We Need a Strong, United Organic Community Now More Than Ever

Colorado’s 416 Fire

Colorado’s 416 Fire was called that because it was the 416th emergency incident in 2018 called to the attention of the San Juan National Forest’s Durango Interagency Dispatch Center.

Last winter was one of the driest years in history for the U.S. Southwest. In June the ‘416 Fire’ started in the hills less than a mile from our farm. For six weeks we lived and worked in smoke as more than 55,000 acres burned, one of the largest fires in Colorado history. It cost taxpayers more than $27 million to contain and much more to our local economy.

While inspecting farms across the country for The Real Organic Project, I observed similar climactic extremes. In Pennsylvania, fields were under water. To the north in New York, Maine, and Vermont, it hadn’t rained for months. In September, Hurricane Florence dropped over 35 inches of rain in the Carolinas causing billions in damage. In October, hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle resulting in “one of the four most powerful hurricanes ever to strike the United States.”

The prevalence of extreme precipitation events has risen substantially in the last 40 years. California is in the midst of a decade-long drought. These climatic extremes are thought to be a result of warmer poles, reducing the strength of the jet streams.

The scientific evidence for agriculture’s effect on climate change is unequivocal. How we farm matters. While inspecting farms in California, where much of our food originates, I drove past miles and miles of bare soil. Upon arriving at farms participating in the Real Organic Project, I found a haven of covered soil from cover crops, pasture, hedge rows, and biodiverse perennial plantings.

Everyone in the organic community knows that vegetated ground prevents erosion, sequesters carbon and nutrients, feeds soil life, and traps moisture. But it is lesser known that vegetated ground can actually make it rain again in dry regions. California needs this now more than ever. How marvelous for us all that some organic farmers are keeping the soil covered year round and are financially successful doing so.

But there are not enough of them and the National Organic Program (NOP) is actually encouraging the loss of these climate friendly farms by changing the definition of organic.

More than a decade ago, the National Organic Program allowed the invasion of conventional poultry practices under the USDA Organic seal. Instead of requiring poultry to move around on pasture, the NOP changed the definition of “outdoor access” to include a small wooden porch. Massive 50,000 bird buildings stacked side by side suddenly became organic.

It should be no surprise that while visiting diversified organic farms this summer, poultry was the most likely portion of a farm to be uncertified.

Poultry products are also the most likely to carry other labels such as “pastured” “free-range” and “Certified Humane.” No wonder the consumer is confused – organic failed to be the gold standard so other labels filled the niche.

The same thing is currently evolving in organic dairy today. Smaller organic dairies meeting and exceeding the required pasture rules are being squeezed out by larger organic dairies that have more cattle than their land base can support. These larger cow dairies are feeding purchased total mixed rations, then sending their cows out to already grazed pasture close to the barn with bellies full.

How are the dairies that are truly meeting the grazing requirements going to compete? The hard truth is that many of them are not and they’re disappearing quickly. Will the same thing happen to vegetable farmers that are caring for their soil? We’re likely already losing them due to the cheaper input-substitution practices of hydroponic production of berries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and herbs. It is no coincidence that these hydroponic crops are also the most profitable vegetables for diversified ecological organic producers — who use them to subsidize the production of less profitable crops.

If the National Organic Program is not going to implement and enforce rules for protecting our soil — and ultimately our climate — the organic community must come together and do so ourselves, before all the real organic farms are gone.

But what is the best way to ensure that farmers are meeting the standards? Despite all the paper trails and certifying agency audits, our National Organic Program is failing us when it comes to enforcement. I took the time to discuss the issue of integrity with our pilot farmers this summer, many of whom have invested their life’s work in helping to build the USDA organic label.

Surprisingly, some felt we should abandon the NOP all together – let the younger generations build something they believe in. Others felt that by walking away we would be handing the word “organic” over to Driscoll’s, Wholesome Harvest, Aurora, the Country Hen, and the like.

Most farmers felt that more “boots on the ground” was essential. The certifiers I have talked to find it frustrating that they report the same noncompliances on the same farms, year after year, and yet these operations remain certified. What good is “boots on the ground” if there is little follow-up beyond a letter?

A few farmers told me that they wanted more surprise visits. For example, The Real Organic Project should decertify an operation if an inspector shows up during the grazing season on a comfortable 80 degree day and the cows are not grazing. One strike and you’re out. There’s simply no reason for the cows to be off pasture.

Others felt that inspections should be more locally driven – a network of local stakeholders that build integrity off of a foundation of transparency, shared vision, and information exchange. IFOAM has paved the way for how these participatory guarantee systems might work.

Having visited every pilot farm myself in the Real Organic Project’s first year, I feel comfortable that we have integrity in our program – for now. In fact, a few farms failed to pass the inspection and will not be part of the program this year. But how do we keep this level of integrity as we grow?

Answering these questions will take all of us coming together in support of the idea that, of course, we must do something before we’ve lost the organic label for good. If only we had started the Real Organic Project a decade ago. How many operations could we have saved?

We need a united front to win back the organic label, to entice young and beginning farmers to join us, and to give farmers and eaters a reason to believe in organic again.

Given the significant global implications of how we farm, we must push forward together. Our project’s name, controversial as it is to some, is a testament to the fact that we believe the organic label is worth saving.

Linley Dixon is the Associate Director of the Real Organic Project. She has a Ph D in Plant Pathology and a MS in Soil Science. Her post-doctoral research was with the USDA Agricultural Research Station at the Fungal Systematics Lab. She direct markets vegetables from her farm in Durango, Colorado with her husband and brother.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.