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Real Organic debates foundations

GABBY TUITE OF Old Road Farm in Granville said she chooses to be certified under the Real Organic Project because her farming practices are inherently tied to the land and soil that she farms. 

What comes to mind when you think of organically-grown produce and organic dairy products? Does it conjure a pastoral scene with fields of fertile soil dotted with lush, healthy plants and happily grazing cows? What about hydroponic “vegetable factories” and “vertical farms” where production is hermetically sealed in huge warehouses filled with LED lights, plastic tubing and nutrient pumps? Or large factory farms that confine thousands of cows in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)? Should soil-less industrial-scale operations like these qualify for organic certification, or should fertile soil remain the non-negotiable foundation of organic farming?

This question is at the heart of a years-long debate among organic farmers, the USDA and Big Ag lobbyists, which has ultimately led to the creation of a grassroots, farmer-led initiative known as the Real Organic Project, or ROP. In response to the lack of enforcement of some vital USDA Organic standards to protect soil health and animal welfare, organic farmers rallied to protect the integrity of the organic label, eventually creating their own add-on label to help distinguish their products from those that are deviating from the original, soil-based tenets of organic stewardship.

ELMER FARM IN East Middlebury.

The History

To fully understand the nature of this debate, we must go back to November 2017. The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had been granted the authority to make the pivotal decision of whether to certify hydroponic operations and in a series of narrow votes, they chose to allow hydroponic operations to be a part of the organic program. This decision dealt a disappointing blow to many long-time organic farmers and organic farming advocates who had been working tirelessly to protect the integrity of the organic label. On one side of the argument is a multi-billion-dollar hydroponic industry with powerful lobbyists: in the United States, approximately 100 hydroponic operations are already certified organic including berry giant Driscoll’s, and tomato giant Wholesum Harvest. On the other side of the debate are organic farming pioneers who mourn the devaluation of the organic brand they fought for decades to establish.

Organic philosophy is rooted in building soil fertility. Sir Albert Howard, a principal figure in the early organic movement, famously stated that “the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” When the USDA first established organic standards, they specified the tenets of organic farming as follows: “Soil is the source of life. Soil quality and balance are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Healthy plants, animals and humans result from balanced, biologically-active soil.” A quarter of our earth’s biodiversity resides in the soil and this living soil is fundamental to human and planetary health. Therefore, the benefits of organic farming to human and planetary health must begin with fertile soil.

Dave Chapman, a longtime organic tomato farmer at Long Wind Farm in Thetford, Vt., along with a small army of other organic farmers and organic farming advocates, packed the room at that November 2017 NOSB meeting in a last-ditch effort to protect the integrity of the organic label. They organized dozens of rallies across the country leading up to the Jacksonville meeting and inspired a small group of organic advocates to champion the cause.

One such rally took place right here in Vermont in October of 2016 and was dubbed the “Rally in the Valley.” The event drew over 250 people including over 100 organic farmers from Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania — who shared the belief that all good farming begins with the soil. Congressman Peter Welch, Senator Patrick Leahy, and organic farming expert Eliot Coleman were part of the lineup of elected officials and organic farming leaders who addressed the crowd that day, urging those in attendance to keep the pressure on the Department of Agriculture to maintain the integrity of the organic certification.

It’s worth noting that the U.S. government is alone in granting the much-desired organic label to hydroponic growers. Hydroponic production is a soil-less process that has long been the norm in industrial-scale conventional greenhouse production. Now it is fast becoming the norm in organic certification for several major crops, such as tomatoes and berries. As Chapman pointed out at a 2019 ROP Symposium at Dartmouth College, by changing the fertilizer brew in their mixing tanks to “natural” (but highly processed) soluble fertilizers, and then switching to “approved” pesticides, the industrial-scale hydroponic producers can miraculously become “organic” overnight.

Experts say the explosive growth in hydroponic imports may force some organic farmers out of business. Farmers in Vermont are already feeling the impact of the influx of “fauxganic” produce and are seeing their wholesale orders at large retailers reduced in favor of the cheaper hydroponically-grown produce. Henry Webb and Gabby Tuite of Old Road Farm in Granville, Vt., said they choose to be certified under the Real Organic Project because their farming practices are inherently tied to the land and soil that they farm. 

“In Vermont, we are really fortunate to have the Northeast Organic Farming Association and its certifying body, Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), who share that commitment, but on a national level, we agree with the Real Organic Project (ROP) that industrialization has in some ways diluted the intent of the organic label. We really don’t like to be critical of anyone else’s farming practices but there are currently things allowed under national standards that we don’t think fit people’s perception of what an organic farm is and we think that consumers have a right to an informed decision about what they are buying. We see our farm, our land, as not just a medium for production but a deeply complex living system that we ultimately bear the responsibility to steward. ROP is an advocate for that view.”

Davey Miskell of the ROP visits the ACORN Food Hub during the 2022 Farmacy program. All four farms that participated in the 2022 Farmacy program are certified Real Organic.

Challenges for Dairy Farmers

A litany of complex factors over the past few years has wielded a tough blow for conventional and organic dairy farmers alike, though organic farmers are facing new and growing challenges as a result of the rise of mega factory “organic” farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles. These CAFO dairy farms are home to upwards of 15,000 cows apiece, more than 100 times the size of a typical organic herd and, despite using certified organic feed, their ability to meet other organic standards — particularly those related to animal welfare and pasture accessibility — has been called into question. 

The nonprofit watchdog The Cornucopia Institute published an extensive report on these issues called “The Industrialization of Organic Dairy” in August 2018, detailing the systematic takeover by enormous organic producers who represent themselves as the very farms they’re driving out of business. The Washington Post offered a similar exposé in May 2017 titled “Why Your ‘Organic’ Milk May Not Be Organic.” The Post documented the rise of mega-dairies in Texas and the West that are falling well short of organic standards by ignoring pasture grazing requirements and flooding the market with cheaper milk, squeezing out small, legitimate organic dairy farms that are following the rules. 

Here in Vermont, we saw first-hand the challenges that this shift created for our local, organic dairy farmers when, in the fall of 2021, 89 organic family dairy farms across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York received the shocking news that their customer Horizon Organic, which is owned by Danone, was terminating their purchase contracts. When cheaper “organic” milk can be purchased from mega-dairies, big corporations, ever eager to whittle down their bottom line, are quick to make the switch, putting small, family-scale, pasture-based organic farms at serious risk.

The Certified Organic seal on a dairy product is supposed to ensure that cows graze on pasture for a minimum of 120 days per year. Following the rules costs more, as grazing requires more land and grass-fed cows tend to produce a lower volume of milk when compared to their confined conventional counterparts. However, the milk they produce offers a measurable nutritional difference, boasting a healthier ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids, and the way the cows are managed offers much-needed resilience in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

Allowing cows to graze on pasture respects the natural behavior of the animal, improves the health of the cow, and mitigates the environmental impacts associated with industrial dairy production. Grazing animals are critical to the process of building soil organic matter. According to Jean Paul Courtens, who presented at the Dartmouth Real Organic Project Symposium in 2019, a mere 1% increase in the soil organic matter on the 4 billion acres that are used for agricultural production on our planet would allow for the sequestration of 102 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Beyond carbon sequestration, regenerating our soils in partnership with ruminants increases biodiversity above and below ground and creates a living sponge that increases the infiltration and water-holding capacity of the soil. This reduces runoff of precious topsoil and offers resilience to climate change-fueled flooding and drought.

Butterworks farmer Christine Lazor said that her Westfield, Vt., farm is lucky to have the support of a community of well-educated shoppers who know so much about organic food and farming and believe in what Butterworks does. 

JENNY PRINCE OF Butterworks Farm at the UVM Cheese and Dairy Fest.

“That said, as consolidation within the food system escalates, we face increasing competition from green-washed megabrands on the shelves of most stores,” Lazor said. “It’s getting harder and harder to stand out as the real deal! We are grateful to Real Organic Project for bringing some of the tougher issues to light, especially those that affect our dairy farming peers in other parts of the U.S. where shoppers may not be as savvy as Vermonters who typically know a few farmers. For example, our cows are outside, grazing diverse, multi-species pasture, and breathing fresh mountain air for as many days as possible here in Westfield, while other organic, grass-fed brands are delivering mowed rye grass indoors to feed cows who go outside the bare minimum number of days required by the law. Confinement is their go-to, even though the picture on the carton will tell you otherwise! We are proud to be Real Organic Project certified, as it offers us a way to communicate our thoughtful level of care to our customers. It’s also a farmer-founded and farmer-led organization, which has always been a crucial aspect of the organic movement.”

What is Lost When We Allow This To Persist?

Mark Kastel of OrganicEye points out that “thousands of small organic farmers across the United States depend on the USDA organic system working. Unfortunately, right now, it’s not working for small farmers or consumers.” Eaters are mostly unaware of what they are losing as real organic crops are being pushed relentlessly out of the marketplace. They’re losing the choice of real organic food grown in healthy soil, along with the food security, vibrant local economy, and ecosystem services that these farms provide by building soil organic matter, sequestering carbon, conserving water, and promoting biodiversity.

According to Chapman, “Organic farming is based on enhancing and cultivating the wonderful balance of the biological systems in the soil. It isn’t just about replacing chemical fertilizers with ‘natural’ fertilizers. What I care about is learning to work with these infinitely complex biological systems. I think there is such beauty and grace to organic farming. After nearly 40 years as an organic farmer, I still know very little. I have been to many organic farms and many hydroponic farms. I greatly prefer organic farms. That is what I want to support. This is where I want to work. This is who I want to live next to. This is who I want to buy food from.”

What Can We Do?

As consumers, we can establish a demand for soil-grown produce and pasture-based dairy by purchasing products grown by Real Organic farmers. Look for the Real Organic Certification seal, the Real Organic designation listed with the farms in this directory, and purchase organic tomatoes and berries from local farmers in their appropriate seasons. It’s also worth noting that, while the USDA National Organic Program has allowed hydroponic operations to be certified organic, VOF does not certify hydroponically grown produce, so you can feel confident that items bearing the VOF logo come from farms that are committed to soil-based organic farming. 

To learn more and get involved, visit realorganicproject.org and consider becoming a Real Organic Friend a community of eaters, business owners, and other allies who want to support and promote Real Organic Project’s mission by making a sustaining donation and helping to spread the word about Real Organic Project.

As community members who care deeply about the viability of our local food system, we must support small farmers who prioritize healthy working conditions and humane livestock handling, who provide meaningful jobs, and who build healthy rural communities. We must strive to be a part of a food system that provides markets for small family farmers who are working hard to do the right thing every day, feeding our communities and providing critical ecosystem services that make us more resilient in the face of a changing climate. Thankfully, our community has a long list of local farmers and producers that fit the bill. 

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