Cameron Molberg | Real Organic Project Symposium | 03-02-2019


Okay so the next speaker is Cameron Molberg and Cameron serves on the Standards Board at the Real Organic Project. He is a poultry farmer from Texas. And I will say that Cameron was invaluable as we worked on creating animal welfare standards, which which we needed to do because the ones on the Federal level had been thrown out and he really has been our guiding expert for for poultry and pasture-raised poultry. So please welcome Cameron. Thank you, good morning my name is Cameron Molberg and I’m from Austin, Texas. I’ve been raising certified organic poultry for over ten years and I’ve enjoyed gardening including my entire life. It was my grandparents who largely inspired me to pursue this path in the organic food and farm movement. They were of modest means. My grandfather was at first tenant farmer and then a carpenter. He literally built the home in which he and my grandmother raised five children. Most of the furniture in the house was fashioned in his woodshop. My grandmother, before raising her kids processed turkeys at the nearby meatpacking plant. She quilted her entire life and I’m so fortunate to have two of her handmade quilts. Here they are in the early 2000s in their garden where they grew fruit and vegetables year-round for themselves, their five kids, and what became countless grandkids. They did so for most of the lives. To round out their food needs, my grandfather had raised a few had a cattle, chickens from time to time, he hunted and fished, they pickled, canned, made preserves, cured meats, made homemade sausage and don’t even get me started on the amazing pastries and desserts my grandmother made. Do any of you all have similar upbringings? Maybe so. They were thrifty and rarely bought new things. They liked doing things on their own and being self-sufficient. They knew the importance of good food and shared meals around the dining table and did I mention they did it all without the use of synthetic chemicals? They were doing it the Real Organic way. I was very fortunate and am eternally grateful for having been exposed to clean and healthy food from a very early age. I guess I can’t complain about the thousands of organic weeds I had to pull when growing up and visiting them in the summer. I guess it’s a trade-off, it’s worth it. These qualities stuck with me and they stuck with my parents – growing up we always had a garden in the backyard albeit smaller than the one my grandparents maintained. That’s where I began appreciating homegrown tomatoes and at the age of 10 I became a homemade kitchen salsa fanatic. And I don’t know where Dave is but I had to come clean – I did not always like tomatoes, but I do love them now so hopefully he forgives me. Anyway, in college I studied animal science and institutional management all the while working two full-time jobs and various restaurants. After college I continued to work in the restaurant industry. The highlight was starting and managing two organic restaurants in Austin. It was a thrill to be sourcing a hundred percent organic ingredients for the first time in my career, but I quickly realized how difficult it was to do just that. The infrastructure wasn’t there. It wasn’t robust enough to service the restaurant industry at that time. That’s when my path shifted away from the food service industry and back towards organic Ag in making high quality foods more accessible to more people. I became passionate about building infrastructure and figuring out how farms, local farms, could scale up their organic production to become reliable sources for restaurants, retailers, and large institutions. In the decades since we’ve seen many changes and improvements. Farm-to-table distributors, local CSAs and food delivery services, easier access to organic inputs for farms – both vegetable and livestock. While this is awesome for local organic farming communities, both rural and urban, the other side of Organics has also expanded and discovered easier ways to the market. You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Big Organic Agriculture. Now I don’t want to knock all corporate Ag and food companies. The increase in consumers seeking out Organic is a step in the right direction and some corporations are doing some good things. But the reality is that we know the shoppers aren’t always getting the products they think they are getting. Now I’ll get back to this shortly but first I want to show you some photos from the farms I’ve been part of. For eight years I’ve managed the operations of an organic feed mill and egg farm in Texas. We were the first commercially available pasture-raised organic egg farm in the southern United States as well as the first certified organic feed mill in the state of Texas. During this time I had the pleasure of working with organic and sustainable farmers all across the United States and I got to know a wide variety of farming styles and preferences both on the livestock side and the grain side with farms ranging from half an acre to thousands of acres. I led the feed and egg businesses both through multiple expansions. We worked hard to scale up without sacrificing our quality or compromising our integrity and all the while continuing to work with our customers of any size. Now at Greener Pastures Chicken, I’m focused on providing the highest quality pasture- raised organic chicken in the state of Texas. From day one, we planned our operation for scaling up even though we only run small batches. We have the infrastructure in place for large-scale production that we aim for in the future. We have meticulously planned so that we won’t be compelled, even in the slightest, to compromise the integrity or welfare of our product. From the photos, you can see these birds are outside, they’re in the sunshine, and they’re able to exhibit natural behaviors. We provide ergonomic perches and roosts, bales of hay, vegetative cover, external shade structures, feed and water outside the coop, doors large enough that the birds feel safe when venturing into the pasture, and much more. Providing these enrichments is absolutely critical to producing a high quality product. Every detail counts and I believe the real organic farmer recognizes the importance of these features because we work with nature not against it. Most organic consumers would assume this is how the products they purchase at the grocery store are produced and raised. But that’s not always the case and we all know label artwork, farming ads, and rural sounding brand names don’t always match up once you start digging a little deeper. I’m sure if you’re sitting in this room at this meaningful event you probably know a thing or two about the difference between Real Organic Farms and farms, or rather factories that meet only the lowest standard, the minimum requirements of organic certification. I like to call those operations “organic by default.” One of the reasons I’m here today speaking on behalf of the Real Organic Project and Greener Pastures Chicken is largely due to a policy measure that failed despite his overwhelming support: the OLPP. Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices. That’s a bit of a tongue twister. The OLPP was designed to clarify how producers and handlers participating in the National Organic Program must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their well-being. The rule would have established maximum stocking densities and would have eliminated or greatly limited alterations such as beak trimming, toe trimming, declawing, etc. The rule would have mandated year-round access to the outdoors and to vegetative cover as well and not just to to porches. Livestock would be back on the farm and the ‘organic’ CAFO’s would largely be a thing of the past. Just a side note to be clear in case anybody is not familiar with CAFO – it’s C-A-F-O for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. The final rule had over 72,000 organic stakeholders in favor of the proposal and fewer than 50 wrote in opposition. So basically for every one stakeholder opposed, there were fourteen hundred and forty stakeholders in favor. Does anybody find that shocking? Well what happened? The majority of those in opposition to the welfare rules were the people who run large commercial operations and various outside trade organizations. I mean we’ve seen that in other parts of the industry so I guess we probably could have seen that coming, but crazy to think that they couldn’t even mobilize more than 50 people to comment with them against the proposal. Anyways, an example of those in opposition is the National Pork Producers Council which stated, now hear this: animal production practices have nothing to do with the basic concept of organic! Yeah I think we disagree with that! I’m sure if you ask the big hydroponic companies that up also infiltrated organics, they would have something similar to say about the soil. Industry also said the OLPP would have been too costly for farms to bear and that it would put a financial burden on smaller farms. Well that was pretty considerate of them! Maybe when big industrial AG was referring to small farm they’re referring to acreage. I’m not particularly sure how they came up with small farm or what that definition is but perhaps I’m playing the devil’s advocate here. Let’s check out those small farms that might have suffered. So this is a pretty small area – imagine how many animals could be housed in these units. Each one of these houses easily holds over a hundred thousand animals per structure, likely more. The entire footprint of the farm is just over 21 acres. To put that into perspective my egg operation is 90 acres and we couldn’t handle more than 50 thousand Birds. Anymore, and that would be too much for the land to bear. This egg farm is 21 acres and can house close to 1 million Birds. By comparison that would mean at my 90 acre farm I could house 4.28 million Birds on the same amount of land instead of the 30 to 40 thousand we plan to raise. Here’s another one and let’s check it out from a different angle. Is there anything striking about this house or these houses? Nothing outdoors – that’s definitely one thing. Bingo. They’re multi-story houses. Multiple levels. That would mean again referring to my farm we could go from the 4 million to 8.5 million birds, versus the 40 thousand that we plan to raise. That’s over a hundred and seventy fold increase over my current stocking density. That’s 170 times over – that’s crazy, and for you those of you that don’t know me, that was me yelling! Here are two organic dairies. These two dairies produce more milk than all the organic dairies in Wisconsin combined. It’s no wonder that in Wisconsin alone an average of 500 small dairies go out of business each year. That’s more than one per day. Do you see a single blade of grass? Now granted it’s an aerial photo so maybe we should look for a patch of grass. Still no? Yeah I didn’t think so. The reality is that the OLPP would have leveled the playing field by requiring Big Industry to play by the rules the Real Organic farmers already practice. When you look at these photos can you imagine any reason why these CAFOs wouldn’t want the OLPP to have been adopted? Could it have anything to do with maintaining vegetative cover? Being required to build soil? A need to reduce their stocking densities? And providing their livestock with outdoor access? Or could it have anything to do with being required to follow the intent of the existing rules by clarifying them? What harm comes from these factory operations besides poor animal welfare in harmful environmental practices? Well there’s also an economic repercussion. Big Ag is threatening the success of Real Organic producers because they can manipulate markets. They have the power of the purse. They buy up the supply and they push out the smaller farms. They aren’t the good guy. Sure the price point on the shelf looks great, but it’s just lipstick on a pig. And for any of you pork producers I’m sorry – it’s kind of a little jab. Anyway, of these three photos, which one is certified organic? I heard it! All of them! Yeah, there was a trick question. The philosophy of the Real Organic farmer is to work with Mother Nature This means making compost, limiting outside inputs, mitigating wastes, building soil and organic matter, treating our livestock with care, and promoting biodiversity. The average conventional farm loses a sixteenth of an inch of topsoil per year to run off, tillage, and poor management in general. My farms lose one sixteenth of an inch a fencepost per year because we’re building organic matter. In agriculture this is critically important especially as we face more extreme weather events and other effects of climate change. Building topsoil is building resilience. Did you know that an increase of 1% of organic matter allows the soil to retain up to 20,000 gallons more water per acre? It’s true. Building the soil not only improves water retention but it allows for a better drainage. It supports deeper root penetration and it helps sequester carbon. It makes the land that much more productive and the farm business that much more likely to succeed and to bounce back after a tough season or other hardship. People ask me is Big Ag the enemy? Isn’t it obvious? They’re very deceptive and intentionally misleading but the reality is we know what they are, and we know they are unwilling to change. We’re not going to change the spots on the leopard. Our real focus is our buying practices. Michael Pollan is right – we have the power and we can vote with our dollars. There are, there are Real Organic farmers and then there are CAFOs and factory farms. I think we can all agree that CAFOs should have no place in organic agriculture. By getting to know your farmers, by purchasing local and supporting your farmers, you, your neighbors, your friends, your families – you can be the hero. You can level the playing field. You can move agriculture to greener pastures and in doing so you can be compelled, like I am, to join this critically important Real Organic movement. Thank you. [Applause] [Music]

1 thought on “Cameron Molberg | Real Organic Project Symposium | 03-02-2019

  1. If our government really cared about the health of its citizens money would be given to organic farmers, not the huge farms that don't need more money. CAFO detention camps would be illegal and closed down. It isn't health, it's $$$ that governs.

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