The National Organic Program and Its Discontents

sonny perdue

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue

based on work by Jessica Ellsworth, Cornucopia Institute, Civil Eats, the National Geographic Society, Organic Consumers Association, Fooddive.com, and Allgov.com

From its beginnings on individual unregulated farms to its growth through local and regional networks and to the establishment of a national standard, organic food has traveled an amazing path over the last fifty years. The growth has been continuous, driven both by increasing ecological concerns and heightened consumer demand.

Domestic sales of organic foods have increased every year since 1990, with the accessibility of organic products rapidly expanding in all sectors of the market. The U. S. organic food market was worth $1 billion in 1990, $43.7 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $70.4 billion by 2025. As this growth occurred, large conventional food companies like General Mills, Heinz, Smucker, Coca Cola, ConAgra, Kellogg, White Wave and Hain have bought up most of the original smaller stand-alone organic companies.

The Early Organic Marketplace

In 1973, Oregon passed the first state law regulating organic food. In doing so, it provided the impetus for other states to subsequently en-act legislation relating to organic food products. From then through the 1980s the organic industry waged an internal struggle to define organically grown food, to standardize permissible production methods, and to establish record-keeping requirements, labeling procedures and enforcement methods. Substantial differences arose across the country in state organic farming regulation, however, as to the permissible materials for use in production, the length of time required for a transition to organic acreage, and the allowable production practices. As an example, Colorado required organic products to be certified and organic producers to obtain a license under one set of state guidelines; Maryland required organic producers, processors, distributors, and retailers to obtain a permit under another set of guidelines, and Iowa merely required organic producers to provide vendors with a sworn statement of compliance.

By 1990, there were 22 states with organic food regulations falling into three broad categories: three states chose to operate their own organic certification programs, four states opted to contract with an independent certification organization, and fifteen states defined organic food and production techniques but did not provide any government oversight of certification. Because certification was not mandatory, organic producers, handlers, processors, and distributors in these 15 states had to affiliate themselves with an independent certification association in order to be able to claim or advertise any organic certification status.

Organic farmers and food processors faced both the burden of labeling food to meet conflicting standards and the possibility that food deemed organic in their home state would not qualify as organic across the state border. Food retailers and distributors were concerned about the authenticity of organic items under the varied state laws; consequently, they were reluctant to purchase organic foods, and fewer organics made it to the grocers’ shelves. Even when organic foods did make it to the supermarket, consumers were left to decipher a confusing array of private and State labels. Food that was labeled “organic” could have contained anywhere from twenty to 100% organically-grown ingredients, making it difficult for even the most sophisticated consumer to know what the term “organic” really meant. False and deliberately misleading labels exacerbated consumer uncertainty and created a sea of counterfeit and pseudo-organic products. As a result, some consumers and food merchandisers doubted the veracity of legitimate organic producers’ claims and hesitated to buy their products.

In 1989, the infamous Alar pesticide scare appeared in the national press. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the chemical in the wake of public outrage over the exposure of children to pesticides, organic producers experienced a welcome and renewed consumer preference for “grown without” foods. Consumers wanted organic foods, and few analysts doubted that the market would continue to grow.

As the organic food industry continued to struggle in its effort to self-regulate and develop a consensus across the states for production and certification standards, industry leaders in the late 1980s petitioned the United States Congress asking Congress to draft legislation that would conclusively define organic. When Congress looked into the issue it found that the current system of organic food regulation engendered confusion among consumers, and played havoc with interstate commerce in organics.

Congress’ concern with false and misleading labeling in the organic food market was further magnified by concern that the higher prices charged for organic food products provided an incentive for companies to make questionable organic claims in order to increase profits. Federal regulation of organic labeling could serve two important functions that state government regulation alone could not. First, national standards could ease consumer confusion and ensure consumers received consistent and uniform information about foods, and second, it could promote fair trade practices in organic food marketing that would serve to protect interstate commerce.

The Organic Food Protection Act of 1990

In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Food Protection Act (OFPA). OFPA itself, however, did not define the term “organic.” Instead, the actual meaning of “organic” under the OFPA was left open for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish in a future regulation. In order to accomplish its goals, however, the OFPA provided three specific guidelines for the USDA to follow in writing the regulation.

First, to be organic, foods must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals. Second, the foods must not be produced on land that had had any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, applied during the immediately preceding three years. Third, the foods must be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and a certifying agent.

In order to assist the USDA in developing the regulation, OFPA provided that a 15-person National Organic Standard Board (NOSB) would be assembled to serve as an advisory board comprised of organic farmers, organic handlers, retailers of organic products, environmentalists, consumer advocates, scientists and certifying agents. The board’s major function would be to provide recommendations to USDA on what substances, such as pesticides and fertilizers, should be permitted for use in organic operations. In making determinations of what the acceptable substance list should include, the act requires the NOSB to consider possible adverse human and environmental effects.

Like all of the prior state regulations, the OFPA standards themselves are formulated in terms of processing and production methods used, rather than end product quality. The OFPA requires all products labeled organic to be produced on certified organic farms and handled solely by certified organic operations, with the determination of certifier accreditation to be made by the USDA. The OFPA left room for the certifier to be either a private certifying agent or a state certification program. In addition, the OFPA exempted small farmers with less than $5000 in annual gross organic sales from having to comply with the national regulations.

The goal of Congress in enacting the OFPA was not total federal preemption of state regulations. Congress wanted the OFPA to provide a uniform federal certification law which would partially pre-empt current state law but leave enough flexibility to allow individual states to continue achieving their own interests. In reality, OFPA reflects Congressional ambivalence about the extent of desirable federal regulation. On one side, Congress realized most organic production expertise is at the grass-roots level and that states need to address specific local and regional needs, thus counseling against federal intrusion, but on the other side, continuing to allow differing state standards would disrupt the interstate commerce and uniformity goals the act was designed to serve. The result is that OFPA prohibits the use of “organic” on any label not meeting the federal standard, but it allows states to have their own label approved by USDA, which can then accompany the federal label. The state standard must be as strict or stricter than the federal standard.

OFPA does not exempt organic food from other existing federal food safety statutes, but it does grant the USDA, instead of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), primary federal authority for regulation and enforcement of organic food certification and labeling. Even though Congress granted the USDA complete authority over organic food labeling, the FDA retains jurisdiction over all other labeling aspects of these foods because many organic foods fall within the definition of food in the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). In addition, OFPA does not supersede the USDA’s authority over meat and poultry or the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) authority over insecticides and pesticides. Although the OFPA established national standards for the marketing of organic foods, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would continue to exercise authority over food advertising. As a result, the OFPA is but another layer of law with which the organic producer, processor, and handler must comply.

Because of the crucial leadership of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in passage of the OFPA, the northeast had enjoyed an important role in shaping this act. The $5000 exemption and some of the novel aspects of the NOSB as a non-governmental advisory board with official legal power (over the National List) were efforts by our growers to keep the program from becoming simply another federal agency.

The First USDA Organic Rule, December 1997

Under OFPA, the NOSB spent considerable time and resources developing its recommendations, as per Congress’ specific charge that the NOSB play an advisory role to USDA. Cooperation between NOSB and USDA staff was reportedly high, with some recommendations even being co-authored by USDA employees and NOSB members. Once the NOSB finished its recommendations, USDA proposed a rule in the Federal Register for comment from the industry.

But there was an intense and staggering public opposition to this first attempt at a proposed regulation in December, 1997. The standard for “organic” under this proposal endorsed such controversial production techniques as irradiation, genetic modification, and fertilization with sewer sludge. Organic farmers and consumer advocacy groups howled at the USDA’s proposal, finding the proposed rules wholly inconsistent with current organic practices. The industry complained about every facet of the rule, from the fact that it permitted synthetic pesticides and irradiation to be used to kill bacteria on food to the fact that beef fed up to twenty percent non-organic food could carry the certified organic label. In large part complaints centered on the fact that the Secretary of Agriculture had ignored many of the NOSB proposals. Overall, USDA received 275,603 comments during the public comment period – more than one comment for every minute of the period! In the face of such public outrage, the USDA had no choice but to withdraw the proposal.

The Final Rule, December 2000

After considerable redrafting, USDA issued a revised proposal in March 2000. This proposal still inspired controversy, but after reviewing public comments USDA made substantial changes and issued its Final Rule on December 21, 2000, to go into effect 18 months later.

When USDA announced the final rule, the organic industry generally celebrated. The Organic Trade Association (OTA), a national organization representing organic growers, processors, certifiers, distributors, retailers and others in the organic products industry in North America, championed USDA’s efforts as strengthening consumer confidence in U.S. organic products and achieving consistent standard and labeling requirements. The chief executive of a leading organic food company reported that the final federal rule: “…is acceptable to our industry and is consistent with what we have been doing.” Farmers and consumers were also largely pleased with the final rule. The California Certified Organic Farmers reported: “[t]he new federal standards are a good working definition of organic production and are true to the organic philosophy and approach that has gained the confidence of many consumers.”

The small northeastern organic farming groups like MOFGA and the NOFAs, which had been reluctant participants in the drive for federal regulation, swallowed hard and hoped that becoming an industry would not destroy the best aspects of what had been the organic movement.

Tensions About Standards

From the beginning the new National Organic Program (NOP) rules created conflicts for Northeastern organic farmers.

While the states of New Hampshire and Rhode Island had set up public certification programs, (which still continue) where these did not exist many NOFA chapters and MOFGA had set up their own organizational certification agencies. Board members of these programs were often leading farmers active in the chapters. But the NOP prohibited such self-certification as conflicts of interest and would not accredit such programs. In order to get these programs accredited by the NOP, chapters had either to spin off their certification bodies as independent agencies or establish them as LLCs with internal chapter walls preventing NOP-prohibited conflicts.

More stressful than such organizational adaptations were early demonstrations of “muscle-flexing” by corporations involved in producing organic food. The clearest example was that of The Country Hen, an egg producer in Hubbardston, Massachusetts. In 2002 the firm applied for organic certification from the NOFA/Mass certification program (which had just been ‘spun-off’ by the chapter and was now independent) but were denied because they kept their hens inside large warehouse-like buildings and couldn’t meet the rule requiring “outdoor access” for organically raised animals.

Rather than discuss ways to meet the program rules, when denied certification Country Hen CEO George Bass immediately hopped onto a plane and flew to Washington, DC. He met with NOP administrator Richard Matthews and received verbal approval for a plan to create “porches” on his buildings as a way to qualify for outdoor access. The NOFA/Mass program was not willing to accept porches as valid outdoor access and still refused to certify The Country Hen. Mathews then directed the program to certify the company. They refused and filed suit to determine whether or not accredited certifiers had the authority to decide when a farm meets the organic standards. After a legal fight of several years the certification program exhausted their appeals and lost. The decision effectively told certifiers they are arms of the USDA. If the NOP works out exemptions for corporate farms, the certifiers must allow those exemptions and have no independence to use their own judgment.
This pattern was to repeat itself many times. The reality that certifiers had little room to exercise any integrity — and also that businesses seeking certification could choose whichever certifier they wanted — soon led to a group of ‘lenient’ certifiers being selected to get the preferred, high fee work and more rigorous certifiers ending up with the smaller farms that could not afford to pay much but strictly adhered to the rules.

Violations Spur Emergence of Watchdogs

As rule violations, as seen from the point of view of organic advocates, increased, organizations dedicated to the strict standards of the organic movement began to find support among the public. Several non-profits have developed a dedicated following for their perseverance in investigative, journalistic, and legal efforts to prevent corruption of the organic program.

Cornucopia Institute, a Midwestern organic advocacy organization, has been particularly active in calling attention to the failures of the NOP to address questionable activities. These include:
• A serious lack of enforcement activities on major fraud and alleged violations of organic regulations occurring with “factory farm” livestock activities — all cloaked in secrecy
• Turning a blind eye towards the questionable authenticity of the flood of organic imports coming into this country from China, India, a number of former Soviet Bloc states and Central America that have effectively shut American organic grain farmers out of the U.S. market.
• Allowing, in violation of the law, giant industrial-scale soilless production of organic produce (hydroponic and other management systems), along with ignoring NOSB prohibitions on nanotechnology, using conventional livestock on organic dairies and other issues.
• Usurpation of NOSB governance and authority by USDA/NOP staff and other violations of the Organic Foods Production Act (Cornucopia has a federal lawsuit being adjudicated that charges the USDA with appointing agribusiness executives to the NOSB in seats Congress had specifically earmarked for stakeholders who “own or operate an organic farm”).
• Unilateral changes to the Sunset review process for synthetic and non-organic materials, making it difficult for unnecessary or harmful substances to be removed from organics when agribusinesses lobby for them (the USDA is currently involved in litigation with Cornucopia and other stakeholders on this Sunset issue).

“We want organics to live up to the true meaning envisioned by the founders of this movement,” co-founder Mark Kastel says. “For both organic farmers and organic consumers, that means sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, wholesome and nutritious food derived from excellent soil fertility, and economic justice for those who produce our food. The USDA needs to act to preserve consumer trust in the organic label.”

Contaminated Compost

One example of the kind of collusion between NOP officials and corporate entities non-profits were concerned about was the rule change (NOP 5016) allowing composts to contain the synthetic insecticide bifenthrin. NOP regulations banned synthetic substances in compost unless the substances were on an approved list. Bifenthrin was not on the list. So the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which administered the organic program in California, barred organic farmers from using composts with bifenthrin in them.

But according to federal judge Jacqueline Scott Corley, who examined a complaint about bifenthrin, Nortech Waste, which produces one of the banned composts containing the insecticide, complained to an official at the NOP that “saying the contaminated compost cannot be used in organic agriculture is not the answer.” The USDA responded a few months later with the ruling, which allowed the toxin in compost to be used in organic farming.

In 2016 the Center for Food Safety sued the NOP, and after hearing the case Judge Corley rejected the government’s position that they were merely “clarifying” the standards. Saying she was unconvinced it hadn’t improperly changed them, she vacated NOP 5016 and ordered the USDA to issue a revised guidance that complied with the law.

CAFOs

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are industrial agriculture’s way to produce cheap meat and other animal products. Confined in tight spaces, the animal’s costs per head for land and structures are minimized. Mechanized systems perform much of the work involved in feeding and removing wastes, reducing the labor bill as well. But organic animal raising does not tolerate CAFOs. Animals must have access to the out-of-doors and ruminants must graze when seasonally possible. How are these concerns dealt with in organic animal operations?

Cornucopia Institute has been one of the primary watchdogs of the organic industry. Of particular interest to them, since they are in Wisconsin and surrounded by small dairy operations, are the giant dairy CAFOs which masquerade as organic. In 2008 Cornucopia filed a formal complaint against Sham-rock Dairy, in Arizona. The Institute alleged that shamrock was involved in organic law violations by milking conventional and organic cows in the desert with a modicum of required pasture land.

In an effort to get answers to its questions about USDA enforcement efforts in the Shamrock case, Cornucopia filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Even though the government is legally bound to reply within 20 days, Cornucopia sometimes had to wait over a year, and even file new legal action, to get a reply. Even then, the documents were heavily redacted (blacked out).

“In a democracy, private citizens and public interest groups should not have to invest their money hiring lawyers to enforce their rights to documents that, by law, they are entitled to,” stated Cornucopia cofounder Will Fantle.

While the USDA ultimately confirmed that Shamrock Dairy was milking thousands of cows in violation of the organic standards and proposed sanctions against the operation and its certifier, Quality Assurance International (QAI), both organizations remain in the organic business today.

In 2008 the Organic Consumers Association, another organic watchdog organization, called for a boycott of Aurora and Horizon dairy products.

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Aurora Organic Dairy boasts a $50 million state-of-the-art milk plant about 30 miles northeast of its headquarters, on its Platteville farm. Milk from over 20,000 cows on four other farms – two near Kersey, Colo., and two in Texas – arrives daily in 5,000-gallon insulated tanks. After pasteurizing and homogenizing, two computerized machines squirt the milk at a rate of 300 half-gallons per minute into private-label cartons that eventually make their way to Costco, Target, Safeway, Wal-Mart and roughly a dozen other retailers in all 50 states.

In April of 2007 the USDA issued Aurora Organic a “notice of proposed revocation” of its organic certification for “willful” violations of federal organic standards. The USDA listed 14 violations, among them that Aurora Organic had entered conventional cows into milk production before the required one-year period of continuous organic management, and had failed to establish and maintain cows’ access to pasture at its Platteville facility.

Aurora Organic settled with the USDA in August 2007, agreeing among other things to reduce the size of its herd at the Platteville farm from 4,200 to 1,000 cows and increase its grazing pastures by 75 acres. Even though the USDA concluded that Aurora “willfully” sold milk labeled as organic, the dairy got away with a one-year probation after getting Jay Friedman, the powerful Washington lawyer, to advocate for them.

Hydroponics

For many organic farmers, one of the most deeply disturbing directions in which the NOP has recently been moving is its acceptance of hydroponics as an approved method. In a controversial decision in November, 2017 the NOSB, after years of debate, finally voted 8-7 against banning hydroponic methods from organic production. Nonetheless, many organic advocates believe that hydroponic production is contrary to the OFPA.

They cite a requirement in the law that farms must be operated under an organic plan “designed to foster soil fertility” through crop rotation, cover crops and the spreading of manure and compost. Other provisions of the law also emphasize soil fertility, health and preservation.

In the Cornucopia Institute’s view this language clearly bars organic certification of hydroponic production which is soilless and in which crops are grown in an inert medium such as coconut husks or perlite and irrigated with nutrient-infused water. “The law requires building soil fertility, but how can that be accomplished without soil?” says Kastel.

Apart from their philosophical objections, of course, critics also see hydroponics as posing an economic threat to traditional organic farmers. There are currently about 100 certified organic hydroponic operations in the U.S. These highly mechanized hydroponic greenhouses are tremendously productive, however, reducing the per-unit cost of production. “They are cornering the market for popular produce crops, such as peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers,” Kastel worries.

But hydroponic operations tend to require a lot of capitalization, so if such production methods are to be scaled up, they’re more than likely to be sustainable only by well-funded corporate interests. Leaving aside the look of food grown with miles of plastic piping inside what amounts to a translucent airplane hanger, the last thing that organic agriculture needs is to continue on the path of corporate domination of the market, which is already well underway.

Animal Welfare

When you go to grocery stores and shell out a little extra cash for food with the Department of Agriculture’s green-and-white ‘organic’ logo on it, you’re paying a premium in exchange for a promise. The label guarantees, for the most part, that what you’re buying was grown or raised without synthetic pesticides or was fed organically-grown grain. But, despite what many people think, the organic label doesn’t promise that livestock was treated humanely. In fact, the current organic standards say very little about how to raise animals, and what they do say is so vague, critics contend, that they’re exploited by producers who want to cash in on the organic label.

The USDA proposed new standards late in the Obama administration that detailed how livestock producers would have to raise animals, especially poultry, a move meant to bring the organic label in line with what most consumers think they’re getting. The standards would have meant that organic animals have enough space to lie down, stretch and turn around. They would also have banned debeaking of poultry or docking the tails of cattle or sheep. Producers would have to take steps to minimize pain for surgical alterations and for safely transporting animals to slaughter. And, perhaps most importantly for the average consumer, the standards would explicitly say that “outdoor access” for poultry actually means that birds should be able to go outside. Including those at The Country Hen! Of the roughly 12 million organic laying hens in the country, only about six million were actually going outside.

“For a long time we recognized that the definitions and requirements for animal welfare within the regulations have not been clear,” says Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association, which represents the ballooning number of organic producers. “There’s definitely a need for clarity because we want ‘organic’ to remain the gold standard, and that includes animal welfare.”

The proposed changes, though, didn’t come without years of debate among government regulators and players in the booming global organic market.

Organic Industry Standard“After the big guys got into organic production using porches, more and more of the organic egg market was coming from birds that never went outside,” says Dena Jones, who directs the farm animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute. “If you ask any organic consumer, nobody would think of a porch as being outdoor access. It just wasn’t what the consumer expects.”

The new rules said that “outdoor access” meant there’s no solid roof overhead and that half of the ground surface should be dirt that chickens can scratch and “bathe” in. Those requirements were more in line with the organic standards of the US’s biggest agricultural trading partners, including Canada and the European Union.

But giving the birds access to the outdoors means producers have to find more space and spend more money, so some had pushed against any clarification or change in the current law. Conventional and organic egg producers who didn’t provide outdoor access said that allowing birds outside invites disease and higher death rates. They also said it would cost millions to retrofit barns to accommodate the new standards, which would drive up egg prices.

With the change of administrations in 2017, the proposed animal welfare standards were first postponed, then permanently shelved. Most observers interpreted it as a victory for the “big guys” who didn’t want to shell out what it would cost to make the changes. Even the OTA, which normally represents the larger corporate organic companies, opposed shelving the animal welfare rule, knowing it would leave a bad taste with consumers. They have filed suit over the NOP’s failure to implement the new rules, and been joined in it as co-plaintiffs by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

Challenges to the NOSB in the 2018 Farm Bill

There have been a rough few recent years for the organic label. From scandals over fraudulent organic grain imports and the revelation of several factory-scale farms producing certified organic milk and eggs, to controversy around the inclusion of hydroponic or “soilless” farming and the reversal of comprehensive animal welfare rules, one thing is clear: The organic industry’s rapid growth may also turn out to be its downfall.

Organic is the fastest-growing retail food segment, valued at $50 billion per year, and an increasing number of multinational corporations want a piece of the pie, leaving the integrity of the USDA’s certified organic seal in question. Now, however, in the new Farm Bill, organic certification faces an attack from Congress, which has proposed reshaping the NOSB. By allowing more corporate entities to question the organic label and suggest which farm chemicals and other inputs farmers are allowed to use on their organic fields, industry insiders worry the proposed changes could further erode the strict standards of organic production that distinguished it from conventional agriculture and built a thriving market.

Congress is proposing two big changes to the NOSB: Allowing employees of organic farmers or producers to be permitted to occupy board positions, and allowing politicians to sidestep the NOSB’s authority to approve substances such as the fertilizers and pesticides used in organic production—changes that raise alarms for some in the organic industry.

Certainly, the legal clarification for NOSB roles may seem like the least momentous issue in the 2018 Farm Bill, which also proposes major overhauls to SNAP food assistance programs and farmland conservation funds. But for organic insiders, it represents a significant erosion of the board’s authority on matters of organic law.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, sat on the NOSB as the environmental representative from 2010 to 2015. He’s concerned about the change. “There are so many large companies getting involved with organic that do not have the history with organic, and that makes them less than optimal members of the NOSB,” he said. “They don’t have the insight into organic practices.”

While Congress has never tinkered with the structure of the NOSB before, the greatest concern stems from the proposed “expedited process” for approving substances for the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Until now, the OFPA has granted NOSB the exclusive authority to approve agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides for certified organic crop and livestock production. It also expressly prohibits the Secretary of Agriculture from adding any synthetic materials (generally prohibited) such as pesticides and herbicides, and non-synthetic or natural materials (generally allowed), such as essential oils and copper sulfate, to the National List without the specific recommendation of the NOSB.

But the House’s proposed farm bill would change the status quo. Under it, the NOSB would be required to consult with the FDA and EPA when considering non-organic substances approved by those agencies. Also, the Secretary of Agriculture could force the NOSB to “expedite” review of a petition from industry for non-organic substances “related to food safety”.

These provisions trouble organic advocates because the NOSB currently uses a much higher set of standards than those agencies or the Secretary do.

“Many of the critics of organics are really steeped in the pesticide side of the input regulation and not familiar with the degree to which organic farmers are monitored by the compliance process,” said Feldman. He cited the use of copper sulfate as a fungicide that includes strict compliance standards and oversight.

The goal of organic agriculture is to incentivize alternative products and practices in the market. What happens to the process, critics like Feldman won-der, when an NOSB member from a multinational corporation questions why the company cannot use a substance that’s been approved by the EPA or FDA? The ultimate danger is that the Secretary or a petitioner backed up by the EPA or FDA could override the NOSB. If passed, these statutory changes could ultimately eliminate the difference between conventional and organic foods.

“My biggest fear, bottom line, is that if we allow the chipping away of this statute we will destroy the integrity of this label and the public will no longer pay the premium in the marketplace,” said Feldman.

Alternative Labels

The consumer and small farmer erosion of confidence in the integrity of the USDA organic label has escalated in the last few years. Commercial pressures and federal officials have chipped away at the independence of the NOSB and the rigor of the standards, as documented above. Now at least two significant efforts have emerged to create alternative labels that include but go beyond the NOP.

ROC Label

Most recently, the Regenerative Organic Alliance has come together to launch Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) in the spring of 2018. Led by the Rodale Institute, the ROC emerged in reaction to concern that the USDA definition of organic is broad and subject to debate and lobbying pressure. The entire National Organic Program is part of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and the explicit objective of the service is to create domestic and international marketing opportunities for farmers. As a result there is a legitimate argument that health and environmental concerns are beyond the scope of its jurisdiction.

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) aims to encompass the organic label but include several others. The baseline for entry into the ROC process is a USDA Organic or equivalent certification. Additionally, producers must meet animal welfare and social fairness requirements for one of several certifications, such as Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, Fairtrade and Fair for Life. The ROC also focuses on soil health as a means of regenerating the soil, improving ecosystem function, and mitigating climate change. The program will be facilitated by NSF International. The alliance set out a four-year timeline for transitioning to its organic certification. It also established three levels of certification at the producer level depending on the operation.

The cost structure of the ROC is as yet undetermined. It is unclear how much certification will cost, the cost of maintaining certification and who will pay for it. This could be a substantial hurdle for the movement. If producers are expected to pay the certification and maintenance costs, it will need to translate to higher value market access.

The other new label has grown out of opposition to the NOP’s certification of hydroponic and CAFO operations.

ROP Label

“I think that a lot of farmers, especially young farmers, feel that the organic label no longer describes the way they farm, and we’re trying to recapture that. We are taking matters into our own hands because we know it is what the consumer wants and expects when they choose organic.” said Linley Dixon, a vegetable farmer in Durango, Colo. She is a senior scientist for Cornucopia Institute, and is also on the standards board of the Real Organic Project, a new certification program that is creating an “add-on” label to the USDA organic certification.

The group said its proposed add-on label, which requires adherence to standards above and beyond USDA organic certification, would only be available to agricultural products that have already been certified organic by the USDA. The program aims to implement new standards that will provide consumer transparency by “distinguishing organic farms that grow their crops in the ground, foster soil fertility and adequately pasture livestock according to foundational organic standards and principles.”

The Real Organic Project add-on label to USDA organic certification, expected by spring 2019, will increase transparency under the organic seal by allowing consumers to trace retail products back to the farm, according to the release. The inspection process includes a video interview of the farmers on their land explaining their organic production practices, the group said.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




A Time To Stand Our Ground

photo courtesy Dave Chapman Protesting Farmers March for Keeping Soil in Organics

photo courtesy Dave Chapman
Protesting Farmers March for Keeping Soil in Organics

The USDA organic label is being transformed. It is coming to represent an agriculture separated from the soil (if such a thing can be called agriculture). Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and berries grown without the plants ever touching the soil are being certified “organic” and are now dominating the market. Chickens and cows who have spent their lives on concrete now produce certified “organic” milk and eggs.

I do not exaggerate. Under the National Organic Program, these practices are being regularly certified as organic on a massive scale. These are not small fringe players that don’t affect the fabric of the garment. According to research compiled by the Nielsen Co, “organic” hydroponic tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers represent over 30% of US sales in each category. I would suggest that in fresh tomatoes the number is actually much higher.

In berries the percentage is uncertain, but based on information presented to the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, we know for sure there are over 1000 acres of “organic” hydroponic berry production.

Driscoll’s President, Soren Bjorn, told Fresh Fruit Portal in November of 2017. “It’s happening. In Europe it (containerized substrate production) is a big part of production, and in Australia we are 100% already; in Tasmania on strawberries it’s 100% tabletop strawberry production…And Driscoll’s claims to sell half of the “organic” berries in America.

In several interviews, Lee Frankel, chief spokesperson for the hydro-organic lobby (the Coalition For Sustainable Organics) has proudly claimed $1 billion in annual sales of hydroponic organic, and growing rapidly.

In dairy, we see enormous certified “organic” CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) operating in Texas, California, Idaho, Colorado and other arid Western states, while family dairy farms in California, the Midwest and the Northeast are going out of business. The price of dairy is crashing as the CAFOs flood the market with their cheap milk.

It is difficult to know exactly how much CAFO milk is now on the market. Most experts I have asked have deferred to Cornucopia’s Mark Kastel. He estimates that over half of the milk on the organic market is coming from CAFOs.

If CAFOs account for half of organic sales in dairy, that represents $3 billion in annual fauxganic sales. USA Today famously quoted the USDA) that 6 Texas “organic” CAFOs produce 1.3 times the volume of milk as compared to the 450 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin. With the rejection of the animal welfare reform known as the OLPP by the USDA this year, the attempt to rein in the poultry CAFOs being certified as organic was defeated. The OLPP reforms were supported by the entire organic community.Even Laura Batcha, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, spoke out after the USDA rejected the reforms. “In USDA’s attempt to kill this fully vetted final regulation, they’ve taken a radical departure from conclusions reached over more than 20 years of rule makings regarding organic livestock care, and have assumed an aberrant view that has no historical basis or legal justification…But despite the clear evidence of the public sentiment, USDA is acting against the will of the public, and the will of the organic sector.”

photo courtesy Dave Chapman Wholesum Harvest tomatoes, grown hydroponically, can be produced indoors with artificial lights 24/7 all year long.

photo courtesy Dave Chapman
Wholesum Harvest tomatoes, grown hydroponically, can be produced indoors with artificial lights 24/7 all year long.

In eggs and poultry, CAFOs now account for over 80% of certified “organic” sales, according to former NOP head Miles McEvoy. That would account for $2.3 billion in annual sales.

Annual fraudulent grain imports are estimated to be over $250 million by John Bobbe of Ofarm. Bobbe has been instrumental in alerting the USDA about ships bearing fraudulent shipments. Apparently they are unable to stop any shipments on their own.

I estimate $6 billion in annual “organic” sales that aren’t organic!

This flood of fake organic in the marketplace is having profound consequences on real organic farmers. Because these large fauxganic producers are playing by different rules, they are able to produce food much cheaper. That means that real organic farmers are being pushed out of the marketplace. Eaters’ choices in the stores are shrinking rather than expanding.

Real organic farmers are an endangered species. There is still some real organic food in the stores, but which food is it?

In dairy, organic farmers are going out of business in droves. This year, according to Mark MacAfee, 10% of the California organic farms have gone out of business at the same time that Aurora, the largest “organic” CAFO operator in the world is expanding. The same thing is happening in berries. Reports from Florida describe new mega-operations that laser level the fields, spray with Roundup, cover the ground with weed fabric, load up 7-gallon to 25-gallon pots with coco coir or pine bark, and grow blueberries for 3 years. The berries are immediately certifiable because the coco coir in the pots was never itself treated with Roundup (but only the soil under the pots).This is being certified by USDA as organic. Extension is even offering free workshops in Florida explaining how to do it!

And of course, it is not only organic farmers who are suffering from all this fraud. Eaters, spending money for organic food, are being misled on a regular basis. They are paying more for produce they think was grown in nutrient-rich soil. They are paying more for milk and eggs they think came from animals living a good life outdoors. And what happens when they find out they have been cheated?

The organic community faces the same challenge that other groups face when they kept quiet about corruption. No group or cause wants to go public with its failures — for fear that they will turn people away and undermine support for all the good that they do. So they hide the news and allow bad actors to get away with their deeds. This ends up doing much worse damage than simple honesty in the first place.

Now the organic community faces the same dilemma with the fauxganic producers. If we speak the truth, we will undermine the public trust in the organic label. If we are silent, then we become complicit in the fraud that will eventually destroy the credibility of the organic label.

And when our customers find out, they are going to be pissed off.

Many of us have spent years trying to reform the National Organic Program. We failed, and the standards and enforcement have continually gotten worse. The USDA is currently led by Sonny Perdue, who has made clear in interviews that he neither understands nor supports organic farming. And yet HE is in charge of approving the standards and selecting the members of the NOSB to advise on those standards.

It seems crazy to trust the USDA to define organic.

That is why people are confused. They should be confused. We need to create our own labels to represent how we farm. The vast majority of certified farms are real organic, but not the majority of certified food products. A relative handful of agribusinesses and industrial producers have taken over the federal label, and they aren’t giving it back to us.

The Real Organic Project is one of a number of groups trying to reach consumers with a label they can trust. It is not true that eaters don’t care about these things. If it were true, then the hydroponic producers would proudly label their products as hydroponic instead of denying it and hiding it as they consistently do. The CAFO producers would proudly show on their milk and egg cartons pictures of animals in confinement instead of fake images of animals on pasture.

In a stream of interviews and statements, Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest insist to their customers that they are NOT producing anything hydroponically. They have been supported in this whopper by their lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association. Aurora Dairy, the largest organic CAFO in the world, insists at every opportunity that they are in full compliance with the NOP Pasture Rule, and that their animals live outside on grass. Unbelievably, they are supported in this story by the USDA.

We are dealing with fraud on a massive scale.

hydroponic blueberries

photo courtesy Dave Coleman
Driscoll’s hydroponic blueberries

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) community is the very heart of the organic movement. Many in the rest of the country look to us for guidance. What can they trust? How long can we support a broken USDA label whose main strategy for survival is the hope that nobody notices the truth? Instead of protecting the BRAND, let us protect real organic.

Some will say that we should abandon all labels. Know Your Farmer. And that is the best of all paths. But we must acknowledge that most people buy most of their food in a store. And even for those of us fortunate enough to have access to incredible local farms that provide most of our food, what about our friends and family who live in large cities? How will they find good food? Or the many people we don’t know who can’t find access to a farm or a farmer?

We believe that real organic farms provide superior nutrition and critically important climate benefits. We are all affected by poor agricultural practices, even if we never eat the inferior food produced. As urban food activist LaDonna Redmond has said, there is only ONE food system. And we are all a part of it.

At a meeting in Vermont following the Jacksonville disaster, thirty organic farmers came together to decide whether to accept the degeneration of the organic label, or to act. They were unanimous in their decision to act to create some other way of identifying real organic.

The Real Organic Project grew out of that meeting. We have created a pilot program for an add-on label to the USDA organic seal. This label requires growing in the soil and insists on legitimate access to the outdoors for all animals. There are over 50 farms participating from all over the country. Our standards embrace the basic foundational organic standards first created (and then slowly set aside) by the NOP. In 2019 we will take the program to the next phase, offering certification to many real organic farms now participating in the USDA program.

Our standards are set and reviewed by a fifteen member standards board. All board members are highly qualified. They understand organic. Included on boards are 5 current members of the NOSB and 9 former members. We represent the core of the organic movement. Some of our members helped create the National Organic Program, and some have been the protesters, but all have been deeply committed to organic. This is a stark contrast to the current NOSB, where many members seem to have little idea what organic means. Nor does the Secretary of Agriculture who appoints them.

This Fall we are meeting with European organic leaders to build a united defense against the corporate invasion of our movement. It is one food system, and one movement. As we face global corporations who are actively trying to dominate the world market, we must work together to protect ourselves and our planet.

At a phone meeting of over 30 organic advocates sponsored by the National Organic Coalition, former NOSB member Colehour Bondera applauded the effort of the Real Organic Project. Then he asked the group, “Does anyone on this call have a better idea of how to deal with these serious problems?”

There was total silence for a very long time.

So I ask the same question to the readers of the Natural Farmer. What better idea do you have? How can we better act to preserve the principles of real organic? How can we better act to build an alternative to the conventional model of quick profit at the expense of our future? It is easy to sit back. It is hard to take action. But if you have no better idea, please join us so we can reclaim the organic movement. Together.

For details, and to sign up to receive ongoing news, please go to realorganicproject.org.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




A Brief History of Organics in the US:

excerpted from a longer history, reprinted from Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Rutgers University, September 2006

Sir Albert Howard

Sir Albert Howard, one of founders of organic farming, and one of the drawings
from his book describing the Indore (a region of India) method of composting

Many people active in organic agriculture today are unaware of the important role played by Sir Albert Howard and others of his generation, including F.H. King, Walter Northbourne, Lady Balfour, J.I. Rodale, and Louis Bromfield, in the development and diffusion of organic farming concepts. The recent rapid growth of the organic movement has resulted in a loss of connection with the historical figures and roots of organic agriculture. Scientists conducting organic farming research, farmers considering organic transition and the general public may benefit from knowing more of this history.

Telling a history of organic farming – as with other great movements, such as alternative medicine – requires exploring the interplay between science, social values, economics, and the recalcitrance of established organizations to adopt new approaches. In tracing the historical trajectory from the genesis of Howard’s major organic concepts and practices (a living connection between soil fertility and plant and animal health, the Law of Return and composting) to the wide-spread adoption of these beliefs and practices, one encounters a series of battles between intellectual and economic stakeholders. Although support for the organic movement has grown with public awareness, opposition to it has never gone away. These issues are reflected in the history of Howard’s contributions to organic farming. The story of this development of organic concepts in the 1930s to their fate as expressed in the current USDA National Organic Program occurred in a series of stages – the development of organic concepts and methods, polarization around them, then their recognition, accommodation, and finally their further extension.

Organic Farming Concept Development

Although some concepts of organic farming predated his work, today Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) is regarded by most as the founder and pioneer of the organic movement. Born into an agricultural life, he never strayed far from it. Raised on a farm in England and educated at Cambridge, he served for a time (1899-1902) as mycologist in the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies, before returning to England to teach agricultural science from 1903 to 1905 at South-Eastern Agricultural College at Wye. He then moved to India where, for 26 years he directed several agricultural research centers before permanently returning to England in 1931. It was after his return that he became well known for his concepts and philosophy of organic farming. By drawing on his many years of agricultural research experience, he wrote several widely read books espousing his concepts and theories of composting, soil fertility, and health and disease.

In 1943, Howard published the book An Agricultural Testament, in which he described a concept that was to become central to organic farming – the importance of utilizing available waste materials to build and maintain soil fertility and humus content. According to what he called ‘The Law of Return’, he strongly advocated the recycling of all organic waste materials, including sewage sludge, back to farmland. Recalling his experiences in India, he described his original ‘Indore’ (after a region in India) method of composting. Here, he prescribed a certain pile size, heat, moisture, aeration, and mix of plant, animal, urine-soaked earth, and ash materials as a proper composting recipe. Especially important to a good mix of composting materials, Howard stressed, were residues from both plants and animals. He was not alone in his thinking and found support for his ideas on soil fertility and the need for effective recycling of waste materials to farm-land in F.H. King’s book, Farmers of Forty Centuries, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan, which appeared in 1911 but then lay in relative obscurity. Such a sustainable soil fertility management was vividly described by Victor Hugo: ‘Not a Chinese peasant goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young…’

In Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease (later published as Soil and Health), Howard introduced the idea that disease, whether in plants, animals, or humans, was caused by unhealthy soil and that organic farming techniques would make the soil, and those living on it, healthy. As evidence he cited his observation that animals fed with crops grown in humus-rich soil were able to rub noses with diseased animals without becoming infected. More generally, he argued that crop and animal health was a birthright and that the correct method for dealing with a pathogen was not to destroy the pathogen but rather to try to learn from it or to ‘make use of it for tuning up agricultural practice’.

Howard’s concept of soil fertility was centered on building soil humus with an emphasis on a ‘living bridge’ between soil life, such as mycorrhizae and bacteria, and how this chain of life from the soil supported the health of crops, livestock, and mankind. While Howard acknowledged that soluble salts from humus were important to plant nutrition, he also wrote that plants ‘do compensate themselves by absorbing organic nitrogen’. Here, Howard disagreed with both Albrect Daniel Thaer (1752-I 828) who advocated the Humus Theory of Plant Nutrition and with Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) who advocated that plants ‘find new nutritive material only in inorganic substances’.

Although Howard knew that certain nutrients could be severely limiting in some soils, he opposed using chemical fertilizers even though they could more easily correct specific nutrient limitations than could the use of compost. Thus, Howard’s extreme position against any use of chemical fertilizers created a challenging situation for organic farmers attempting to balance nutrient supply. Howard’s hard-line position against the use of chemical fertilizers, however, was not shared by some of his contemporary supporters who felt that the use of artificial fertilizers could sometimes be justified. Howard was, however, open to the use of some naturally occurring mineral sources such as pulverized rocks.

In Howard’s long and distinguished career as a scientist, he made discoveries and contributions relating to a wide range of areas beyond composting and soil fertility. These areas included plant breeding, irrigation, mycorrhizae, root systems, soil aeration, fruit tree cultivation, post-harvest produce transport, weed management, and diseases of plants and humans. For these sound contributions to agriculture, he was knighted in England. While having earned the respect of his scientific peers, in his later years Howard became extremely critical of the agricultural establishment. His ideas on humus, soil fertility, and disease became viewed as exaggerations of otherwise fundamentally sound ideas and he was becoming known as an extremist. In 1946, he acted out his new role of agricultural activist most explosively in The War in the Soil. He opened this book with the powerful assessment that: ‘The war in the soil is the result of a conflict between the birthright of humanity – fresh food from fertile soil – and the profits of a section of Big Business in the shape of the manufacturers of artificial fertilizers and their satellite companies who produce poison sprays to protect crops from pests and who prepare the various remedies for the diseases of livestock and mankind.’ Howard loudly criticized field plot and statistical methodology used in classical research at the Rothamsted agricultural experiment station that was established to compare the long-term effects of artificial fertilizers (inorganic chemical fertilizers) and manure. He thought that these studies were flawed because they did not exclude invasion from burrowing earthworms into the chemically fertilized plots, relied on continuous cultivation without crop rotation, and used new seeds from an outside source.

A true comparison of organic farming to non-organic farming, Howard argued, would not be an easy task. For example, he suggested that such a comparison should begin with ‘two large areas of similar worn-out land side by side’, a period of at least ten years, and that a minimum of five years was required for the con-version to an organic system. He further suggested that such a study should compare responses of soils, earthworms, crops, and livestock. Clearly, Howard favored the study of whole systems over reductionism. Such a study comparing organic and non-organic farms was attempted from 1939 to 1969 in England by Lady Eve Balfour. Her observations from this comparison of whole farms were described in her widely read book The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment first published in 1943 and republished in 1974.

Although Howard was a passionate advocate of organic farming, he did not coin the term ‘organic’ in reference to this system of agriculture. But in 1940, in An Agricultural Testament, Howard describes the main characteristics of what he called ‘Nature’s farming’. ‘Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves from disease’.

Walter Northbourne was apparently the first to apply the word ‘organic’ in application to farming. In 1940, Northbourne published an influential book, Look to the Land, in which he elaborated on the idea of the farm as an ‘organic whole’ – in the philosophical sense, ‘organic’ refers to ‘having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things’. This concept of organic is similar in many respects to the holistic ideas more recently expressed by James Lovelock in the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ and Lynn Margulis in her book Symbiotic Planet, but on the smaller scale of a whole farm as a symbiotic unit. In this respect, the organic farmer functions in concert with the symbiotic unit by being in daily contact with and having a feeling for the whole farm organism. It is also important to distinguish this meaning of ‘organic’ as it applies to a system of farming from the common misunderstanding that ‘organic’ specifically refers to the carbon-based chemistry of the fertilizers that are often used in organic farming.

Polarization into Organic versus Non-organic

While Howard played a pivotal role in developing the concepts of organic farming and popularizing them around the world, he was also a polarizing figure. The period from about 1940 to 1978 may be called the era of polarization of agriculture into organic and non-organic camps. During this period, there was little effective dialogue between the organic community and conventional agriculture. American businessman and publisher Jerome Rodale was an early convert to organic farming as a result of reading the works of Howard. So moved was Rodale by Howard’s organic vision – which he described as being hit by a ‘ton of bricks’ – that he purchased a farm near Allentown, PA, and began experimenting with composting and organic farming techniques. In 1942, Rodale began publishing Organic Farming and Gardening magazine with Howard serving as the associate editor. Through this magazine and other publications, Rodale diffused and popularized organic concepts in the US. Rodale’s 1945 book Pay Dirt, with an introduction by Howard, summarized organic farming concepts for a wide audience. His missionary zeal for promoting organic farming in the USA is suggested by the title of his 1948 book, The Organic Front, which followed on the heels of Howard’s book, The War in the Soil. Both Howard and Rodale saw the conflict of organic versus non-organic agriculture as a struggle between two different visions of what agriculture should become as they engaged in a war of words with the agricultural establishment.

Although Howard was not a fan of biodynamic farming, Rodale was interested in the work of Ehrenfried Pfeifer, a protégé of Rudolf Steiner. Rodale often visited Pfeifer›s farm in Pennsylvania to share ideas and he published articles by Pfeifer in Organic Farming and Gardening magazine.

Initially, agriculturalists from the non-organic establishment largely ignored the organic farming movement. Agricultural colleges and experiment stations, however, were increasingly besieged with letters of inquiry from the public and it became impossible to ignore the organic movement.

Notable American advocates of building soil fertility by using organic farming methods included Louis Bromfield and Edward Faulkner, both of whom were popular agricultural writers but not organic purists. In addition to novels that were made into movies by Hollywood, Louis Bromfield published the widely read books Pleasant Valley (1945), Malabar Farm (1948), and Out of the Earth (1950). Edward Faulkner, author of the best selling book Plowmans Folly (1943), was a controversial figure in his time but is now regarded as a pioneer of no-till and conservation tillage farming.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 classic “Silent Spring”
which documented pesticide use and its environmental impact.

In agriculture, the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 began a change of focus and attention as it ignited the environmental  movement while raising concerns about the excessive use of pesticides in agriculture.

Over the next two decades, public interest in the organic method continued to grow. For example, the circulation of Organic Gardening magazine increased from 260,000 in 1960 to 1,300,000 in 1980. Many factors, such as the migration of some people from the cities to the country, the growing environmental movement, and the antiestablishment social revolution, were responsible for the increasing popularity of Rodale Press publications.

Recognition for Organic Agriculture

The period from 1979 to 1990 may be described as the era of recognition for organic farming at a national level in the USA. With a growing public interest in organic food and farming, interest in establishing standards for organically produced foods also increased. As a sign of the new times, in 1979, California passed a law establishing a legal standard for organic production.

Under the direction of President Carter’s Secretary of Agriculture, Robert Bergland, the USDA began surveying the organic farming sector. In 1980, the USDA published the Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming for the expressed purpose of ‘increasing communication between organic farmers and the USDA’. In 1981, the American Society of Agronomy held a Symposium on Organic Farming to examine the question ‘Can organic farming contribute to a more sustainable agriculture…?’ They concluded: ‘The most probable answer is that it most definitely can… ‘ and also that ‘…the soils for the two farming systems may be quite different, each with its own unique chemical and biological properties and crop production capabilities’. Although the USDA publication did not cite Howard’s work on organic farming, the American Society of Agronomy symposium publication, Organic Farming: Current Technology and its Role in a Sustainable Agriculture, did.

This new attention and recognition led to a backlash in 1981 from the incoming Reagan administration, which tried to bury the USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. The new administration also abolished the recently established position of Organic Resources Coordinator, held by Garth Youngberg who had been a member of the USDA Study Team for Organic Farming. During this time, a former Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, released his infamous statement that millions would starve if all farmers adopted organic methods. Clearly the USDA and the US political structure were not ready to promote wide-spread adoption of organic farming.

In spite of the changing political situation at the national level, the already published USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming continued to be read, and served to stimulate a growing interest in organic farming. A few land-grant colleges began to offer courses in organic farming to serve the interests of applied agricultural students.

It was also around this same time that some advocates for organic farming began supporting the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ in hopes that it would invite respect for organic farming. One of those advocates, Garth Youngberg, later established an effective professional organization to support sustainable agriculture, now known as the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. Under the broader umbrella of sustainable agriculture, this institute has been an important supporter of organic farming. While organic farming and sustainable agriculture are both part of the alternative agriculture movement, these terms are not synonymous.

Accommodation for Organic Agriculture

The passage of the Federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 marks an era of accommodation for organic farming in the USA. This Act set out to:
1. establish national standards governing the marketing of organically produced products,
2. assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard, and
3. facilitate interstate commerce in both fresh and processed organic foods.

The writing of the official USDA rules for what defined organic farming and organic food required more than a decade. Initially, the proposed standards did not prohibit the use of sewage sludge, food irradiation, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But these initial allowances resulted in an enormous public outcry, which eventually led to their elimination from the final rules, which were officially unveiled with labeling as USDA Certified Organic on October 21, 2002.

Although it is impossible to know today what Howard would think of the USDA rules, it is interesting to note that he encouraged the use of sewage sludge because the recycling of human manure was consistent with the Law of Return. Nevertheless, given Howard’s concern over poison sprays, it seems unlikely that he would approve of the contaminating substances that are now known to be present in some sewage sludges. Although GMOs were not an issue in Howard’s time, his stated position against artificial insemination would seem to suggest opposition to other such ‘artificial’ technologies. The USDA rules, which allow for the use of some synthetic micronutrient fertilizers, when a need is demonstrated, would seem to collide with Howard’s opposition to the use of any chemical fertilizer.

As far back as 1942, J. l. Rodale presciently predicted: ‘One of these fine days the public is going to wake up and will pay for eggs, meat, vegetables, etc., according to how they were produced’. In the early years of the organic movement and before there was a significant market for organic products, organic farming was done out of a passion for the philosophy. Today, with the growing demand for organic products, price premiums are, in some cases, attracting new converts to organic farming for financial survival. While organic farming and organic food continue to be the target of criticism by skeptics in agriculture and food science, USDA Certified Organic appears to be here to stay.

Beyond USDA Certified Organic

The establishment of USDA standards for organic production was an important milestone in the organic movement. It also served to formally define organic as ‘A production system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and regulations to respond to site specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity’. This definition, however, has not satisfied all within the organic movement. Some would like to see a greater emphasis placed on issues such as locally produced foods, biological diversity, raising livestock humanely and on pastures, certified raw dairy foods, renewable energy, environmental stewardship, subtle energies, and social justice.

While much of Howard’s passion and vision for an organic agriculture has not come to fruition in the National Organic Program nor in the current status of organic farming in the USA, Howard and other organic advocates did inspire generations of farmers, gardeners, and consumers to change their philosophical views on waste materials, soil management, soil quality, health and disease, pesticides, synthetic materials, and the environment. Tension and debate continues between the different philosophical, political and scientific ideas and ideals of organic and non-organic farming and even within the organic farming community itself. As these differences play out, they can be a positive and creative force to stimulate new lines of agricultural research leading to more environmentally sound and sustainable agriculture, provided there is open communication and the prevailing agricultural paradigms are allowed to be questioned.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




The Role of Fair Trade and Fair Labor Labels in the Movement for Food Justice

The original goal of the movement for organic farming was care for the soil and the watersheds, for healthy, nourishing foods, and for the many hands that tend the crops. Yet, as organic standards have developed, much of the emphasis has been on growing methods and too often, the farmers and workers who do the work have been left behind. A variety of voluntary ethical and labor justice certifications and programs have been created that can fill that gap. Although their standards, tools and theory of change vary, they share a common goal: safeguarding the people who grow the food.

A Broken Food System
Any examination of ethical and labor justice certifications would be incomplete if it failed to address the massive imbalances of power that exist within the food system. As a reader of The Natural Farmer, we don’t need to tell you that our food system is broken. Here in the U.S., and around the globe, corporate-driven, industrial agriculture is polluting our planet and exploiting people.

Farming has never been a lucrative vocation. Yet increasing corporate consolidation squeezes farmers as fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food system. According to the Farm Bureau, “farmers and ranchers in the U.S. receive only 15 cents out of every dollar spent on food. The rest goes for costs beyond the farm gate: wages and materials for production, processing, transportation, distribution, and marketing.” That’s less than half what it was in 1980.

Massive mergers between some of the biggest companies mean that seeds, inputs, processing, and trading are all controlled by just a few companies. That consolidation continues at just about every step of the supply chain. Just ten companies own the majority of brands on supermarket shelves, whether conventional or organic. Those supermarket shelves are themselves owned by fewer and fewer companies, as Walmart, Target, and now Amazon-owned Whole Foods take more and more of the money spent on food.

Of course, imbalances of power are not a new element of our food system. In the U.S. and around the globe, there is a long, long history of land theft and displacement of indigenous people for farm land. Plantation owners around the globe have exploited workers and artificially reduced production costs. The legacy of slavery in the U.S. farming system exists even today. Farmworkers in most states are exempt from many of the basic protections of labor law, exempted from minimum wage and overtime laws and excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)’s guarantees of freedom to organize and join a union—all the results of New Deal Era compromises (for a more comprehensive history, see https://thenaturalfarmer.org/article/brief-history-farmworker-wages-us-current-requirements/).

Thus, it’s little wonder that so many of those who grow our food struggle to put food on the table for themselves.

The Role of Voluntary Certification
The inequities and challenges in our food system are huge, systemic, and long-standing. It would be naïve to suggest that a certification label could change these things alone. Yet some of the best programs out there do provide frameworks that can both improve conditions and guide buyers towards products that are in line with their values. Fair World Project’s analysis reviews the standards behind the labels through this lens.

Assessments and recommendations below are based on two reports, Justice in the Fields: A Report on the Role of Farmworker Justice Certification and an Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Seven Labels (2016) and Fairness for Farmers: A Report Assessing the Fair Trade Movement and the Role of Certification (2018). Justice in the Fields reviews labels in the U.S. market that intend to benefit farmworkers (and, in some cases, farmers) both in the U.S. and globally. Fairness for Farmers evaluates the labels in the U.S. market that intend to benefit small-scale farmers in the Global South, although a few may also allow participation from U.S. farmers who meet certain criteria.

Standards that benefit farmworkers are different than those that intend to benefit farmers, however it is important to note that many certifications put the same label on all certified products. Fair World Project believes it is important to make a distinction between these standards because the intentions are vastly different. However, the confusion in the marketplace is becoming more and more relevant as Fair Trade USA, one of the most prevalent ethical labels in the U.S. marketplace continues to broaden the scope of products that may bear their label and there is nothing to denote whether a product came from a small-scale farmer in the Global South or a massive indoor farm in the Global North.

Further, while “fair trade” emerged as a term to describe a movement for solidarity-based ethical trade between parties in the Global North and South based on values of transparency, democracy, empowerment, that definition has shifted in the marketplace. Instead of aiming to shift the balance of power between trading partners, too often, the term has been reduced to designating Corporate Social Responsibility programs. While fair trade originated as a movement focused on North-South trading relationships, some have broadened the definition to include North-North trading relationships.

An Overview of Certifications
Ethical labels give buyers a chance to choose products that are in line with their values. Just as those values are diverse, so too are the certifications and labels available. Below we include a short description of the various certifications in the marketplace.

Fair Food Program (FFP) is the label of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Developed by and for tomato workers in Florida, their standards focus on working conditions and using binding legal contracts to hold corporate buyers accountable for their supply chains. Their model has been adopted by the Milk with Dignity program in Vermont, and inspired other initiatives around the globe.

Fair for Life (FFL) is a fair trade certification program developed by the Swiss BioFoundation and the Institute for Marketecology (IMO). FFL criteria focus on fair trading relationships, working conditions, and environmental responsibility.

Fair Trade Certified is the label of Fair Trade USA (FTUSA). Initially developed as a fair trade label for North-South trading, this label now appears on products grown, manufactured or fished around the globe, including in the U.S. and Canada. Standards focus on social criteria, working conditions, and some environmental components.

Fairtrade is the label of the Fairtrade International (FI). Developed as a fair trade label for North-South trading, this label continues to focus on producers in the Global South. While not a certification option for U.S. farmers, this is the most common fair trade label globally.

Food Justice Certified is the label of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). Founded by farmworker and farmer organizations, this U.S.-based program establishes criteria for both farmers’ relationships to farmworkers and buyers’ relationships to farmers.

The Guarantee System launched by the World Fair Trade Organization is not a product certification as the others listed here. Instead, through a combination of self-assessment tools, peer visits, and auditing, their monitoring mechanisms focus on the overall fair trade practices of the organization. While the focus is economically-marginalized producers and workers in the Global South, northern producers may also be considered in some circumstances.

Naturland Fair is the fair trade label of farmer-owned organic certifier Naturland. Developed as a fair trade option for its certified organic entities, this Germany-based program establishes criteria for both farmers’ relationships to farmworkers and buyers’ relationships to farmers. Naturland organic standards are higher than EU organic standards and include additional criteria, including standards for water management and animal welfare.

Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured is the label of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) — a
collaboration of stakeholders including labor unions, NGOs, and corporate buyers, their standards focusing on labor practices, food safety, and pest management criteria.

For more details, see https://fairworldproject.org/get-informed/movements/fair-trade/certifiers-membership-orgs/.

Fair Labor & Fair Trade Certifications Compared
While standards for each label vary in their details, the table below is intended to give an overview of whether the program emphasizes or addresses the issue, not the quality of standards on the topic. The definition of “small-scale” varies widely, both geographically and by crop. Likewise, the details of how a fair price might be determined vary whether you’re considering vegetables or a crop like coffee that is traded on global commodity markets. In every case, the best programs take those distinctions into consideration and prioritize opportunities for those involved to negotiate based on their needs.

The Path to a More Fair Food System
For too long, our food system has been driven by a race to the bottom, putting profits ahead of people and the planet. Several of the programs noted above propose innovative solutions to halt that race.

CIW’s Fair Food Program clearly identifies the power imbalance in the food system and tackles it head on. They have brought massive buyers like Taco Bell and Walmart to the table to sign legally-binding agreements with worker groups. Workers’ rights are enshrined in the purchasing contracts; farms that fail to prevent exploitation face the very real consequence of losing the ability to sell to brands that have signed with the program. Further, a per-pound premium supports farmers and workers alike. Through a combination of strong auditing and worker-based training and reporting, they have stamped out the worst abuses and exploitation on participating farms—and the world is taking notice. The Milk with Dignity program follows a similar model with Ben & Jerry’s suppliers in Vermont and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety is building on these lessons to protect the rights of garment workers in some of the most dangerous factories in the world.

Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certified program was founded by farmworkers and farmer associations (including NOFA), and its strong standards address some of the key issues that these advocates strive for in a fair food system. Their standards require the elimination of piecework and discourage the use of labor contractors, two elements that can make enforcing workers’ rights difficult. Unlike most programs, Food Justice Certified requires organic certification as a complement to its label. They also recognize that building a fair supply chain requires participation of all players and their standards address farmers, workers, and retailers’ roles.

The World Fair Trade Organization’s Guarantee System takes a different approach than all the other labels. Instead of focusing on product certification and tracing a single supply chain, their process evaluates the enterprise as a whole—only organizations that meet their high standards for membership are eligible to put the label on products. The label is most commonly seen on artisan-made handicrafts instead of foods, at least in the U.S., however the organization has recently broadened their definitions of marginalized producers to include some farmers in the Global North.

These are just a few of the innovative models that exist. To learn more, including full length reports and in-depth point by point comparisons, see https://fairworldproject.org/choose-fair/certifier-analysis/

Fair Trade GridAnother label will soon be seen on packaging in the U.S. with the upcoming launch of the new Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) Label. The ROC is a product certification that builds on organic certification as a baseline with the holistic goal of encompassing pasture-based animal welfare, fairness for farmers and workers, and robust requirements for soil health and land management. The ROC works with existing fair labor and fair trade certifications to address the social components of the standards.
The ROC is a product certification that builds on The Role of Fair Trade and Fair Labor
Labels in the Movement for Food Justice
Bring a roomful of food advocates together to ask the question how best to fix our broken food system and you’ll likely get a multiplicity of answers. Like-wise, there are multiple certifications seeking to assure buyers that the people who grow their food were treated fairly.

At its best, a certification label represents clear, high-bar standards crafted with the input of the farmers and workers they intend to benefit. A label can be a short-hand for a broad movement whose organizing for change goes beyond a single transaction to build solidarity between buyers, farmers, workers. Globally, fair trade organizations like the World Fair Trade Organization and Fairtrade International have been part of these movements. And here in the U.S., the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is mobilizing for change both in the fields and in the streets. Strong standards can provide a roadmap to those who want to do the right thing, and certifying organizations can provide connections between like-minded producers.

Unfortunately, a label can also support the greenwashing efforts of multinational corporations. Fair Trade USA’s Fair Trade Certified label is one of the most prevalent in the U.S. Yet their standards come closer to Corporate Social Responsibility in many regards (Fair World Project’s in-depth discussion of the topic can be found here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/approach-with-caution-an-assessment-of-fair-trade_us_59091e03e4b084f59b49fddd). Even more troubling, they recently certified a melon plantation in the midst of a long-standing, unresolved labor dispute. Not only does this fail to protect workers and fail to make change in our food system, it contributes to cynicism and suspicion of anyone making ethical claims.

Not all labels are created equal. Whether shopping in the store, or making decisions for your own business, it pays to do the research. Part of Fair World Project’s mission is to do that research, evaluating standards with the long-term goal in mind: how does this contribute to building a better food and farming system for all people?
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




Raising the Bar: Regenerative Organic Certification

The Path to Regenerative
The path to regenerative organic agriculture started over seven decades ago. In 1942, J.I. Rodale wrote a few simple words on a black board: “HEALTHY SOIL=HEALTHY FOOD=HEALTHY PEOPLE.” In so doing, he set us on a path that links our personal health to the health of the soil, dictating that the way we farm does make a difference in human health and the health of the planet.

In the later 20th century, as the organic community tried to create interstate and international trade in organic food and fiber materials, it became clear that a national standard was needed. Such a standard could unify the many voices in the organic community; help grow the numbers of organic farms and products; and communicate to consumers through a forward-facing USDA logo representing the certification process and the standards themselves.

The first step in getting a USDA standard created was passing the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, which gave the Department of Agriculture the authority to create regulations and standards for the production, processing and handling of food and fiber products. The National Organic Standards Board was also created to interact with and advise the USDA. It took 12 years of shared work between the organic community and the USDA before the release of the first official USDA Organic standard in 2002.

The Case for a New Standard
It’s been more than 15 years now since the first national standards were established. Those rules assure consumers that their purchases are produced without the use of harmful chemicals. While the current organic certification is a necessary and important benchmark for both farmers and shoppers, the original standards haven’t changed much in the decade-plus since their inception. Additionally, those standards don’t address a number of issues important to today‘s consumers, including soil degradation, labor injustice, animal welfare and an increasingly unsteady climate. It’s time to go further. It’s time to raise the bar and encompass the full spectrum of values important to organic farmers, customers and brands.

In the 1970s and 80s, the food and fiber industry got busy marketing the word “sustainable.” At the same time, Robert Rodale (who shunned the word sustainable for several reasons) chose a different word, “regenerative,” to better describe how to improve agricultural production. To sustain something means you’re happy with it the way it is. There is no need to improve it, only to maintain the status quo. Regeneration, on the other hand, implies improvement.

The new Regenerative Organic Standard recognizes producers that farm organically and adhere to the principles of improving the resources they use while they use them. This is particularly important when applied to soil health. If we focus our attention as farmers/producers on soil health instead of yield exclusively, then we will, by default, sequester more carbon, enhance the biodiversity of the soil, improve water management, and improve the resiliency of the entire system.

In recent years, many organizations have begun to use the word regenerative. Many of these organizations have chosen a path that does not connect the words organic and regenerative. Instead, they tend to use the word in whatever way is easiest for them to market, cherry picking carbon sequestration, for example. The position of Rodale Institute and many supporting brands is that you cannot be regenerative unless you are first organic. While sustainable is focused on minimizing the negative impacts of agricultural activities, regenerative organic is focused on maximizing the positive impacts of agricultural activities based on organic principles.

The existing USDA organic standard commands a powerful place in the market, but it also contains gaps on issues that matter to consumers, namely animal welfare, soil health, and worker fairness. The standard is not overly dynamic or easy to change by design. It has proven difficult to incorporate additional language or regulation around these key issues and others that consumers have identified as important.

It’s time to address soil health, animal welfare, and farm worker fairness while embodying the concept of continuous improvement. All these issues were included in original concepts of organic and J.I. Rodale’s idea that healthy soil leads to healthy people. They were lost in the translation to a certifiable USDA standard.

To address these issues in a meaningful way, we need to step outside the confines of the regulatory agency and build additional language around the USDA organic standard. The goal of Regenerative Organic Certification is not to diminish the decades of work that went into the creation and marketing of the powerful word organic, but to build on the legacy of both the concepts and regulations of organic. In order to do that, Rodale Institute has worked in partnership with others to create the Regenerative Organic standard and Certification.

Regenerative Organic Certification’s Three Pillars

Introducing Regenerative Organic Certification

Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is a new, holistic agriculture certification program encompassing robust, high-bar standards for ensuring soil health and ecological land management, pasture-based animal welfare, and fairness for farmers and workers. The standard and certification applies to farmers, processors and brands. Eligible applicants must already be USDA certified organic.

ROC was created to model an ecological and ethical system for agricultural production that addresses the problems of factory farming, climate change, and economic injustice locally and globally. ROC, which requires farmers to also hold USDA NOP certification (or the international equivalent), utilizes the standards that have helped organic grow to the movement it is today—then takes them a step further.

ROC was created by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a group of farmers, ranchers, brands, and experts in animal welfare and social fairness led by Rodale Institute and spearheaded by Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia. The Alliance’s executive director is Elizabeth Whitlow, former director of certification at EarthClaims and fellow at the Leadership for a Sustainable Future. Founding members include Compassion in World Farming, Demeter, Fair World Project, Grain Place Foods, Maple Hill Creamery, White Oak Pastures, and Rodale Institute.

The unofficial launch of ROC was made in 2017 at the Natural Foods Expo in Baltimore. Following that “soft launch” we asked for public comments—and we got them. After the comment period, we pulled back the standard, rewrote it to incorporate the comments we received wherever and whenever reasonable, and relaunched the standard at the Natural Foods Expo in Anaheim in March of 2018. The Regenerative Organic Alliance will continually reevaluate the certification guidelines and update them as necessary. For now, NSF International will administer the standard.

The Philosophy

There are several methods that can be employed to write a standard:

Philosophy, Testing, Practices

If one chooses philosophy as the backbone of a standard, acceptance can be limited to those for whom the philosophy already holds value. If the standard is based on testing, then the challenge to the producer becomes one of passing the test at the lowest cost and in the easiest manner—otherwise known as a race to the bottom, not a striving effort for a higher bar. However, if a standard is based on practices that are known to improve the system, then everyone who agrees to the standard (and thus the practices) is on the same road moving in the same direction, even if they do so at different speeds. Testing, which is part of the ROC stand-ard, becomes a tool to monitor improvement or progress. Those who participate are measured against themselves. The goal of continual improvement is to do better than you did before.

We need to shift our focus to clear, calculated changes to our food and agricultural production to make regenerative organic agriculture the new model both locally and globally. Customers who purchase products with the ROC label will know they are buying products that address the full suite of supply chain responsibility concerns and values they bring to the marketplace. That includes fair treatment of the environment and animals, fair and safe working conditions for farmers and farm workers, and mitigating climate change.

Goals of ROC

The primary goal of ROC is to build a certification that exemplifies the complete value chain that consumers want and deserve. Consumers shouldn’t have to choose between organic and fair trade or organic and animal welfare-approved. We need an all-inclusive standard that sets a truly high bar, leading the way towards systems that actively improve the resources they use instead of destroying them. Instead of minimizing the negative impacts of food and fiber production, our goal should be to maximize the positive benefits.

To that end, goals of the Regenerative Organic Certification include increasing soil organic matter over time, sequestering carbon in the soil, improving animal welfare, providing economic stability and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers, and creating resilient regional ecosystems and communities, all while eliminating food and fiber contamination from synthetic pesticides and other harmful inputs found in conventional production systems.

Regenerative Organic Certification does not aim to compete with or negate current organic standards. The certification uses the USDA’s National Organic Program (USDA Organic) certified organic standard (or its international equivalency) as a baseline requirement and adds criteria in the areas of soil health and land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness.

The Three Pillars

The baseline for Regenerative Organic Certification is the USDA National Organic Program standard. The certification then adds three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Farms and producers earn one of the three levels—bronze, silver, or gold—depending on the number of regenerative practices employed. These tiers keep the concept of continuous improvement embedded in the certification. Again, participation in ROC requires current organic certification under a USDA NOP approved certifier or an IFOAM approved agency.

The full framework, available online at www.regenorganic.org, outlines in detail all the practices encouraged or required for farmers seeking ROC. Here’s a quick snapshot:

Soil health:

• Producers incorporate the use of cover crops on an annual basis and land maintains adequate cover year-round
• Tillage is infrequent and only occurs when necessary, never deeper than 10 inches except during preparation and planting of certain perennials, like orchards and vineyards
• Operations that include livestock utilize rotational grazing and do not graze sensitive areas (e.g. habitat for declining and rare species) when grazing could negatively impact the ecosystem
• Hydroponics and other soilless practices are not eligible for ROC
• Producers conduct soil health tests and track emissions and sequestrations
• Operations minimize use of off-farm inputs and recycle on-farm biomass

Animal welfare:

• Animals are not raised or fed in a manner that meets the EPA’s definition of a CAFO
• Feed for monogastric animals comes from regenerative organic, organic, or on-farm sources
• Ruminant feed comes from grass/forage/baleage/hay or organic sources
• The environment considers animals’ welfare needs and is designed to protect animals from physical and thermal discomfort, fear, distress, and allows them to perform natural behaviors
• Livestock should generally live, eat, and sleep outdoors on pasture
• Producers promote compassionate care and handling of animals

Social fairness:

• Operations do not discriminate in any aspect of the employment relationship
• The operation does not interfere with worker efforts to assemble, strike, or hold elections in an independent manner
• Large farm operations have process to listen and address worker complaints in a transparent process
• Workers earn a living wage as calculated based on the region’s cost of living and typical expenses
• Operators shall not require workers to work more than the regular and overtime hours allowed by the law of the country where the workers are employed

The goal of the certification process is to utilize existing certifiers already accredited by the USDA NOP. The certification process for ROC does not intend to disrupt any existing relationships between the producer and their current certification agency, therefore any USDA NOP accredited certifier can apply to become a ROC agency as well.

The builders of ROC recognize that each certification organization or agency is a service provider. ROC will simply become an additional service the certifier can supply to clients and customers. We understand that the audit protocols and expertise will be different to accommodate ROC’s three pillars; certification providers will likely need to train, hire or contract for the additional expertise.

What’s next?

Regenerative Organic Certification is currently in a pilot process. 22 brands and farms have been chosen to help develop a greater understanding of how ROC standards can be implemented on the ground. The pilot program will inform the creation of training materials, audit tools, guidance documents, and more. The Regenerative Organic Alliance is hopeful that the first Regenerative Organic Certified products will be available for purchase sometime in 2019.

We know that when we improve the health of the soil, we can improve human and planetary health. The ROC standard, based on organic certification, creates a dynamic path forward.

In our vision or the future, farmers are valued for the quality of the food and fiber they produce along with their positive impacts on the health of our soils, the animals in their care, and the workers who contribute. Regenerative Organic Certified farms represent the true power of agriculture to have a positive impact.

For more information on ROC and to view the full framework, visit RegenOrganic.org. From there, sign up to become an ally and receive regular updates.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




Maple Hill Creamery Goes Regenerative Organic

Tim Joseph

photo courtesy Maple Hill Creamery
Tim Joseph, founder of first 100% grass-fed creamery in the east.

Central New York, the rectangle comprised of Albany, Ithaca and the area perhaps 60 miles north and south of the line connecting them, is exceptional diary country. It is graced by emerald green, rolling country, small towns still with farming dealerships, moderate temperatures, 40 inches of rain and 180 days of sunshine per year. Not the world’s greatest soil for vegetables, it is excellent for grass.

It was here, almost 10 years ago, that a creamery was started which was quickly to become a beacon for over 200 struggling local dairy farmers. The central idea was that an organic yogurt, made with 100% grass-fed milk, would appeal to a growing consumer segment. And with the premium from such a product a reasonable price could be paid to small farmers for their milk – a price high enough to keep them in business.

The creamery was the brainchild of Tim Joseph, at the time a struggling diary farmer himself. But he didn’t start out that way.

“When I was 13,” he relates, “I told my parents I wanted to be a farmer. I didn’t have a farming background at all, but I was fascinated by it. My grandfather on my father’s side was an Armenian from Turkey. I never knew him, but he was a baker and bought land in Long Valley, NJ to raise cows to milk for cheese for his baked goods. The price of milk went so low, though, that he soon found out it was cheaper to buy cheese than raise it.

“As a young man,” he continues, “I started working for my friend who had a company in Westchester County. We made dental imaging equipment. I was involved on many levels, but finally was a product manager. We were bought and sold a number of times and it ended up being owned out of Atlanta.”

But Tim had been working at home and thought this might be a good time to scratch his farming itch. He was looking to buy a house, but realized that the price of a fixer-upper ranch house was such that he could buy a whole farm in Central New York for the same price. His wife Laura was supportive, and they both felt raising a family on a farm was a good way to do it. So in 2003 they bought a 250 acre old dairy farm, Stone Creek Farm, in Little Falls, New York. Tim kept his day job to pay the bills and they decided to raise sheep and hogs.

Within a year they realized that was a mistake. Besides not having any experience with livestock, Joseph realized there wasn’t a stable revenue stream in the critters. But he and Laura wanted to ‘just farm’ to support their growing family. So they thought they would try milking cows.

“In 2004,” he sighs, “we bought 64 cows and became dairy farmers. We had no background or knowledge to help us, and we had a lot of on-the-job-training from neighbors. But we made an awful lot of mistakes. It was a tremendous amount of work but Laura and I pitched in and tried to make a go of it. I still had my day job with a good deal of travel necessary, so Laura ended up with a lot of the milking.”

But they were doing the conventional dairy thing, bringing in feed to the barn for the cows and carrying their manure back out. It all seemed backward to Tim — the cows should be out eating and manuring the fields. When he was younger he had read Stockman’s Grass Farmer magazine and went to some of their meetings. He understood the value of feeding grass and was intrigued by converting solar energy into food.

“And grain feeding just didn’t pencil out very well either,” he says. “Grain was expensive, we were moving a lot of material. It just didn’t make any sense. The Van Amburgs, a farm family at Dharma Lea Farm, were also finding out the same things. We were friendly and only forty minutes apart, so we compared notes.”

Once they stopped feeding grain and corn silage it became obvious to Tim that a lot of the subtle chronic problems the cows had were from their diet and lifestyle. With cows those problems are even more pronounced than with humans, because cows are production animals and we are pushing their biological limits. One of the first things to show up is feet and leg issues — dairy farmers know that lameness is a big culling signal.

“A year after we changed to grazing,” Joseph recalls, “the guy who came each year to take care of their hooves said he didn’t think we needed him anymore. Now the cows were out wearing down their hooves grazing and didn’t need him for trims. Our farm had a heavy slate soil and they were up and down the hills all the time.”

Tim knew that making yogurt was one proven way to add value to milk, and he thought there might be a market niche for a grass-fed brand. He experimented with different recipes on the kitchen stove, trying the results out on the kids, and finally came up with a creamline yogurt that became their hallmark recipe. A neighbor had an old barbeque restaurant storefront in Little Falls that Tim converted to a yogurt and cheese making facility. So after a few years of grass-fed dairying, in 2009 Tim and Laura started Maple Hill Creamery (named for the beautiful maple covered hill behind the old restaurant). Joseph gave up his day job to throw himself fulltime into building the business.

It was a lousy time to make that decision, however, and leave the only steady income they had.

The recession was peaking and he and Laura quickly ran out of money. They couldn’t afford groceries or to heat their drafty old farmhouse, and were just scraping by on the farm. At this point Tim’s sister, Julia, and her husband, Pete Meck, decided to quit their dependable, well-paying jobs in New Jersey, and join Tim and Laura in order keep the business alive.

Things got worse before they got better — the electricity was shut off, the family car was repossessed and, at one point, the farm was in foreclosure. But, somehow, things began to turn around. The yogurt gained a loyal following, especially at farmers’ markets in Manhattan. The grass-fed philosophy began to catch on with conscious consumers and the business started to grow. Two other 100% grass-fed dairy farmers (the Van Amburgs of Dharma Lea, and the Kings of Hidden Camp Farm) joined with the Josephs, and with the extra milk supply they were able to increase production and distribute their yogurt across the Northeast into natural food and specialty stores. By 2012 it was clear that the little creamery could no longer support the increasing orders so the families sold the farm and moved to Stuyvesant, NY to a much larger facility.

The Maple Hill line of milk, yogurt, and kefir

The Maple Hill line of milk, yogurt, and kefir

In the few short years since then Maple Hill has become one of the fastest-growing dairy brands in the natural channel, available from over 6,000 retailers across the US in all 50 states. Over 200 farms, all 100% grass-fed, supply milk to the creamery. In 2014 Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) began certifying their farms to validate the grass-fed label.

Of course the change to grass-fed dairying is not always easy. For one thing, milk production goes down when a cow starts relying on grass. Across all the herds now supplying milk to Maple Hill, Tim estimates that when a cow goes from grain to grass the farmer experiences a 20% to 35% drop in milk production.

“We didn’t really have anyone to talk to then about how to manage this,” he admits. “But the right answer is to put more cows on an acre. If you are managing well you can do that. You are pushing on a string to try to get more milk out of a grazing cow, but if you are grazing properly and getting your pastures working, you are able to support more animals on that pasture. More hooves and mouths on the grass actually creates more grass and that equals more milk.”

In making that transition to grass a farmer has an income gap until things even out. The creamery that buys the milk has to make up that gap by way of milk prices. But in the long run the farmer’s better management can improve the financial picture even more than just pricing alone, with lower input costs, higher milk quality and better herd health.

Maple Hill has a seasonal pricing model. Tim uses it to tell farmers when they want more milk. Creamery prices are lowest in the spring when there is a spring flush and everyone is drowning in milk. The price goes up slowly over the year until, in December, January and February it reaches a peak. That is when Tim needs more milk, the market for yogurt is good, and farmers can have a lot of costs to buy and store hay.

“On a year round average,” Joseph estimates, “our farmers are making $39 to $40 per hundredweight, depending on how they are managing their herd. If they do a good job on quality and follow seasonal pricing to freshen their cows in July, they can make $42 or even $43.”

Tim heard about the Regenerative Organic Certification program when it was just being put together.

Young family in grass

photo courtesy Maple Hill Creamery
Tom & Caroline McGrath farm in Worcester, NY.
Their milk is 100% grass-fed and is shipped to Maple Hill.

“For us,” he affirms, “it just seemed like a confirmation of what we were already doing. We have always been trying to leave the soil better than when we started. That is what we spend a lot of time on with our farmers. That is the only way they can make it work better for their farm – to make the land better than when they started.”

ROC serves as a way for Maple Hill to separate their brand from others in the market. For more and more consumers, he says, how the food is raised matters. Grass-fed is a growing segment of the dairy case. Maple Hill yogurt pioneered grass-fed certification and has been certified 100% grass-fed for 4 or 5 years now. That certification gives credibility to their grass-fed claim in a market where sometimes claims are made on a container but there is no third-party backing that claim up. With the certification they can demonstrate to retailers and distributors that Maple Hill is able to back up their label claims. Increasingly, that matters, just like it does with non-GMO or organic.

“The ROC is just forming itself right now,” Tim explains, “and we all are moving forward in parallel together. Of course the organic claim is the foundation of this all and we can check that box, but the others are important. We’re 100% grass-fed, so we can check that box. We do a massive amount of on-farm monitoring of soil and have more data than I think anyone has on their farms — pasture cover, soil organic matter, everything. When the time comes for that box to be checked we’re ready to clearly show our work on soils. Animal welfare is important to consumers and of course us too. 100% grass-fed systems are healthier for the cow in a number of ways. There are a number of animal welfare organizations doing certification, there is other stuff coming together in organic, and I don’t think we will have trouble checking that box over the next year.

“We will have to deal with the social justice issue too,” he continues, “when we do the ROC audit. We survey a lot of information from our farms, not just biological, and on 98% of our farms the person doing the milking is the owner of the farm. The tricky thing about that is that the owner of the farm is often not operating at an economic level that you would consider just, or right. I know it is hard to come up with a standard for justice or fairness that applies to Third World conditions as well as domestically, but I think we will work that out. I just don’t know if we are going to go for a separate existing certification program or what.”

Already a national leader in grass-fed dairy products, Tim has been working with PCO, NOFA-NY, Organic Valley and others for a couple of years to create a national grass-fed certification program.

“We hope to be rolling out an organic grass-fed certification,” he announces, “that will be available through all independent accredited certifiers in 2019. Maple Hill will migrate there, and PCO will become a part of that. It will be an additional add-on label to organic. Up to now it has been just a working group, but we’re forming the non-profit as we speak.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




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.




Food Justice Certification – More than Just an Add-On to Organic

Youth cleaning beans at Pie Ranch

Youth cleaning beans at Pie Ranch

Food Justice Certification is still in the early adopter stage. The entities that certify are highly ethical farmers and food businesses that want to bring the public’s attention to the possibility that farmers could be paid fair prices and farmers can provide safe, respectful jobs with living wages to farm workers. Green-Star, an outstanding food co-op in Ithaca, NY, engages in FJC both to demonstrate that it has good labor policies and also that it is paying fair prices to the local farms that supply the store. Brandon Kane, General Manager of GreenStar, says that FJC expresses the values of co-op members. In a letter to other NE co-ops, Kane wrote: “Food Justice Certification through the Agricultural Justice Project has become a critical component of GreenStar Co-op telling its values story and backing it up with hard facts.” AJP and NOFA are partnering on a project that will assist organic farms in improving the labor policies and engage food co-ops in the region in more joint promotion with farms on shared values.

Despite national consumer surveys by Consumer Reports showing that significant percentages of those surveyed highly value food grown with good labor policies (86% in 2014, 89% in 2016), there are few markets that offer premiums for food grown by happy workers. International fair trade has been able to convey the message that small farms in developing countries deserve a fair price to survive, though most programs do not include improving conditions for workers on these farms. The message that US farmers need fair pricing surfaces only during periods of more severe crisis, like the late 70’s and again recently, for dairy farms.

The group of farming stakeholders that designed Food Justice Certification (FJC) deliberately set out to create high bar standards for US conditions and tested the standards on farms to make sure that there are farms that have attained them. What the Agricultural Justice Project has never managed to do is to raise enough money to provide FJC for free or cheap like some programs that verify humane conditions for animals. In the absence of either a premium or very low cost for certification, the rate of adoption by farms has been very slow.

Announcing the Certification of Soul Fire Farm

The latest farm to receive FJC is Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY, the first farm to be certified FJC without also having organic certification. Soul Fire meets and surpasses organic standards, but has chosen to focus on racism and training farmers of color. Soul Fire is a small, highly diversified farm that provides weekly doorstep deliveries of in-season, farm fresh, Certified Naturally-Grown food to hundreds of individuals in the Albany inner city living under food apartheid and targeted by state violence. Soul Fire Farm is committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. As stated with passion and conviction on their website, the Soul Fire farmers “raise life-giving food and act in solidarity with people marginalized by food apartheid. With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. We bring diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills in sustainable agriculture, natural building, spiritual activism, health and environmental justice. We are training the next generation of activist-farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.”

Upon learning that their farm had qualified for FJC, the Soul Fire team responded: “Soul Fire Farm proudly sought the Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certification, recognizing that to date, it is the only farm certification that commits to an unequivocal focus on the rights of food systems and food chain workers, centers farmworker led organizations, and was developed primarily by farm workers and farmers in a participatory stakeholder process. As collaborators in a movement that honors the people whose labor has built the food system in this country, we pursued FJC in recognition of the striking significance of a certification that amplifies farm workers’ voices while supporting their lives and livelihoods. In a food system founded on stolen land and labor that continues to perpetuate structural racism and injustice, we value FJC’s insistence on fair pricing and fair labor practices that challenge food apartheid and the devaluing of the people who steward the land.

“At Soul Fire Farm, we go beyond the organic standards and the FJC standards by working to dismantle the racist structures that misguide our food system. Through programs such as the Black-Latinx Farmers Immersion, sliding scale CSA farm share, and youth food justice leadership training, we are part of a network of farms working to foster land stewardship and leadership by Black and Brown people in the food system, reclaim Afro-Indigenous regenerative farming practices, and catalyze the transfer of resources and power from those with food system privilege to those impacted by food apartheid. In our own team, we strive to mirror the healing justice we seek in the world by uplifting radical self-care, community accountability, compassionate communication, distributed leadership, fair compensation, and commitment to personal and professional development.”

Swanton Berry Farm – FJC is a Step towards Human Rights for Farm Labor

Jim Cochran, farmer at Swanton Berry Farm, helped in creating FJC, providing his farm for AJP to develop its audit method that includes both a certification agency inspector and an inspector from a worker organization. His farm was one of the first two to be certified in California, along with Pie Ranch, an educational farm a few miles up the coast from Swanton. Cochran lays out his reasons: “The dignity of farm labor is a founding principle of Swanton Berry Farm. From the beginning, we wanted to present our customers with a product produced under the best working conditions possible. What would be the point of farming organically if the workers were underpaid, overworked or treated without respect? Just carrying the California Certified Organic label did not address these important issues.” Cochran was also the first (and perhaps the only) organic farmer to invite the United Farm Workers to unionize his employees. While the cost for FJC certification is similar to organic, the cost of the UFW union is significantly higher with the employer paying for the excellent health program and a pension plan for employees. Cochran is definitely willing to put his money where his mouth is. In an interview a few years ago, Cochran explained his motivations:

“As with the organic label, Food Justice Certification is a whole philosophy. Just as the organic method is not just about using organic inputs, but it’s also about understanding soil ecology, the farming environment, and water, it’s similar when you look at social or labor issues. You have human beings who have families and needs and wants. It’s a complex fabric. In my opinion, having organic certification is only half of the equation. …I think labor certification is going to become increasingly important. There are many people on the farm doing the harvesting, watering, cultivating, record keeping, and other farm work that the public doesn’t see. People are concerned about whether their clothes are made under sweatshop conditions in other countries, but they’re not thinking about these issues here in the United States. This label is a step in the right direction. …It’s only in the last two or three years that you hear people talking about worker issues more, and I’m happy for it. I hope that raising awareness will spark some other farmers to start thinking about them as well. I’d be happy to talk to any farmer who wants to give me a call and ask me about our practices. Our purpose in going through this program is not to highlight ourselves as better than other farms but to get the ball rolling on something that we hope becomes more widely adopted.”

The Family Garden – FJC Highlights Values of a Fair Farm

Jordan Brown’s farm, The Family Garden, had its home in Bell, Florida where they produced certified organic vegetables on 25 acres, before relocating to 20 acres in the larger city of Gainesville in 2015, keeping fruit production in Bell. He considered FJC for over a year before making a commitment, but then he wrote: “As my workers and I learned together about AJP’s social justice standards, I became even surer that I had made the right decision for my farm and the people who work alongside me and my family here… We’re taking a big step together, being the first farm in the southeast U.S. to participate in this program. I’ve learned a lot from the process and am excited to see the program grow. …As organic vegetable farms get bigger and bigger the only way for farms our size to stay in business is to move to retail sales, and having this certification sets us apart from all the other farms. In the local food scene, this is something that nobody really talks about and every farmer says they pay their employees well and treat workers with dignity, but that’s not always the case. I was exposed to agricultural injustice from farmers that I know around here. Abuse can be anywhere on any size farm. Success for us comes from the folks who come to our stand or signup for our CSA because they know we’re a FAIR farm and want to support good work.”

Brown has made a concerted effort to find retail markets in Gainesville that will recognize his labor policies by paying a premium for his produce. But he has not been successful. By contrast, his CSA customers often express their appreciation. Brown says that FJC is a way of making his values and actions public: “Food Justice Certification is important to me because it’s the only way, as far as I know, to certify that anything we’re doing labor-wise is any different than any other farm. We’re trying to pay people a living wage, have a safe and respectful work environment, and trying to offer people some minimal benefits that would be associated with most jobs, but are not common in agriculture. We give people a few paid holidays off, we pay 2 hours a week of sick pay so folks can add it up and don’t have to worry about missing work, and at the end of the season they can collect a check which lets folks take off a couple of weeks, all the produce they care to take from the farm, and one of the long term goals is to offer overtime pay.”

The FJC process has also been helpful to Brown as he has expanded his farm: “The growth of our farm, from being a real small operation to where we are now, is closely tied to Food Justice Certification; it helped me get more organized because FJC standards required me to start running payroll, get Workers Comp, filing taxes, and start keeping better records. It took some time to get everything in order and get organized because we do have to meet a lot of guidelines, At the same time, I think that organizational component has greatly benefited the farm. There are lots of larger farms that are already very organized and keep records the way we do, but they wouldn’t meet the FJC standards because of their on-farm practices.”

Pie Ranch – FJC Provides Framework for Teaching about Fairness
Pie Ranch has been training young farmers and providing educational programs for high school students since 2003. The Mission of Pie Ranch is “to cultivate a healthy and just food system from seed to table through food education, farmer training, and regional partnerships.” Program Director Nancy Vail explains their decision to apply for Food Justice Certification:
“Becoming and remaining Food Justice Certified has been an important way for Pie Ranch to stay accountable to our values around social justice and fairness. Having written policies in place and ongoing trainings help to make our evolution as an organization transparent to all. Building empathy for the human side of agriculture is part of what’s needed for people to start valuing FJC in the marketplace. We still have a long way to go with this, and simultaneously we need to keep pushing for policies that help to keep food accessible for all people. I think we could focus more on how we advertise FJC on our products to help with increasing revenue.”

FJC is a way to assure that the apprenticeships Pie Ranch offers are ethical and not just a form of cheap labor. They want to pass on good practices to the young farmers they train so that they get their own farms off to a good start. In addition to introducing their own apprentices to FJC, Pie Ranch partners with the much larger training program at University of California Santa Cruz’ annual programs on food justice. According to Vail: “As an educational farm that engages with thousands of people a year, being Food Justice Certified has been helpful as it offers a framework for how we talk about fairness in the food system. Each year we offer classes on the Agricultural Justice Project and FJC to participants in our Emerging Farmers and Youth Programs. It helps to center the people in the food system, especially brown and black folks who have been and continue to be the ones most affected by exploitative practices.”

When asked if there were ways besides certification to achieve the same things, Vail replied: “I think we could achieve some things without certification, but to really stay accountable means we need an outside organization like the AJP helping us to do that.”

Fairness and Justice for All
Ultimately, deciding to engage in Food Justice Certification amounts to a commitment to agrarian justice for farmers and farm workers. As Jordan Brown puts it, “Having more farms participate in the Food Justice Certification Program will help grow a greater awareness of the labor practices and unfair working conditions in the agriculture sector across America. Ultimately, more farms getting this certification will bring more money back to the farm and the farmer. Real change is needed in the farm labor sector and will happen in one of two ways: wholesalers taking smaller margins or higher prices at the retail counter that reflect the actual cost of food. People generally don’t care about any type of injustice until they are confronted with it. I think that if more consumers understood the injustices that happen to farm laborers in America and how difficult of a job it is for such a little amount of money, perhaps the Food Justice label would help open peoples’ eyes to those injustices.”

Jose Manuel Guzman, a former mushroom worker and Lead Organizer at the farmworker organization CATA, sums up the significance of AJP to people who work on farms:
“The Agricultural Justice Project is of vital importance to farmworkers and their families. It promotes organic agriculture, helping workers to have a better understanding of how food can be grown in a natural, healthy way without putting them at risk of exposure to pesticides. The workers’ rights standards set by the project are more than just basic workers’ rights. They allow workers to collectively bargain and organize and create a space for dialogue between workers and farmers. They guarantee a fair and just treatment for all involved.”
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




A Maine Certifier’s Perspective

(note: this article was written for the Winter 2018-19 issue Alternative Certification Programs. It did not make it in to that issue and I wanted to be sure readers saw it. – editor)

certified-logo-rgb-for-webEstablished in 2002, MOFGA Certification Services LLC (MCS) is a USDA National Organic Program accredited certifier, wholly owned by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), whose mission is to continue MOFGA’s program of independent verification of organic food production. Our program encourages production practices that promote soil health, animal welfare, and farm sustainability in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. Prior to the inception of the NOP, MOFGA was one of several certifiers across the country who certified operations to specific organic standards under MOFGA’s control. While there was agreement and alignment across certifier’s standards, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was the first effort to nationalize a standard for all to certify to. MOFGA made the decision to go the route of NOP accreditation in large part for operations that accessed national markets, making the USDA seal appealing for recognition in all markets. MCS currently certifies over 530 operations to the NOP standard.

One would assume that this national accreditation means that all USDA accredited certifiers make determinations and certification decisions in the same way; but the rules are not that clear in some areas and were made to be flexible as the landscape shifts and expands. Without hard and fast rules, certifiers are left to work together as a community in hopes of finding commonality. When we ask the NOP about certain scenarios and production systems that have no precedent, we often hear, “Check with other certifiers” or “The rule says this…”. The authors and rule makers understood that continuous improvements and changes are necessary to adjust to a growing sector. They created mechanisms to scrutinize existing rules and to make new ones, utilizing a citizen board to develop recommendations, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). As the organic sector has grown to meet demand, so too have allowances for certain types of production. Instead of a systemwide rulemaking approach, certification agencies have made determinations that have changed the course of the entire industry. In many cases, USDA is the entity left to sort out these interpretations and differences between certifiers. And in many cases, it is done playing catch up, as the rulemaking process is a beast that operates at a snail’s pace compared to industry.

While many of the original architects of the organic standards are dismayed at how this could have happened based on the intent of the rule, and more importantly what to do about it, I often wonder how we can affect the change we want to see as organic continues to grow in the marketplace. MOFGA does not certify hydroponic or CAFO operations based not only on lack of staff expertise but also on our interpretation of the standards, yet other certifiers do. And with NOP reaffirming the allowance of hydroponic and aquaponic through public statements in 2018, we are left with a divided regulatory situation that continues to create confusion with the very people the rule was intended to help, the end consumer.

As MOFGA moves toward its 50th birthday, the world of organic agriculture differs vastly from the world in 1971, when MOFGA was formed. In many ways the terms “success” and “achievement” describe where we have come in that time. More and more we see informed shoppers, eaters and local and regional food systems expanding with an eye toward organic and sustainable growing practices. Farmers’ markets are everywhere, selling diverse items; major grocery chains fill their aisles with organic offerings; and federal programs continue to offer support for these initiatives. Yet like many good things forced to play in the current economic model, some of the original intent of a national organic standards system is eroding. While many continue to foster the ideals borne of MOFGA’s beginnings, new systems, technology and “maximizing shareholder profits” elicit increased attention and pushback from others.

At the annual Accredited Certifiers Association and USDA National Organic Program’s (NOP) certifier training, held in San Antonio in February 2018, the focus was on reporting about recent breakdowns in the integrity of product certified as organic and steps taken to mitigate these risks moving forward. In addition, many strategies were discussed and presented to align certifiers around best practices for dealing with integrity issues in the supply chain.

With journalism stories in 2016 and 2017 uncovering compliance and fraud issues both at the national and international level, the NOP has taken major steps to address these issues, specifically on imports. As the investigations moved forward, many were surprised to find that the NOP, through the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) legislation, was not given any authority over imports at the border or ports coming into the country with certified organic labeling. Due to this lack of authority, the NOP has created partnerships with other agencies that do, specifically USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). The NOP developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with CBP (to alert NOP of any suspicious shipments) and with APHIS (to alert NOP of any prohibited treatments of shipments as conditions of entry). The MOUs were finalized in August 2017, and as of the training, the NOP had already received over one thousand email notifications from port authorities across the country alerting them of applications of prohibited substances as conditions of entry for certain shipments, including ones labeled as organic.

APHIS publishes a number of manuals online, at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/planthealth/complete-list-of-electronic-manuals, to alert consumers, brokers, and growers of the pre-established conditions for entry of any particular agricultural product from any country in the world. Specifically, the training focused on the Fruits and Vegetables Import Requirements (FAVIR) manual, and what treatments at which ports from certain countries are applied. As an example, all asparagus coming into the United States from Peru, whether organic or conventional, must undergo a treatment of methyl bromide as a condition of entry (methyl bromide is considered a “prohibited substance” in organic production). In many instances, the certifier is not alerted to these types of treatments, as the rules only require that the “owner” of the product is informed. Prior to the MOUs, this product was passing through and into the commerce stream without the NOP or the certifier ever knowing.

For certifiers who are tasked with auditing the product trail from seed to final sale, this is a huge challenge. Many shipments coming into the US may be bought and sold several times (sometimes while still on the ship). The brokers are not forthcoming with the documentation needed to verify compliance through the whole supply chain. To further complicate the issue, handlers of organic products are not required to be certified under an exemption in the current rule (there may be possible rulemaking on this in the coming year). This also speaks to the need and continued efforts to increase domestic organic production, thus greater removing the possibility of fraudulent product entering the market. Trust in the organic label is the cornerstone of its success, and it is up to the NOP and accredited certifiers to insure integrity and compliance to the standards, regardless of where the product is grown or produced.

These revelations and initial strategic steps are necessary and long overdue. The NOP budget was increased in the recent congressional omnibus spending bill, in large part to combat fraud and bolster enforcement. While progress has been made, there is a lot left to do. It is our hope that the NOP will continue to make strides to ensure organic integrity of all USDA certified organic products, both domestically and abroad.

A prime example of where the NOP regulations, or consistent enforcement, have challenged the concept of a level playing field for all is in the dairy sector, specifically with fluid wholesale milk. The national market has seen significant issues with over supply, in large part due to very large operations that have come onto the market during the last several years. While it wasn’t very long ago that the country faced organic milk shortages and there were cries for additional supply, farmers are now in a situation where there are caps, quotas, and herd reductions. This over supply has hit the Northeast farmers very hard, and we have seen several long time, quality operations succumb to these market pressures over the past two seasons, with more possible in the coming year.

These large operations may have several thousand animals in a given location, and from many accounts, do not offer enough pasture for the amount of animals to comply with the Pasture Practice Standard. Some question how that many animals can be moved from pasture to milk room and back in any given day.

Many hopes are in play as the NOP moves forward – a newly appointed Deputy Administrator, Jenny Tucker, is in place with an eye toward consistency and enforcement, particularly through technology and information sharing. The NOP budget has been significantly increased to allow for additional personnel, specifically with compliance, investigation and enforcement. The October 2018 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting showed some promise that at the very least, conversations and discussions are happening. Items on the agenda included Organic Control Systems, Farm to Market Traceability, Enhanced Enforcement, and Community Cooperation.

Though with this hope also comes the reality of the regulatory environment, especially when forced to play with political agendas. This was evidenced by the withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule, adopted in the final days of the Obama administration. This final rule had taken years to finalize and implement, and garnered near unanimous support within the organic industry, a feat rarely accomplished. When the Trump administration took office, the rule was immediately delayed, and after several months was withdrawn completely. To many, this rule was an important next step to bring consistency to the standards and a clarity that would remove any unfair advantages from the original intent of the organic livestock regulations. Some think that the rule may not be gone forever, as there is still one legal challenge to the withdrawal still pending.

All of this points to the need to continue to form alliances and roll up our sleeves to insure that the original intent of the standards are not shifted to meet the needs of production systems, but rather the other way around. As we know, lobby efforts play a big role, and we must continue to make our voices heard. We must maintain our place in these discussion and remain active on all fronts to ensure organic integrity remains the paramount goal. Current and future generations of eaters are counting on us!




Participatory Guarantee Systems –

Presentation of the Chinese PGS

photo courtesy Liz Henderson
Presentation of the Chinese PGS at the Urgenci conference in 2015.

Whether or not the third party organic certification system presided over by the National Organic Program loses integrity utterly, our movement for organic food and farming needs a Plan B. At the NOFA Summer Conference in my contribution to the discussion of the future of organic (https://foodfirst.org/publication/organic-food-where-do-we-go-from-here/), I suggested that we look to Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) for inspiration. This article is a quick introduction to PGS with resources for those who would like to learn more.

Since the 2004 joint IFOAM-MAELA Alternative Certification Workshop that I attended in Brazil when IFOAM launched its campaign to define and support PGS, IFOAM has been encouraging the development of these systems as a way to provide an organic guarantee for small scale farms (smallholders) that cannot afford third party certification and to build local markets. (MAELA is the Movement for Agroecological Agriculture of Latin America and the Caribbean, a coalition that is deeply committed to building local markets for organic foods, as opposed to export markets.) IFOAM established a PGS Working Group with representatives from around the world. Ron Khosla, founder of Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), was the first NA representative, and Alice Varon, current Director of CNG, took over from him. This is the definition of PGS from the PGS Working Group: “Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) are locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.”

The IFOAM Policy Brief: How Governments Can Support PGS, distinguishes them from third party certification:

“Participatory Guarantee Systems have a much more intensive interaction between the farmer and the guarantee organization and uses different tools to maintain integrity. PGS integrate capacity building and allow farmers and reviewers to help solve practical problems which will enable producers to follow the standards. The direct relationship to the process, and the fact that it is owned by the farmers and related stakeholders, encourages more responsibility and active involvement in the design of production and certification processes.”

Before the 2004 workshop in Brazil, together with other participants, I had the chance to get acquainted with a large, flourishing PGS, the Eco-Vida Network in the Porto Allegre region. Laercio Meirelles, director of Eco-Vida, explained that the network had developed its own organic standards and verification system where inspection teams of volunteers perform educational visits to the farms. An inspection team consists of a group that includes farmers, members of the food co-ops that buy from the network and often a Catholic priest. The church has been very supportive of Eco-Vida and provided space for the workshop. We toured a net-work member fruit farm. The farm occupies 10 acres of very steep land where they grow bananas, passionfruit and other tropical fruit. Climbing the rocky path to the banana trees, I wondered at how the farmers managed to bring materials up and fruit down. The farmer explained that he was taking part in a network wide experiment to eliminate the need for herbicides by planting squash to crowd out weeds under the banana trees, and to improve pest control by inter planting the bananas with other fruit. When the network comes to inspect his farm, they ask about how the experiment is going and share information from other farms.

We also visited one of the food co-ops that sells Eco-Vida products and one of two big farmers’ markets with dozens of stalls, including the farm we toured. Farms access the right to sell at these markets by joining the Eco-Vida network. The network also hosted a dinner party for our group at a village where almost all of the farms were members. They told us that one farm family was not invited because the farmer’s brother had caught him using a prohibited material. The network has a system for handling complaints and disputes through an ethics committee on the county level so that neighboring farmers are not hearing complaints against one another. Eco-Vida is a good model of the main features of a PGS: the members define and update their own standards; volunteer participation is critical; top priorities are education of farmers and consumers, building local markets and economic opportunity for smallholder farms.

IFOAM publishes The Global PGS Newsletter with reports on new and established PGS, and on the response of governments to them. You can subscribe to this newsletter for free through the IFOAM website: https://www.ifoam.bio/en/get-involved/sign-receive-organic-news. In several Latin American and African countries, governments recognize PGS for use in local markets while third party certification is mainly for export. The EU, like the US, only recognizes third party certification. IFOAM offers trainings in PGS development – IFOAM NA could sponsor one in the US.

Every two years, IFOAM – Organics International conducts a global survey to collect data on PGS initiatives. On the website, they display a map of the recognized PGS initiatives. From the data collected in 2017, IFOAM estimates that there are at least 241 PGS initiatives worldwide of which 115 are under development and 127 are fully operational, with at least 311,449 farmers involved and at least 76,750 producers certified. PGS initiatives exist in 66 countries; among them 43 countries have fully operational PGS initiatives in place.

In the US, the main example of a PGS is Certified Naturally Grown, which involves over 750 direct sales farms. CNG is especially strong in the Southern states. Unlike most PGS, at the time of its founding in 2002, CNG did not go through a process by which farmers and their customers developed a set of standards, but simply adopted the NOP standards. Since that time, they have added standards for honey, mushrooms, aquaponics, and additional standards for livestock similar to the provisions in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices that the NOP recently cancelled. To qualify for the CNG label, farms apply and then arrange for inspection by another CNG or certified organic farmer. Applications and inspection reports are shared publicly on the CNG website. Because CNG farms are so widespread, it does not have the community building and mutual education features of some of the best PGS in other countries.

An outstanding example from France is Natur et Progres, a not-for-profit association combining consumers and farmers in the same movement. Founded in 1972, Natur et Progres is a federation of 30 local chapters and the oldest French organic organization. The local chapters have a lot in common with NOFA chapters and depend to a large degree on volunteers. They led the successful fight against GMOs in France. Since about 1980, they have maintained a participatory guarantee system through which peasants, consumers, doctors, retailers, and processors created a common charter including ecological, economic and social objectives to which all subscribe. The charter is a guide to moving towards a society that respects humans and all living things. The name Natur et Progres functions as an independent collective brand. Inspections are done by local committees that include both farmers and trained non-farmers.

Natur et progress stands for
• An organic agriculture that respects humans, animals, plants and the planet
• An organic agriculture characterized by biodiversity which alone is able to satisfy the pleasure of flavors and to provide a guarantee of health
• An organic agriculture that preserves the rural fabric and peasant’s calling giving it new value
• An organic agriculture that supports peasant know-how and peasant grown seed
• An organic agriculture that is ethical, rigorous, and free of complicity in the neoliberal market economy

The rapidly growing CSA movement in China has formed a national network that includes a PGS. I witnessed the launching of the PGS at the Urgenci International CSA conference in Beijing in 2015. CSAs work together with PGS in several countries and IFOAM currently has a project call “Education Towards the Creation of Alternative Food Systems” (EATingCRAFT) to research the synergies between PGS and CSAs. The announcement of the project explains: “On one side, we want to explore the ways PGS can contribute to the CSA approach offering a system to ensure quality and a continued improvement of practices. On the other side, we will showcase examples of how CSA can inspire PGS in building a robust solidarity economy and cultivate relationships between producers and consumers.”

In introducing PGS, IFOAM emphasizes that each PGS will be different, based on local community and cultural values: “The very life-blood of these programs lies in the fact that they are created by the very farmers and consumers that they serve. As such, they are adapted and specific to the individual communities, geographies, politics and markets of their origin.” The PGS section of the IFOAM website has ample materials to assist in the development of new systems. (https://www.ifoam.bio/en/pgs-basics)

Creating a single PGS that would replace the NOP would be a tremendous challenge and would probably violate the participatory spirit of PGS. More practical might be to return to the more regionalized approach the organic farming movement adopted in our early days. With our fairly dense networks, the NOFAs and MOFGA could get off to a good start on our own regional organic guarantee.

pgs infograph
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




Sidehill Farm: a Real Organic One!

Amy and Paul pose by the bulk tank

photo by Jack Kittredge
Amy and Paul pose by the bulk tank where all the milk is collected and chilled before processing. Amy is very happy with the labor-saving bottle washer (to the right of Paul) that handles 20 bottles at a time in a 5 minute cycle.

The hill towns of western Massachusetts separate the Pioneer Valley on their east from the Berkshire Mountains on their west. Having neither the agricultural soils and climate of the valley, nor the majestic scenic appeal of the mountains, the hill towns are sparsely populated throughout the year. With an elevation of 1750 feet, compared to some of the Berkshire towns at over 2000 feet, and a density of less than 11 people per square mile, ranking it 348th out of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth, Hawley is a typical hill town.

It had the distinction for a number of years, however, of being the site of the largest certified organic farm in the state. The sixth of nine children and a pioneer in the organic movement, Ivy Donovan took over his father’s 800 acre Hawley potato farm in 1987, had it certified organic, and produced spuds for Whole Foods as well as other retailers in the Northeast. For a few years he and his wife Cinni even made and marketed organic potato chips. In 2012, however, they retired and sold the farm to Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacinski who had been looking for a site for a dairy farm. Ivy died of throat cancer in 2017

Despite his name, Paul is half Italian and grew up in Queens and Long Island in a very large garden tended all summer by his Italian grandfather. Amy hails from New Hampshire. The couple met as seniors at Amherst College, thrown together by living across the hall from each other. Paul was an American Studies major. Amy majored in English and Russian, also completely unrelated to dairy farming.

“Although I have to say,” she admits, “a liberal arts education has been pretty darn useful — having training in critical thinking, in making connections between every different thing, being able to work with people with diverse interests, being interested in a lot of different layers of a project instead of doing the same thing every time.”

“The writing skills have been useful,” Paul offers.

Upon graduation they thought they would be homesteaders, he recalls, not farmers. When it came to that little issue of making a living, the couple started a construction company, building straw bale houses.

But the pair’s passion was to grow their own food. They started out growing vegetables because that was fun and found that it was easy to grow a few more than they needed and sell them. Enlarging the home garden they had in Ashfield, they started selling vegetables to restaurants in 2001. In 2002 they started the Ashfield farmers market and branched out to greenhouse tomatoes and winter salad greens.

“By then I wasn’t home a lot,” Lacinski relates. “I was traveling all over the world doing straw bale construction. I worked in China and Mongolia. That was great, but I was away a lot. We had a little crew and I’d be gone all week. I’d get home late on Friday and get up early on Saturday to be there for the farmers market. After 10 or 12 year running our own company, I decided I wanted to stay home.”

But the couple’s garden space was limited and none of their neighbors wanted to lease them land to expand their vegetable farm.

Paul muses that perhaps that was a blessing: “Trying to grow vegetables for a living in Ashfield, when 12 miles away in the Pioneer Valley there is some of the best soil in the world, and it is also flat and warmer, makes no sense.”

Yogurt Equipment

photo courtesy Sidehill Farm
The filling process is pretty automated. The machinery can put 300 gallons of yogurt into cups and quarts in about 2 hours.

Although the neighbors didn’t want to lease them land for farming, the couple found some willing to let it be grazed. So Paul and Amy sold the construction company and decided to expand by making raw milk and yogurt. In 2006 they got their first cows.

“The vegetables and cows overlapped for three years,” Paul recalls. “We had our first raw milk in 2007, and our first saleable yogurt in 2008. At the high point we were grazing our cows on the land of 14 different landowners in Ashfield. Mostly we walked them back and forth for milking from the closer fields. The heifers and steers stayed on land farther away, and we would move them through trails in the woods.”

The name Sidehill Farm comes from their friend Albert Fuller (now deceased.) Albert lived over the hill from them, milked 3 or 4 Jerseys, made butter, and sold it at the Greenfield Farmer’s Market. His farm was on a long, steep slope of north facing land – a true New England side hill farm. He was one of the first old-timers and locals to take Amy and Paul’s farming plans seriously, and taught them a huge amount about perspective and levity while farming. When they bought their first piece of farm land in Ashfield – a sloping 23 acre parcel – Albert said, as a way of congratulations, “Now you have your own side hill farm!” And it stuck.

When Amy and Paul were looking to expand again in 2012, Ivy and Cinni’s farm in Hawley seemed ideal. It is a total of 225 acres, with some fields right near the barn which are good for fulltime pasture, some that are far away or very rocky and are ideal for just hayfields, and some in between that can be hay for the first cut, then grazed, or some combination.

The site is scenic (you can see Mount Monadnock and Mount Wachusett from the farm) and very quiet.

“It is so attractive,” says Paul, “that Ivy and Cinni Donovan built their retirement home right over there (points). They built an underground house and Ivy got a real kick out of that. ‘Here I am living underground like a tuber’, he would say.”

The land was under the state Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, so the development rights had already been sold off and that was how the pair could afford it.

“We borrowed as much as we could from the Farm Services Agency,” says Lacinski, “for the purchase. The loan rate then was excellent! We got an EQIP grant to pay for half of the buildings.”

Winters in Hawley are tough, the couple admit.

photo courtesy Sidehill Farm Paul and Amy figure about 40 milking cows is about the right amount for them to manage. They now buy in milk from another local certified organic dairy to have enough for their yogurt sales.

photo courtesy Sidehill Farm
Paul and Amy figure about 40 milking cows is about the right amount for them to manage. They now buy in milk from another local certified organic dairy to have enough for their yogurt sales.

“It is intense up here,” says Paul, “cold and windy. We like to cross country ski in the woods, but if you make a trail in the open, 20 minutes later it is gone. The cows are in the barn most of the time during the winter, but not in headlocks, just moving around. The manure pack gets higher and higher until the cows are 4 feet up in the air before winter is over. We hire some large equipment to come in and move the manure pack out in the spring (if we did it with our little machines it would take 2 weeks solid work). We windrow it and turn it for compost, then spread it in the fall.”

Although one might think a place like Hawley, with only 337 people and miles from any population center, would be a bad location for selling raw milk, it is not.

“When we first moved here,” says Amy, “I wasn’t certain it would work. But right now we are selling about 120 gallons a week. People in convenient locations may sell more, but this is not a bad location.”

The Hawley location was just right for Sidehill Farm to expand. They bought more cows, hired more people (they have 10 employees now) and their sales have increased dramatically. The farm now ships out yogurt four days a week, with their own trucks making deliveries throughout Western Massachusetts and distributors carrying it as far as Boston.

Amy feels that they have reached a size where they now benefit from efficiencies of scale. “We are now at 250,000 each of quarts and 6- cups of yogurt in a year,” she reports, “and we pay a living wage. We can take this tool that we have here, this creamery, and use it to help more dairy farmers.”

Besides their own milk, Sidehill buys in all the milk from a certified organic dairy farm in Lee. They were bottling their own milk from 30 Jerseys, but trying to farm and process was too much. So Paul and Amy buy it in, pasteurize it and use it for yogurt. They feel they pay well and can help dairy farmers stay in business. They can only buy certain kinds of milk, however.

“Holstein milk is not high enough in protein to make firm yogurt without additives,” explains Amy, “so we can’t use that. There are really only a few breeds that do have enough protein to make a good yogurt –Jerseys are one, Normandies are another. Our herd is Jersey and Normande. Swiss would work, but we don’t know anyone who has an organic Swiss dairy.”

Amy particularly enjoys the animal contact side of the operation.

photo courtesy Sidehill Farm
Amy particularly enjoys the animal contact side of the operation.

Right now the couple could about double the production they have, given their space and processing capacity. Paul calculates that they might have to use refrigerated trucks as back-up cooler space on some days, however. Amy repeats that if they expanded, it would definitely be by trying to bring in milk from more farms.

According to Paul about 15% of Sidehill’s own milk goes to raw sales, the rest mostly to yogurt. The margin on raw milk is better, and there is just a lot less work that goes into it. Plus, he says, they believe in it. The milk is bottled right from the bulk tank, by hand. But they couldn’t justify anything more auto-mated than that for the volume they do, he says.

“We have groups that come from Wendell (38 miles), Shutesbury (35 miles), and two from Northampton (28 miles),” Amy relates. “They tend to be groups of families or friends who buy for each other and take turns driving. I doubt if anyone comes that far every week.

There was a time when the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) had strictly enforced the state law which says only the ultimate consumer can buy raw milk, and has to go to the farm to get it. But that time seems to have passed.

“MDAR has been great,” says Lacinski. “Ever since Scott Soares (Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture from 2009 to 2012) said: ‘Hey, if people can eat raw oysters they should be able to drink raw milk’, that clarity has made it clear where the state stands. I think they understand that the only dairies in this state that are breaking even and not mining out their infrastructure to keep going financially are the ones that are selling raw milk.

“They have totally backed off trying to prevent group buying of raw milk,” he continues. “What they got upset about, and I don’t really blame them, was people who were making a business of it — people who were going, picking it up, charging a fee, and essentially selling it on, without calling it that. That was basically being a distributor, but it was completely unregulated. They didn’t want to penalize 4 or 5 neighbors who took turns coming with coolers.”

Sidehill’s cows come in from the pasture at 6 am and 5 pm to be milked. After milking they proceed to the barn where they gather and eat hay (with a little molasses topping they love), before going out to pasture again in the next paddock. The cows in the barn are in headlocks for this stage because otherwise the first ones to come out will eat all the molasses.

Ivy Donovan

Potato Farmer Ivy Donovan farmed the land before Paul and Amy.
Although he died in 2017, his spirit is still abroad on the farm.

The actual milking takes place in a four stall milking parlor from which vacuum pipes take the milk right to be cooled in the bulk tank. The raw milk can be bottled right from the bulk tank, but milk for yogurt has to be pasteurized, by federal law. Besides, it won’t get as firm unless other competitive microbes are killed off.

“So the yogurt milk goes by pipe to the vat,” explains Paul, “where it is heated to 185 ˚F for pasteurization, and inoculated with the cultures when it cools to 103 degrees Then it is incubated at 101 degrees for the cultures to work.”

Lacinski has always loved yogurt and felt he and Amy would have a cow and make it for themselves. But learning to make it on a commercial scale was daunting.

“We’ve gone to all the NOFA workshops on cows and animals,” he says. “When we pitched the idea to our neighbors of leasing their land for grazing, they were all for it. We had been making yogurt in our kitchen all along, doing R & D.

“But the transition from the scale of a kitchen operation to having a 50 gallon vat to make yogurt was a surprise,” he continues, “and distressing to us. We tried to scale up what we had been doing in the kitchen and it was not working. We had already spent all our money making a little creamery, but the yogurt wasn’t coming out right. The interns that year ate a lot of yogurt we didn’t want to try to sell!”

Biological processes are inherently more variable than industrial ones, the pair feel.

“We get new yeast for every batch,” Amy states. “If you try to keep a starter, it changes from batch to batch – even over short periods like a week.”

“The yeast is actually a mix of five different cultures,” Paul explains. “If you keep a starter, inevitably you will favor one or the other yeast just because of the conditions during that period. That is just the way biology works. Of course the milk changes quite a bit also, through the seasons. Over the winter it is reasonably consistent, but in the summer it can change a fair amount, depending on what the cows are grazing. There is a tolerable range as far as firmness goes. We tweaked incubation temperature, duration of heating, pH, different cultures. There is not much point in perfecting your system if you are not consistent with it. Another variable is cooling. It is one thing to put little containers in your fridge. It is another to have racks of quarts you are rolling into a walk-in!”

photo by Jack Kittredge Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacinski on their scenic Hawley dairy farm, showing views of New Hampshire behind them.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacinski on their scenic Hawley dairy farm, showing views of New Hampshire behind them.

One problem that is plaguing the couple, perhaps because of their isolated location, is finding staff to care for the cows. The problem is so bad that they are culling some of their cows to reduce their numbers.

“We’re milking 14 times a week ourselves,” sighs Paul! “We’ve spent years trying to solve the staffing problem. We have no problem finding staff for the creamery end of it. We have a spectacular crew of them, a lot of people who have been here a long time. But on the farm end of things, I don’t know.”

“I think part of it is that we are really focused on finding the balance between quality and efficiency,” suggests Amy. “It is something that everyone who works here thinks is fun – how can we get more efficient and keep the quality? – it’s kind of a fun game. The people who stay here are people who like that kind of thing. But among the people who like to work with cows there is a pool of people who are young and qualified, but they are ambitious and are going to go on to have their own farm. They only want to be here for a while.

“We have had good cow people stay for as much as three years,” she continues. “A lot just stay a year. That is hard because there is a lot of training we have given them. We found with older people who are interested in working with cows that they generally grew up on a dairy or have been milking their whole lives and they are not as interested in that quality/efficiency balance. They are interested in doing what they have always done. Our core values don’t fit well with people who have a lifetime of dairy experience.”

Since Sidehill sells raw milk, which must show low microbial thresholds without pasteurization, their quality standards are really, really high. They are super concerned about having clean cows and clean milking standards – which is a hard thing for people who have not been doing that. So it is a struggle.

“People who come without much experience don’t see it as nagging,” Paul says, “they see it as learning to do it right. We try to be clear at the beginning about what we want. But people who have been doing it all their lives feel: ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’ But we don’t. We want a certain standard and insist on it. We have a lot of families with little kids coming into this yard and we don’t intend to kill any of them!

One of the things Amy and Paul are insistent upon is management intensive grazing,

“We do two paddocks each day,” Paul explains, “one after each milking. When it gets hot we sometimes do as many as four or five. We have found that we can keep them eating and they will break up their bunching up pattern. ‘Grass follows cows’, is an old adage. In other words, overstocking is beneficial. Not over-grazing, but overstocking. Plants evolved with ruminants so the more they are being grazed, up to a point, the more they respond with growth. But you do need to move them and manage the intervals correctly. We’re like OCD about doing an Alan Savory-type system with paddocks, and moving the cows quickly onto new grass.”

Although most of the cows’ feed is grass, the couple do feed a little grain. They feel it is possible to do a 100% grass dairy, but it takes spectacular quality grass and spectacular quality management. They are not there yet.

“With decent grass and management,” Paul states, “you can easily grow plenty enough protein for the cows. But getting enough energy into them is way harder. It is possible on paper, but very hard to actually achieve. There is a tendency for milk from 100% grass dairies to be out of balance, with too much protein. You can see it in what their manure looks like – green liquid. The flavor is also often ‘barny’.”

Sidehill struggles with that problem the first week or two in May when they put the cows out on grass. May grass has a very high protein content, something like 30%. So it takes them two weeks to transition the cows off of winter feed and onto a primarily fresh grass diet.

“The ways cows evolved,” Amy reasons, “was to raise one calf and enough milk to feed that one calf. But we are talking about dairy cows who now produce that calf and enough milk for another 5 or 6 calves. The energy demand to produce 5 or 7 or 8 gallons of milk a day is gigantic. We as humans are demanding so much more than that grass-fed diet can deliver.”

Paul feels that ‘100% grass-fed’ is a wonderful thing, and there is a market for it, but it is a fundamentalism, too. It is attractive in the same way that fundamentalism is, it oversimplifies.

“We don’t feed that much grain,” he states. “We feed an average of 5.6 pounds per day. A conventional dairy with Holsteins might be feeding 30 pounds. If you figure about 45 pounds of dry matter intake a day is what they get, the grain is maybe 12 or 13% of that, which is pretty low. It’s about one scoop a day for a 1200 pound animal.

“We are trying to support their genetic inclination to produce milk from grass,” he continues, and trying to keep them from getting skinny. We’ve seen lots of skin and bones Jerseys on farms that are trying to not feed any grain.”

Amy and Paul believe a big limiting factor here in terms of grass production is that it was a potato farm. Ivy said in his dad’s time and his they never limed the land. Potatoes like a low pH he said, because it helps with scab. So the couple have been spreading high calcium lime every fall, trying to bring up the pH and the calcium.

The right number of cows to milk at Sidehill is about 40, they feel. This farm could carry more, Amy says, but 40 seems right. Every year they build up the land base and get more hay off the same fields, so they’re increasing the potential.

Besides dairy products, the farm also sells beef and pork. Some of the beef is from culled milkers and some from male calves. Jersey calves don’t have much meat on them so, Amy says, Jerseys aren’t usually bred to Jerseys. They are bred to Normandies, because the Jersey bull calf is going to cost you the trucking to send it to the auction. Normandies are a true dual purpose milk and meat cow.
For the pork, Paul and Amy were raising a crop of 20- 25 pigs every year. Getting them all back at once from the slaughterhouse (they use Vermont Packing-house in North Springfield, VT — owned by Black River Produce and certified for organic slaughter — which is the closest USDA approved processor) taxed their storage. They had to plug in a freezer truck for three months until the pork was sold.

Now they have a young pig farmer raise the hogs for them. They send him colostrum, so he is raising them as they did – on forage and organic grain. He staggers his pork deliveries.

Sidehill has a farm store where the raw milk, dairy products, and meat can be picked up. They could expand and carry other things there as well, says Amy, but she’s not sure they need more to do!

Amy and Paul have strong values, but running a business has made them thoughtful about how far they can live them and stay viable.

“For example, the state just passed this $15 minimum wage law,” says Paul, “which we approve of, especially since we don’t have to implement it tomorrow. But with it was the family medical leave act. It is a good thing – decent and humane and civilized — but for small businesses like ours it is terrifying. We have to give people up to 26 weeks off. You get 12 weeks for bonding with a new child, fathers or mothers, 20 weeks to take care of a sick family member, and up to 26 weeks for a sick family member who is a veteran. You can only take paid leave if you pay into a trust fund to put the money there, and we don’t have to pay into it because they have exempted employers of less than 60 people. But we need to fill in while those workers are gone.

“We are big on vacations, also,” he continues. “Once you have been here a year you get a week, two years two weeks, three years three full weeks off. We have actually been discussing giving four weeks for five years or longer, and the goal is to get to six. Right now, when someone takes a week we try to get ahead on yogurt the week before so we can have a little bit of a lull that week. But you can’t do that for 12 weeks, or 20. So a big piece of this is just to have a big enough staff than some can fill in for others who are gone. Otherwise, if someone is gone for 20 weeks, it is going to seem like a real emergency.”

“Plus,” adds Amy, “we are going to be paying everyone else overtime to fill in, and the base minimum wage will be $15. Plus if you only have one person doing a certain job, and they go on leave, are you going to hire someone else to do it, train them, and then let them go when the first person comes back? Tell them they have to leave now?”

“An interesting thing about the business end of things,” concludes Paul, philosophically, “is that it is a real check on the degree to which you are capable of living your values. If someone asked us in the abstract whether we supported these things we would say: ‘Oh, yes. Definitely!’ But if someone says: ‘Okay, now you have to figure out how to make it work on the business end,’ You say: ‘Do I really support this? I want to. But can I make this work?’”

The couple is very conscious of the difficult situation in which many American dairy farms find themselves.

“What has brought American dairy low,” declares Amy, “is this idea that you can just produce as much as you want and somebody is going to buy it. But demand is going down now, so of course prices are not going to stay up.”

“From what we know of it,” adds Paul, “it seems like the dairy quota program that they have in Canada keeping down supply has worked really well in keeping family farms viable. They do it with a 250% tariff, I think. But now that is ending under American pressure. I guess now we have to force Canadians to buy American milk under the new trade treaty.”

Paul and Amy have been of two minds about organic certification. They have always certified their land, both earlier in Ashfield and now in Hawley. That was cheap and easy. I cost only $450 a year and they got back most of that in the cost share program. The cows and dairy operation, however, although managed organically, were a different matter. The cost of certifying them was based on sales, and the cost share payback maxed out long before covering most of that fee. Also, the pair was not sure certification was necessary.

“We felt everyone who bought our yogurt knew who we were,” Amy explains, “and could come and ask questions. So it seemed like access to your local farmer trumped paper work.

“But when we started distributing in Eastern Mass,” she continues, “we realized we were going to have customers who had no idea who we were. They were never going to come out to the farm and they needed some sense of who we were. They needed some criterion by which to choose their food. It seemed like certifying the product was the obvious way to do that. Organic embodies our core values. Our final yogurt certification just came in during August, with the certification of the other farm that we buy milk from.”

Paul and Amy are not very happy with the National Organic Program, however. They feel it has discredited itself by failing to uphold the values it represented and by allowing industry to get their fingers into it.

“This Spring,” Amy relates, “we found out about all these problems – Aurora Dairy not grazing their cows, the shipment of fraudulent organic grain from Turkey… All this stuff that was positioned to undermine the customer’s faith in the organic label started coming out in the press. We asked ourselves: ‘Is this the wrong thing to do?’ Here we are certifying organic and the NOP is getting all this bad press. All of a sudden it felt like USDA organic was not representing the values we had or the way we farmed. We had this panicky moment when we wondered if this was what we wanted to do.”

But this Spring was also when the couple heard about the Real Organic Project. It sounded like exactly what they wanted. Those are the values they bring to farming.

“They haven’t worked out the technicalities of the project,” admits Amy, “how they label the products, how they publicize the program. But for people who take the time to find out about it, ROP is the program that I think they want. It is what we thought we were getting with the USDA label. Those are the people we are trying to provide food for.

“We would be open to helping promote the ROP label if it would help,” she continues. “There are so many farms transitioning to organic now for the paycheck or premium, but our journey has been all about values and how beings should be treated. It seems like the Real Organic Project could be this shining light that can save things. But if it falls flat, that is the end of organic. People just won’t trust the word anymore.”

They are also impressed with the people who are involved in ROP. They feel that with such an outstanding list of participants, excellent farmers and people of integrity, it will be a quality program.

In addition, the ROP doesn’t require and changes from Sidehill. All their requirements are things that they are doing already.

There are some who support the ROP as a way to help small farmers against the big corporations that have recently been allowed to use the organic label – the Auroras and Wholesum Harvests. But Paul and Amy don’t think organic should be limited by issues of scale or lifestyle. For them it is simply about having good rules and following them.

“It is not that we are against corporations getting involved in organic,” Paul insists. “Fundamentally, that is a good thing. It means that there is enough demand that the big people, who are really smart about business, are interested. In our system that leads to positive change on a big scale, not just fiddling around the edges.

“ And I don’t really see organics as lifestyle,” he continues. “I see it as a way of producing food that proceeds with tremendous respect for the soil and for the health of people. You can make whatever kind of lifestyle you want within that. There are some corporations out there with some pretty good values. Patagonia for example. Stonyfield is actually a pretty good company too. I think they actually care about trying to do the right thing.

“I think there is going to be room in the marketplace for all different scales as long as we all follow the same rules,” he concludes. “Aurora is probably always going to be able to produce milk cheaper than a hundred family farms in Massachusetts because of economies of scale — mechanization is cheaper than paying for labor, even if the labor is getting low agricultural wages. Our experience has been that if you make the right investment in a piece of equipment, it can add an order of magnitude to a person’s productivity. An example would be our yogurt filling machine compared to trying to fill cups and quarts by hand. We can package 300 gallons in just under 2 hours. We probably could do 50 gallons in two hours when we did it by hand. That’s a six times multiplier.”

Amy supports Paul’s argument with another example: “I used to wash and fill every single one of our glass milk bottles by hand. I got a little submersible whirlly brush and that improved things. Then we bought a bottle washing machine out of Canada that washes 20 bottles at a time. It sets the right temperature and does it in 5 minutes. And you aren’t killing your back bending over a sink!”

“Most people can’t actually enjoy the privilege we have had,” she continues, “to grow our own food. They are going to have to buy it. They can research what they buy, make good choices. But not everybody can control that by growing it. We have a substantial garden, but we certainly eat corporate products. We don’t can our own tomatoes anymore. We buy organic tomato sauce — and it’s delicious!”

“But it is the trying to change the rules that is the issue,” Paul concludes, “compromising the values, not actually grazing the cows, big dairies like Aurora are not following the same rules as we are. That makes the store brand organic milk that they are producing that much less expensive than the name brand organic milk.”




Chipmunks and Truffles: A Recipe for a Healthy Forest

A gluttonous eastern chipmunk. BRIAN LASENBY

photo credit Brian Lasenby
A gluttonous eastern chipmunk.

While on an afternoon hike last fall, I sat down at the base of a large tree to take in what might be going unnoticed. Within seconds, a chipmunk appeared from behind a pile of large rocks. Based on its behavior, I suspected this chipmunk had had the good fortune of a past encounter with a hiker willing to share a snack. When it realized that I had nothing to offer, the chipmunk turned and began searching the area. It quickly stopped and began digging. Lucky guy, I thought, assuming that the chipmunk had located a cached acorn buried by a hard-working gray squirrel. It came as a surprise, then, when in less than a minute, the chipmunk unearthed an acorn sized truffle!
Most of us have heard of truffles, though we often associate them with fancy European restaurants; black and white truffles, in particular, are prized ingredients. But truffles exist here, as well, and while our Northeastern chipmunks probably don’t have gourmet tastes, they’re certainly gourmand in their taste for truffles.


Truffle terminology
A wide variety of fungi are found in most forests, and loosely speaking, they obtain nutrients in one of three ways. Saprotrophic fungi are decomposers. They release acids and enzymes that break down dead tissue into smaller molecules that they can absorb. Decaying wood, plants, and even some animals can become food for a saprotroph. Examples of these include oyster and shiitaki mushrooms. Parasitic fungi infect a living host and sometimes kill it. The distinction between parasitic and saprotrophic fungi isn’t always clear; for example, some bracket fungi that produce conks on the exterior of a tree trunk can be both. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with the root systems of forest plants. Common examples include porcini, chanterelle mushrooms, and almost all truffles.

abandoned robin’s nest

photo credit Karl Vernes
An abandoned robin’s nest near Moncton, New Brunswick, was a convenient place for a red squirrel to store deer truffles.

The fungal “mycelium” – a mass of branching, thread-like fibers – encapsulate the roots of a tree and extend out into the soil where they capture water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients that are then transported to the tree’s roots. In return, the mycelium fibers obtain carbohydrates (sugars) from the roots.

A number of field and laboratory experiments have demonstrated that removing the fungus substantially reduces the growth rate of a tree and can result in its death. So, healthy trees need their fungi and fungi need their trees.

The term “truffle” is commonly used in reference to the belowground fruiting body, or sporocarp, that enables reproduction. An above-ground mushroom’s fruiting body grows up and out of the ground on a stem and then develops a cap that contains spores. Once the cap dries out, it releases the spores into the wind as a means of reproduction. But because truffles fruit in the soil, this wind-blown spore dispersal mechanism isn’t possible. The truffles’ cap has evolved into an underground mass that resembles a small potato; within that mass are millions of spores and each can develop into a new truffle-bearing fungus. So, how do truffle spores disperse if they are below ground?

It’s important to be eaten

How do animals locate a buried truffle? Above-ground fruits signal to animals that they are ready to be eaten by changing color; truffles also signal to their consumers, but do it with a distinct odor. As truffles mature, they produce strong, chemically complex odors that attract many small mammals. The scent of a truffle may contain compounds similar to certain animal pheromones, meaning that a little goes a long way. And like pheromones, they are often species-specific. The truffles I’ve handled range from mildly foul, like something rotting, to a very pleasant citrus-like odor. Responding to these olfactory cues, small mammals are adept at uncovering mature fruit bodies of truffle fungi. This clue to finding truffles has also been used by human foragers seeking prized white and black truffles in southern Europe. Historically, human- truffle-hunters relied on the sensitive snout of a domestic pig that was tethered on a leash. Pigs are efficient in rooting out truffles; however, a major downside to this approach is that they often eat the truffles before their handler can scoop them up. As a result, dogs have replaced pigs because they are more interested in a treat as a reward than eating the truffles they sniff out.

 

photo credit John Litvaitis
University of New Hampshire researchers inventory truffles in the White Mountain National Forest.

How widespread is the truffle connection?
In their comprehensive book Trees, Truffles, and Beasts – How Forests Function, authors Chris Maser, Andrew Claridge, and James Trappe summarize decades of their research on truffles in the Pacific Northwest and Australia. They trace the long evolutionary history of truffles and show that the relationships among trees, fungus, and fungus-eating (mycophagous) animals have existed for a very long time and likely occur throughout the forests of the world.

In northern Minnesota, forest ecologists John Terwilliger and John Pastor were puzzled as to why black spruce trees were rare in abandoned, drained beaver meadows, yet very common in surrounding forests. Using information on the diet and distribution patterns of red-backed voles, a major consumer of truffles in that region, these researchers were able to demonstrate that it was the reluctance of voles to enter the meadows and the lack of their spore-filled droppings that limited black spruce from colonizing the meadows. Fungal spores and the mycorrhizal network that eventually develops are essential for seedling spruces to thrive.

 

photo credit John Litvaitis
In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, mature stands of eastern hemlock provide the greatest abundance of truffles. This raises some concern with the potential decline of hemlocks with the spread of wooly adelgids across the Northeast.

In New England, the role of truffles in forest ecosystems had largely gone unexamined until researchers from the University of New Hampshire recently took on the topic. Associate Professor Rebecca Rowe and doctoral student Ryan Stephens are leading the investigation in the White Mountain National Forest. Among the questions they are addressing: What conditions affect the distribution and abundance of truffles in northern forests? Although fundamental to our knowledge of forest ecology, such information can also aid in understanding how disturbances, natural or human-caused, can affect mycorrhizal fungi, thereby aiding in the development of approaches that might help offset such disruptions to this co-dependent system. To answer this question, Stephens and Rowe inventoried the abundance and variety of truffles in different parts of the forest, divided by dominant tree groupings. Hardwood stands included American beech, red maple, sugar maple, yellow birch, white birch, and white ash. Softwood stands were dominated by eastern hemlock, red spruce, balsam fir, and an occasional white pine. Finally, mixed-wood stands included a combination of both hardwoods and softwoods. Within each forest type, Stephens and his field assistants used garden cultivators to rake up samples of the forest floor and then carefully filtered through the rotting leaves, needles, branches, and soil in search of truffles.

Suspecting that this method might miss some truffles, Stephens also used chipmunks as an additional source of information. Small, baited box traps were set to capture chipmunks in the same forest stands that were sampled by digging. When captured, small mammals usually defecate in the trap. So it’s quite easy to get several samples from an animal and then release it. The more challenging part of this approach is identifying the specific truffles eaten by chipmunks from the fungal spores found in their droppings. Size and shape of spores are often unique for a variety of truffle, and there are standardized keys that lead a biologist to a correct identification. But spores are quite small – some just a fraction of the width of a human hair – and as a result, extreme care and the use of a powerful microscope is required when preparing and identifying samples.

 

The relationships among trees, truffles, and small mammals illustrate the interconnectedness of organisms in this ecosystem.

The relationships among trees, truffles, and small mammals illustrate the interconnectedness of organisms in this ecosystem.

While the research is not yet complete, Stephens and his colleagues have found some interesting patterns. Truffles were most abundant in softwood stands, with an average of roughly 60 pounds growing per acre, and least abundant in hardwoods, with less than 7 pounds per acre. Not surprisingly, chipmunk droppings yielded a greater variety of truffles than the researchers were able to locate on their own. Chipmunks are capable of finding truffles that are no larger than a plump grain of rice.

Among individual trees, eastern hemlocks were consistently associated with sites containing the most truffles. Even in hardwood stands, clusters of truffles were located at the base of a lone hemlock. This pattern suggests a tight relationship between hemlocks and several of the most common truffles that Stephens found in the White Mountains. That relationship makes sense because hemlocks are abundant in northern forests and they are among the longest-lived trees, which must be an attractive trait to a symbiotic fungi.

The human connection

Deer truffles are among the most common variety found in northern forests.

photo credit Ryan Stephens
Deer truffles are among the most common variety found in northern forests.

The researchers also found that the vitality of truffle-producing fungi is clearly linked to its host trees. When trees are removed or the composition of a forest changes over time, the diversity and abundance of truffles in the forest will also change. As a result, wildfires and timber harvests can have a large effect on truffles. Removal of host trees eliminates the supply of energy to the fungus and that prevents it from producing truffles. In addition to removing host trees, soil temperature, moisture content, and compaction can limit truffles. Based on that information, foresters and loggers might be encouraged to leave small groups of trees that include at least one dominant tree to ensure that important fungi remain on a site where most trees are removed. In northern New England, it may be especially appropriate to leave groups of hemlock.

The association of truffles with eastern hemlocks raises greater concerns because of the recent invasion into the Northeast of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect that threatens the hemlock’s very existence. At the Harvard Forest in western Massachusetts, forest ecologists are attempting to understand the changes that will occur to forest composition if hemlocks die out. Using experimental removals (where hemlocks are cut) and computer simulations, they predict that white pine, black birch, and beech trees may become more abundant. Their results also indicate that changes in forest composition will vary with local conditions, such as soil fertility and rainfall patterns. Regardless of which species replace them, there’s no doubt that with a loss of hemlocks, the diversity and perhaps abundance of truffles will change.

Small-mammal gnawing marks on a deer truffle.

Small-mammal gnawing marks
on a deer truffle.

Understanding the role of small mammals and truffles in maintaining the vitality of our forests highlights the interdependence of organisms and how those connections may be disrupted. Chipmunks and truffles may be small, but it is quite impressive to see how important they are to a healthy forest.

John Litvaitis has worked as a wildlife ecologist for county, state, and federal natural resource agencies in New Jersey, Florida, and Oklahoma. After 31 years as a professor at the University of New Hampshire, he is “re-wiring” his career as a full-time advocate for wildlife. John lives in Madbury, New Hampshire.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue