Dave Chapman | Real Organic Project Symposium | 03-02-2019


So, I do have a talk prepared, but everybody said everything I was going to say. So I’m gonna run through it and touch on a few things, because I think there are a few things that it’s important to pay attention to. It’s better if I go first and Paul goes second, because I will get some outrage going, but and he really brings the hope back. But we’ll see what happens. So there we go, yeah. A long time ago far, far away. And Organic was simple. It was about healthy soil. And we all know that. And it’s great, cause I got these pictures you know, off the internet, but this is Cameron’s place, right? I didn’t know Cameron when I got it, right? And Organic was about respect and for a care of the animals, and Jack and Anne are here and Anne’s on our Standards Board. And you know these are symbols of Real Organic farming, and you know one of the things that we’re coping with, and the reason that we’re creating this effort, is because these symbols are being used as false representations of what people are often buying. So, the reality is real, but it’s not often what people are getting. Eliot was involved in this 1980 report, which is “Soil is the Source of Life and Feed the Soil, Not the Plant” USDA got it right, right? They got it right 40 years ago. In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board got it right. They made a recommendation. They said “hydroponics or aeroponics cannot be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices.” So again, things were looking good. This is the current National Organic Program standard: “Continuous total confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited, continuous total confinement of ruminants in yards, feeding pads, and feedlots is prohibited.” So I thought things were going pretty well. And about six years ago, my friend David Miskell and I – I grow tomatoes in a greenhouse and Davey used to, he grows other vegetables in a greenhouse – and I started to notice a lot of hydroponic tomatoes showing up in the wholesale market. I’m a wholesaler, so I sell to stores. And I thought, I thought we figured this out back in 2010 and we had what we thought was a total victory when the NOSB did pass a really good recommendation. And so we started looking into this, and we started a couple petitions, and we didn’t know anything about organizing. We weren’t particularly well-connected, but we did know a few influential voices and we got them to sign it and suddenly we had people like Eliot Coleman, and Fred Kirschenmann, and Dan Barber, and Michael Pollan signing this little petition saying hydroponics should not be certified as Organic. But it was, and is. So right now I believe that there’s a quiet takeover happening of the National Organic Program and hydroponic is one aspect of it. People have discovered that there is money in Organic – quite a lot, fifty billion dollars now. And we are cursed by our own success. We’re not doomed by it but it’s a challenge. Because we are now dealing with pretty large financial interests, that, that money is like blood in the water. So, in 2014 the NOP issued a statement saying that “hydroponic production is allowed, and this is the first time I know of that the National Organic Program actually reversed a recommendation of the NOSB. They’ve ignored them before and just not gotten around to it, but here they actually said “we disagree and this is the new law of the land”. And the question is, why in the world would the NOP, the National Organic Program, oppose their illustrious 15-member advisory board? And why is it that the National Organic Program now believes that “Organic is what we say it is.” And they genuinely believe this – they believe that they, in fact, define Organic and that if they say hydroponic is Organic, than it is. And the head of the National Organic Program has been saying this around the country this winter, and saying “we’ve always allowed hydroponic” and we always will. This issue is over.” But it is not over. so I served on the USDA task force to study hydroponics and we discovered, we discovered why there was a task force. We discovered why this is an issue, because Driscoll’s, which is one of the major players in the organic industry, had over a thousand acres of certified organic hydroponic berries. And none of us knew about it before this was revealed and in a case study to the, to the task force. This is Soren Bjorn who is president of Driscoll’s, and in November 2017 he basically said in an interview that hydroponics is the future for Driscoll’s, that they’re getting into it, it’s working very well for them. He went on to say for blueberries especially, and one of the reasons that they get such a big payback is that they get their fruit production so much faster. Again this is in November of 2017. Same month, this is Ian Justis, who is the senior manager at Driscoll’s in charge of controlled environment, saying that they have “less than one or even less than half a percent of their production is hydroponic” and Soren had just said quite the opposite. So what we’re left with is: somebody’s not telling the truth. And he was saying this testifying to the National Organic Standards Board. If you wrote Driscoll’s and asked “do you grow anything hydroponic?” this is the kind of letter you get – I’ve people send them to me, I have a number of them right? “Driscoll’s does not grow hydroponic, aquaponic, or aeroponic crops”, right? So the question, is are you confused yet, right? And I’ll get to it. So, I have to talk about the Organic Trade Association, because there was a big battle within the National Organic Standards Board within the National Organic Program about whether or not hydroponics should be allowed to be certified as Organic. And these are two statements that came. The Organic Trade Association represents the trade, the industry and they have very-big members and very-little members, and they’re meant to represent them to Congress and and to the government and lobby for them. So, Nate was their, their spokesperson on this issue, Nate Lewis, and he was quoted in the New York Times when asked if there was a difference between container system and hydroponic, and he said there really isn’t much difference. In 2016 that was a front-page story in The New York Times and the whole hydroponic issue came out of the closet at that point. As the the writer of the story said to me, I said, “well people don’t really know much about it” she said “well, they’re gonna hear about it now.” So, five months later, the same person said “we need a clear distinction between hydroponic and container production. Our view is that container production should not be classified as hydroponic.” So this is meant to confuse us. It did a pretty good job for many people. Just to explain, hydroponic production is where the plant gets most or all of its nutrition from a liquid feed, that’s what hydroponic is. Right? It can happen in a pot, in a big tub, it can happen in a trough of water, it can happen with the roots in the air and you spray them. So those are all versions of hydroponic production. And some of the same slides are going to get used here. A Dutch friend told me back in the day about five years ago, he said “Dave, organic hydroponic is going to be really big, and it is coming really fast.” And at this point, I was saying these things like to the NOSB, and I think they thought I was a crazy person. But unfortunately, everything that I was saying has come true. So after Jacksonville, this is becoming the norm for blueberry production, for organic, certified organic blueberry production. We not have to always have the word certified, we can’t say for organic because it isn’t organic, but it is certified organic. Alright? That’s right. I won’t read this letter, but it’s from a blueberry grower down in Florida, and it’s just about what we heard about from a blueberry grower down in Florida. And same picture, it’s happening almost overnight, it’s a farce. For those who invested in starting farms that followed the organic rules, it’s a government-sponsored fraud. Wholesum Harvest is one of the two major players in the debate on the national scene, and they sell about a hundred million dollars of hydroponic tomatoes, certified as organic. They’re relatively small compared to Driscoll’s. Bear in mind, right, Driscoll’s is the reason that this happened on a regulatory level, but they’re still big players. Their marketing manager was quoted on NPR as saying “’Greenhouse grown’ or ‘Container grown’, even ‘Hydroponic,’ though we don’t produce hydroponically, is not a bad word for consumers.” If it’s not a bad word, then why do they all hide from it? Right? Driscoll’s and Wholesum, the two major organic hydroponic producers in the world, both insist that they’re not hydroponic. We no longer need to have marketing surveys to figure out whether customers want to buy hydroponic. They have shown us. And they do have surveys, they do know what the customers want. These are a couple of Dutch growers growing peppers hydroponically that cannot be sold as Organic in Holland, but they can only be sold in America as Organic. All right, and even Mexico has now banned hydroponic in their new organic regulations. Only in America can they be sold as as Organic. Canada bans it, only in America. Somebody told me they went up to Canada and they saw some hydroponic tomatoes on the shelf, and they were labeled certified USDA Organic – not Canadian Organic, all right, because they don’t meet the Canadian standard. And the trade agreement that we have says that you cannot import to Canada from the US hydroponic stuff as Organic. So the USDA is alone in the world in allowing hydroponic and CAFO production to be certified as Organic. So, how big a deal is it? This is Miles McEvoy, who was head of the NOSB, head of the National Organic Program, and he’s saying that it’s less than 0.4% of the certified farms are hydroponic or container-grown. So, a very tiny amount. However, that less than 1% is making decisions that affect everybody, and it’s because they’re far more than 1% of the farm sales. We heard a lot about CAFOs today. I’ll just repeat this one thing because it is an amazing thing: They’re only, Cameron (Molberg) told me, there are only six organic dairy farms left in Texas – and they’re all CAFOs, right? and those six farms sell 1.3 times more milk than Wisconsin’s 453 certified farms. Just the sense of scale of what we’re dealing with. So yeah, there are only six farms certified, but they have tremendous lobbying power and tremendous buying power. For those – we’ve defined CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, I call them “animal detention centers.” So, something that really started to change this was the Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” ran a series of front-page stories on what was happening in the Organic certification. And one was entitled “Why Your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic,” one was entitled “Why the hell am I paying more for this? Major egg-operation houses ‘USDA organic’ hens at three per square foot.” As a result of those articles, last year, for the first time, organic sales of eggs and milk were flat. Everything else still continued to grow, and it’s, everything’s continued to grow because people want safe food, they want healthy food, they want to support the kind of farms that have gotten up here today. And in effort to do that, in an effort to do the right thing for themselves and their family and their community and the planet, they’re paying for organic food, as best they can in the store, but they’re not getting what they’re paying for. Just to say, Cornucopia Institute did file a complaint at the USDA after the Washington Post story came out. They were investigating, this is the dairy that was investigated, and they were ruled that they complied with all the regulations. When they were asked by Francis here whether or not they’d been given prior warning with her, Aurora dairy this massive dairy has 17,000 cows, it was given warning what day they were going to be investigated. The head of compliance at USDA said yes, they were so the cows were out on pasture that day. Alright, alright, but it wasn’t enough grass to last for the next day. Alright, this year, according to Mark McAfee whom I have no reason to mistrust, 21% of the organic dairies in California have gone out of business. So this is really important; we’re not talking about farmers who are afraid of some honest competition and we’re not talking about “okay, so there’s a little bit of that stuff in the marketplace” we’re talking about a revolution that’s transforming what is being called and sold as Organic in America, and the outcome of that is: it’s putting the real organic farms out of business and it isn’t just a problem for the poor organic farmers, it’s a problem for all of us, because we can’t buy that food anymore. I’m an eater too, I go to the store. I want to buy real organic food, too. And I’m extremely well informed, so I can make some informed decisions beyond just the USDA label, but a lot of times I can’t find it anymore. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about. You know farmers are going out of business and when they’re gone there won’t be a choice, won’t even be able to remember that there was such a thing as a soil-grown blueberry. So, eggs are a big deal. The egg CAFOs are a big deal because, well, we’ll talk about it in just one second. So there’s something called the co – [to audience member] we have to look at Theo for a moment, I’m sorry. So this is Theo Crisantes, he’s one of the owners of Wholesum Harvest and look, Theo’s a perfectly nice guy. I would have a beer with him, I know Alan wouldn’t, but that’s ok. But this is really important, because he went and testified to both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He represented the Senate Agriculture Committee and he represents, he was being a spokesperson for the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which is this little ghosty group – we don’t even know who the members are – it’s, it’s, it’s a secret, but they claim they’re about a hundred of them, right? They have a lot of money. And they’re misnamed of course, right, it’s the Coalition for Hydroponic Organics. But even there, they’re afraid to say their name, and he got to testify to the Senate Ag committee and he asks for four things: certification of hydroponic production, reform of the NOP, greater representation for large corporations on the NOSB, and an end to the efforts to create stronger animal welfare standards for chickens. He got all four. All four of those things have happened, right? The National Organic Coalition that represents about a million people has never gotten to testify to the Senate or the House. This is how he got there: they paid her [Anne MacMillan] twenty thousand dollars, not saying she’s a bad person, right, she’s a lobbyist. She used to work for [Tom] Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, and she became a lobbyist. And it’s a matter of public record. They paid her twenty thousand dollars, then she got them the gig. And this is the problem. So I’m gonna read this one, I know I’m not supposed to read a PowerPoint. but I’m gonna read this one: “There are more than 1,200 lobbyists on the hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend about 350 million dollars a year on forming opinions in Washington, and that’s more than the defense industry. Don’t underestimate their power.” Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. Chellie said that at a rally in Thetford, Vermont to try and save Organic. She is one of our champions, and it’s very clear that we are up against Big Money. That’s just how it is. That’s what we have to deal with. These are the two ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee that Theo was testifying to, Pat Roberts from Kansas, a Republican, Debbie Stabenow from Michigan, a Democrat. They both represent large, organic, certified-organic egg CAFOs, so they were very happy to let him come up and say, that talking about outdoor access for chickens is some, what was it they called it? a side issue? You know, not to be distracted by. So, it’s nice to know that the Republicans and the Democrats can finally agree on something: CAFOs should be allowed into Organic. So, Jacksonville was one thing, and the the rejection of animal welfare was the other thing that I think galvanized the creation of the Real Organic Project. At a guess, what I would call Fauxganic sales, between hydroponic, eggs, dairy, probably reaches about six point five billion dollars a year. So this is a story from when I was going out to Hollywood, California to visit my daughter, I was headed to the, actually to the task force meeting, and I stopped by Whole Foods. This is not the guy I actually talked to, it’s just a picture I got off the internet, but I did go and talk to a real human at Whole Foods. He’s a nice person and I asked him, I saw these beautiful tomatoes, and I said “are these hydroponic?” he said “I, I don’t know.” Okay, and and we started talking about their rating system, and, and then as I was leaving he said “Can I ask you a question?” I said “sure, what?” He said “what was that you asked me?” I said “about hydroponic?” he says “yeah, what’s that mean?”. Most people don’t know, why would he know? and I said “well, that means that the plant gets all its feed from a liquid feed instead of from the soil.” He said, “that’s not right, they get to call that organic?” I said, “yeah, they do.” He said, “well, that’s not right,” he said, “I’ve never seen any kind of label, don’t they have to label it?” and I said “no they don’t.” He said, “that’s not right.” I love this guy, right? He cared. He cared about the vegetables that he sold. He was a really good produce worker, he was a really good member of the team, he’d been there for ten years, he knew most of the farmers. They grew mostly, they bought mostly local. I went to the meeting in San Diego the next day and talked to the head grower of Wholesum Harvest, I said “were those your tomatoes?” he said “yeah probably”. I said “they were hydroponic?” he says “yeah, well” he says “we have one little half acre down in Mexico City.” so maybe, maybe possible they weren’t, right, but this is the reality now. You can go to any supermarket anywhere in America now and try and get organic tomatoes – and I will include New York City in the middle of August – and that almost inevitably, it will be a hydroponic tomato, right? And you can’t tell. But I have special x-ray vision so I can tell. But it’s true, it’s true. And if you track it down and you track that label down, if it’s an heirloom maybe not. If it’s from Long Wind Farm it is not, right. And if it’s a cherry tomato maybe not, but otherwise, for beefsteak tomato, for a cluster, almost certainly. There are a few farms – Lady Moon, Red Fire, a few farms that wholesale and and you might be able to. So, this is the reality and nobody knows about it. So there’s the question: [Are you confused yet?] And I ask that question a lot because one of the things that people say about starting a new label is “it’s going to create too much confusion in the marketplace.” All right, we’ll talk about that. “Organic without soil is like democracy without people.” [David Zuckerman, Lt. Gov of VT] And we might befacing both, right. So we started Keep the Soil In Organic, and we worked for reform for five years. And we had rallies and they were great. And we had a moratorium letter. I will tell this one story. So, Davey and Anais and I went down to Washington and we met with Miles McEvoy and his boss Eleanor Starmer, who’s a very nice person. And, and she was she was the new head of the Agricultural Marketing Service, and when we gave them the letter calling for a moratorium, she wrote a letter to call for a moratorium. And she had us come in and she said “I wrote the letter, I was gonna sign it and I agree with you, but I can’t do it. The lawyers say we’ll just get sued. You’ve got to go through the regulatory process in order for this to work. I can’t do it from above.” I said “if you don’t do it, they’re going to be too big to fail.” And Miles said, “look, our new animal welfare reform is going to decertify over 75 percent of the certified organic eggs in America. So don’t tell me we’re afraid of too big to fail, because that’s a lot. That’s over a billion dollars worth of eggs.” and I would point out that right now Miles is gone, and the animal welfare is gone, and the CAFO eggs are still here. And they are too big to fail. But we had a good fight, Senator Leahy joined us. Many great rallies. There’s Enid, leading the way. There’s Pete. We had a lot of tractors, it was a lot of fun. Eliot Coleman said “we the creators refused to see the promise of organic farming compromised by profiteers. We won before and we will win again.” And Senator Leahy said “Let organic be organic be organic!” Okay, so great rallies, many people spoke, Jacksonville. Harriet insists we didn’t lose, we just didn’t win. Okay. Bless you Harriet. Right. However, the NOSB did fail us in Jacksonville. However the Soil Seven on that did not. And I, I just take note. We talk about courage to get up and say ‘no’ and it took some courage. There was a lot of hostility around the issue and for me they were our Seven Samurai. So, I’m not trying to pick on the Organic Trade Association, but I want to point out part of what’s going on here. And I was talking to someone who had been on the OTA board and they resigned in protest when OTA came out in support of the Dark Act, and he said “you know, the problem is that we let people join the OTA for whom Organic was a minority position.” And so, of course we lost control to people who who actually don’t want Organic to succeed. They’re happy to sell in the market, but you know General Mills is not in love with having Organic take over the world. They make most of their money off of conventional. So it’s just an interesting perspective that they’re, you know, this group supports each other and, you know, it’s a powerful group. We are told to be quiet because of the circular firing squad. The idea being that if we say what we’re saying in this room in public, not only will some of us maybe lose their business, but it will undermine people’s trust in Organic, and it will. It’s a, it’s a legitimate concern. But, if we don’t, that means our strategy is “we hope that no one will notice what’s happening” – because it’s certainly not going to fix itself. You know, we’re at the point where Prince Charming is not going to come and save us. Nobody is coming. The helicopters are not coming, right? We are on our own. And again, something that Onika said really resonated for me, which is, “it is a bit overwhelming for us to get up and speak noisily and maybe have people criticize us and speak against overwhelming power.” And I don’t know how we do this either, but I think that we have to. If we don’t speak up we lose, for sure. So, a friend, a Dutch friend came to me and said “well, you know, I came this time not as a friend, but I came to learn about Organic.” Because he’s a big hydroponic producer – a hundred acres of peppers. And he, and he said – nice person, nice person, and he and his wife would come biking through and they would come by and have a sandwich with us – and he said, “but I’m getting pressure from my customers to go and put in some hydroponic organic, and so I’ve come for some tips.” And I said, “well that’s fine, but you know, I am batting for the other team on this one.” They said “well of course, David you’re a real organic,” and I, I really was like “okay, I don’t even know what to do with that,” except, we started the Real Organic Project. And in our first year we have put together an amazing group of farmers and advocates just on our boards. We have 45 people, we have three boards. We just can’t have enough, right? And I, just to say, we’ve got five current NOSB members, 14 former NOSB members, three National Organic Coalition board members, and eight Organic Farming Association members. We ARE the organic movement. Right? So because of that, we’re impossible to ignore. We really are. And you know, the question isn’t whether we’re going to succeed, the question is how long is it going to take? So, I first heard this quote from a friend in here. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” So, we are contesting the vote, all right? When we started, when the Real Organic Project started, we came back. A lot of, a lot of, we had I think, I don’t know, nine organic farmers from Vermont went down to Jacksonville, Florida and testified. That place was swarming with organic farmers and it was exciting. I remember Emily saying “that was the most fun I ever had in an NOSB meeting!” Because everyone was getting up there and speaking the truth.” And it was, it, you know, it was really exciting and it was very moving for all of us. We came back, though we did lose the vote. We might not have lost, but we didn’t win, and, and so, we came back. And we said “what are we gonna do?” and, and we just kind of, we did what we always did. We called Enid and we got together a meeting. Same the first time, we called Enid and we got together a small meeting. So we called Enid and we got together 30 farmers. Just very impromptu, in three days, and came together at the NOFA office, and we said “are we gonna walk away from it and just live with it and be quiet? Or are we gonna do something?” – and absolute universal consensus was that we should start a label. We asked, “should it be a standalone label or an add-on label?” Room gets quiet at this point, because this is a big question. And actually the majority wanted a standalone label. But we decided that that was going to be too much work. And give up too much of what we had worked so hard to build, because we knew we weren’t going to use the name Organic on that. So we decided that we would be an add-on label, and it took us a couple of months to just kind of figure this out. We didn’t know what we were doing. You know, just making this up. And a year ago, we got together, 15 of us that were selected to be on the Standards Board. And it was based very much on that National Organic Standards Board, NOSB, 15 members. And one enormous difference is that they are not selected by the Secretary of Agriculture. Because we didn’t think Sonny Perdue really had an idea about what Organic should mean, so they were selected by the Executive Board. And now, as they rotate off, they will be, the replacements will be, selected by all the 45 board members. And as they rotate off, they’ll become board members on the Advisory Board. So this is a really eminent group who is highly qualified to choose people who will set the standards for us. And we set seven provisional standards a year ago. These, these are the members, you see many of them spoke, and we just had our second meeting two days ago and, and yesterday. And very successful, we, we fine-tuned those standards, and of course we had the pilot program – and Linley Dixon is our Associate Director, and she completely ran that program and she personally inspected over 60 farms around the country. She’s a hard-working woman. And we wanted to find out how’s this going to work? And we’re still figuring out how it’s going to work but it worked pretty well. And we saw some things in the standards that we should tweak. It’s never easy to make a standard, they’re never right, they’re always just approximate. We know that, but the idea is “well, should it be here, or here? We’re not quite sure, but we sure as hell know it shouldn’t be here.” And that’s the idea, is to get it close enough, that if it’s off a little, well, we’ll work it out, but if it’s way over there it’s not right. We’re going to continue this year and, and thanks to the generosity of some of the people here and some of the people not here, we’re able to expand the program and inspect more farms, certify more farms. We’re working on building partnerships with certifiers whom we trust, and that’s a slow process of them feeling like we’re safe enough to be seen in the picture with. We’re kind of dangerous people. But that’s going really well. I would point out that all the people who got certified went through that only because they believed in it. There’s no economic benefit. We didn’t even have a label, you know we still don’t have a label, it’s coming right? But we’re doing this just the way we did it the first time, which is because we believed in it, not because we’re gonna get rich from it. So, the question is, “will a new label confuse the market?” and I say “if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention.” And that’s really true. So, the question is, “do we accept that things are confusing and we need to talk about it, or do we hide from that?” And it is our decision as a group that we need to talk about it. And I would say that the Real Organic Project is primarily an educational effort. You know, we are trying to to educate. My, my wife said that our mission is TLC. And T stands for ‘teaching’ and L stands for ‘labeling’ and C stands for ‘community’ and that’s pretty good. That’s pretty good. So, the Real Organic Project, this is the closest thing we have to our new official label, it’s not quite there yet, but, it’ll be something like that, right? And I’m gonna end – everyone keeps quoting Bucky – the same quote, but I have a better picture, so you know he’s kind of delighted. So “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” And I think that’s good words to end on. We do it for the future and we’ll see what happens next. Okay [Applause] Thank you.

0 thoughts on “Dave Chapman | Real Organic Project Symposium | 03-02-2019

  1. Thanks for spreading the word around the world…Shout out to Red Fire Farm & Crew, Granby, MA!!! Think Global-Buy Local small farm food…it ROCKS!!! keeping the faith…

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