Dave Chapman speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Dave Chapman, Executive Director of the Real Organic Project, addresses the crowd at the Symposium on March 2, 2019.

Last week some 200 people gathered at Dartmouth College to participate in the Real Organic Project Symposium. A third of them were organic farmers from all over the country. This group included many of the same farmers who traveled to Florida in 2017 to testify to the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board). They demanded that the NOSB once again vote to prohibit hydronic as organic. The NOSB failed us in Florida, but we had a resounding success in New Hampshire.

Five of the NOSB Soil Seven were at the symposium. The Soil Seven were the NOSB members who courageously voted to reject hydroponics as organic. Three of them spoke at the symposium. The audience had a number of current and former NOSB members. The subject of the day was the reclamation of organic.

The subject of the day was the reclamation of organic.

It was a celebration.

Harriet Behar speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Farmer and NOSB chairperson Harriet Behar presenting.

No one who attended the symposium left unchanged. From morning until late afternoon, speaker after speaker told their stories of success and failure, always connected by hope, if not always by optimism. The speakers laid out the principles of real organic farming and gave wonderful demonstrations of what that looks like on actual farms.

Farmers Paul Muller (Full Belly Farm), Emily Oakley (Three Springs Farm and NOSB), UNH Professor Dave Mortensen (NOSB), and ROP executive director Dave Chapman listen to biodynamic pioneer Jean-Paul Courtens, founder of Roxbury Farm. All four presented talks.

They also revealed how far the National Organic Program (NOP) has fallen. The NOP now embraces both enormous CAFO livestock facilities and soilless hydroponic production covering hundreds of acres with black plastic mulch and soilless pots. Perhaps most disturbing was seeing how the real organic crops are being relentlessly pushed out of the marketplace, so that eaters are losing the choice of real organic food grown in healthy soil.

Alan Lewis speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Alan Lewis gave a chilling explanation of how the wholesale market works, keeping out so many family farms.

Over and over we heard about the loss of choice. This was not a story about the triumph of competition, but rather about the triumph of fraud and influence. Real competition is being lost. Eaters are mostly unaware that they are losing anything. But inexorably, the market is being taken over by enormous producers who represent themselves as the very farms they are driving out of business.

And what happens when the eaters find out what is happening? What happens to the “organic brand” then?

Onika Abraham speaks at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.
Onika Abraham spoke of the need to build the diversity of the community as well as of the soil. We are all part of one food system.

The world is changing. We can’t be passive observers. It is our world. It is our government. It is our choice, if we will only make it.

Many of you have asked to see the talks. We will release videos of the talks as quickly as we can. We are starting in this letter by offering Eliot Coleman’s keynote address. Eliot was unable to attend the symposium, as he had a setback in recovering from knee surgery. But his daughter, Clara, filmed him giving his talk at home that morning and drove to the public library to upload it to the internet. Rural Maine is like that! The whole thing worked brilliantly, and at the end of the day, Eliot spoke to us from a giant screen, hovering over us like the Wizard of Oz.

Eliot Coleman Keynote at the Real Organic Project Symposium in March, 2019.

 Click here for Eliot’s keynote address.

Eliot said in his talk that our survival is based on 6 inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. The continuation of both topsoil and rain is based on sane agriculture.

The other talk we are posting in this letter is given by me (Dave Chapman). This was my wrap-up at the end of the day, trying to tie together the fourteen talks given before me. It is a brief summation of the painful failures and a road map of the coming victories. The Real Organic Project is unstoppable because it provides what so many eaters want. We ARE the organic movement.

Organic sales are continuing to grow for the best of reasons. It is NOT because of advertising. It is because people want to eat good food.

  • They want to avoid eating poisons.
  • They want food that tastes good and is nutritious.
  • They want to support small farms that provide meaningful jobs and that help to build rural communities.
  • They want to support healthy working conditions on those farms.
  • They want to support farmers who are genuinely motivated by a desire to do good things for our planet.
  • They want to support agriculture that takes carbon from the air and returns it to the soil.
  • They want to support agriculture that helps to heal the water cycle and cool the planet.
  • They want to be part of a food system that provides meaningful markets to small family farms all over the world.

We recreate the world every day.

As David Bronner has said, we are all farmers. Our farms are our plates. What we choose to put on our plates will decide how food is grown, how carbon is sequestered, how mother earth is cooled.

All of these things are what the best of organic farming represents. People are completely right in thinking that this is what organic has always meant. We want to embrace those aspirations and provide integrity and transparency so that eaters’ dollars are actually supporting that kind of farming. We are not building a brand. We are building a community.

In the two days before the symposium, some 27 people attended the annual meeting of the ROP standards board. The first day 17 of us hashed out the changes to the standards, based on the lessons we learned in our pilot year. The second day was a large and rich conversation on questions of scale and soil fertility. It will take us a while to unpack all this, but we hope to post excerpts from those conversations on an upcoming blog. Please stay tuned.

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Please share this letter. Many of our supporters miss the updates due to getting lost in the “promotions” mailbox. Forward this letter to your friends and customers so that we can all learn how to move forward together. It is so easy, and it makes such a big difference.

Dave Chapman
Executive Director
Real Organic Project

“The stereotypical large farms of today’s agriculture are not unsustainable because they are large, they are large because they are managed unsustainably. They are unsustainable because they are managed ‘extensively’ – meaning they rely more on land and capital and less on thinking people.”

-John Ikerd