Yesterday was supposed to the Real Organic Project symposium at Dartmouth. Instead of a big party and hundreds of people sharing ideas, the college is shuttered and I went for a quiet walk with Claudia around Lake Morey.

It can feel a little strange to feel joyous in these troubled times, but the above video make me feel joyous. And it is appropriate to remember the thousands of people working to feed us despite the risk and uncertainty. The above video “Raising Animals on Pasture” was intended to be shown at the symposium.

It is a celebration.  


It is so important. Listen to the caring voices of many farmers.  If you want to know what the Real Organic Project is about, watch this short video.

Despite postponing the symposium, the ROP standards board met virtually for the last two days. We had a thoughtful and interesting discussion among fifteen people on the details of organic farming standards. 

The meeting was profoundly touched by Coronavirus. First, we were meeting on Zoom instead of in person. Second, two farmers had to miss part of the meeting to deal with farm crew anxiety over the pandemic. A third farmer had to miss the meeting to keep shipping seed potatoes to some of those Americans who want to plant a home garden this year. I myself had to spend an entire morning in the middle of the meetings to ensure that my farm crew was safe and well-informed about the constantly changing Covid-19 situation. 

Farmers are still farming, but it is challenging for all the people who come to work every day on farms. 

The Real Organic Project (ROP) standards board was based on the National Organic Standards Board. We are fifteen people, chosen from different interest groups. But there are significant differences. We have a much larger farmer voice, with nine designated farmers on the board. The ROP standards board is elected by a large group of 45 highly respected farmers, scientists, advocates and vendors. The NOSB is chosen by Sonny Perdue. The ROP board deals with the critical issues of organic. The NOSB is prohibited to deal with the critical issues of our time such as hydroponics and enforcement of standards against CAFOs. The ROP standards board decisions become our standards. The NOSB decisions are ignored by the National Organic Program.

The rest of this letter will be the written testimony I sent yesterday to the NOSB. I am including pictures of current and former NOSB members who serve on one of our three boards or who have farms certified by ROP. These words are mine, not theirs, but they have shown their public support for our mission. The entire organic community thanks them.

Dear NOSB,

I am writing this letter to introduce the new board members to the Real Organic Project. This might be the first time you have heard of us. We work as midwives for a rebirth of the organic movement. 

There is now an international conversation about what organic means. It is wonderful that people’s demand for organic has grown and continues to grow. So many people are losing faith in the “conventional” food system. They are seeking food that is grown differently. They want food that is nutritionally superior and grown without poisons. They want meat, milk, and eggs that come from animals who have lived good lives based on the land, not trapped like prisoners in a warehouse. They want vegetables and fruits grown in healthy soil. They want food grown by people who care and who are treated with respect, not by desperate people who are treated like feudal serfs. And as the eaters become more knowledgeable, they want food that is grown in a way that contributes to a balanced climate.

Many millions of people are making those choices, probably for millions of reasons, but most of those reasons are some variation of what I have just written. This is the organic movement.

People are not making those choices JUST because they want unsprayed food, although they do want unsprayed food. If that was all they wanted, the pseudo-organic producers in the world would stop messing around with organic certification and simply create a “Certified Unsprayed” label. They could have it verified by the USDA under their PVP program, and the organic label would theoretically languish when faced with the lower-priced competition. But the organic label doesn’t languish because most people actually do want the whole package of healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy climate.

The Real Organic Project was formed in an effort to provide greater transparency and integrity to the organic label. As wonderful as reform of the NOP would be, it is our immediate goal to create an add-on label that will ensure that eaters are able to identify the food that they actually want to buy. This is a huge task for our small, grassroots organization.

In two years we have approved over 550 farms for certification to the Real Organic Project’s add-on standards. That number will continue to grow quickly. Our certified farmers include many current and former NOSB members. Also many organic pioneers and beginning young farmers across the country. We also sponsor gatherings to share ideas and deepen our understanding of what organic means and why it is important.

You have been chosen by the Secretary of Agriculture to represent the organic community to the USDA. Please take that responsibility seriously. You are there to represent us, not to represent the USDA to the organic community. Things have not gone well in this arena for a long time. According to a recent statement by the Organic Trade Association, “In the past 10 years, the National Organic Standards Board has passed 20 final recommendations to advance the organic practice standards, yet USDA has not completed rulemaking on a single one of them.” 

Undersecretary Ibach and Jenny Tucker were grilled on this point by members of Congress. When Congressman Rodney Davis repeatedly pressed on this, Undersecretary Ibach finally replied that he was looking forward to picking new members for the NOSB, implying that new members might pass more acceptable recommendations.

This is wrong in so many ways. New members come in carrying a heavy burden, with Ibach implying he was planning to choose new members who would toe the line. I URGE YOU TO DISAPPOINT HIM.

Reforming the National Organic Program is not going to be an easy task. They are unresponsive even to questions from the NOSB. Like an embattled castle, they keep their gates shut, and hope that we peasants will go away.

But we won’t.

So I urge you to be brave. Don’t allow yourselves to be redirected to minor issues. Focus on the major issues that are undermining the foundations of the organic program. Access to pasture, origin of livestock, animal welfare and access to the outdoors, rejection of hydroponics as organic, and grain fraud in certification, both domestic and international. THESE are the key issues that are damaging the organic program. If they are not addressed, they will destroy the NOP.  

As an important first step, I urge every one of you to take the pledge of self-education. Go beyond reading OFPA, which is an excellent law. Also, read the books of Albert & Louise Howard and Eve Balfour. Learn about the foundational beliefs of the organic movement. Their observations are still true, and they started a revolution. We now have a better understanding of WHY their observations are true, thanks to 80 years of science.

Organic is not the property of the USDA. They did not invent it, although they would like to reinvent it now to better suit their corporate friends. If they are allowed to do that, something precious will be lost. Their lack of understanding can be clearly seen in Deputy Administrator Jenny Tucker’s oft-repeated comment that “hydroponics is a settled issue.”

Even in her mind that is not true. It might be her deep desire, but it is only settled when the organic community accepts the NOP’s awkward redefinition of organic. And we will not. Not only is there constant debate on the centrality of soil, but there is now a lawsuit against the USDA, led by the Center For Food Safety.The co-plaintiffs include 6 organic farms, the certifier One Cert, and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). All of the co-plaintiffs are highly respected pioneering members of the organic community. Of course, we could have brought in thousands of co-plaintiffs.

This lawsuit is accompanied by several others that challenge the USDA for rejecting the animal welfare reform that the NOSB spent so many years working on.

These are not settled issues. They will never be settled until we have brought the NOP back into alignment with the community, the law, and the international understanding of organic. Please work hard to support us. Let us work together to once again join the NOP and the organic community.

Many thanks,

Dave Chapman
Executive Director
Real Organic Project

“I’ve been waiting for the waters to settle to write you and express my regret that Dartmouth was postponed.

“I was anticipating it for many reasons: reunion with family and friends, and especially your work. I knew it would offer powerful information and a vision of right relationships among consumers, farmers, farming practices, soils and climate.

“But also I was anticipating a larger vision of how we live into the future we want. I have such respect for your mission and your method.

“For me this pandemic has highlighted the centrality of food in our lives. Heightened the preciousness of each bundle of chard, each egg, each pork chop. I see how cavalier I’ve been, and wasteful and careless. It has restored the connection with farms and farmers, clarified supply chains, and deepened my appreciation for those who work in the kingdom of growing, harvesting, selling and cooking food. I’m so lucky to live somewhere those connections are real, alive and healthy.”

– Letter from a friend.