News From the Farm | April 2, 2018

We are in the first week of a beautiful spring – warm temperatures, soil drying, pears blooming snow white, the pink peach blossoms finishing while the oaks, willows and walnuts that are woven into the farm are bursting with a myriad of greens.

We are busy planting the first tomatoes, beans, squash, and corn – summertime treats that are a couple of months away. We have also been busy these past few weeks with some work that takes us away from the farm. Judith is working with a group called the Organic Farmers Association to advocate politically for Organic farmers; Dru is tending to the Ecological Farmers Association; Andrew is steeped in the work of the Marin Farmers Market; and I had an opportunity to meet with a group of leaders last week in Vermont to talk about the future credibility of the Organic farming movement.  This group is coming together and is proposing an add-on label to organic certification called, at this time, the Real Organic Project.

This group formed to deal with the drifting away of Organic farming from some of its core principles, as some farmers try to cut corners to sell certified Organic, and rules within the Organic Food Act have been enacted to allow soil-less Organic farming. Specifically the Real Organic Project is targeting hydroponic soil-less growing and large dairies and animal confinement operations that don’t allow livestock (cows, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens) to have adequate access to pasture, clean air, sunlight, room to move, and humane treatment.

The Real Organic principles are important for both growers and eaters. Given the amazing growth that Organic agriculture has seen – started 40 years ago by many of the folks in the Vermont meeting room – and now a 45 billion dollar business, it is inevitable that the essential principles of Organic can be either forgotten or become victims to companies who see an avenue to greater profits.

Early Organic farms have demonstrated the fundamental connection of all eaters to the healthy soil that creates healthy plants, and these farmers have seen their job as stewards who are responsible for tending all life on, in and around a farm with ethical care. When the USDA sees Organic as a marketing tool, rather than a set of principles and practices carefully outlined in the initial rule that established the National Organic Program, they begin to diminish these principles through political process. It has become necessary for farmers who care about the future of the programs they have worked so hard to establish to reassert the essential elements that are foundational to Organic before it becomes lost to those who see profit over principle – hence the Real Organic Project.

The overseers of the National Organic Program – the USDA, many Organic certifiers, and the National Organic Standards Board – are allowing exceptions to the essential principle that Organic means living roots connected to living soil, and that as stewards, Organic farmers need to respect the nature and character of the livestock they manage, allowing grazers to graze, pigs to root in the soil, chickens to scratch and peck with enough room move and express those characteristics. Real Organic has taken a stand against large scale confinement feeding for any of these species. These are principles that should never be ignored or diminished.

The popularity of soil-less organic is ironic since we are just now beginning to scientifically affirm the complexity of life in the soil — a myriad of organisms just being classified and identified. Early small farmers who started the Organic movement already knew that healthy living soil on a well managed farm is central to a healthy human gut and disease resistance, and to nutrient dense food grown there. We are letting principles slip for profit so that many large organic farms are beginning to look much like conventional farms.

These hydroponic farms may use better, safer inputs than their conventional counterparts, but some are cutting corners and still called organic. Hydroponic or container grown plants may make beautiful tomatoes or strawberries grown with liquid organic inputs and perhaps are better than conventional but they aren’t ‘Real Organic’ and shouldn’t be called so because the complexity of soil micro life is essential to Organic and the National Organic Standards. Large organic dairies that confine all of their animals when they should be on pasture aren’t ‘Real Organic’ because their standards of animal welfare don’t meet the standards that are implied and asserted in the National Organic Program.

Consumers should care, and the boards of the hydroponic agriculture companies should care because the trust, confidence, and high standards that are the basis of Organic need to be diligently protected. The USDA should care because they are the overseers of this business model that has been a sanctuary for many small and new farmers, and an engine in rural communities for economic diversification and regional food security. Scientists should care because of new information connecting human health to healthy human guts. Farming in soil can also make a real difference in capturing carbon from the air and sequestering it in the soil and Organic practices offer ways to moderate the volatilization of nitrogen fertilizer as a potent greenhouse gas or the leaching of nitrogen into groundwater making it dangerous to drink.

Not to simplify a complex picture, but good Real Organic Farming offers a way to connect many things and is a foundation to making sure that farming systems are part of a healthier planet. Organic farmers who see the connection between good stewardship and healthy communities are committed to helping people remember why good farming can be integral to tending the planet for the long term. Many of these farmers are creating new ideas about resource conservation and practices that build soil health. They harvest more total energy over a year with cover crops, conserve water, and allow new entrepreneurs to renew the promise of being able to start a farm in an increasingly concentrated and competitive farming world. They are committed to clarifying the intent of the National Organic Program and to fighting for these principles before they are lost.

—Paul Muller