I attended my first EcoFarm Conference last week. I was invited to talk about the Real Organic Project. It was a long trip, and I wondered how I would be received. California has been the epicenter of support for certifying hydro as organic. The last time I was in California I was attending the USDA Hydroponic Task Force meeting in San Diego, where the hydro proponents outnumbered the soil advocates two to one. How strange to have soil advocates as a minority in a discussion about the meaning of organic.

The three organizations that pushed hydroponics through the USDA are strong in California. They are CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), OTA (Organic Trade Association), and the Coalition For Sustainable Organics (created for the sole purpose of promoting hydro in organic). The common thread between these three organizations is Driscoll’s. Most dismaying of these three was CCOF, which had always been highly respected in the Northeast. Seven years ago they were even heroes to us. When they came out in support of certifying hydro, it broke our hearts. How could this be?

Telling a friend that I might get a hostile reception at EcoFarm, I said I might get stoned. He replied, “Only if you inhale.”

Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm in California

Paul Muller from Full Belly Farm presented with me on the Real Organic Project.

So it was with some trepidation that I traveled to the EcoFarm conference. My workshop was shared with Paul Muller from Full Belly Farm. Paul is a personal hero for his wonderful pioneering farm and his years of advocacy for organic farming. But beyond that, he is a kind and articulate visionary about a saner agriculture in a troubled world. He is also a member of the ROP Standards Board. When I was invited to speak, I said I would if Paul would join me.

Our workshop was very well attended and very well received. I did the sometimes bitter work of sharing how the NOP has been lost to us, and Paul had the uplifting task of reminding the audience why soil is the foundation of organic, why it matters, and why we need it. I always draw the short straw!

I spoke about the failures of the National Organic Program, both in hydros and CAFOs. This is a painful subject for most of us, but one that must be understood. After working so long to build the organic movement, we are seeing it change before our eyes as USDA is successfully redefining what “organic” means in certification. This is the reason that Real Organic Project was formed. I will soon try to film a summary of the talk I gave to share with all of you.

Organic Farmer Steve Sprinkel at Market

Real Organic Project supporter Steve Sprinkel

But while hearing my talk was upsetting, attending EcoFarm was definitely not. EcoFarm was inspiring. It is an amazing gathering of youngers and elders on the Monterey Peninsula. I got to meet so many who have written to me over the last six years. Ranging from long conversations to brief hellos, I got to talk with JM Fortier, Bob Scowcroft, Amigo Bob, Tom Willy, Steve Sprinkel, Lisa Bunin, Katrina Frey, Vernon Peterson, Grant Brians, Andrew Brait, Dru Rivers, Judith Redmond, Steve Beck, Stephanie & Blake Alexandre, Albert Straus, Bob McGee, Phil LaRocca, Laura Batcha, Kelly Damewood, and so many more. I heard a great keynote from Kris Nichols and John Reganold, two of the soil scientists I interviewed for the USDA Task Force. Kris now serves on the ROP Advisory Board.

Many of these people expressed strong support for ROP. A few expressed strong opposition. These were lively discussions. I did as much listening as I did talking. I thank everyone who took the time (often for hours!) to share with me.

Beautiful winding field of organic kale

he conference included a myriad of workshops on cover cropping, soil health, politics, policy, agricultural justice, and so much more.

Paul also sat on a panel the next day to present ROP to an even larger crowd. He spoke along with Elizabeth Whitlow, ED of ROC, speaking about the Regenerative Organic Certification and Laura Batcha, ED of OTA, talking about the option of sticking with basic USDA certification. Kelly Damewood, the new ED of CCOF, moderated the discussion. It was an important and respectful conversation.

After each of these workshops, farmers came to me and signed up for the ROP add-on label. It was very exciting. Many of those I talked with were members, board members (both current or former), or staff of CCOF. I saw that the “hydro position” of CCOF was quite far from representing a solid majority of the members. This is a swirling debate that many members are only learning about just now. People at the workshop came in informed about organic. They knew what the NOP, the NOSB, and OTA were. But they certainly didn’t know the facts of what has happened in the USDA, and they didn’t know the extent of the invasion by hydro into the organic market. It’s like a pernicious weed that suddenly explodes, except that with hydro, you can’t see the weed. There is no way to tell by looking whether berries or vegetables are grown in soil, although we can often tell by tasting. But invisible as they might be, hydro and CAFOs are changing the National Organic Program in a profound way.

And of course, the CAFO invasion was just as big a topic of conversation. USDA failure in rejecting CAFOs is on an even bigger scale than the hydroponic invasion.

Organic farmer Judith Redmond in her fields

Judith Redmond serves on the Governing Council of the Organic Farmers Association.

A third workshop that I attended was about the Organic Farmers Association. I am on the OFA Policy Committee. OFA is intended to represent organic farmers in Washington. Governing Council member Judith Redmond led a lively discussion at the meeting about the challenges facing organic. I stood up to speak about the opportunities that organic farmers also have. I pointed out that the box manufacturing industry in America has greater gross sales than the professional sports industry, but pro sports has a much greater impact on our culture. When Colin Kaepernick kneels, it is a much bigger deal than when the CEO of the biggest box manufacturer gives a protest. I suggested that the same is true for organic farmers. We have a large impact. We are offered an enormous microphone if we will only pick it up and speak into it. People really do want to hear what we have to say.

2019 EcoFarm conference graphic Resilience is Fertile

So I learned that resistance is not futile. Or, as EcoFarm proclaimed, “Resilience Is Fertile.” When the farmers and eaters start talking, the world changes.

The primary mission of the Real Organic Project is education and connection. It is our goal to bring together a vibrant community of 3 million people who understand what organic means, and who care enough to support it. We believe that these 3 million people already exist, but they are scattered, confused, and disorganized, and so they lack power. Because they are isolated, they are easily ignored, overwhelmed, or misled. It is our goal to bring them together.

Francis Thicke and Linley Dixon of the Real Organic Project pose at Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa

ROP Standards Board chair Francis Thicke and ROP Associate Director Linley Dixon both spoke this week on the Real Organic Project.

To that end, this has been a very busy winter for the Real Organic Project. Board members have presented in workshops at NOFA MA, NOFA NY, Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers, The Great Plains Conference, Southern SAWG, Northern Plains Sustainable Ag, the Oxford Real Farming Conference, and EcoFarm. Coming up are MOSES, NOFA VT, PASA, and the NOFA NJ annual meeting. And these are only the workshops that are specifically addressing ROP. Our board members are giving many more workshops on organic farming around the country.

aerial view of egg CAFO

This egg CAFO is certified. But is it real organic? Photo courtesy of Cornucopia Institute.

One conversation from EcoFarm I want to explore. A highly respected organic dairy farmer asked me, “Does a Real Organic label mean that I’m not real organic?”

My answer is no, of course not. But nor does a USDA Organic label mean that you ARE real organic. Nor does the absence of the USDA Organic label mean that you are NOT real organic. This is the dilemma that we all face.

There are some farms being certified by USDA that only the farm owners, their mothers, and the USDA would consider organic. And there are some inspirational organic farms who have chosen not to get USDA certification.

Just to be clear, Long Wind Farm, that I own and run, is USDA certified. We were certified by Vermont Organic Farmers since the beginning, and now VOF certifies us for the USDA. I have always thought that certification was important, both as a way of connecting to customers who don’t know Long Wind, and as a way of connecting to other farmers. I support certification, and I always buy “certified organic” in the store, unless I personally know that some farm is really organic despite not having a label.

But, in these troubled days, I also know that a great deal of food (over $6 billion worth!) sold as certified organic does not meet the definition, as spelled out by the Organic Food Production Act or by the EU standards. So we have to accept that we are in a confusing position. As I asked a number of times in my talk, “Are you confused yet?” Because if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention.

Staying quiet and hoping that eaters don’t notice is not a very good strategy for the National Organic Program, although its a great strategy for CAFO’s and Hydro.

For me, the very good news is that this conversation is growing rapidly. We are talking to one another about what organic means, and whether the USDA can be trusted to define and protect that.

Organic farmers Eliot Coleman and Dave Chapman checking out a hydroponic growing operation.

I’m still learning from Eliot 39 years later.

Finally, I am sharing a video featuring Eliot Coleman and Patrick Holden discussing these issues. Patrick describes Eliot as “The Elder of the North American organic horticultural movement, if not the patriarch.” Eliot has probably done more to promote real organic farming than anyone alive. Eliot was an early president of IFOAM. He learned a great deal from the European organic pioneers and brought that back to America. He has always generously shared his knowledge. He was a champion and a teacher to many of us when the USDA still hated organic. Indeed, he was the first teacher about organic to the USDA as well. He continues to innovate in his farming and to share these innovations with the world. He also continues to engage in these critical conversations about what organic means.

This is a very interesting conversation that reminds us that organic farming is a world movement. It is not just a brand that was recently invented in a California office by some people wearing suits. And it certainly is not a program invented by some Washington bureaucrat. Eliot and Patrick discuss the real challenges of certification and the problems and possibilities of farming at a large scale. This is a critical conversation for our time, and I hope that you find the opportunity to listen.