycorrhizae are interacting with the roots of the plants and the soil. Individual species of plants and individual species of mycorrhizae have come to coexist in a synergy. It’s a fascinating thought.

A hand in soil.
A third of all the carbon in the soil is fungal.

“I’m a baker when I’m not doing plant stuff. That’s my hobby. Here is my teaspoon on the counter. After 400 million years, what does a teaspoon of soil contain? 10,000 to 50,000 species of organisms. We talk about biodiversity. We must recognize that it all starts in the soil. To imagine that number of species in that little teaspoon, for me, is mind-blowing.

“And they take all forms. Most of them are going to be in the microbial group. These are the mycorrhizae and bacteria, but there are all sorts of organisms in the soil, and the plant roots have been spending all this time getting used to in this below-ground community of organisms.

In one teaspoon of soil there are over 7 billion microbial individuals. So there is enormous biodiversity in the soil. The mycorrhizae are, from an ecosystems services point of view, working with us. Here is a cross-section of a root of a plant. The blue colored stuff is the mycelial connections. The mycorrhizal connections with the root are enhancing the uptake because it effectively increases the root area by a hundred-fold, having these synergistic interactions and creating the soil. The mycorrhizae also have these fascinating complex filaments that also increase the surface area of the roots.

carbon rich rocky soil
One teaspoon of soil contains 10,000 to 50,000 species of organisms. We talk about biodiversity. We must recognize that it all starts in the soil.

“Another thing that is in the life of the soil, and the way that it translates to our plants, is an absolutely fascinating field of sustainable agriculture and ecology. It is the reality that plants and microbes, through chemical signaling, are talking to each other all..the..time. Communicating with each other all the time.

“Let’s just take time for one example. This is commonplace, not just a scientific one-off. This scientist was deliberately infecting tomatoes with late blight. He was literally putting the disease on the leaves and watching the plants become infected. He would take another plant in another pot or another section of this experimental place and he would infect that plant with late blight, and the plant would become infected.

What he found that was really fascinating was that when the infected plant was growing in proximity, where it was connected by these mycelial overlaps, the fungi, and the roots and the fungi are touching one another, the infected plant was sending signals to the uninfected plant, telling it, “I am sick. It’s time for you to up-regulate your defense mechanisms so the late blight doesn’t make you sick too.” He would put the late blight spores onto the adjacent tomato plant, but because it had been talking to its neighbor, the neighboring, later-infected, plant was unaffected by late blight.

“Imagine the co-evolution over a long period of time where these complex ways of plants interacting with each other are conferring healthiness to a pest-stress problem. And through chemical signaling, this is not just a one-off phenomenon.

“It turns out some of those very chemicals that are the defense mechanism chemicals for plants are great for us when we consume them. Those compounds are very active in defending us against things that are undesirable with regard to our health.

carbon-rich soils hold more moisture
Soils with high organic carbon are more spongy, more likely to hold water. Reducing runoff, reducing flooding and nutrient loss.

“Soils don’t only function at the level of a field. Looking back at the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, this is a point that I didn’t make very effectively. It is interesting that this whole ecosystem service way of thinking about things occurs at different scales. We were just looking at the plants in a small area scale. But it also occurs at the landscape scale. Soils with high organic carbon are more spongy, more likely to hold water. Reducing runoff, reducing flooding and nutrient loss. This is critically important for any farm, and certainly for organic farms. The soils are mediating the ecosystem services like water absorption so that it is not having adverse effects on neighboring fields.

The Soil Seven at Jacksonville defended soil as the foundation of organic. And we lost.
The Soil Seven at Jacksonville defended soil as the foundation of organic. And we lost.

“I have to say I think I was probably one of the most naïve people on the NOSB. I was new when we went to Jacksonville, and I still couldn’t imagine folks NOT voting that we would keep soil as the central dimension of organic. I was that naïve.

“I’m a bit of a process person. I do think about how we get things done together. I would just say that a couple of things stand out for me that we need to work on. One is that we don’t stick to frameworks very well that are established as guidelines. It seems often to me that we don’t have the right people sitting at the table when the decisions are being made. And when we do make some informed decisions, we don’t always implement them.

“I was always curious why we were having a debate about soils in the first place when a decision about soils had been made in 2010.

“And then finally, we are just having a new set of board members join the NOSB, and they are appointed by the current sitting political figures, so our system is very political in the sense that who gets on the board is determined by who is in charge at the time.

I have given David’s talk a lot of space here because I think it is so important. I realize that soil biology isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the things he is describing are of real importance to all of us.

Here is a short clip of David talking about last year’s symposium. He was a speaker at last year’s symposium and will speak again this year.

Also, I will be speaking at the NOFA MASS conference on Saturday, Jan 11 at Worcester State University. At 4 pm I will be talking about the Real Organic Project. So much is happening now that it is good to have a chance to share. Please join me!

Dave and Bryan at the Soil & Nutrition Conference last November.
Dave and Bryan at the Soil & Nutrition Conference last November.

There are many great speakers talking at the NOFA conference. Bryan O’Hara will speak about his amazing development of no-till organic market gardening. Bryan is a hero to many of us for his deep knowledge, great integrity, and relentless good humor. He really did a lot of figuring on his own and has come up with farming systems well worth copying. He has a book called “No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture” coming out in February from Chelsea Green. It will be a bargain for any vegetable farmer to share Bryan’s wealth of experience.

Other speakers include ROP Certified farmer Mark McAfee, ROP Advisory board member Dan Kittredge, ROP certified farmer and NOFA ED Julie Rawson, and ROP certified farmer and Natural Farmer editor Jack Kittredge. Those NOFA folks put on a strong conference.

Carey Gillam is a journalist and author of White Wash.

Carey Gillam will be the lunchtime keynote. As a journalist, Carey has written fearlessly about Monsanto and the GMO labeling battles. In White Wash, she tells “the Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.”

I hope to see you at the NOFA MASS conference on January 11 and at the Real Organic Project Symposium at Dartmouth on April 3 and 4.

Dave